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Douglas Kaine McKelvey and I managed to live in the same city for more than a decade before we met. He was hired by my record label to write a new publicity bio and I met him at a coffee shop a few weeks ago to talk about my new album. We got the required interview stuff out of the way and spent an hour talking books, writing, songwriting, and illustration. I left the meeting with the feeling that I had just made a new friend. Doug has written a lot of songs and a few books, teaches creative writing to a group of high school students, and has a killer beard. We’re glad to have him. –The Proprietor
The late Walker Percy had a habit of abruptly ending novels just shy of the moment when a protagonist might be expected to finally embrace some sort of redemption. Doubtless that persistent hesitation to describe the actual crossing of the threshold of the holy was what Percy had in mind when he asserted in one of his essays: When it comes to grace, I get writer’s block.
Maybe he was on to something. When I consider our collective history of attempts to translate the infinite mystery and wonder into a few descriptive phrases of prose or song lyric, there’s an admittedly high cringe factor. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem to come off—at least not when you approach it directly. It’s like trying to pluck a magic tail feather from a phoenix. Apparently, you’ve got to be very wily, vigilant and patient and sneak up on the thing from an odd angle. If it sees you coming, it’ll instantly disappear and leave you grasping at empty air.
Even as towering a literary giant as Dostoevsky seems to stumble at the end of the enormously brilliant “Crime & Punishment” when he tacks on a late conversion experience for that murderous rascal Raskolnikov. After all that came before it, the actual moment of surrender in the epilogue comes off as comparably flat and uninspiring.
So if Walker and Fyodor struggled with it, I guess I shouldn’t feel so bad about my own patchy record of trying to communicate mysteries like the incarnation and the movement of grace into human lives. But still I have to ask, what is it about grace that is inevitably so difficult to capture and communicate? Why is it that when we try to portray it or explain it literally and directly in song or film or story, it so often eludes us? Or, to approach it from the other direction, why is it that a metaphoric depiction of encounters with grace, somehow organically rooted in the narrative, is inevitably so much more powerful?
How does one, as a lyricist, novelist, or poet, communicate the idea of grace in a way that doesn’t do violence to the living wonder and mystery of the thing? Is it even possible to do so? Or when we attempt it are we like a child with a dull pocket knife approaching a frog to see what the mystery of life looks like on the inside. It’s going to be very, very hard to do without killing the frog.
But grace, at its heart, transcends biology and all manner of mechanics. Grace is the intrusion of something otherworldly, something foreign to our usual way of doing business. We come closer to actually describing it, I think, if we say that grace is “magical”. Isn’t that how we experience it anyway? It is mystical. It is something that we can talk in circles about, but that’s not the same as finding ourselves swept into and enveloped by it. Maybe that’s why we’ve long sensed that some of the most enduringly transformational works in Christendom have been the fantasy writings of folks like George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkein, and C.S. Lewis.
Francis Bacon said: The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery. Is that what Jesus was doing with his storytelling? Rather than taking grace apart and analyzing the components or the mechanics of it, was he inviting listeners to enter through the door of the imagination, to emotionally live through a story, and to experience what grace might be like, and then to say: “That. That thing you just got a glimpse of. That thing you just felt stirring in you and around you. That was like the movement of grace. That was a glimpse of what love means. Of what mercy is. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.” Was he using story to draw us into an actual relationship with grace, to force us to wrestle with it rather than speak an easy “yes” or “no” to an abstract idea?
Brennan Manning, in his book Ruthless Trust, issues the call: Send in the artists, mystics, and clowns. Their fertile imagination pours the new wine of the gospel into fresh wineskins. With fresh language, poetic vision, and striking symbols, they express God’s inexpressible Word in artistic forms that are charged with the power of God, engaging our minds and stirring our hearts as they flare and flame.
In our post-christian, post-modern culture, what kinds of images, what kinds of symbols, what kinds of stories, what kinds of songs will we tell and paint and sing and film that will again infuse our culture with the ideas of creation, sin, guilt, brokenness, sacrifice and redemption that are the necessary foundational building blocks for an understanding of this wild and untamable mystery called grace?
It’s a big question—and an important one—and therefore one that I don’t want to abandon indefinitely to the realm of the abstract. While I can’t always say why or how exactly, I do know that over the years there have been numerous works of art and music and literature that have been very real catalysts for epiphany moments, for the deepening of my own experience and understanding of who God is and what He’s about in this world. There have been, in other words, artists and writers who somehow got it right—or at least right enough.
So here’s my invitation to the Rabbit Room community: would it be of interest to anyone to use this comment thread as an opportunity to describe our own encounters with specific works of art, music, theater, film, and literature that have impacted us? I’m curious to know what creative expressions have carried the power to change other people’s lives and thinking, and eager to share a couple of my own epiphany experiences with works of graceful and grace-filled art. Anyone?
Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).