Good Books That Help Us See

The books I’m recommending here have been written by friends and former colleagues, one a novelist and professor of writing, the other a theologian and iconographer.  Both writers are concerned, each in his way, with how we see and with helping us see things more really: in one case seeing the divine or the sacred, in the other the secular realities of a contemporary human journey. 

For David Hicks’ new novel, White Plains (Conundrum Press, 2017), is realistically and wonderfully human in its imagining of that journey, perhaps especially by its comic dethroning of various fantasies of some perfect or “magical” journey.  While Fr. Les Bundy’s two short books – Interface: Catholic/Orthodox Convergence and Interchange: Buddhist Iconography: A Christian reflection (both Outskirts Press, 2016) – direct our sight, so to speak, in a more transcendent direction, or perhaps better said, direct our seeing “through” sacred art and icons.  They are comparative studies of the role of sacred art in Russian Orthodoxy, in New Mexican Santos devotions, and in Buddhism.  Interchange by itself is a very good short introduction both to the idea and purpose of religious art and to Buddhism, with special emphasis on its varied art forms.

Of course, our ability to see is both quite natural yet also immensely complex and difficult.  No surprise that a blind man is often the “seer” in classical literature or that the fool is often Shakespeare’s truth-teller.   Part of our difficulty is simply learning to pay attention.  We accept that attention requires training and discipline for the scientist, yet too often assume that attentive seeing just comes naturally for human things.  And some, of course, also assume that seeing of any sort is simply impossible with things sacred or divine.

Yet in things both human and divine the pervasive problem is that we are frequently “distracted from distraction by distraction.”  And one major cause for such distraction is the “body of images” constitutive of our culture – from media and advertising images, to deeper and more pervasive images of human life and of sacred things. For while we are blessed with many good image makers in our arts and media, we seem these days to be inundated with superficial and stereotypical images, or so my mentor Lynch argued in his book The Image Industries.

Les Bundy is an Orthodox priest and an artist, attracted early in his career as an artist to Zen and later to iconography.  He is also a historian of Christian art who has travelled much in Europe studying church art and architecture.  And he remains a serious student of Buddhism.  His books are brief comparative explorations of the role of icons and sacred art with accompanying photographic plates.

On first look, the quality of the reproductions in his books may disappoint since they’re not the glossy reprinting we’ve come to expect.  Yet the more ordinary photo reproduction is probably quite deliberate.  For Bundy himself raises a significant concern about contemporary mass reproduction of icons and other forms of religious art.  He correctly worries that when a sacred artifact is removed from its proper setting in worship and prayer we risk a loss of significance and seriousness, even the possibility that it becomes little more than a trinket.

Of course we Jews and Christians and Muslims (and also we Buddhists and Hindus) know (or most of us think) that it is not possible to see God or to depict the sacred in its fullness. Indeed for Jews and Muslims and some Christians the command not to make images of God has at times led to the deliberate destruction of all images.   Christians have greater difficulty with this prohibition since we believe in the Incarnation, that God became human and visible in the life of Jesus.  Thus from quite early in Christian history both symbolic and pictoral art has been used in ceremonial places.  Yet our different Christian traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed) have nonetheless struggled over time with the religious appropriateness of icons and statues, stained glass and sacred vessels. The plain white “congregational” church in this country, and the bare-ruined choirs of the great cathedrals of Reformation Europe attest to the kind of protest against the use of art which one finds in almost all great religious traditions.  Yet the magnificent cathedrals of Catholic and Orthodox countries (and even the small churches),  along with rows of gold Buddhas and the wildly elaborate (and often erotic) statuary of even the smallest Hindu village shrine, all testify to the persistence of sacred art in so many religious traditions.

It is no surprise that Bundy, as Orthodox iconographer and art historian, argues for the importance of religious art even in (and perhaps especially for) these secular times. And as a vehicle for dialogue between religions. Yet even more important is his insistence on the sacred quality and setting of the art – as part of prayer and especially communal worship.  For the Orthodox iconographer, the act of painting should itself be a form of prayer, not just an exercise of skill and technique – which, of course, renders machine reproduction problematic.  Yet widespread production and purchasing of religious art can be and often is a healthy response to our need for a sense of sacred presence in the home, or taxicab, or even on one’s own body.  That certainly was the case with the crucifixes and rosaries of my youth, and remains so for me today with the icons (one a gift from Fr. Bundy) on the wall above my desk.  As it still is for so many religious folk, perhaps especially among the pious young – at times even with carefully located tattoos.

Yet if there is complexity and conroversy about religious or sacred seeing, I believe we today have an even greater problem with seeing the realities of human life.  Nourishing an adequate “seeing” of our humanity has, of course, been one of the primary educational tasks of both the family and civic culture.  It has also, of course, been the primary goal of art, great or small, visual or literary.  From Michelangelo’s David to Shakespeare’s Lear, from nursery rhymes to family photos.  Yet as already noted our mass media (mass reproduction once again) seems to have made real seeing more difficult, so pervasive in both personal and public life are the one-dimensional, slick, simplistic, banal, stereotyped images produced not only for advertising and news, but also by the supposedly more creative or literary arts of fiction, drama, and cinema.

I know that I am touching here on important debates about the nature of our media and their effects on human sensibility.   Yet I don’t hesitate to say again that the dominant images of human life in our arts and communications are both superficial and silly as well as damaging and dangerous.

  • So we need to alert each other (as, thankfully, we often do) when there is a film or photo, a novel or poem, which does deliver “the real thing” by its imaging of adventure and struggle, of confusion and order, of romance and sexuality, even of failure and tragedy and evil.  For real seeing depends on a constantly renewed treasury of good images and stories – artistically and humanly good, even and perhaps especially  when depicting tragedy and real evil.

Measured by this crucial standard, David Hicks’ White Plains delivers “the real thing” in richly imagined detail.

In one way the novel is a fairly straightforward narrative in the tradition of the West’s first great novel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote – so long as we remember that the lowly Sancho is as much its hero as the dreamy Don, indeed that together their paired personalities embody the deep passions of “everyman” or woman — our lofty hopes rooted in a deep need for the earthy and ordinary.  (I just loved Hick’s descriptions of the various low-end restaurants his budget-minded hero depended on during grad school years in New York.  And his tenderly realistic use of baseball, especially in the “Diamond Dash” chapter, to evoke the complex love between father and son.)

Hicks imagines the journey of his everyman (“Flynn”) from youth to maturity through a series of connected short stories or vignettes depicting different “stages on life’s way” – stages of his professional development (as as an aspiring academic) and of his search for love and family.  The story, then, is in some ways quite traditional.  Yet the substance is concretely contemporary and the style interestingly modern or even experimental.  For the connected but disparate (and not strictly sequential) vignettes, while often narrated by the “hero,” are also told in the voices and from the perspective of other fully imagined characters.  The artistic result is not some kind of fragmented “modernism,” but a fuller imagining and seeing than might have been achieved with a more straightforward narrative style.

The result is both concrete and universal – the richly imagined story of just one believably good man which nonetheless enables us to better understand the story of “everyman.”  Said differently, the book’s concrete and contemporary (and often comic) realism subverts stereotypes and thus enables us to see our own humanity more fully.

And, lest I fail to say it explicitly, White Plains is a damn good read – enjoyable, at times laugh-out-loud funny, often heartbreaking, at times adventurous…and throughout appropriately uplifting because it remains so down to earth.

So I recommend these good books by my friends.  For each in its way nourishes our ability to see more clearly and fully.

Yet I risk added length in order to suggest one further complexity about sacred and secular seeing.

While it’s probably appropriate to say, as I have, that Bundy’s and Hicks’ books move seeing in different (sacred or secular), both authors draw (implicitly at least) from a tradition of Western humanism which 1) knows that women and men (in their earthy or secular reality) are “made in the image of God” and 2) also knows the correlative truth that we can see or think about God only in earthy and human terms (as eagle or lion, rock or fortress, Mother or Father, lover or friend, king or servant…).

Just maybe, then, the story of Hicks’ hero  helps us understand the sacred as well as the secular, even as Bundy’s sacred art helps us to understand the depth and meaning of our humanity.

I seem to remember a prayer that asks “God help us to see.”  Perhaps that is a good way to conclude.

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