City, Suburb and the Myth of Christian Art

It’s like Chicago is a rock dropped at the edge of Illinois, and the suburbs ripple out almost to Wisconsin. The farther you go out, the looser and wider the circles, and I spent my first 18 years living at the quiet northwest edge of it all, 45 minutes from the beating city heart.

My childhood memories of Chicago are concentrated around Michigan Avenue, where we wedged into the winter-worn crowd to see the Christmas display in the windows at Macy’s. Where we saw quirky plays that my Dad found in the paper. Where we took that long elevator ride to the top of the Hancock, felt like we might shoot through the ceiling into the sky.

So it’s new to me to wake up in a best friend’s city apartment, footsteps heavy on the wood floors above. To step out into the quiet movement of the city morning: the joggers, the dog-walkers, the suits and heels and briefcases, the energy.

On the brown line el train, I am entirely surrounded and entirely alone. I can’t stop looking at people. At their clothes, at what they carry, at the way their headphones lace up into their ears. I watch the skyline grow bigger before us. People get on and off, and then I do too.

The day is sunny and perfect as I walk the map I have memorized .72 miles toward the conference in my new boots. It makes me feel strong. I am part of the city in a new way, like she’s waking up, and I’m there for it. Like this is her real, just-out-of-bed face, and I’m, for the first time, seeing it.

*

I’m there for a conference called Story. The website is vague. It never says “Christian” or even “faith,” just “Creatives.” The lobby is so full of plaid shirts and skinny jeans and weird, artistic displays that you could almost miss the Christian publishers nestled along the walls, the church vendors, the ministries.

I’ve heard of the musician who begins the conference with his plaid shirt and ukulele, but I haven’t heard him until he starts singing about love, and it makes me feel like I’m at the brink of the holy.

He sings, “The sweetest thing I’ve ever learned/is that I don’t have to have all the answers/Just a little light to call my own.” And God, if I’m ever going to give a three-minute testimony again, it’s going to be just that, just those words, just that haunting melody.

He is the first of the artists. Not a Christian Artist but an artist who is imperfectly Christian, who is straining toward the Light, struggling with the complexity of the darkness. There’s the visual artist Makoto Fujimura who says “artists are deeply shaped by their location in the world.” There’s that young music-video director Isaac Rentz who says, “I’m an agnostic when it comes to ‘Christian art.’”

Anne Lamott comes up with her short dreadlocks and black cardigan and says, “I have an hour talk on everything I know about writing, and I have an hour talk on everything I know about faith, and they’re basically the same talk,” and this is what I’m thinking about when I walk the city sidewalks that night, eyes wide open, watching everything.

*

This is not a treatise on where to live: suburb versus city. (I long ago made peace with the fact that suburban does not mean sellout, that middle is not necessarily synonymous with mediocre.) It’s about that winter night in 2007 when I finally found the words to pray again.

And it wasn’t a worship song, and it wasn’t a Christian book on recovering from Depression, and it wasn’t even the Bible. It was Death Cab for Cutie and “Transatlanticism” in my earbuds as I walked the dog behind our Plymouth apartment building. It was the moon high and full in the clear winter sky. It was the lyrics, “I need you so much closer,” over and over again in my ears, as I walked, walked, walked.

It was the decidedly nonchristian artist Joseph Arthur, who gave words to my doubt-filled struggling when he sang: “I don’t know anymore/what it’s for/I’m not even sure/if there is anyone who is in the sun/can you help me to understand?” And I kept it on repeat for an entire month, that song “In the Sun.”

And what this is really about is art, about how these neat Christian/Secular lines have robbed us of each other’s important voices in the world.

It’s about a Christian subculture that has moved out to the farthest edge of the rippling real. We’ve made our home 45 minutes from the heart of humanity. And there is something utterly tragic about that.

It’s this question that keeps me up at night, the one that I can’t stop thinking about: Can you be an artist working with that striking red thread of God’s love without getting pigeon-holed into some faraway cul-du-sac of faith? Is there a way to write straight into the reality of life, to make something that sounds like a love song? Something that brings others one step closer to the holy?

Because the thing is, I’m on the el train, surrounded by all these strangers, and I can’t stop looking at them. Can’t stop seeing how beautiful they are, can’t stop noticing all that they carry.

*

When you stand inside the el station at night, you can feel the trains before you see them. You stand alone in the fluorescence of the underground, and the floor shakes with the power of it. The walls too. And when it’s actually coming – actually upon you – it feels a little like the world is about to end.

It comes into the tunnel with the force of so much speed, and you are blown by it, blown flat against the wall that first time you wait for it.

And then it slows, slows, stops. Opens. And the choice, as always, is whether or not to get on.

43 thoughts on “City, Suburb and the Myth of Christian Art

  1. Beautiful, Addie! What a gorgeous reflection.
    I’m so grateful I got the chance to meet you and share a bit of that time.

  2. Good Lord yes, that was me on the bus, I felt so obviously wide eyed and outsider as I watched in awe the rhythm of public transit, trying to desperately not to offend all those who know it well.

    I will be sharing this blog with everyone I know now, because you said it, the whole weekend, just right.

  3. Oh my God, Addie. The connections you make. This resonates in so many ways- from growing up in another part of the ever-widening Chicago suburbs, to how I made peace with my faith, to wanting to stay far far away from a Christian subculture that almost destroyed what faith I had, and then in the middle of all of it, figuring out what my art says about me and God and whether there’s a difference. I’ve long accepted not having the answers and not even wanting them anymore because I don’t want to miss out on the ways God will speak through the unexpected.

    1. “I don’t want to miss out on the ways God will speak through the unexpected.” Yes.

  4. I can relate to this, Addie. The best response I’ve heard from within church leadership was – paraphrased – “We want to sharpen you, because you are the cutting edge. We don’t want to blunt you just so you feel safe to us”. It comes down to trust, in the end, and understanding who we’re really answering to and representing. Thanks for your reflections.

  5. This is the challenge of artists and writers indeed. We want to speak to all people, and yet we must speak to someone. And we wrestle with how specific we should be, how much we should spell it out, whether we should tip our hand. This is a fantastic meditation that I love and would love more if I wasn’t a little bit jealous that you’re writing a post like this after only blogging for ONE YEAR!!! Gosh! This blog is a treasure. Thanks for rising so early to write for us. We need it.

    1. Thanks Ed. Yes that issue of audience. It’s a tough one. (And for the record, though I’ve only been blogging a year, I’ve been WRITING my entire life. And I have an expensive little graduate school diploma to prove it. So there’s that. ;-))

    1. I so need to buy that. Love that they were the tune to which you heard this piece. Thank you.

  6. I don’t even know if I should try describing Story. Everyone else is doing it amazingly. You weave these separate points together brilliantly.

    This actually brought tears to my eyes. I just came back from a Bible study, and a question was, what things hinder our experiences with God, and what do we need to experience God. And of course the ‘correct’ answer for what we need is prayer and the Bible. So of course I had to pipe in and say that for much of the time, the Bible is actually a hindrance to me to experiencing God. And that I often find him in music, a good book, a blog post….and I get looked at like I have 2 heads, and the consensus seems to be, Caris said something crazy yet again, so moving on……it’s just frustrating. So I loved this.

    1. So sorry that you felt alone and misunderstood. I get it completely, and that tends to be how I experience too so often.

  7. So, I’m just going to say yes, amen – and raise my hands to this, even though I’m a Methodist who doesn’t do that. (except I do!) Being open to God at work in all art, in all music, in all of his glorious creation – Madeleine L’Engle helped me understand that. And I needed those words, and these words. The river keeps flowing…

  8. To your question, “Can you be an artist working with that striking red thread of God’s love without getting pigeon-holed into some faraway cul-du-sac of faith? Is there a way to write straight into the reality of life, to make something that sounds like a love song? Something that brings others one step closer to the holy?” the answer is yes. I know Anne Lamott is doing it and now YOU are doing it.

    1. Yes – this is what I wanted to say…
      You are doing it. And your writing is entering a magical mystical realm at the moment – I cannot get enough 🙂

  9. “We’ve made our home 45 minutes from the heart of humanity. And there is something utterly tragic about that.”

    Really, Addie. Your words drive straight to the heart. Thank you for painting this picture so clearly and deeply.

  10. Addie, this is such a perfect description of my city and of the conference we shared last week. You so perfectly captured not just the speaking points, but the intangible beauty of STORY!

  11. Addie you say powerfully what I just try to communicate in grunts and groans. …Love this piece and yes, you are breaking down those stupid walls we built to, to ….who knows what with your art and humanity. I’m with you. Sending this to all my college students at church. Your words can help them speak aloud what they are stumble and stammer to say. Thank you. Thank you.

  12. It is *so* weird having someone else sharing out loud the things inside my head. I’m glad you do, though, because you express them so perfectly.

  13. Holy crap, woman! This is just glory. Breathtaking, eye-opening, heart-stopping glory. Thank you so much for saying this wonderful, terrible truth in this space today (well…okay….yesterday. Technicalities!) And yes the red thread can be woven – and always is woven! – in ways that do not carry the ‘label,’ but rather radiate the holy truth of it all. This is what you’re called to do. Yes.

  14. YES.

    I’m a Christian and a children’s author who feels very strongly my books are for all people. Gospel truth transcend the boundaries — intentionally erected or not — we think separate different aspects of life. I have been transformed by books by non-Christians because Truth resides in art.

  15. We have retreated to the suburbs with our faith. Just look at the churches what have pulled out and planted in the land of no sidewalks and wide streets. Your realization is one that we should all engage in. We need to take our faith, our art, our message to the people — where it’s not nearly so safe.

  16. Yes! This: “And what this is really about is art, about how these neat Christian/Secular lines have robbed us of each other’s important voices in the world.”

    It is so much harder to “write straight into the reality of life”—and to find publishers who will help get those words to the right people—but it’s a struggle SO worth engaging in. I’m so thankful for you and your willingness to do the work.

  17. It’s this kind of thought, that evokes this kind of feeling, and will prompt this kind of writing, making you go far and influence much…

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