Sunday, May 18, 2008

Scalene Trinities

Today is (or has been?) Trinity Sunday. And I, being too dumb to know that all self-respecting preachers should be afraid to go anywhere near that doctrine, preached on it anyway.

Actually, it's all the fault of Dorothy L. Sayers. Her book The Mind of the Maker is one of my favorite theological treatises, and the way she demonstrates how the process of human thought and creativity is a little image of the Three-Personhood of God is simply brilliant. The unknowable-in-itself Idea reflects God the Father. The Energy (or Activity/Execution/Word/Image) gives the Idea expression and is a model of God the Son. The Power resulting from the Energy as it expresses the Idea is an earthly demonstration of the work of God the Holy Spirit.

Miss Sayers argues that the doctrine of the Trinity isn't difficult because it's too esoteric and irrelevant, it's difficult because it's so much like what we all do and take for granted every day. I've found I can take her analogy into a church made up of high school and junior college graduates and they get it.

What I can't do in a church on Trinity Sunday or any Sunday is get into Miss Sayers' follow-up discussion of what she calls scalene trinities. But I love it, because I love thinking about art and artistic production and what makes works of art succeed and what makes them fail. God the Holy Trinity is like an equilateral triangle: all the sides and all the angles equal, all working together in perfect, stable balance. But what we make seldom is equilateral. Generally something in our artistic trinity is out of balance. It's scalene.

Scalene, adj (of a triangle) with three unequal sides (The Chambers Dictionary, 1993).

When a work of art-- it could be anything-- a book, a painting, a movie, a piece of music-- is truly great you really don't have to analyse it (unless your prof makes you for Composition and Lit class!). It's there, it's wonderful, and all you have to do is enjoy it and respond to it. If you think about its Idea, its Energy/Expression, or its Power separately, it always takes you back to glorifying the work as a whole.

But when the work isn't quite-quite, it's so much fun to consider which part of its little trinity is out of whack-- and what you wish you could do about it.

Take a movie, for instance. You walked out of the theater and said, "Wellll, no, it wasn't that great." What was wrong?

Was the problem in the Idea, its "Father"? Was its "Father" too weak or nonexistant ("I'll give 20 francs for an Idea!" the young Hector Berlioz used to heckle pedestrian operas)? Was the "Father" idea too strong for the screenwriter to come up with appropriate expression for it? Are there competing "Fathers," too many Ideas at once (artistic polytheism!)? Without a strong, single, unifying Idea, a work of art is doomed from the beginning.

Or is the trouble with the "Son"? Maybe the director had a great Idea, but didn't know how to express it. Or the Idea was a nice little one, but the Energy was grandiose. Maybe the artist picked the wrong form-- tried to Execute his Idea as a musical comedy, say, when it should have been a gritty western. A play where the plot goes nowhere or in ten different conflicting directions, a book where the language is so involved and intricate all it does it draw attention to itself, a movie that knocks you out of its world and makes you exclaim, "Why on earth did the screenwriter do that?!"-- those are all works with "Son" or Energy/Execution/Expression trouble.

Power or "Spirit" deficiencies usually proceed from a weakness in either the creative "Father" or "Son." That is, if the work's Idea is bad or conflicted or is the work is shabbily done, it's going to fall flat. It won't have any Power.

But not always. You can have works that are "Spirit"-ridden, that are all effects and no content. They're the kind of pictures and novels and movies that a lot of people think are really great. They're exciting and entertaining. But when you think about it, there's no Idea, no There there. Movies like that sell popcorn, but that's all they're good for.

A work that's really strong in the "Spirit" department can cover up the fact that there's something ailing with its "Son." Sheridan Le Fanu, the 19th century Anglo-Irish specialist in the supernatural, wrote a thriller called Uncle Silas that I read three separate times before I realized that the way he wound up the plot simply makes no sense. But he got away with it and continues to get away with it, because the novel has a strong Idea and the Effect of his writing is so powerful you're too busy enjoying the shudders it evokes to notice that towards the climax its "Spirit" has bypassed its "Son."

Once you've figured out where in its artistic trinity a work's problem lies, you can entertain yourself thinking what you would do about it, were you the creator's editor, master painter, director, whatever. What strikes me when I play this game is that in art, as in the Godhead, it all comes down to the second person of the trinity. If I determine there's something wrong or deficient with the work's Idea, there's nothing I can do. If the Power is weak, well, as the western version of the Nicene Creed rightly (I affirm) maintains, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified. Or in the case of our out-of-balance trinity, not. You can't make a work of art any stronger by whipping up fancy effects. The only thing an artist or editor can really do anything about is the "Son" aspect of the work, the way the Idea is expressed and executed. Assuming that the "Son's" function is to be the true Word of the "Father," you get that right, and the work of art will be right, powerful, effective, and true.

Which is why I spend entirely too much time editing my blog entries, even though the ideas I express in them are very small indeed!


Rev. Mike said...

Wow! I could not have come up with that in a million years, and yet, it really works for me. Thanks for a really great and challenging image.

St. Blogwen said...

Thanks for stopping by, and congratulations on your DMin! What was your thesis on?

Rev. Mike said...

I wrote a case study on a group of citizens in our county who made a recommendation for schools construction and renovation capital funding and how Christians engage their faith on that committee in order to revisit the role of Christians in the public square. See to download a copy.