Monday, December 19, 2011

Reflections on Art and Charles Dickens

Marley's Ghost-John Leech, 1843Shortly before Fuller Seminary closes up for Christmas vacation each December, the staff are treated to an annual Christmas party. This year, while waiting for the munchies to be served, I had the privilege of speaking with Fuller President Richard Mouw for a bit. Among other things, he asked about what books I've been reading, and I was able to tell him that I've been working through the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Perhaps somewhat ironically, although I've seen and heard numerous versions of this story over the years on television, at the movies, and on radio, I've never actually read through the original before, and thanks to the easy access to Public Domain works provided by the Nook, this has seemed a good time to do so.

As we continued to talk, Mouw mentioned the tragedy of how Dickens' personal life often didn't match up with the ideals suggested by his novels. Notably, how Dickens treated his wife, who he abandoned in 1858 to carry on an affair with an actress in one of his plays. "But," Mouw recalled, "boy, could he write!"

This called to mind an ongoing debate about what type of person may create profound works of art. It is often the case that the artist has a personal life that would, to put it charitably, not be known for demonstrating Christian ideals. While neither Mouw nor I would agree with those who argue that a life must contain such darkness to create such art (indeed, a foundational premise of Fuller's Brehm Center would be that artists create as a way of expressing the creativity of God, and that there are even ways in which this happens in art created by non-Christians), there is more than enough anecdotal evidence out there to make such an impression understandable.

I remember when I was in college, which was an eye-opening experience in a lot of ways. One of these was discovering that any number of famous people were like Dickens in that they were... well... sinners (gasp! shock!). I also discovered that many people would respond to such revelations by avoiding the art they produced. I'm not talking about art that may be objectionable for reasons related to the artwork itself. That's a different debate. Here I'm talking about avoiding work simply because of something objectionable about the artist. It probably goes without saying that I do not advocate for such avoidance.

That's not to say that I'm comfortable going entirely in the other direction, either. I don't think one should completely separate discussion of a work of art with an understanding of the artist as a person. While I do think that the artwork and the artist are two distinct entities, each can and does influence the other, and I think that it's only by including both that one can come to a full appreciation of either.

And if art is, on some level, a way that we humans express the creativity of God, it stands to reason that art can even serve to redeem the person who creates it on some level. I don't mean that having written A Christmas Carol absolves Dickens of his sins against his family (it was written well before the separation in any event), but it's obviously true that stories like this one, and the lessons they teach, are what Dickens is remembered for. Dickens is remembered for (among other virtues) his compassion for the poor, and not for his infidelities. It is wholly appropriate that, whenever we talk about Charles Dickens, our first impulse is like Mouw's:

"Boy, could he write!"

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