Forbidden Art Forms

What if you art stands in tension with your faith?

This is the tension posed in My Name is Asher Lev, about a Hasidic Jewish boy whose heritage views depicted images as only idols. Museums are forbidden. Illustrations of God or the divine are blasphemous. But the boy cannot stop drawing. Pencil lines and charcoal bleed out of his fingers. His sick mother asks her beloved boy to draw her pretty things to make her happy, but beautiful things in their bitter life would be only an aesthetic illusion, and he has a vision for the truth.

He finds truth in his paintbox. Asher Lev paints coffins, his dying kin in WWII Europe, nude models, and finally, he paints what is his ultimate truth, and doubly the ultimate offense against his religion–the crucifix. He is cast out from the Jewish community.

In Sheri Reynolds’ Bitterroot Landing, a young girl also paints. Her name is Jael, and her past is so stained with sexual abuse, so distorted from healthy human development, that she is nearly feral. She knows her body only with disgust, and abuses it habitually because that’s the only way people have taught her to treat it. She’s painting with watercolor, and frustrated in failing to achieve just the right shade of paint.

An idea strikes her, but she pushes it away in disgust. But a voice inside assures her, “It’s not dirty…it’s truth.” She hesitates, then tries her new palette, a paintbrush between her young legs. It’s red, the perfect color. A girl whose femininity has only ever been disgraced and dehumanized creates something beautiful out of her womanhood, for the first time in her trauma-marked life.

We all have our forbidden art forms. How many times have we been told: you can’t tell that part of your story. You have to edit that part out. How many times have we tensed the threads of relationships, community, by telling the truth?

There’s a difference between art that is beautiful and art that is true. And sometimes the beautiful deserves to be censored because it is false, and the true deserves to be spoken although it is hard and raw.

Don’t censor your story. Claim whatever instrument is at hand, cling to whatever canvas you have, and spill it out in all its human color. Together, the glory and the grotesque give it depth. It may make people uncomfortable, it may be controversial, but truth-telling trumps all of this. And as Asher Lev says in Chaim Potok’s novel, after all is said and done, “I will not apologize.  It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.”

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  • friartuckerx6

    good advice. and great books. thanks.

    • stephindialogue

      Loved My Name is Asher Lev, and Bitterroot Landing was very well done as well, definitely outside of my comfort zone at times, but I think even this was effective and to the point.

  • Erin

    Yes!!!!! Hallelujah!

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  • Jenny Rae Armstrong

    Great post, Stephanie!!! This must be a “tell the truth” day–you blogged about it, I blogged about it, and Suanne Camfield wrote an excellent post about it regarding human trafficking–that’s available here: Honesty is in the air!

    • stephindialogue

      It must be! Same to you, well done over on your blog. I just wrote last week two posts on human trafficking, and was so encouraged by the responses of men and women standing up for this hard truth.

  • samanthakrieger

    well said Steph!

  • David T. Ulrich

    I have a similar post, titled “Realism, not pornography,” about the difficulty of censorship in non-fiction art.

    The question: “Does it ruin my story to leave a gap in its narration, to pull shut the curtain when the bad parts come, and to only open it once it is finished?”

    My take as a writer: It’s good to leave gaps in a story. It most serves the reader.

    • stephindialogue

      That’s an excellent question, and a solid post and perspective on these issues. It’s a delicate balance…I am very grateful for “censorship” sometimes if it protects me from something I don’t want invading my imagination. But other times, G-rated is diluted in its ability resonate with the reader.

      I like what you say about leaving a gap, and I can think of some authors who have mastered the art of nuance, favoring this over graphic depiction.

      • David T. Ulrich

        You’re right: G-rated is different than leaving a gap. When I posted that piece on my blog, I had a back-and-forth on Twitter with another writer who didn’t like my comment about “invading the reader’s mind with thoughts he didn’t ask for.”

        This guy said the whole purpose of art was to do that, and if it’s not doing that, it’s not doing anything. I said he was right, but there are limits. Taste. Discretion.

        What you said is great. Nuance, not graphic excessiveness. Thanks for responding!

        • stephindialogue

          I know exactly what you mean about invasion…what you wrote about movies cutting directly in the middle of a sex scene is right, it offends me not only for the content but because I was “tricked” into it and then taken by ambush. It’s underhanded.

          I think good art is provocative…and honestly most of the time, what’s most provocative I think is not the overt but the subtle and the nuance.

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  • rain

    On his blog, Mike Duran says, I have this quote in my sidebar — “The role of the artist is to not look away” (Akira Kurosawa). Sadly, I think much of Christian fiction is about “looking away.”

    The uncomfortable truth about truth? Sometimes it isn’t pretty. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and unbearable. But truth always opens the door to the place where healing happens; whether one walks through or not is their choice. But I find that, through story, we extend the invitation. And for some, this is the ultimate calling.

    Thanks for your recommendations. I just ordered Bitterroot Landing.

    • stephindialogue

      Rain, that’s a great quote, and I just want to encore everything you just said here :) Truth leads to healing. Yes. And it it hard. Yes. Thank you.

      I would really like to know what you think about Bitterroot Landing after you read it. It has plenty of uncomfortable truths, that’s for sure. Most people I think just think the whole book is bizarre and disturbing, and it is, but there’s redemption in it too. I actually really loved The Rapture of Canaan by the same author, amazing and controversial story…but so very powerful. Loved that book and would recommend it as well if you resonate with some of the ideas we’re talking about here.

      • rain

        I will definitely let you know what I think of Bitterroot Landing. I saw the other title you mentioned and may get that, too. Honestly, I often prefer uncomfortable (or what I like to call “messy”) truths. The above quote I referenced by Mike Duran is one I used to open a post I wrote, “Cruel Redemption” (, which detailed another reason why seeing (or reading about) pain is important to me.

        And to answer the comment you left on my blog, no I wasn’t at STORY although I truly wish I could have been! I didn’t know they used that quote…how fascinating!

        Thanks for your response and for stopping by my little space. Blessings to you!

  • Shawn Smucker

    Beautiful post. I needed to read this today.

    • stephindialogue

      So glad to hear that, thank you for stopping by!

  • Adam Hann (@AdamHann)

    Great post. Very well said. Don’t censor your story.

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