In Praise of Thin Places
Michael Chaney is a professor of film and television at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Independent filmmaker and visual artist, Michael wrote, produced and directed the award-winning short film, Luke. He also works as a bi-vocational priest at the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia where he places an emphasis on establishing sacramental and pastoral relationships with the community of students, artists and educators.
In his three-part column Moshpit to Pulpit Michael explores his own relationship and history with religion, his views and experiences on how a spiritual approach can impact the creative process, and the ever-changing role of spirituality in the 21st Century.
In Praise of Thin Places
By Michael Chaney
Sometime in the late 90’s I went to see a film by John Sayles called Men With Guns. It was playing at the second run dollar theater on the west side of Manhattan. It was the middle of the afternoon and I was surprised to find myself the only viewer in the theater with the exception of these two kids in their late teens. They’re wearing the urban youth uniform of the day: baggy pants, puffy jackets, unlaced Timberlands. About 30 minutes into the movie one of the guys stands up and yells “Screw this! There ain’t no guns in this shit!” and walks out of the theater in a huff. The film is about a wealthy doctor that undergoes a transformation as he seeks his former students in a remote area of his Central American country rife with violence. So, no, there were no guns in this shit, at least not by this point. The friend wasn’t far behind in leaving the theater either. It was clear to me, or so I thought, that these two guys had seen a film advertised as “men with guns” for the admission price of only a dollar and thought it would be an exciting way to while away their afternoon. But then something interesting happened. After about thirty seconds they both walked back into the theater together arguing about what they thought was the fate of the students in the story and how the doctor would respond to the crisis. As the credits finally rolled I found myself watching and listening as these two discussed the underlying themes of the film like seasoned film critics. Art had an effect.
I’ve always loved going to the movies. Movie theaters are one of the last places of truly cross-cultural community experience, even if it’s just you and two other strangers. Go see a film in a theater and you’ll find yourself among a broad diversity of people from all walks of life that transgress established socioeconomic boundaries; blue haired old ladies with young hippies, denizens of gated communities and housing projects alike, working class laborers and hedge fund managers; all sitting together as a community, laughing, weeping, cheering, engaging in the story that unfolds in that darkened cathedral of culture. To some degree we experience this at sporting events, festivals, parades, and holiday events but there’s something about the experience of story telling through cinema that transcends cultural boundaries. We become a collective community with a shared emotional and even spiritual investment if only for a couple of hours. Art has this power. Concerts, theater, performance, museums and exhibits share in this sensational experience. These are what the Celts called “thin places”, the places in the world where the walls between the tangible and the spiritual are weak, where another dimension feels much closer than usual.
What’s more is that when I leave one of these spaces I feel compelled to share. I feel compelled to create. I want to continue the cycle of which I have become a part. That’s the thing about creativity as a spiritual practice; it builds community. Creativity becomes contagious. We want to further imbue ourselves in the experience by becoming part of it. Creativity becomes cosmic.
This cosmic creativity is both immanent and transcendent. It is at once both very present and tangible in the artwork we experience while also reaching into the intangible that extends beyond our limited grasp of what we may consider reality. It’s like the art is speaking to us in a quiet language that only our hearts can understand. It’s a language that doesn’t play by the rules of linguistics or even logic. Sure the artist may have an objective in creating a work of art. That intent might be apparent, it often is. The impact however, might also transcend the cerebral and speak in the language of the spiritual. Our actions and their intended consequences are inter-twined and deeply connected to how we hold others in our hearts.
This includes how we connect with art both as creators of art and participants with art created by others.
Creativity is contagious. We are inspired by art to become creative ourselves and to participate in creative experiences. Our participation in creativity in turn inspires others to do likewise. This is the beautiful cosmic creative dance of which we are all a part. The more of us that become involved in this dance, the larger our beloved community becomes.
There is a branch of theology called eschatology. It is concerned with “end times” or “last things”. Much of how we envision these eschatological end times is informed by sensational popular culture: harrowing images of the apocalypse, fire and brimstone as Jesus rides a flaming Harley Davidson out of the heavens to smite sinners with lightening bolts while raptured friends and family evaporate and leave us behind. This is a load of crap.
From a theological perspective eschatology has much more to do with what we might call hope, that hope that eagerly awaits the completion of the creative and redemptive activity of that cosmic energy some people call God. Think about the world described in John Lennon’s song Imagine as hope in an eventual divine justice and divine restoration. Yet, how do we have hope for justice in a world that is so very often unjust?
The theologian Daniel Migliore suggests that hope encourages the search for and support of positive “indications” of what this world might look like. It is this search for hope that many artists endeavor to encourage in their own works. Artists often suggest that after creating the work the most one can then do is to put the work out there into the world and hope for transformation. What if this transformation, this hope, this solidarity generated in the process of creative acts is hardly cultivated entirely through the artist’s hand alone! What if all that creates, preserves, transforms, and fulfills life is rooted in something much deeper?
Together as one body we move forward in hope. Imagine not just one artist working alone in the solitude of a studio but rather a caucus of artists working away in community at the task at hand of bringing hope into fruition, all working tirelessly to discover what might be made incarnate from that which is revealed though the creative process.
An inspiration becomes incarnate through the spirit of creativity. The creative process is encouraged by the artist’s community. The work is sent into the world. It is engaged. Hope is kept alive. Even in the front row of a Manhattan movie theater on a weekday afternoon.
Published: December 10th, 2015