A Man and an Art for All Seasons
by Sean Johnson
All great cultural produce (that is, art) is religiously motivated—the stylized mythologies of the Mediterranean, the architectural triumphs of Roman civic religion, the gothic style, the hagiographic painting and sculpture of the Renaissance, the scientific innovations motivated at various times by extreme love of God or extreme love of man, etc., etc., etc. In recent years, though, the Church has experienced what many would acknowledge as a crisis of art. The fruit of this historical circumstance has been, among other things, the hot mess of contemporary Christian music, Kinkadean depictions of crosses and cottages aglow with the radiation of sentimentality, and Kingsburyian baptized pulp fictions.
As a people we are still in a moment of uncertainty about how to regain the artistic potency of our forbears, and reinfuse our art with that intangible-but-unmistakable clarity and power—like lightning and cold steel—that truly biblical art has always possessed. One historical answer has been to turn inward and, rather than attempt to synchronize our art with the dominant culture, to allow the internal life of the Church to give its own cultural shape to art. As a recent exemplar of this approach, I commend to you the talented Malcolm Guite and his book of poems, Sounding the Seasons (also featured elsewhere on this blog). Guite’s project is structured by and around the Church calendar, keying its poems and poem sequences to the feasts and seasons as a means of “marking and deepening the transitions and crossing places that make the sacral year.” Because the life of Heaven can be found in the Church, this inward-looking approach is powerfully successful, but it is not original to Mr. Guite. My real goal in these remarks is to introduce and commend to you his spiritual predecessor, John Keble.
Though read far less today, Keble (1792-1866) authored one of the nineteenth century’s best-selling books, The Christian Year. The book was a collection of poems—one for each Sunday in the year—each reflecting on the current feast, season, or lectionary reading of a given week. The Christian Year was so popular that it sold out almost one hundred editions in Keble’s lifetime and nearly one hundred more by the end of the century. The poems were probably most popular because of their artful blend of honest piety and the romantic forms of the period. However, the collection is also praiseworthy for emphasizing divine/ecclesial timekeeping (covertly more often than overtly) over and against the civic/secular scheme that was continually encroaching as a result of the statist syncretism rampant in the Anglican Church of the period.
Though Anglicans of the early nineteenth century were not, perhaps, so bad off as much of the American Church is today, the traditionally Christian reckoning of time was being forgotten and encroached upon. The Thirty-Nine articles—essentially legislation governing the life of the English Church—included a list of compulsory sermons that ministers had to preach through every year, often on specifically designated Sundays. For instance, the “Homily Against Rebellions” was traditionally delivered every year on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Treason (on or around Nov. 5th, as you all probably “remember, remember”), the plot by several Roman Catholics to kill the king and parliament. In Keble’s time it was still difficult to be a Roman Catholic in England; professionally it was often crippling since things like graduating from Oxford or holding political office required documented public affirmation of all Thirty-Nine Articles, which would have been a violation of conscience for most Romans. So a mandated sermon on treasonous rebellion on the anniversary of a Catholic plot only served to further cement a negative association and strengthen prejudices. In a laudable act of cultural subversion, Keble included a poem for the Sunday associated with the Gunpowder Treason that read not like a sermon against rebellion but as a treatise for humility and ecumenism. The final stanza reads:
Speak gently of our sister’s fall:
Who knows but gentle love
May win her at our patient call
The surer way to prove?
Keble’s example (and that of Guite, who consciously draws on it) is valuable in an age and culture where the civic calendar supersedes the religious calendar to a far greater extent than it did it Victorian England. Though this is the week of the Ascension, hundreds of evangelical churches will probably have “Mother’s Day” services tomorrow morning; c.f. Veterans Day, Independence Day, et al. As Christians, we live in two cities, each with its own town square and its own culture. Our art (like our timekeeping) may be shaped by one or the other, but it will be shaped. We are lucky to have men like Keble and Guite to direct our gaze to a tangible element of the divine life that we can discern and model our works after. The calendar is likely not the only one of these elements, but it is a powerful and easily discernable one; don’t take it for granted.
Precious little has been written about Keble in recent years. Though he was also a cornerstone of the Oxford Movement—a group of intellectuals and clergy who championed much needed reforms in the Anglican Church—and Oxford’s Keble college bears his name, no definitive biography of the respected minister and teacher exists for me to point you to. Instead, I will leave you with his poem for the upcoming feast of Pentecost:
When God of old came down from Heaven,
In power and wrath he came;
Before his feet the clouds were riven,
Half darkness and half flame:
Around the trembling mountain’s base
The prostrate people lay,
Convinc’d of sin, but not of grace;
It was a dreadful day.
But when He came the second time,
He came in power and love,
Softer than gale at morning prime
Hover’d his holy Dove.
The fires that rush’d on Sinai down
In sudden torrents dread,
Now gently light, a glorious crown,
On every sainted head.
Like arrows went those lightnings forth,
Wing’d with the sinner’s doom,
But these, like tongues, o’er all the earth
Proclaiming life to come:
And as on Israel’s awe-struck ear
The voice exceeding loud,
The trump, that angels quake to hear,
Thrill’d from the deep, dark cloud,
So, when the Spirit of our God
Came down his flock to find,
A voice from heaven was heard abroad,
A rushing, mighty wind.
Nor doth the outward ear alone
At that high warning start;
Conscience gives back th’ appalling tone;
‘Tis echoed in the heart.
It fills the Church of God; it fills
The sinful world around;
Only in stubborn hearts and wills
No place for it is found.
To other strains our souls are set:
A giddy whirl of sin
Fills ear and brain, and will not let
Heaven’s harmonies come in.
Come, Lord, come, Wisdom, Love, and Power,
Open our ears to hear;
Let us not miss th’ accepted hour;
Save, Lord, by Love or Fear.
Sean Johnson was born in the middle of Trinity season.