Artist and Believer

by Amos N. Wilder

Amos N. Wilder, whom in 1923 won the Yale Series of Younger Poets annual prize, in 1991 at age ninety-five published his book, The Bible and the Literary Critic. Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, he is the oldest living person to have played center court at Wimbledon.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis in the issue of October, 1953. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The life of the artist offers many analogies to the life of faith. The strictness of his way of life, the combination of ascesis and joy, the law of incarnation which limits all false spirituality: such features of the artist’s calling carry both rebuke and instruction for the Christian, especially in a time when indulgence and unreality have infected the practice of religion. In today’s cultural disarray, moreover, the modern artist in particular has much to teach us bearing on the rediscovery of meaning, the sifting of traditions, the discernment of spirits, and the renewal of the word.

The life of the artist offers many analogies to the life of faith. The strictness of his way of life, the combination of ascesis and joy, the law of incarnation which limits all false spirituality: such features of the artist's calling carry both rebuke and instruction for the Christian, especially in a time when indulgence and unreality have infected the practice of religion. In today's cultural disarray, moreover, the modern artist in particular has much to teach us bearing on the rediscovery of meaning, the sifting of traditions, the discernment of spirits, and the renewal of the word. The problem of communication for the church today is no less urgent than for the artist. Our elaboration of a new grammar and rhetoric of faith and apologetic can learn much from the new discourse of the poets.

Consider the following passage from Rilke's Les Cahiers de Malte Laurids Brigge,' which may be taken as a parable of the religious life and of the fruit it may bear, of how greatness comes to birth.

The young Brigge has written some poetry. Yet, he comments, how little poetry amounts to when written in youth. After a long life, yes, at its very end, after all the buffeting and the myriad and cumulative situations and confrontations -- then perhaps one could write ten lines of good verse. For poetry is not constituted by sentiments (those, indeed, come early enough) but by life experiences.

To write a single line one must have seen many cities, men and things....One must have had the memory of the groans of child-birth, and of the pale and sleeping forms of those who have given birth, their bodies now disburdened. One must also have been with the dying, have watched by the dead with the window open to the sounds of the world's stir outside. And it is not enough to have memories.

It is only when within us they have become blood, outlook, gesture, when they no longer have any name and are indistinguishable from ourselves, it is only then in some rare unexpected moment, out of all this, that the first word of a poem may arise.

This testimony of a great poet offers its clues for the believer, for neither is religion constituted of sentiments. Life is full of sentiments -- lavish, potent, and exquisite -- but they are not the important thing. Many no doubt confuse them with true spirituality. 

Indeed, because they are rebuffed in seeking them in the Christian religion they take umbrage and avoid those churches where something more austere is demanded and offered. Or they form their own cenacles and elaborate their own cults where trite poetizings or unashamed heart throbs or tenuously masked passion itself may with some success pretend to fulfill the role of faith and its utter venture as it wrestles with God.

We need to be aware of the high price of religious faith, and not confuse it with the various aspects and talents of the inner life available to all corners. The analogy of poetry warns us that sentiments, emotions, memories, are but raw ingredients. Sentiments must be proved in life, "experiences" must be digested, emotions and memories must fade and again come to life in character. Then, perhaps, by an unrecognized gestation, a richer and deeper self having taken form, a true prayer may voice itself within us. Under favoring conditions a veil may suddenly be torn aside disclosing the true nature of our human situation and an impulse toward the love of our fellow creatures arise too majestic to dissipate, as do our common benevolences, under the tests of life. Unless some such maturing has taken place, some such price be paid, we are not in a position to recognize the signs and works and wonders of grace or to read with understanding the special rhetoric of faith as we find it in the Scriptures.

All this means selection, rejection, isolation, conflict for the believer as for the artist. The most elementary of all rules here -- peculiarly offensive to the standing mores of our democratic outlook, where the truth that one man is as good as another is extended to condone mediocrity and to isolate and handicap excellence -- this most elementary of all rules is that "a man must break with the existing order of the world and with its interests and values." This demand, which is a truism for the genuine artist, only echoes with varying depths of context the peremptory summons of Jesus to his disciples that found such frequent utterance: "Go, sell whatsoever thou hast. . . ," "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." And the new sphere, not of indemnification but rather of surpassingly lavish surpluses of discovery and satisfaction opened up, here and now in this age, is similarly indicated in the special symbols of the time:

There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or fathers, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and for the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions.2

The analogy of the artist suggests, indeed, both the cost and the rewards of real devotion. For though, on the one hand, he makes himself as it were an Ishmaelite and a eunuch among men through the single-mindedness and intensity with which he pursues a special province among life's many offerings; on the other hand, he achieves a sensibility and a wealth and mastery in that province incommensurate with the common experience. He slowly builds up an unseen edifice of sensibility, a coral reef in the soul of significances and relationships, a house not made with hands of images and imaginings -- an edifice wrought, indeed, out of the common realities, but set in new relations, bathed in the light of the imagination, transfigured not into a false unreality but into their true significance. Thus what began with the daily dust of life and the precisely observed fact of time and sense is now recognized to be a city let down from heaven.

If such a harvest after such a sowing -- whether of the artist or the Christian -- appears strange, difficult, profitless to the man who has taken few steps outside the beaten path, or who has denied himself little, it is not a matter for surprise. These compensations are for the resolute and the reckless. There are those who sally forth toward discovery and achievement, but who, nevertheless, are careful to keep their communications with their base. Their life as men or artists is made up of a shuttling back and forth between the secure and the hazardous. They are commuters between the old and the new, between the sown land and the frontier. The new perspectives are not firmly grasped. But to enter into the new horizons calls for a decisiveness of repudiation and relinquishment, for a certain strain of grimness. Yet out of the grimness arises a greater joy, as "out of the strong came forth sweetness."

A modern poet has well stated the fateful hesitation, the clinging to wonted images, which prevent us from taking the dive into a more significant life. The parable is specially apt for a time of cultural crisis like our own where old securities, whether of faith or "way of life," are undermined. We may prefix to the poem the remark of Rilke: " They would so love to dwell among the signs and meanings that have become precious to them." C. Day Lewis, in the poem, "Questions," shows us how easily we let ourselves be "immobilized" by present seductions which we nevertheless recognize for what they are.

How long will you keep this pose of self-confessed

And aspen hesitation

Dithering on the brink, obsessed

Immobilized by the feminine fascination

Of an image all your own,

Or doubting which is shadow, which is bone?

Will you wait womanish, while the flattering stream

Glosses your faults away?

Or would you find within that dream

Courage to break the dream, wisdom to say

That wisdom is not there?

Or is it simply the first shock you fear?

Do you need the horn in your ear, the hounds at your heel,

Gadflies to sting you sore,

The lightning's angry feint, and all

The horizon clouds boiling like lead, before

You'll risk your javelin dive

And pierce reflection's heart, and come alive?3

There is one further analogy in the work of the artist, particularly of the modern artist, that is worthy of attention here. We may illustrate by the foregoing poem. Reality, we have intimated, whether via art or faith is not easy of attainment; it is difficult. This difficulty inheres also inevitably in the language of genuine art and faith. It is always difficult for us to come alive to that which is beyond us, because it involves death in some measure. The language and symbols of that which is beyond us or new to us are strange until we have lived the new experience, the new relations. If we find the words of Shakespeare or the Bible clear, it is often because we short-cut and shortchange the sense; though to the degree that we have lived the experience and outlook in question we have insight.

The modern arts are difficult because they proceed out of the changed sensibility and experience of our time. The special images, subtleties, and concern of a modern poem like the one quoted above belong to the modern consciousness, and the significance of the poem is open only to those who have known something of the costs involved in the changing moral and psychological patterns of our day. The difficulty of the best modern art is the difficulty of the observer not of the artist. If the observer or reader has not evaded the modern spiritual situation, or lived on its margin, if he has been responsibly concerned with the deeper dilemmas and anguish, public and intimate, of our century and has had some interest in and understanding of the nature of art, he will find that the modern poet or artist speaks to him.

But here we have an analogy of the far richer complex of the Christian consciousness and its grammar and thesaurus. Faith has its own rhetoric, and spiritual things are not only spiritually discerned but are reported in a spiritual tongue. This is not to draw a fixed line between spirit and flesh, or between supernatural and natural. For all that is spiritual is first and indeed always in a sense natural. The language of faith may, however, be difficult and strange because we have not lived through the costs that illuminate it. It is a question of where we live and of our standpoint. The artist has paid his price and offers his vision of the world to those who have to some degree followed him. The modern artist of our world under judgment has exposed his nerves and heart to the fury and desolation of these decades, and can provide meaning for those who have the same initiation. To those who come to the gospel and the Scriptures, not with a wealth of sentiments or a success story of immunities achieved but with a heart exercised in responsibilities, the veiled symbols of vocation and promise will be as their native tongue.



1. Paris: Editions Emile-Paul Frères, 1926, pp. 25-26.

2. Mark 10:30.

3. "Questions" from Short Is the Time by C. Day Lewis. Copyright 1940, 1943 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Reprinted by permission.