Think On These Things



Think On These Things

{Lyle Enright reflects on Paul’s message and how it applies to writing about emotion and truth.}

Recently, during a lengthy car trip, my girlfriend and I decided to pass the time listening through Argue With A Tree, an album by American rock band Blue October. More accurately, I suppose I was conducting an experiment – my better half has a Master’s degree in mental health counseling, and I wanted to see how she would respond to music that is largely an outlet for Blue October’s clinically bipolar frontman, Justin Furstenfeld.

Blue October is an interesting artistic animal. Many of the songs on that album are what Furstenfeld refers to as “scary love songs,” intense confessions and explorations of human brokenness with some of the most jarring juxtapositions of beauty and revulsion I’ve ever heard. The question at the end of the night was whether or not the morals and messages justified the images.

As an artistically liberal and postmodern theist, you can imagine that something inside me jumped a little when my best friend said, “No.”

Her reasoning was that, while Furstenfeld’s art may be therapeutic, even necessary for catharsis, he actually has a moral responsibility to not share some of those things. The articulation of damage in some of his songs is so vivid it’s agonizing – or, if considered another way, enticing and tempting. The fact is that Blue October’s music and poetry is on one hand a pure enactment, and then simultaneously the polar opposite, of Philippians 4:8.

This verse has frustrated Christian artists for a long time, and that frustration is perhaps at a zenith in the context of today’s culture. It takes on a special irritation for me, as someone who writes horror and fantasy fiction when they’re not working for a Christian literary journal. Indeed, thinking only on “whatever is true, whatever is noble” seems to stand in opposition even to what we do at Relief, where part of our mission is to provide Christian writing that doesn’t “sanitize reality.” Yet if you were going to boil down Paul’s challenge, he does very much seem to be saying, “Think about sanitary things.”


But I don’t think he is. Rather, I think that Paul is saying, “Think on what is salvific.”  Paul is not encouraging a sanitary lifestyle, but suggesting how we may be rescued from the world.

In exploring how this can play out, I’ll give two examples from my own life. I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle my junior year of high-school. The book is filled with injustice after injustice as an immigrant family works to make ends meet in industrial Chicago. At one point, the protagonist, Jurgis, discovers that his wife has been prostituting herself to her boss in order to help them survive, and has borne him a child out of this relationship – and all this is before everything really goes wrong. In the end, after Jurgis has lost everything, he finds some small comfort and possibility for redemption in the promises of socialism.

This story is anything but sanitary, and speaks to the sort of societal injustice that this community of writers is so concerned about – shouldn’t it, and things like it, be engaged?

…Not for me, to be honest. For me, this story does nothing to encourage me towards social justice, or to pray for those being persecuted. Instead, it stirs within me a sort of vigilantism that I know is deeply sinful. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord,” but I am ready to fly in the face of that and take matters into my own hands when I remember this story, and see others like it. However just my intentions, I must pray to be liberated from my own wickedness which always boils to the surface and makes me worthless as an agent of the Gospel. I have not touched the book sense.

Fast-forward to my senior year of college as I opened Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. I suddenly recognize how fitting it is that the socialist promises made to Jurgis in The Jungle are brought to light in Solzhenitsyn’s writings as the lies they are.  But in the gulag, there is no outlet for the anger, no hope for justice – “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage,” as Billy Corgan would say. So what does Aleksandr turn to, from within his cell?

Prayers, poems scrawled on the wall, an artistic topography detailing his rediscovery of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of false witness, disease, children being tortured, Solzhenitsyn observes the line that divides men’s hearts between good and evil. As prison becomes a reality to him, so does the truth of freedom – “As if it were possible to liberate anyone who has not first become liberated in his own soul. The stones roll down from under our feet. Downward, into the past! They are the ashes of the past! And we ascend!”

Solzhenitsyn’s experience becomes an allegory for every individual human heart, and the decision to become, as C.S. Lewis has put it – to always be moving towards the angelic or the demonic. In the midst of such suffering, so terribly described within the pages of the Archipelago, it is yet possible to become, and to become greater. This is true and noble, this is right and pure – and it is born out of even the mire of the labor camp.

So what does this say about our responsibility as artists? What taste are we leaving in people’s mouths? More often than not, this will be a personal assessment – Socrates challenges, and Solzhenitsyn reminds, “Know thyself!” In attempting to do this, I have found those things such as The Jungle (and a fair amount of Blue October, thanks to my challenger) that I must shy away from, not because they are ugly but because they are ugly in those special ways that can tempt me to forget that I have been rescued. This should be on our hearts always, that while our art is meant to portray the world as it is, we must not forget that Christ is a real part of this world too. The world is not good or noble. It is not right or pure or lovely or admirable. It is rarely excellent or praiseworthy. But Christ is all of these things all the time, and by them he saves us. Let us write and edit and publish with rescue in mind, then, and be careful that what we create does not tempt others to forget their hope.

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Lyle Enright is on staff at Relief Journal. His articles and stories have appeared in Relief, Catapult* Magazine, Flashes in the Dark,and The Dark Side of the Womb, a recent anthology from Cruentus Libri Press. He is currently applying to pursue graduate studies in literary theory, and hopes to focus on postmodern epistemologies in literature. He has a special affection for horror, and his paper, ‘Dagon to Derrida – H.P. Lovecraft and Texts within Texts’ is being excitedly considered for inclusion in the NecronomiCon Lovecraft Festival in Rhode Island next year.

Follow Lyle on Twitter: @YnysDyn

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9 Responses to “Think On These Things”

  1. Lyle, my son (Vandy grad in Religious Studies) and I (lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the Church) had this very discussion a couple of days ago! Such hard choices Christians must make!

    Since I greatly appreciated your timing and your honest approach to a hard question, I posted your URL with a short note on the Christian Poets & Writers blog. May God continue to bless you and all you’re given to do.

    • dave says:

      thanks for the promo! :-)

    • Lyle Enright says:

      Mary,

      Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words, and for the work you yourself do for the faith and writing community. I’m so glad that my thoughts were edifying for you and your son as well – it’s always good to be reminded that these things are on others’ minds as well!

      Please keep in touch, and God bless!

  2. I think this could also apply to reality TV, don’t you? So often what is “true/honest” is interpreted in the narrowest sense of the word. Rawness and simple exposure of brutality are not by their nature righteous. In art as well, authenticity alone does not mean quality, and needs mindfulness. I appreciate your emphasis on artistically engaging with the real world in the service of hope.

    • dave says:

      really interesting implication here… thanks liz!

    • Lyle Enright says:

      “Authenticity alone does not mean quality” – wow, I wish I’d thought of that, that pretty much boils the whole article down to one thought :) Thanks, Elizabeth. I’m hoping to do a lot of work studying the relationship between narrative and epistemology in graduate school, and these ideas about “Reality” TV might be worth some more serious academic attention – how does this influence our interpretation or expectations about “truth”? Is truth more closely related to authenticity or beauty? Is anything that is not somehow beautiful truly authentic? … I appreciate your thoughts!

  3. Caroline says:

    “art is meant to portray the world as it is, we must not forget that Christ is a real part of this world too.”

    Thank you so much for writing about a topic that makes me uncomfortable. I sometimes want to look at a passage and read for the “yes to be yes and no to be no” without struggling with it enough. Thank you for helping me wrestle through it!

  4. [...] i’d like to thank friend, colleague, and ANTLER contributor lyle entright for helping me amend this phrase to be more concise—a phrase—i see now—isn’t just about [...]

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