A Call to Arts
I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world. — John 12:47
I know... Bible quotes. Stick with me. I swear this is worth it. There is only one more quote in the entire essay, and then we shall get away from the Bible altogether.
Part 1: A Bit of Scripture
First, a disclaimer: I believe the point of religion is to help us get what we want and avoid what we don't. I believe most of us want to live a good life in peace and harmony with others and nature at large. Wherever religion doesn't serve the function of enriching our lives and making us potent, I believe it should be tossed in the gutter as trash. If your religion doesn't have practical purpose, here and now, what purpose does it have? After all, heaven and hell are here on earth, and each of us must choose for himself where he will live.
As far as organized religion is concerned, I am often considered a heretic and an iconoclast. I read the books myself and come to my own conclusions concerning their meaning. Because I don't adhere to the interpretations of some other authority, I am often accused of cherry-picking. Indeed, I most readily admit that I am a cherry-picker. Not only do I pick cherries for my own interpretation, I don't even consume the whole cherry — only the sweet juicy flesh — for I find the stem and pit to be inedible. Beside, every other authority picks among the Bible's innumerable words and uses them to their own advantage. Why should I be any different?
Concerning cherries, here's a cherry that I'd like to share with you. Although you've likely heard this verse before, I promise a logical and reasonable interpretation that I doubt you've considered. This cherry is the second commandment given by Moses to the people of old Israel. The King James version reads thus: "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."
To unpack that, let's start with a definition. What is a graven image? Merriam-Webster calls a graven image "an object of worship carved usually from wood and stone." Dictionary.com defines graven as "deeply impressed, firmly fixed, carved, [and/or] sculptured". Most people think graven image only refers to pictures and sculptures – but I believe all art is called into question. If I am correct, then all writing is a graven image.
Part 2: Burn Your Books - or Maybe Just Your Bible?
Is writing a graven image? It is deeply impressed, firmly fixed, and in the case of the physical Bible, Quran, I Ching, Mahabharata, Stranger in a Strange Land, or any other holy writ, most assuredly an object of worship carved from wood (pulp). If I am reading this commandment correctly (a caveat you won't get from most Bible thumpers), the second commandment tells us to set aside all art, including all writings, in favor of the truth offered by the natural world. These are the things we find in the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the water under the earth. Although many tout the Bible as god's own truth, an unchanging book can never hold in its pages the dynamic and infinite truth of all that is. Remember, god spoke to Moses saying, "I am", for god is the unending truth of what is, and cannot be captured by the simple arts of men.
Yes. I am condemning the Bible as a graven image, but I would not have you burn it. I am a heretic - not a zealot. I have no interest in destroying art just because some book says it is the thing to do. I am not so simple. I am complicated, and I require complicated art. My nature is informed by such internal contradictions, as I have them within me too. Art aids me in discovering and working to resolve these conflicts within myself. Art is essential, because it reflects our imperfections back at us, and begs us to address them, that we might be better than we are.
Personally, I find the Bible to be a deeply nuanced and complicated book with incredible insights that occasionally slides into strange historical prejudice, and even downright zaniness. Unfortunately, most do not like my light-hearted approach. For many, the Bible is serious business, and must be treated with unwavering reverence at all times. The strict authority of some church figure must be recognized, and their translation accepted — though it is often a humorless interpretation at best, and frequently one that is down-right caustic.
Some think it cheapens the Bible to say it is "simply" allegorical (trust me, there is little about the Bible that is simple). I say a literal interpretation cheapens the Bible, as one authority reads the book and translates it for all the world to hear. Although this interpretation may serve some of us, it will inevitably fail most of us. Even a virtuous reader cannot guess at the needs and questions of everyone. However, if the Bible is open to the interpretation of the individual — like every other book — the meaning of each story automatically shifts to the needs of the reader, as the reader instinctively seeks those things he needs, and discards the dross (of which even the Bible contains a good amount). If the Bible is the infallible word of god, it is only because god speaks in parables, for those with ears to hear and eyes to see. Yet at times, even the best of us is deaf, dumb, and blind. A perfect interpretation is not possible, because none of us is perfect. In my view, a literal interpretation of the Bible is problematic and contradictory, but mostly, it is lazy. A literal interpretation means most people need not read it at all. They simply hear a paired down version by those willing to tell them what it "literally" means. Then, having no honest use for the book, these devotees use their hefty Bibles to bludgeon, bruise, and belittle everyone that does not reach the same myopic conclusions. For those that will not read the Bible, is it best they burn it. Let it warm their hands, as it cannot warm their souls if they will not open it.
Part 3: The Symbiotic Relationship Between the Artificial Lie and the Natural Truth
Speaking to Moses, god said "I am". The truth is, just as lies are not. If we accept that god is, then an exploration of the truth is how we will know god. If we wish to know the truth, then we must test ourselves and hear no end of lies. By properly sifting truth and lies — or wheat and chaff — we develop our discernment. By knowing what is and what isn't, we become potent of thought, aim, and action. The truth makes us powerful, just as lies make us weak. Lies bind us to that which is not, as we are forced to remember things that never happened, and pretend at consequences that were not suffered. Our thoughts run in circles, and the fear of discovery stalks our every turn. We lose sight of the truth as we are forced to stare at our lies.
It is a sad fact that we all speak lies, but most people don't lie out of malice. We lie because we simply don't know any better. We are ignorant. We ignore the fact that truth and lies mix unending, at every level of consciousness. It is difficult — nay — it is impossible to separate them completely. We often come to the point where we hold the lie and the truth in our hands and must admit that we simply do not know the difference.
As a reflection of nature, art can teach us a lot. Language, symbol, archetype, and story are how we reflect the real world in our mind. Our brain acts as a mirror, etched with our insights. The more correct we are, the more predictive we become. The more predictive we are, the more we get what we want and avoid what we don't. Like a book, or a painting, we frame the truths as best we can; and like any artifice, we invariably fall short of the perfection of nature — because we cannot reflect the truth in full. We never will. It is not possible. At best, we collect enough fragments to make a good life. That said, life can be very good, even beyond your wildest dreams.
Recognizing the things we do not know is just as important as understanding the things we do know. If we don't know, all we have to do is seek, and we will find. But if we pretend to know when we don't — if we are ignorant — we will eventually walk off a cliff, thinking there is firm ground beneath us. Sometimes the pits and cliffs are tall, and those that fall break everything on their way down. For this reason it is important that we paint our minds with as much truth and as little lies as possible — always willing to adjust our stories as more information comes in. And where do we find information in its most concentrated forms? It is not in perfect nature, but in our imperfect arts.
Part 4: Appropriate Culture
Our minds live in a soup of ideas and stories. We read, listen, smell, feel, and taste the works of those around us. We are informed or infected by the intention of others. Knowing what is true and false is difficult because we come into the world somewhere in the middle of history. So much has already happened. Some of it is well documented and thoroughly understood, and some of it is smeared to no end with lies. This is our culture. It was here before us and it will remain long after we are gone. We do not make it. It makes us.
It is appropriate for you to study and take from culture (or, said another way, it is appropriate to appropriate culture). If we do not partake in the culture, there can be no sharing of ideas, no trading of goods, no breaking of bread. We will not learn each other's languages, customs, or rituals. There will be no tolerance of others as there will be no benefit of others. Instead, we will simply try to dominate each other, and force those that are different to uphold our standards — as the callous, corrupt, and cold-hearted often do.
Culture is open unless it is sick. Secret cultures, those that serve only the most devout adherents, are simply called cults. They offer no benefit for those that do not accept their rigid positions, strict interpretations, and duplicitous vows of secrecy. They attack and defame with lies and omissions. They burn books, condemn paintings, and suppress the practices of others however they can. Their voices are always the loudest when societies are the sickest. Yet, whenever someone else puts an idea in our heads, the idea no longer belongs to them. We have been informed, and now the idea is ours to do with as we please. We may keep it, reject it, or change it as we wish. It is our right to use what we learn.
Our society is sick. In order to cure it, we must make art. It is not by strength of arms alone that good will win the day, but by strength of heart. It is through art that we make our future and honor our nature — not war. We are painters, builders, engineers, architects, carvers, sculptors, authors, healers, cooks, gardeners, fighters, wrestlers, and so very much more. We follow all manner of trades, professions, and craftiness that we might enrich our lives and the lives of others. To steal, suppress, and kill others is to be robbed, enslaved, and murdered. Instead of suppressing thoughts and ideas, we must celebrate them, even when they are bad, because at least we are thinking.
If you find a piece of art to be callous, cheap, or trite, the answer is simple: do not pay for it. Indeed, do not even pay it your attention. Although attention is a fairly cheap coin, it is not unlimited. As the eyes go, so follows the heart, mind, and soul. Do you think there is no consequence for concentrating on the things you loathe? Do not harp on the mistakes of others. Art is how we teach and learn, and it is not through accuracy alone that art teaches us. It is also through a critical examination of our mistakes.
All art invariably falls short. Nothing contains the truth of all that is. It is not possible to reflect the subtle nuance of unending truth. We may circle the truth again and again, but we never hit the mark, no matter how often come close. Art always has flaws. Instead of attacking art where it falls short, instead of nitpicking, spend your effort praising and supporting good art. Art can only add to your life if you allow it. Encourage others to improve. Only by encouraging others will we continue to create. After all, this is heaven or hell, my friends; both are here on earth. Instead of dragging our family, friends, and neighbors through hell, let us lift them up into heaven. We do this by creating and recreating better and better systems, and not by destroying what we have, simply because it can never be perfect. Let us build the right way, so we won't suffer what's left: the crumbling edifice of a system that no longer serves.
Have heart: make art.
M. Andrew Jones.