The Sojourner’s Dilemma

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Lately, I have been thinking about the theology of art. Almost certainly this is a bad use of my mind, as I am neither a theologian nor an artist. But I cannot help myself. And I feel compelled to think out loud, as it were, here on the Rabbit Room.

At first, I considered writing a bunch of paragraphs making some points about theology and art. Is there a Christian way to do art? One paragraph would say this. Another paragraph would say that. A conclusion would end with such and such. Inevitably I would sound like a pseudo-intellectual frump, though. While I am not a practiced storyteller, it seemed better to me to attempt to work through my thoughts on a theology of art in narrative form. That is how the “Sojourner’s Dilemma” came to be. Perhaps there will be other stories on this theme. Interpretations and discussion are welcome.


The Sojourner’s Dilemma

Let us call the territory in question Houven. The borders of Houven were established in the Southern Hemisphere sometime in the twelfth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, Houven had disappeared from maps.

Throughout its four-hundred-year existence, Houven prospered. In one way more than all others, however, did the territory flourish—its people were creative geniuses. Houvenians were prolific artists, more so than the people of Florence or modern-day Portlandia.

Houvenian artists pursued many media. Oil on canvas. Tapestry. They were sculptors and architects and musicians and poets. Yet they were most known for their perfection of pottery. They threw, glazed, and fired plates and bowls and goblets unmatched by any pottery before or any since. It was said that the plates were so gorgeous and of such fine quality that no person eating a meal off of Houvenian dinnerware could become fat. (This seems suspicious to me, because I would think a person enthralled by the dinnerware would lose track of his caloric intake and overeat. But, I am just telling you what was said.) Likewise, Houvenian goblets lacked imperfection. It was said drinking from a Houvenian goblet was the smoothest moment of one’s life. (Whatever that means.)

The point is, the Houvenians were master potters. There is a way to create perfect pottery. For four hundred years, Houvenian potters did it.

Once a traveling artist from another territory, likely in the Northern Hemisphere, came and sojourned in Houven. Knowing something of the potter’s craft, the sojourner marveled at the Houvenian creations. The proportions were exact. The glaze even. The designs were Platonic.

She even pretended one time to be tipsy and dropped a plate, which broke into several pieces. Really the sojourner had had nothing to drink and was in her right mind. But she pretended to stagger when she picked up the pieces and then gaped with amazement at the perfection of the clay exposed by the fracture. She played the scene well, and the Houvenians, thinking she stared at the shard like a drunkard, insisted she go to bed early to sleep off her liquor.

The sojourner lay in bed awake that night thinking.

Pottery was not her artistic gifting. The sojourner had a lazy right eye that made depth perception impossible and her pottery lopsided. But she was a genius when it came to mixing colors, unmatched by any artist on earth. (The lazy eye meant she kept to abstraction when she painted.) The sojourner lay in bed thinking, and then she determined what she would do.

Waiting three days, so the Houvenians would not relegate her ideas to the ignorance produced by a hangover, the sojourner approached the chief potter of the Houvenian potter’s guild.

She said, “Chief potter, you are aware, I believe, that it is as an artist from another land that I have come to sojourn with you here in Houven. I have these many days been on the watch, observing the Houvenian artists at work. The painters are expert. The weavers are expert. The sculptors are expert.”

The chief potter knew where this was headed, for he had heard praise like this before. He let the sojourner continue.

She continued, “The musicians are expert. The taxidermists are expert. The architects are expert. The poets are expert.” She drew in a contemplative breath, “And you, sir, must surely know there is no art in all the world as lovely as the pottery of Houven.”

He replied, “Yes.”

The sojourner reached into the satchel she had over her shoulder and took out many pieces of canvas. She laid them on the floor in front of the chief potter. He looked down and straightaway began to weep. He had never seen such colors. It overwhelmed him.

He said, “I believe my eyes have now seen the perfection of light.”

This is going well, thought the sojourner. So she spoke to the chief potter, saying, “Thank you for your praise! If I may appeal to your kindness and to the great keenness of your affections, then can I speak freely? I have seen no pottery more perfect than yours. And you say you have seen no mixture of color as perfect as,” she toed the ground, “mine. Could we not join what happenstance has kept apart? Would not the combination of perfected pottery and perfected color make a work of art more perfect still?”

Solemnity was no longer on the chief potter’s face. In fact, he now appeared logical. “Woman,” he inquired. “You are not from Houven?” She shook her head. “Well, then those colors were mixed up somewhere other than Houven. Thus, those colors are not from Houven, are they?” She shook her head again and also made a puzzled brow. “Well, then if I were to allow you to wet Houvenian pottery – which you yourself call perfect – with non-Houvenian color, it could not possibly remain Houvenian or, as I prefer to say, exactly as it should be.”

The chief potter then called a guard, which immediately took the sojourner to the Houvenian border and shoved her across. Those armed men stood with menacing looks, waiting for the sojourner to walk away and out of sight.

Something like this encounter with the sojourner happened only a handful of times throughout Houvenian history. Each time, the Houvenians banished the intruder and by doing so, for four hundred years, preserved the distinctly Houvenian way of creating art, especially pottery.

Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.


7 Comments

  1. Meg

    @meglet

    I’m intrigued. So much so that I am willing to overcome my pride, admit my ignorance and beg for a few more clues as to the meaning. Art and theology. Perfect art and perfect theology can’t be combined? We have to preserve the purity of our art and theology against anything from outside?

  2. Roy Friend

    @rfriend

    A few scattered responses…

    “[She who] breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

    The crooked eye that lacks a perception of depth, but can make beautiful colored abstractions… That was a great element, and describes modern art in a very clear way.

    Pottery seems chosen exactly because it is a 3d medium, thus having depth, but also because it requires a Form. Additionally, one could say that it may be appropriate because it has both beauty and function, as art from the Christian standpoint can be said to both please and instruct.

  3. Rachel Donahue

    @racheldonahue

    I love that this is in story form. How fitting.

    After chewing on it, I have three thoughts I keep coming back to:

    1) The 400-year span of this territory’s marked boundaries makes me think about the relatively short existence of the United States and of the many nations like ours that have risen and fallen throughout history. Thinking about our collective American pride, I cannot shake the verse that says “pride comes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Probably not what you were getting at, but that was one of my first thoughts, which led to…

    2) Something I once heard a popular Nashville radio talkshow host say about how for him, his identity as an American came before his identity as a Jesus-follower (because, he reasoned, he was born as an American but he chose Jesus). Having lived overseas a number of years, I tend to identify a lot with the sojourner now (both in scripture and in your story), but I have met a great many people whose identity as a Christian and as an American are so intertwined that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. I don’t think most have ever had to think much about being one of those apart from the other, or what they would do if they had to choose…

    3) We were introduced to a concept a few years ago that completely changed the way we view the world: bounded sets vs centered sets. Imagine putting black dots all over a white board and then drawing a big red circle around some of them. Those inside the line are “in” and the rest are “out. Very clear thinking: you’re either in or out. It’s very easy to define what it looks like to be “in.” That’s a bounded set. It’s about position. (This describes well the sub-culture my husband and I grew up in.)

    Now imagine putting black dots all over a white board and then drawing a large red dot in the center. Imagine that each of those black dots represents not a fixed point, but a location along a path (for each of the dots is moving, either toward the red dot or away from it–none of them are static). Some of the black dots are far away from the red dot, but moving toward it. Others are close to the red dot, but moving away from it. All of the dots moving toward the red dot have something in common, and the ones closer to the red dot can point the way to the ones farther off. This is a centered set. It’s not about position (close/far, or in/out) but relationship (toward/away).

    I don’t feel like I’ve said anything about art or theology, but this is where my thoughts went. Thank you for the thought-provoking story.

  4. Roy Friend

    @rfriend

    @racheldonahue

    Thank you for that last thought! The two types of sets are fantastic. I’m going to use this in my RCIA class. Thanks for that image!

  5. Roy Friend

    @rfriend

    @racheldonahue

    Thank you for that last thought! The two types of sets are fantastic. I’m going to use this in my RCIA class. Thanks for that image!

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