Artists: Dealing with vexing problems and finding true success

Arts | Two essays on the worldview implications of artistic endeavors
by John R. Erickson
Posted 11/12/16, 01:41 pm

Intelligent design in writing

It might have been Paul Davies, the physicist, who said that one of the reasons scientists have been so successful at explaining the workings of the universe is that they don’t ask vexing questions.

They are good at finding patterns and designs, not so good at explaining where they came from, why they appear, or why there should be any in the first place. Why don’t we have total chaos, with no patterns at all? Why should atoms obey the laws of physics? Why should 2 + 2 = 4? Why should a circle contain 360 degrees?

What does it mean when we say that something is alive? For all their grand achievements, scientists can’t tell us much about life—the subtle difference between a frog that hops around and one that lies unzipped in a dissecting pan. Science can’t draw life, map it, reproduce it, or express it in a mathematical equation.

The next vexing question is, why are animals (including us) so determined to stay alive? Why do we have such a powerful instinct to resist death? My dogs have that instinct. So do elephants, flies, mosquitoes, and Zika viruses. Science might say that it’s just part of natural selection, written into our DNA. We’re supposed to carry genetic material into the future for as long as we can, and we have no vote in the matter. It’s our duty.

But our duty to whom or what? We ought to know because, let’s face it, living is a lot of trouble. If you’re a bird, what is the appeal of searching for food every minute of the day, building a nest every spring, sitting on a clutch of eggs, feeding a brood of noisy kids, migrating a thousand miles every fall, going back a thousand miles in the spring, and then repeating the whole tiresome process?

Does anybody care if the bird does all this work? If “anybody” means an intelligent creative force (God, for example), the answer from most scientists is “No,” because if nobody designed or created the bird, there’s nobody to care about it.

A child might say, “If nobody cares, why should a bird or anyone else go to all the trouble of hauling around genetic material? Why bother?”

Science presents evidence of design but not of purpose. A child senses that design can’t exist without intelligence, and that the combination of intelligence and design suggests purpose, but science is not equipped to discuss it. Purpose is a vexing concept that can’t be unvexed with a hot rod computer and a spreadsheet.

Where science fears to tread, art rushes in.

Where science fears to tread, art rushes in. Those of us in artistic professions deal with vexing questions all the time, and a lot of us do it for minimum wage. We develop theories of story structure, theories of composition in painting, and theories of harmony in music—theories of design.

If we’re brave, we use our theories to argue that there’s a difference between good and bad literature, good and bad music, good and bad art. But how do we explain the spark that illuminates one story or piece of music, and not another? It doesn’t yield an easy answer.

This can be frustrating, and one is tempted to join science and give up the chase, but that would put us in the position of ignoring the difference between Handel’s Messiah and the noise of a jackhammer. Both produce sound waves that resonate on our eardrums, and both reveal design, but only one gives us a glimpse of the sublime.

That is a very significant difference, similar to the difference between a live frog and a dead one.

I approach my writing with concepts such as structure, conflict, resolution, humor, nourishment, and justice. In one way or another, they all relate to story design and are part of a mysterious process that breathes life into a story. Done well, it brings a sparkle to the eyes of a child, and leaves the reader with a sense of meaning and purpose.

I can’t define “meaning and purpose” or prove to a skeptic that they exist, yet I know they do. Children tell me so. I must assume that it’s part of a larger pattern, and comes from the same Source that makes atoms follow the rules of physics, and tells birds to get out of bed and go catch a bug.

Actually, there’s a book that deals with this—in the very first sentence of the very first chapter. Science doesn’t use it much, but I find it very helpful in answering vexing questions.

Success in the arts

“Success” is a powerful concept in 21st century America. We are often described as “success-driven.” We want our children to succeed, and we use success as a standard for measuring a life, a career, and our time on earth.

We might suppose that anything so important would have a clear definition, but that’s not always the case. Most of us acquire our notions of success in a haphazard manner. We begin with Sunday school training, parental examples, and whatever we pick up in college. To that we add media stories about the rich and famous: movie stars, popular singers, Wall Street tycoons, sports figures, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

As an aspiring author in the 1960s and ’70s, I had a powerful drive to succeed. If I had been pressed to define “success,” I would have said that a successful author is one who is able to support himself through his writing. It was all about money.

But there was more to it. I began to notice that many of the “successful” people in creative fields suffered fractured lives that led them into depression, burnout, alcoholism, drug abuse, hedonism, divorce, and estrangement from faith, family, and community.

It seemed a cruel hoax. After an author, actor, musician, or artist had mastered his craft, had struggled and clawed his way to center stage, there he encountered a dark mirror image that was, in fact, the direct opposite of success: a personal catastrophe that mocked all his ambition, talent, and hard work.

When I meet young writers with talent and ambition, I wonder if they will have the discipline and fortitude to endure years of rejection. I also wonder if they will have the wisdom to cope with success, should it ever come their way.

Success in America is inextricably linked to money, and artistic people have to figure out how to balance the needs of the flesh with the needs of the soul. One of the things to consider is that some things should not be for sale.

That is a concept popular culture doesn’t understand. Big media companies pay big money for what they extract from their servants, but sometimes what they extract shouldn’t be on the table. If you’re writing or performing for someone else’s children, while your own children live as orphans, you’re not just selling your talent; you’re selling your children—your soul.

Popular culture offers fame and fortune, but has no moral center. It’s a fire that warms itself and uses artistic people as fuel.

It’s important that people in creative fields define themselves and their ambitions outside the rewards of popular culture. Popular culture offers fame and fortune, but has no moral center. It’s a fire that warms itself and uses artistic people as fuel. The fire burns brightly for a while, then the ashes go to the dump.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus asked, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). That was a very astute question.

Today, we might change the wording a bit: “So you’re awash in money, own a big house, drive a fancy car, and your face is all over social media. People who don’t know you adore you, and the people who know you think you’re a jerk. Is that what you had in mind when you started this journey?”

Something is amiss when the artist entertains his audience but corrupts himself and the people he should care about the most.

Until fairly recent times, art was viewed as something more than the self-indulgence of an individual. It served a community and had a moral, ultimately religious, function: to provide a coherent vision of who we are as human beings, and to provide guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in the short span of time we have on this earth.

The artist served something higher than himself and a paycheck. His art was more than a summary of his own lust, nightmares, and petty desires. Francis Schaeffer put it this way: The artist’s ultimate work should be his own life.

Has anyone ever lived up to that standard? My vote goes to J.S. Bach.

He was a devoted husband and father, and made enough money to support a wife and 10 children. He held a steady job as a church musician. There, he had to cope with the petty jealousy of pastors who didn’t want the choir director stealing their thunder, and with church theologians who sneered at his biblical scholarship, yet he managed to go on, Sunday after Sunday, writing from his heart and following his vision of beauty.

The people who heard his music considered him a success and recognized that he was good, but they had no way of comprehending how good. We are still sorting that out two and a half centuries after his death, still gasping at his accomplishments, still astonished that the little guy with the modest smile and the powdered wig possessed such a sublime vision of heaven and earth.

He did it without scandal, without a Mercedes, without Facebook. Would he have fared as well in today’s super-heated media environment? I think so. He had found the right answer to Mark 8:36.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  •  jrmbasso's picture
    Posted: Sat, 11/12/2016 02:32 pm

    Thank you John Erickson. Perhaps Bach's answer to Mark 8:36 is what he wrote in most of his manuscripts: Soli Deo Gloria.

  • philoxfordal
    Posted: Sat, 11/12/2016 06:47 pm

    I love the Saturday Series. Thank you for a thought provoking article. I am not rich or famous, but I can see the temptation to pursue something that is never in your grasp, even if it is a worthy goal, only to find you have left those closest to you orphans. For those with a strong drive, it is a constant battle. Thanks.

  • Chris Valerie Koetting
    Posted: Sun, 11/13/2016 04:06 pm

    So enjoy the essays from John Erickson, as much as I enjoy listening to him read Hank the Cowdog!  

    Excellent points--we Christians should not use popular culture as the yardstick for our work, but so many do, including churches who continue to chase after the world. 

    A Christian's art is distinctive in that the purpose of glorifying God is woven into every chapter, note and brushstroke, perhaps not obviously to the non-believer or fellow believer, but known to the artist and his Lord, who uses this art for His own glory.  And isn't this what we all aspire to, as Christians, no matter what we do?  

    Well-said, John, as always.

    Valerie Koetting 

  • Rebecca I
    Posted: Sat, 11/19/2016 02:13 pm

    I would have nominated JS Bach also.... and note that he raised not 10 but 20 children, many of whom were also composers and musicians. (He had 7 by his first wife, was widowed, then 13 by his second wife.).