Breath for the Bones: The Chiaroscuro God

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Remember Uncle Max? That hardworking, hard-bitten, shrewd, practical New Zealand apple farmer? In chapter one of Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit: Reflections on Art and Faith, Uncle Max asked his poet-niece Luci Shaw: “But—what good is a poem? What earthly use is it? Why can’t you say what you want to say in a straightforward way that ordinary people can understand?”

These past weeks as we’ve journeyed through Breath for the Bones we’ve been trying to answer Uncle Max. We’ve also been exploring how faith informs art and how art animates faith. In our final readings this week, Luci comes back to these questions.

…Why poetry in a practical world? Because poetry enriches, it forces us to take time, slow down, reflect on what might otherwise escape our notice. It helps us to view life metaphorically instead of in terms of mere fact or information. Poetry helps us to become whole-brain people, teaching us to be thoughtful and creative in many areas of our lives…It opens up the windows to the whole universe, takes our eyes off ourselves, and often helps us to focus on Creator and creation.

Art, Shaw says, gives us a glimpse of the indescribable; invites us farther up and farther in. Helping us to better accept a chiaroscuro God.

The God who is not there. Or, the God who is there but not here, except for occasional momentary visitations…a chiaroscuro God, some of whose features are highlighted in the manner of the Italian Renaissance painters who employed that technique…chiaroscuro is itself an oxymoron—chiaro (clear, or light) combined with oscuro (dark), suggesting ambiguity and paradox, a fitting term for a deity who has revealed himself in the flesh yet walks in mystery, who scatters clues and hints to his being throughout creation, Holy Scripture, and the human mind, leaving his burning footprints on the lake, but then withdrawing.

Chiaroscuro in art, Wikipedia tells me, is characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body.

Haven’t we all been through those shadow places? In faith and art? Gerald May may say that our lack of fulfillment is the most precious gift we have, C. S. Lewis may say that our best havings are wantings, and Blaise Pascal might say that a religion that does not affirm God is hidden is not true…but how do all these high thoughts help us through the oscuro? Could it be—like the Renaissance painters who gave dimension to their subjects by contrasting light and dark—could these chiaroscuro seasons animate a life—giving shape to faith and revealing the true Light? For the Christian artist, Shaw tells us, craft becomes the means of exploring this mystery. And thus, can reflect the Creator in ways previously unimagined.

…It will not always show all of itself or the whole truth at one viewing, nor will it preach a four-point sermon. But if we are willing to give it our attention, art will begin to open our inner eyes.

Breath for the bones. Faith and art breathe into each other—giving form to life, light to mystery.

If you'd like to join the conversation, leave us a comment or a link with more thoughts at your blog.

All book club posts:

Book Club: Breath for the Bones (week one)

Breath for the Bones: Tell Me A Story (week two)

Breath for the Bones: Imagination and Muse (week three)

Breath for the Bones: Paying Attention--A Way to See (week four)

Breath for the Bones: Be Brave With Words (week five)

Image by Phil Hilfiker. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Laura Boggess.