“That downward pull is often a paralyzing influence while the resisting presence of art may bring us liberation. But what is crucial is that the art is born out of the forceful swirl of the actual.”
Hospitality is one sort of resistance, art I think may be another. It is odd how a statement can take hold of you and as tenacious as a terrier you find you can’t shake it loose. My bouts with such words are not commonly long term, usually on a matter of a few days.
Recently I was dabbling in a book on the subject of hospitality. (Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition Eerdmans 1999) I am fascinated by both the depth of this gift and the scope of its influence. Normally we think of hospitality as serving up a rather quaint and pleasant social pastime. And I suppose that is one way to look at it. But I came across some startlingly different accounts. Words like – profound, rich and life-giving, subversive and countercultural – are not what you would expect when speaking about this human practice.
The sentence that caught my attention – the one I couldn’t shake – made a surprising claim: “Hospitality is resistance.” How might that be possible? On the surface of things the very opposite seems to be true, hospitality is welcoming and inclusive. The meaning of this important practice is found in the way it engages the power of recognition. In a culture where isolation, marginalization and dehumanization prevail – the recognition that resides in hospitality bridges the gaps between us, brings affirmation and dispels anonymity. It is in this way that hospitality is resistance. In an ideal world such resistance would be unnecessary, but we do not live in an ideal world. Our culture and our faith communities are filled with examples of failedrecognition. Race, gender, age and religion are social realities that we allow to become barriers that divide us. Hospitality at its best resists the prevailing influences of our fast paced society and “makes room” for the stranger. It resists the shriveling impact on the human spirit that seems common fare in our technological society.
“The imagination whose watchword is “taking pains” must struggles for survival in a society whose watchword is “labour-saving” – Nigel Forde
So what I mean by resistance is the pushing against the darkness, the despair, the uncertainty, the superficiality, the isolation, the arrogance, the exploitation and whatever else may serve to diminish the rich gift of our humanity and the natural world as our habitat. The resistance is not necessarily a conscious effort but it resides in the very nature of the gesture of hospitality. Simone Weil wrote
“Obedience to the force of gravity. The greatest sin.”
There is a gravity which may be expressed in social,moral or spiritual terms, that pushes or pulls us so that at times we feel helpless against its power and resistance seems impossible. Hospitality is one sort of resistance, art I think may be another. Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who cites Weil in his essay on The Redress of Poetry speaks of how poetry can
“place a counter-reality in the scales – a reality that may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual …”
He uses the metaphor of the balance scales – where one side needs the balancing influence of the other.
What Heaney suggests here is that poetry (and surely any other art form) can be engaged to lift the weight of our real life situations and so resist their downward pull. That downward pull is often a paralyzing influence while the resisting presence of art may bring us liberation. But what is crucial is that the art is born out of the forceful swirl of the actual. For Heaney it is not to be adetached and idealized world that art creates but one which is tempered and shaped by the dynamics of real life.
“The redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.” (S. Heaney The Redress of Poetry p.4)
It is but a short step from speaking of art as redress and resistance to speaking of art as prophetic. I don’t wish to champion the idea that the artist must be seen as prophet, but I find the prophetic thread had to avoid. The artist who creates out of the swirl of the actual is bound to slip into imaginings that have a prophetic ring. It seems to me that artists who walk in the light of Christian faith should find such imaginings unavoidable. It will not do to acquiesce with the prevailing winds of the culture. At the heart of the gospel story is the intent to provide us with an alternative vision that serves both to challenge and to enable us to see beyond the common fare of the surrounding society. If one takes this story seriously it will surely find its way into one’s art.I don’t wish to suggest that it is always within the nature of art to be characterized by resistance – though it might be.
The point to be made is that art like hospitality is capable of being a countervailing force against so much that bends humanity under its weight. Artists are not simply passive onlookers but agents who have the ability to provoke reflection and generate change. Artists do more than merely reflect the world they live in they invite us to see that world in a different way.
It is here that the prophetic imagination may be at work resisting the gravity of prevailing trends opening a window to alternatives which are possible even if not always probable.