A couple of months ago I was driving home from a seminar class and I was confronted with a sight that will forever change the way I see art. In the class there was only a fellow graduate student, the professor, and myself. We had spent the last two hours discussing the use of story telling in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and how it reflects a particular view of history. There are few things that make me feel more alive and validated than a good intellectual conversation about literature. As I drove home I felt like I had learned something about the way the world worked, the way stories were passed on and how we understand ourselves in relation to those who have gone before us. Reality itself lay naked before me, I was not merely living life, I was knowing life. And then I hit a stoplight.
I have a hard time focusing my eyes on one point; I’m always darting around looking at people. The slightest movement sends my eyes searching for action. So as I sat stopped at the light, it was natural for my eyes to take in the people on the sidewalks and those in the cars around me. Unlike most times I allow myself to wander visually, this time I fell upon something that captivated me and shattered every notion of understand that I ever had.
To my left was a bus stop. It was ordinary, the kind you usually find around here with its bench, shade, and obligatory advertising. On the bench a man sat alone. He was probably around 25, but his evident lifestyle made him look a decade older. He wore no hat, and had a buzzed head with very short black hairs barely visible. For a shirt he had a respectable looking dress shirt buttoned to the top without a tie. His pants were khaki and neatly creased. I could make out dark lines which covered his arms and part of his neck; I was convinced that the tattoos continued over the rest of his torso as well. I didn’t see him do anything but sit there, but he crushed me nonetheless.
Immediately, all the intellectual musings on history and stories came crashing down like Icarus and my mind was frozen. Even if Faulkner’s treatment of the American dream in Absalom, Absalom! is the greatest ever written, it still has nothing to say to this man. Everything I had said in that graduate discussion, everything I had thought about the importance of those words, seemed completely irrelevant now. If I couldn’t speak of art in a way that allowed for every human contingency, than it was a lie.
Maybe I over reacted, but I don’t think so. Christian art, just like Christian thoughts about what good art is, should always include a conception of humanity that is true of all people. The work does not have to spend all of its energy capturing every ounce of unity between humans, but it does have to be honest about what it means to be human. An honesty that rings just as true in a literature class as it does on a bus stop. At times Faulkner, as all great writers do, finds this honesty, and when he does I know that I am not reading something that only speaks to a highly educated member of society, but to a human made in the image of God. Let our art always capture this: a vision of humanity that acknowledges God’s love, and man’s sin.