What the Gospels Said: As a Work of Art

I’ve been reading Joy Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments while reading her letters compiled in a volume (i.e., Out of My Bone). It’s fascinating to see the author writing to a general audience about the Bible and then to read her mail to family and friends sometimes also on the Bible. In an earlier post I think, I noted how she interprets the commandment against taking God’s name in vain and how she uses words like goddam as as fairly regular part of her epistolary vocabulary, both before and after her Christian conversion and her interpretation of the Ten Commandments and her consistent insistence on obeying God in various contexts.

Sometime perhaps, I’ll blog more on her conversions, for example, on her being Jewish and becoming Christian. Here I’d like to quote her as a poet, a novelist, a writer, and a critic of literary works. She has a lot to say in her letters recently published. Here’s a bit:

Well, the Gospels are full of these little incongruities — like the cut-off ear of the high priest’s servant. That’s a thing that happened; no one could have invented it. The account of the Virgin Birth, not being eyewitness, seems on the other hand an invented and composed story, without a single false note. Everyone strikes exactly the right attitude, from Mary’s first words to the Angel on through that beautifully composed artistic climax. How artistically the contrast between the Prince of Peace and the Manger is worked out!

Whatever actually happened (and, frankly, I consider the Virgin Birth not unbelievable but merely irrelevant) that story as we have it is a work of art.

Now does Davidman make these remarks in her letter to a literary friend before or after she’s a Christian? Does it matter? Are the gospel authors (translating what Mary and Angels and Peter were saying and were doing) creating a work of art? How does that affect your reading of them? Your believing them?


3 responses to “What the Gospels Said: As a Work of Art

  1. The work of art is a fully human action. The writings I have studied (psalms, Job, NT) are also fully human and sometimes are works of art. I use the gallery analogy heavily in my current work of reading the psalms in sequence. Where does a work of art come from? Is it gift? What is it motivated by? If gift – a term we use lightly of ‘gifted’ humans, who is the giver? If motivated by love is this preferred over vengeance, hate etc and if so what for? I don’t believe because it is art (sometimes) . I don’t work from love necessarily – maybe compulsion is part of my character formation. When I believe a writer – I believe something about what I see and hear not necessarily all of it. If I believe a painting or love it, it is only out of a partial appreciation. So how could I shut myself into some aspects of the story that maybe were not what the writer was writing? I believe in the one to whom all these stories were pointing because I have been apprehended by the same. That belief is not shored by some doctrines and is shored up by love, beauty, and artistic or gifted expression. But some of these too might be distracting. And I might appreciate art without believing in the artist or the giver.

    Faith will not be put on a wall and fixed in position.

    • Thanks, Bob, for your musings on the work of art as human. When it comes to the Bible such reflections can be dicey. Francis Schaeffer looked for art in the Bible and attributed what he found there to God. Others such as Frank Kermode have looked to the Bible as art, literary art. I’m fascinated how Joy Davidman sifts through fact and fiction, history and art, as it makes the gospels. Reminds me of “spiritual atheist” Alan Lightman’s takes on the role of science and art writers; and he’s more than a theorist; he’s a scientist and novelist. This all brings me back to your comment a few days ago about scientist Charles Darwin and his lack of appreciation for the arts. Makes me wonder how you can really say “And I might appreciate art without believing in the artist or the giver.” I myself find it awful to view art without regard for the human who is the artist.

  2. Well Kurk – I have an attitude – the Bible is 100% human. 100% divine too – and there is some artistry in the editing also. That doesn’t mean I like all of it.

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