I told Lauren that I wouldn’t post anything here until I finished a paper that I’m writing, but apparently I lied. Oops.
I’m working up a paper about how faith communities learn to discern together. Though the conference I’m submitting this for is a theological conference, I want to approach that subject through story. Specifically, though Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev stories, which have totally captured my imagination in recent months. In order to get some background help, I’ve been reading interviews with Potok, especially from a collection published as Conversations with Chaim Potok (University Press of Mississippi, 2000).
One of the major themes of My Name Is Asher Lev, and to some extent the second book, The Gift of Asher Lev, is about where artistic inspiration comes from. Set in a Hasidic Jewish community, these novels wrestle with painting as art, but more deeply with calling. Young Asher Lev is a brilliant artist, but his parents and his community have a difficult time deciding the source of Asher’s gift. Is it from the Master of the Universe, or from the dark side? Potok does not make that answer clear; he wants the reader to wrestle with that question even as Asher is a lovable hero.
In response to an interviewer’s question, “Is the artistic temperament from the sitra achra, the ‘other side’”?, Chaim Potok responded,
Yes, that is a fundamental question, and the first Asher Lev book [My Name is Asher Lev, 1972] deals with that. I think that art is from the “other side” but given to us to use with wisdom, beneficently, so that we can judge “this side.” There is nothing in the world that is as powerful an instrumentality as art; we can bring it to bear on the foolishness, the mendacity, the hypocrisy, and the hunger we have to create meaning in ourselves. So the artist has an enormous responsibility. I would agree with Asher Lev that he has the responsibility to do the best that he can within the realm of the “other side” in order to make “this side” a better place in which to live. But you’ve got to plumb the “other side”.
– from Conversations with Potok, 168-9. This is from “A Visit with Chaim Potok” by David L. Vanderwerken in 2000.
Potok is a writer (and also a painter), and in this response he gives us a challenge. How can we as writers and readers of literature and theologians bring that art to bear on our world? How can it help us to find and create meaning?
I am thrilled that this site allows us to ask this question, and I suspect that we will be dancing with this question for a long time ahead.