Art Under the Shadow of the Gun

I have nothing new to say. Only a new audience and a new occasion. This essay is nothing more than my ripping off of C.S. Lewis’s Learning in War Time.

I have maintained for the last decade or so that I expect my country, the United States of America, to fall apart in the early 2030s. This belief is not due to my own expertise, and I am ill suited to defend it. It is the considered opinion of historians and philosophers I trust.

Of late, however, men are starting to take my premise seriously. Except they expect the collapse much sooner. Next week, perhaps. The foundations are shaking. The public mood is turning. And being ill-suited to the task of defending my 203X date, I’ve heard a question floating around my circles:

What role has an artist in all this? Should he set down his brush and take up a gun? Or, if he holds his brush, should he seek to use his art to aid his friends and defeat his enemies? Does he adulterate his art by ignoring the Muse for the sake of propaganda? Does he fiddle while Rome burns by ignoring propaganda for the sake of the Muse?

The Christian has a more serious question. For of course, wars and rumors of wars are nothing but birth-pains to us. Every man who dies on the battlefield will rise again to live in eternal glory or eternal torment. But nations and political groups are mayflies, creatures whose lifespans are measured in mere centuries.

Should the Christian artist throw aside his brush, then, and spend all his effort tending his own soul in a monastery or nunnery, or seeking to save the souls of others as an evangelist or priest? Or if he holds on to his brush, should he seek by his art to aid the angels and defeat the demons? Does he adulterate his art by ignoring the Muse for the sake of propaganda? Does he fiddle while souls burn by ignoring propaganda for the sake of the Muse?

Clearly, whatever answer suffices for eternal matters must also be strong enough for trifling matters like a world superpower at war with itself.

And here we can cheat on our impromptu philosophy exam. We already know what the Apostles told us to do in the light of eternity: To use our gifts for the glory of God. To do whatever lies before us with all our strength, as if God and not some man had set us the task. To be content in our station, whether master or slave, though to cast off the chains of slavery whenever peaceful means to do so present themselves. To be good fathers and good sons, good soldiers and good grocers. And good artists.

Neither religion nor war can stop men from drawing pictures, composing poems, or singing songs. Art is more endemic to humanity than war. We are born in the image of a gardener king, not a warrior king. We are made in the image of a gardener God who is a warrior God — but only because a serpent invaded His garden.

Moreover, we find men who are seriously at war writing books, singing songs, and celebrating Christmas. Even when the bullets fly, we will not give up culture. That is who we are.

To set aside the brush for the gun, then, is a foolish proposal. Even if it is a good idea, we could not do it except in the extreme moment of the emergency itself. Once we have taken up the gun and marched off into combat, our hand will itch until it seizes upon a new brush, or pencil or pen, and we shall find ourselves painting in the trenches.

So much for the question of whether we ought to set our art itself aside. Now for the question of whether we ought to prioritize the muse or the mission.

Let us stop thinking for a moment of books and games, and start thinking of houses. Let us pretend we are stonemasons and carpenters. What we are asking is whether we ought to stop building houses, and instead build barracks and chapels.

The answer is situational. A carpenter hired by the army ought to build barracks as the army directs. A carpenter hired by the church ought to build chapels as the church directs. But a carpenter hired by neither ought to go on building houses, to the glory of God. The best, most beautiful houses he may, given his talents and constraints.

A cobbler serves God best not by putting little crosses on his shoes, but by making good shoes. And a storyteller serves God best not by putting little crosses in his stories, but by telling good stories.

Now you may want to tell a story that makes a theological point. Very good. C.S. Lewis wanted to do so, and the Narnia books are great art. But perhaps you want to leave all moralizing and philosophizing out of the story, except as the tale itself demands. Very good. Tolkien hated allegory so much so that he openly disdained Narnia, and Lord of the Rings is great art.

If you are a musician in the army, and the army wishes you to write a march, then by all means write a march. If you are your own man, and you wish to write a march, then by all means write a march. But if you wish to write, instead, a sea shanty, do that. You are not fiddling while Rome burns. You are making a mark on immortal souls, while the mortal things crumble.

I make it sound very grand. I am not inviting you to put on airs. What deeper mark is made on a soul than the marks a mother and a father make? And yet our culture casts these aside as unworthy pursuits. The pictures I draw are nothing, in the end, next to the diapers I have changed. The pictures were as much a product of my vanity as any gifts and callings God has given me. But a dirty diaper is a clear and unquestionable sign from Heaven that there is work to be done, and work of an unambiguous sort.

A dirty diaper very cleanly cuts through the weight of emotion around all this talk of fiddling while Rome burns. Whether bullets fly through the air, or indeed, souls hang in the balance, the thing has got to be done.

But whatever pictures I feel a need to draw, let me draw them with all my might, as unto God and not men.

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