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.”