From the film Amelie, 2001
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis encourages us to receive great art rather than use it, seeking to enter “fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.” We should refrain from the easier project of reducing a work to a message we might find problematic. Instead, we should seek to approach a work of art with the same level of charity with which we approach people.
Art is a dialogue. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that all beauty compels dialogue: it causes a response in us that we instinctively want to engage and share. This sharing is what an artist does when they create, from choreographers to filmmakers. But, as Lewis argues in his book, we have to become good dialogue partners: we must learn the language of the art form we wish to engage. Lewis characterized readers as either “literary” or “unliterary” in their responsiveness.
Nocturne in Black and Gold, Whistler 1875
C.S. Lewis might remark that our culture’s fascination with horror films arises from the “numinous awe” that “is as old as humanity itself.” In his book, The Problem of Pain, he wrote that “nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits.” He distinguishes this kind of awe from mere fear, too: “When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.”
In Plato’s Cave No.1 by Robert Motherwell, 1972
Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory. Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded. In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave. The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality. The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention. The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.” Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful. The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations. Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.” Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son.”
During the twilight hours of late-antiquity, the deepening gloom of cosmic despair could be seen on the horizon upon which the mythologies and philosophies of man had exhausted themselves. In his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart writes that it was “a time when religion and philosophy alike were increasingly concerned with the escape from the conditions of earthly life, and when both often encouraged a contempt for the flesh more absolute, bitterly unworldly, and pessimistic” than ever before. With noble resignation, mankind had come to accept this world as nothing more than a material prison. History was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods. In this view there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.” The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever,” all the while the Supreme God remained completely out of reach and uninvolved. The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”  Salvation could only be found in escape.
Nocturne by Whistler
“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
Taking up a theme from a previous post, here is another area in which Christianity changed the world for the better. Not only did the Gospel’s focus on the poor and unforgotten give value to an entire segment of society that the pagan world looked upon with patronizing pity at best, the Gospel revolutionized mankind’s conceptual framework for understanding reality. The modern world rejects Christianity at its own peril, as Hart will demonstrate. We are deluding ourselves, in fact.
In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart notes that we moderns “believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty.” Not so for the pagans. They had no concept of “the arrow of time” and did not assume that history contained a “narrative logic” broad enough to house “both disjunction and resolution.” For them, history could not move “towards an end quite different from its beginning” but was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods. In their view, there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.” The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever” all the while, the ultimate deity remained completely out of reach and uninvolved.  The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”
“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt
“For I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” ~ Philippians 1:6
In his book, Classic Christianity, Thomas C. Oden likens the complex interaction between divine providence and human freedom to “good human parenting.” He writes that “the providence of God guides human freedom in four phases: by permitting, restraining, overruling, and limiting our choices.” Part of God’s providential care and purpose is to permit us to fail “in order to allow the larger good of enabling freedom.” At times, God does restrain our actions by non-coercively and indirectly hindering us. He hedges us in. He will directly overrule our choices either by correction and discipline or by turning what was meant for evil into good or to spur spiritual growth. Odens writes, “God guides wisely by going ahead of our present freedom to prepare a new way … opening some doors, closing others … grace [preventing] freedom’s way from leading to disaster, or from tempting inordinately.”
“The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb” by William Blake, watercolor
“Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does He allow so much suffering? Arguably, this question lies at the core of human existence. The silence that seems to greet it pierces our hearts. Who will comfort us?