I’ve been slowly working my way through Okami, another one of those older games that I heard a lot about but never got around to playing. Set in a vague, “once upon a time” point in Japan’s past, you play as the wolf goddess Ameratsu, who a century prior had helped defeat the serpent demon Orochi. Said Orochi has made a comeback recently, and so Ameratsu has also been called back to the world of mortals to do something about it.
The game is a Zelda clone, cribbing rather freely from Ocarina of Time, with the principal difference being its thematic use of Japanese folklore and mythology, as well as an aesthetic that draws a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese painting and printmaking. As usual, I don’t feel like I have the background to pontificate about either of these topics.
What I am specifically interested in is how, in lieu of the usual assortment of special abilities you unlock as you progress, Ameratsu learns brush inking techniques: you literally draw over the game world in order to effect changes in it. So Ameratsu is an artist of sorts, and her development over the course of the game is related to her growth as an artist. The game’s entire aesthetic is built around this, with a world that looks more like it’s made out of paint and ink.
I consider myself an artist and use brushes for inking a fair amount, and so find it a bit ingratiating to be playing a game centered around these things. But it also makes me think a bit about how my faith relates to my art, and what it means to be a so-called Christian artist.
There’s a quick theological answer here: beauty, along with truth and goodness, is one of the transcendentals – things which we pursue for their own sake, rather than for the sake of something else. They are ultimately aspects of the divine nature, and have their origin in God. Creating a beautiful thing, like doing a good deed, can thus glorify God. Or, seen in another way, is one of the ways in which the divine nature interacts with our human world. In linking art with a kind of divinity, Okami is almost, but not quite, correct.
Taking this into perspective does offer an immediate corrective to the modern Christian tendency to be overly didactic and instrumental when it comes to art. What I mean by this is to view art entirely in terms of how it explicitly evangelizes or represents Christian values – to, paraphrasing Mary Poppins, treat it as the spoonful of sugar that makes the gospel go down.
Still, this can all admittedly feel a bit abstract and rarefied. When it comes to putting it into practice, I find I’m of two different minds.
In matters of sacred art – by which I mean art that is used in Church, in the context of liturgical worship – I’m very traditional. Making this kind of art requires a self-effacement before the Church’s own artistic traditions, in much the same way that prayerfully participating in the liturgy similarly involves a sort of self-effacement in terms of what we say and do; the Church’s own tradition takes over here, so that it can shape us, rather than vice-versa, and the music, architecture and iconography used should reflect that (here, of course, I am tacitly assuming a Catholic understanding of communal worship in the context of the Mass).
But outside of that, I increasingly find my attitude to be, “man, whatever.” By which I mean that I feel pretty skeptical of a one-size-fits-all understanding of what a Christian artist should be like; people should just be confident in finding their own idioms, which can be infinitely diverse, just as there are many diverse walks of life that a Christian can live out their faith in.
That may seem a little obvious, but I do sometimes feel that the concept of the “Christian artist” can feel a little rigidly defined around a few idolized figures. To be a good Christian writer is to be like Tolkien or Lewis, or to be a good Christian painter is to be like the old Renaissance masters, and so forth. But these people were all trailblazers in their own way, and we need the artists of our time to have a similar boldness of imagination.
I was talking about Okami, wasn’t I? The low-down of it is, so far, that there aren’t many surprises, gameplay-wise, but it does what it does quite well, and marries it to a breathtakingly beautiful aesthetic and charming story. And the the art, well, almost heavenly.