Mashed Potatoes & Visions

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In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there is a scene where Rory Neary cries into his mashed potatoes. He, along with several other people, have had an encounter with an extra terrestrial that has implanted a shared vision in their consciousness. The thing is, he’s not sure what the image from the vision is. He’s been trying to replicate it with anything he can find. He sees the shadow of it in pillow cases and shaving cream, but when he tries to form it, it’s just not right. As he shovels mashed potatoes onto his plate and begins to try to sculpt them into the image, his family looks on in horror. He starts crying, and then his son starts crying. Throughout the film he defends his odd behavior, saying “this means something”—even though he doesn’t know what.

I know that feeling all too well, and I suspect you do too. We write songs and make videos and tell stories that seem to say, “I’ve seen this thing, and I’m trying to show you. So I wrote this song, I made this video…and it’s not quite right, but it means something.” It’s almost the thing, but not quite. And sometimes it’s so far off that I want to crumble it up and trash it. In fact I hate it—I hate the thing I made because it’s not even close to the thing I’m trying to show you. But we can’t stop trying. So over and over, we take our brutish hands and try to carve a river rock into a diamond, spin cotton into silk. But it’s never right, never perfect. It can feel disheartening, pointless even.

And there is a certain truth to its pointlessness. We are never going to fashion a perfect replication of the vision. The great artists come close: Beethoven, Shakespeare, Van Gogh. But I have a suspicion that they were frustrated too, for compared to the thing itself, they were closer to our feeble works of art than the goal.

What is the point then? Why even try?

The ultimate goal is not to find the perfect image, but to let them all go in the face of an actual encounter with the one true God.

Hetty White

In the practice of Centering Prayer, there are many ways to enter, but one is through images. The monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit instructed me to picture getting in an elevator with the Trinity and riding down, down, down, to where my heart is and where encounter happens. Although starting with an image is helpful if like me you are visual, the ultimate goal is not to find the perfect image, but to let them all go in the face of an actual encounter with the one true God.

What if all our art, songs, stories, and poems were perfectly imperfect image-elevators down to the heart of the one hearing them, to encounter the one true Artist themself?

In a tense scene near the climax of the film, Rory Neary has thrown plants, dirt, chicken wire, and trash cans through the window into his house (much to the horror of his wife and kids) and is working on his biggest recreation of the image yet, when on the television he happens to see the very thing he’s been trying to sculpt: a monument in Wyoming called Devil’s Tower. He knows immediately that’s what he’s been trying to replicate and that’s where he has to go. The vision was a call to a meeting place with the mysterious creatures that implanted the vision in the first place.

Isn’t that our hope? That all our brave attempts would be recognized in the end: “oh, that’s what you were trying to draw!” We would see the shadow of the Father’s face and recognize it from each other’s art and lives. And that we would all see and know the invitation to a meeting place, where everyone is invited.


11 Comments

  1. Joni

    This resonates so much with my desire as a writer/artist. I long to create something that reveals the “meaning” I wrestle with, not only so others might see, but to know it better myself. To make it more true. I use the word “wrestle” because I often find my making to be an explorations of questions I have. I BELIEVE that the “meaning” is real and true, but my scribbling is sometimes a practice of me growing to KNOW it… I must confess that I (too often) fail to attempt this practice out of fear that my rendition will fail the “meaning”- even that it won’t prove true. I think artists who aren’t Christian also struggle with this: the first rough attempts rarely measure up to the “meaning” we imagined knowing… But now I’m rambling in a tangle of words.
    Great, thoughtful piece. Thank you for sharing!

  2. gllen

    “What if all our art, songs, stories, and poems were perfectly imperfect image-elevators down to the heart of the one hearing them, to encounter the one true Artist themself?”
    Pardon me. But I truly thought that is what the Scriptures, the Word of God, was given to us for …
    God’s revelation to us – to know what we would not otherwise know – then, fully accomplished, bring reconciliation to us, in Jesus Christ.
    Art & story is no Messiah. No Saviour. It can never be.
    Every culture. Every tribe. Every people have had these expressions of cultural perspectives or imaginings. Based in all kinds of things – biblically-based or mixed-up and idolatrous.
    Human creativity is no substitute for the Word of God.
    What we all need is the gospel. You guys know this. Jesus Christ given up for us.
    He (alone) is the image of the invisible God.
    Not an invisible Gif!
    A good story, or an amazing piece of art, can help us understand or re-envision much.
    But it is no Saviour. No Redeemer. And never can be.
    Please be careful!
     

  3. Drew Miller

    @drewmiller

    Hey, Glenn! Drew here.

    Just chiming in to clarify that, as I understand it, Hetty is not at all claiming Savior or Redeemer status for art. The quote that you’re referencing takes care to specify that our songs, stories, and poems are “imperfect image-elevators” which have the potential to lead us further into our own hearts, where the Holy Spirit communes with us and speaks God’s truth.

    Hetty’s thoughts remind me quite a lot of C. S. Lewis’s observation that “Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” You are right that imagination, art, stories, etc can never be the ultimate source of truth, but God is pleased to speak to us through them. If I understand both you and Hetty correctly, then I believe you’re actually in agreement with one another here.

    I hope this clarification is helpful!

  4. Shigé Clark

    @s-clark

    Glen, that’s not what’s being said here at all. No one came close to calling art a savior or redeemer, and what she says here about art is both scriptural and what scripture is – art that reflects and reveals God to us, just as nature does, and a thousand other things He uses to reveal Himself to us.

    Hetty, this is beautiful, thank you! I haven’t seen the movie, but the calling to our art as our imperfect and individual revelations of God to each other resonates deeply. And your hope expressed at the end of all our through-a-dark-mirror attempts – for it to someday be recognized in God’s perfect revelation of Himself and seen from each other as the invitation to His presence that it was – that’s a beautiful hope, and I think true. It reminds me of what Andy Crouch talks about in Culture Making where he wonders if the New Creation will include the best parts or perfect versions of all art that’s been attempted. But even better, because it’s pointing us back to our Savior and Creator, and the vindication of having a truth you were trying to express finally be understood. What a day that will be!

  5. gllen

    Hey Drew, thanks.

    I appreciate your response.
    Though I’m not fully satisfied, just to be honest.
    I need to express some more things here, if I might.
    —-——
    “The ultimate goal is not to find the perfect image, but to let them all go in the face of an actual encounter with the one true God.” – (Hetty White).
    Okay. Can we think of it this way?
    The search for a perfect image often results in an idol. No? (Didn’t Russ Ramsey talk about this?). It’s certainly the story of my life!
    An encounter with the One True God leads us ultimately to Jesus Christ. That’s the story of my life too! And humility beckons me to know and follow in this sacrificial way…
    He is the Perfect Image of the One True God. We need not search any further.
    We just need to listen well to the Scriptures. Hear clearly. Obey readily. That’s certainly enough of a challenge for me! Oy! 🙄
    ———-
    In my own art/design/writing I have known many wonderful images & metaphors. Produced, conceived, or gathered from wanderings here and there. They have been rich, powerful, invigorating. They have drawn out much from within me. And fed my soul deeply at times.
    Yes. They help me imagine. To clarify new perspectives and think of things in creative ways. To speak, or listen, in kinds of voices that make stories come alive for others. Words that might touch spirits, souls, precious others. For that I am sincerely grateful.
    ———-
    However, and I must say this, honestly, to y’all. It has bugged me for quite some time, and I should have voiced it long ago. I just couldn’t. It was too painful.
    I do not live in a Christian-saturated community, where so much of the livelihood comes from books, albums, events, etc. devoted to, or under the comforting acceptance of, a Christian consensus. I don’t.
    Simply. I don’t live in Nashville. Though, that might be really nice!
    ————
    I struggle for community in Christ, where I live. To think and live true to scripture.
    And for community in creativity? That’s even tougher. Just to make or say something true, on a regular basis. I struggle with that to the point of tears.
    ———-
    I do grow by delving into other’s words and works. Music. Song. Story.
    And then letting the scriptures inform, tweak, adjust, and discern their innards.
    It’s the way I have to go, in the place where I am at.
    It’s not easy.
    But it’s certainly worthwhile!
    ———-
    If I were put on trial for my faith, I would never pull out a Van Gogh painting, or a poem by William Blake, Luci Shaw, or Malcolm Guite even. Rich and beautiful as they are.
    Even though they have all had deep impact upon my faith and life in Christ.
    I could only pull out the scriptures to tell of Jesus Christ. Him crucified. Risen. Him alone.
    Ultimately.
    ———-
    I write these words not so much to digress or argue, but to simply say that in our day, in our age – outside of the Bible-Belt of the USA – there are dynamics that many of us have to navigate on a constant basis, that eat away and erode the foundations of our faith. Or at least try to.
    As artists who desire to speak truthfully within the confines and attitudes of such a generation, we need the scriptures to be our sure and solid, immovable foundation.
    Bar none.
    ———-
    Hence the possibly seeming reactive stance of my former words.
    I’m sorry.
    G
     

    “not all those who wander are lost…”
    (JRR Tolkien).

  6. Matthew Clark

    Ugh. yeah. This is good for me to hear right now, Hetty, thank you. I’m trying to finish an album, and I’ve been so discouraged this week because I can’t “close the gap” between what I dream the thing could be and what I am able to make. 

  7. Dena

    Hetty, this is such a beautiful interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:12. We do only “see through a glass darkly” but the Author of all the lovely art and words Himself has assured us that we will see clearly when we are face-to-face with Him. Through those excursions deep into the realm of our hearts via the vehicle provided by His Word, and yes, by music, poetry, and art, we have glorious glimpses of His beauty and perfection. Those are the moments that inspire us to keep going, to ride the elevator back up into our grungy and imperfect reality and make another attempt at showing others the way to Him through our own gifts. Keep on writing your words and music. Blessings, Dena

  8. gllen

    Hetty. I must apologize to you publicly here, for failing to read your blog piece adequately, and with humility and care, yesterday.
    I chomped at your words rashly, assuming I knew what you were saying, and made some very egregious assumptions, resulting in much error in my understanding.
    I got my knickers up in a royal twist, resorted to an unlistening/unloving rant of response, devoid of grace, and most certainly upset you, and well as the other Rabbit Room readers, with my unwise diatribe.
    I am so sorry.  Please forgive me.
    I too, long to see the shadow of the Father’s face – to be drawn closer into intimacy with our Lord – here, in these difficult days we travel – through the gifts and works of so many who have something precious and particular to share with others – what we each have been given to give.
    May your words/writing and other art, and life too, offer ever-growing glints of grace to many, on “this side of the mirror.”
    Drew, Shige – Thank you for correcting me gracefully. For not blasting me.  And letting the Holy Spirit do the convicting necessary in my heart & mind. Thank you.
    May we all learn ever deeper lessons, both as individuals, and as fellow-pilgrims – as community, either local, or on-line – even as we stumble, blunder, and limp our way across the journey and challenges ahead.
    G
     

  9. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    That’s an incredibly graceful reply, gllen. Thank you, but don’t be too hard on yourself. We’ve all misread things and jumped to conclusions, but not all of us have recognized it and and owned it. I hope you have a great weekend.

  10. Hetty Ruth White

    Thank you all for these thoughts and comments. I really appreciate them! Matthew, I’m with you, friend. Keep going. I can’t wait to hear your perfectly imperfect art. 
    Gllen, thank you for your honesty and willingness to view this piece differently than your first impression. That is something we could all do more often! 

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