Orthodoxy and Art: Scott Cairns, Orthodox Writer/Poet/Professor (Pt. 2)

by Protecting Veil

“‘I think that’s what makes Scott Cairns’ poetry so great,’ says Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, arguably the nation’s most important publication devoted to verse. Cairns’ poetry refers ‘readers to a real world and expects them to see the references to the real world, but it also creates a world with the language, with its music and form, and I think that’s what the best poetry does.'”

A conviction I have had for some time is that for non-ecclesiastical art to be considered in any way “Orthodox,” it should, as a rule, be realist. Orthodox faith is a faith of the truly real, of what is, not a romantic notion of what might be. One of the difficulties, of course, is that for the Orthodox, “reality” extends far beyond the “reality” of naturalism. In this respect, the Orthodox artist can be considered a “super-realist,” attempting to communicate the truths of realities that lie beyond sense perception.

“For Cairns, the power of words to generate and deliver multiple meanings has affected far more than his career. As he came to see words differently, he came to see the Bible differently. Cairns today bristles at the way the church of his childhood, and other ‘fundamental’ churches, interpret Scripture as a literal, static set of directives from on high.

“‘It reduces the text to its dumbest, lowest common denominator,’ Cairns says. ‘It takes every beautiful and suggestive passage in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and turns them into instructions. I think that approach results in a diminishment of what the living text can do to shape living persons.’

“Rabbinic interpretative strategies, on the other hand, see Scripture as ‘indeterminate, inexhaustible in what it means,’ Cairns says, adding that he long sought a Christian church that followed a similar tradition. Just over 10 years ago he found what he was looking for in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its rituals, particularly the Orthodox celebration of communion, impressed him as a powerful representation of both his understanding of divinity and his understanding of poetry.

“‘The high church and low church have very different ideas about sacrament,’ he says. ‘In fact, the low church doesn’t call it sacrament. They speak of it as the Lord’s Supper, and they think of it as a merely memorial activity. [The meal] represents something historical; it points to something that happened long ago. The sacramental view of that same event would be that, yes, it’s a real loaf of bread, and, yes, it’s a real cup of wine, and yes, it points to something else in the past, but it also partakes of that something else. It also is that something else made present. And that’s the kind of attitude that a poet must have toward words.

“‘Words don’t just point to something else, but partake of that other thing. More than that, they are generative of something new. They also have the ability to change us as we partake of what they partake of. In the diminished model, they may remind us of something, but they don’t change us.'”

Do you agree that for non-liturgical art to be regarded in some way “Orthodox” it must necessarily be realist (or “super-realist”)? What other categories/characterization can be used to describe what a non-liturgical Orthodox artist does?

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