The Art of Lament

There is no true love save in suffering,
and in this world we have to choose either love,
which is suffering, or happiness....
Man is the more man—
that is, the more divine—
the greater his capacity for suffering, or rather, for anguish.

--Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), Spanish philosophical writer

The Lutheran theologian Dorothee Sölle once said in a public lecture, "We must view with suspicion all theology that is pre-pain." By this I presume she means that a theology, or any speech or writing about God, that ignores the practical and omnipresent reality of pain in people's lives is not a theology worth having. This makes me think, tangentially, of Barth's comment about Paul Tillich's theology. Barth said it was bad theology because you couldn't pray it.

The danger of getting lost in the world-within-world of ideas is an occupational hazzard for theologians, or again, for any Christian. You can get lost in the world of activities. You can get lost in the world of feelings. The point is, every one of us faces the constant temptation to escape--to escape life, to escape suffering, to escape it all. Sölle urges us not to escape.

The playwright Samuel Beckett says we have only two options in this world: suffering or boredom. We get to choose which. As he puts it:

"The pendulum oscillates between these two terms:
Suffering—that opens a window on the real
and is the main condition of the artistic experience—
and Boredom."

But it's amazing how attractive boredom looks on the days when our suffering feels unbearable. Give me boredom. Give me distractions, wasteful hours, duties, people, noise, internet, or never-ending things to do and accomplish, but please don't make me suffer any more.

I'm thinking about these things not only because it's Lent, and thank God near the end of a difficult Lent in the younger Taylor household, but also because I'm beginning to do research for a seminar I'm teaching at Duke Divinity's summer institute this coming June. My aim is to help participants understand how art teaches us not only about lament but how to lament.

So my question to you, dear reader, is: what art has been helpful to you in a time of sadness? What art has helped you process grief? A song? A painting? Is there a movie that has deepened your lament? Is there a novel that has made it more bearable?

Alternatively, what artworks in popular or high art do you think have helped the masses grieve well? Again, I'm looking for examples all across the arts.

One famous example of a painting that aided an entire community to process suffering is Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim's Altarpiece. Grünewald painted it for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The monks took care of people who suffered from skin diseases, and it is believed that Grünewald depicted common physical symptoms of the diseases on Jesus' body.

I think also of Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," Verdi's Requiem, Tony Kushner's play "Angels in America," Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran Memorial sculpture, Percey Shelley's "Adonaïs," the electrifying lament of I believe Juliet's mother in Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet." And then of course there's the entire elegy of Job.

I want to hear what art has been meaningful to you in times of grief. And I'd love to hear your opinion on what art, from TV to the Tate Modern, has helped people process loss and death.

I end with a statement I wrote for the Stations of the Cross exhibit we hosted at Hope Chapel in 2003.

Suffering is a privilege, a sign of grace, a reminder of God.
Suffering is a fierce, purifying thing, commonplace,
welcomed with holy terror . . .
If it comes in fits and starts,
that is only so as to leave the sufferer more
receptive to the love of God,
to the awful mystery of severe purgation
when one relives the last dose of grace and waits for the next.

(ARTWORK: Phaedra's submission to Hope Chapel's 2005 Lent exhibit, "Loneliness, Departing, Frailty.")


Heather said…
Hero starring Jet Li; Chagall's White Crucifixion; Rent; Blue in Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy; Life Is Beautiful; too many books--The Living End by Lisa Samson, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, Parting the Waters by Jeanne Damoff, The Book Thief; Rachel Getting Married; The Italian; Coltrane's "Love Supreme"; Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings"; Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise"; score to The Red Violin by Corigliano; Giacometti's sculptures; and Zoubek's Memorial to the victims of communism in Prague
for starters
shannon newby said…
Hi David,

Thanks for this post. Art has been extremely influential this Lenten season. My husband and I have been listening almost obsessively to Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

Both my husband and I are visual artists, but Gorecki's music has been monumental in shaping us this Lent.

Erik's video piece for a recent Stations of the Cross exhibit features snippets of the music:

We are greatly anticipating the next few days and the hope and life that the Easter season will bring in our own lives. As part of our celebration, we are hoping to plow through Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" :)

Thanks for this post!
Jennifer said…
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son. After my mother's suicide it was the only thing that helped me -- crucially, even when Scripture didn't seem to.
amy said…
U2's song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" helped me move from a place of boredom into lament. I will never forget sitting in the grocery store parking lot listening to the radio and wailing over the disappointment I felt in my Christian experience. I was afraid the security guards would come and take me away. It was the beginning of a beautiful season in the Spirit.
Heather, Shannon, Jennifer, Amy: thank you. I so appreciate you taking the time to share these things with me.

Now if we could only get some men to "share their feelings." :)

But I'll happily take anybody and everybody's examples.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Barber's Adagio, also Faure's Elegy (solo cello). Too many to name from Patty Griffin, Waterdeep, Nickel Creek, music from Les Mis, Handel's Messiah. A Grief Observed by CS Lewis. Films are often overwhelmingly emotional for me. I'm not sure if that's because I'm more easily affected or because I'm not willing to enter more deeply into suffering. I'm very interested in how the Evangelical church can become better at embracing suffering. It's difficult to do this in an environment where every expression of sorrow must end with a forced smile and the refrain "But God is good," without making everyone in the room uncomfortable and avoiding you.
Katy, I think if Evangelicals did a better job of singing through the whole canon of Scripture, we would learn that God gave us the whole canon precisely to teach us how to be humans.

We get into trouble when we pick and choose our way through the Bible. That usually results in a Christianity that looks "just like me and people like me"--the intellectuals, the emotionals, the activists, the contemplatives, etc. It's a tricky deal.
Paul said…
Musically, I would also have to include Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. And Bruce Cockburn's Fascist Architecture.

Oh, and Jars Of Clay's Silence has been a frequent companion. I found it interesting to follow my emotional response to this, from 'I'm not sure I'm comfortable talking to God like this' through to realising that a proper relationship needs this level of emotional engagement.
Paul, thanks for stopping in to say hi. I rummaged through your blog. I felt like I was reading my cousin blog with your instamatic theology site. Well done. I'm genuinely sorry God didn't call us to Cambridge, though that might be our next stop in the dissertation writing stage. We'll see.
Kelly W. Foster said…
Jennifer - Wolterstorff's Lament for a Son was the one book that I connected with after my daughter died 9 years ago. I got to talk to Wolterstorff recently about it and he said that he wrote it in part because he was frustrated reading books about grieving. He was in grieving and needed something to express grief rather than to talk about the process, hence a lament.
Paul said…
Thanks David, I appreciate the comments. It's a shame you aren't coming our way, but I guess you will find plenty to interest you at Duke!

Oh, for what it's worth, I jotted down a few thoughts on lament last year.
Anonymous said…
What exactly do you mean by "sing through the whole canon of Scripture"? Are you talking about something more like a "high church" liturgy that relies on the seasons of the church calendar (like advent and lent)? Do you mean that more songs need to be written that cover the whole of Scripture? Do you focus on song because that's how most pew-sitters absorb their theology? I don't think I've thought about how Scripture in its entirety teaches us what it means to be fully human. Of course, that's why we have Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. It's ironic that evangelicals, who pride themselves in being true to Scripture, pick and choose to fit their own agenda, just like everyone else. And, I agree that it's fundamentally a problem of incomplete theology, but with roots in American culture.
livingpalm said…
It's so good to be in the Easter season of abundance and to reconnect with my online community again. I would have to write a whole post or three to comment on this subject as God has given us in Binghamton the opportunity for public mourning since the shooting tragedy a little over a week ago. To be caught up in a swell of public grief during the ancient grief of Holy Week was, indeed, a holy juxtaposition. I was able to observe grief in the five contexts (not all first hand; some through story): the clips the media selected, one Muslim man's reaction to learning the death of his wife, the interfaith community vigil, the evangelical community vigil, and our "little flock" at Union Center. I can't write about it here, but hopefully soon I'll get a chance to reflect on my blog.

Sadly I gave up the gift of lament when I gave up childhood tears. Only recently has the gift been restored. During this dry -- and pious -- twenty years a few pieces of art have drawn me in: Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (the reference to a "broken hallelujah" wrecks me); a tiny little clip in an otherwise two-bit romantic drama "Hope Floats" where the child actor playing Bernice Pruitt's character is rejected by her adultrous father and stands at the curb in her knee socks and barrettes, wailing. I wail with her every single time I watch the scene. Most recently in one of the stations of cross in Union Center's exhibit we tried to reconstruct what the Jewish culture would have found normal -- we placed wailing women at the cross and wailing benches at the tomb. The strong and silent heroes and the "all things work together for good" platitudes of our American culture and American churches has not helped us form well our ability to lament. I suspect a big part of our learning to lament - artistically or otherwise -- must come outside of the Western culture.
Samm Hodges said…
I think C.S. Lewis' pre-pain work, "the problem of pain," is pallid in comparison to "a grief observed." I had a professor who was ultra-calvinist and cavalier with pain, which I couldn't understand until I found out how much pain he was hiding from in his personal life.

Thanks for this post.
Katie said…
Bach's Cello Suites - Yo-Yo Ma's recording.... Patty Griffin's "Living with Ghosts" album... so many books - offhand I think first of contemporary books like Pat Conroy's "Beach Music"... also "The Secret Life of Bees." Mary Chapin Carpenter's song "Jubilee", oh, just read those lyrics. Brahms Requiem.
Kathryn said…
Strangely, it was very sad art and music that comforted me. damien rice album "o" and this drawing of Eve by a friend, especially...
Christina said…

My name is Christina Carnes and I am outrageously intimidated right now.

I have been reading through your lovely blog and I keep stumbling over the same thoughts and ambitions that I have gathered through my 22 years of life. Your zeal for artistic excellence, commitment to theological integrity and desire to see the two united in glorious matrimony is like music to my ears.

So, I was wondering if I could ask you a question or two. I have been accepted into Regent College (MCS - Christianity and Art) for Fall 2009 and am wondering about my compatibility with the program. (I don't know much about Art History, but yearn to know more; I don't really want to be a pastor eventually...etc) How did you find a church willing to support an "arts pastor?" Also, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for books, lectures, articles, etc that deal with the integration of faith and arts.

If you would be interested in helping out a kid with a bad case of "I-just-graduated-college-and-have-no-idea-what-to-do-with-my-life," my email is

Thanks so much.

P.S. Art of Lament? Audra McDonald's version of "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess - haunting.
Heather said…
I don't do well with lamenting. That's to say I don't lament much at all. "Leather Heather" was my nickname for a reason growing up. So, for me, it's those works that have helped to draw the lament from within my soul to outward expression...and it's always been through a novel, someone else's story that has touched me deeply and healed brokenness I didn't realize I was carrying.

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers was one. Another was a novel by Beverly Lewis about an Amish girl (which book of hers isn't?!?) but whose title escapes me at the moment.
Dear Katy, Tamara, Kelly, Samm, Katie (different K.), Kathryn, Christina, and Heather: two things.

1. Thank you dearly.

2. Every write an amazing note or email, amazingly long and thoughtful, only to have it disappear into the ether without your permission, leaving depressed over how much time it took you to write it and unwilling to rewrite it?

Ok, that's what happened to me with your notes. Point #1 is, I'm afraid, all I can manage today, a sincere, heartfelt thank you for all your responses.

Tomorrow, April 17, is my birthday and I hope to write a proper response to each of you.

In the meantime, I'm off to the gym to work out frustration.
Melissa said…
As far as music goes, there's a lot for me. Gabriel Fauré's "Requiem," Krzysztof Penderecki's "Agnus Dei," Sandra McCracken's version of "Ten Thousand Angels," and virtually any rendition of the hymns "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "Abide with Me," or "There in God's Garden."

I also find myself feeling connected to and comforted in lament when I read much of Madeleine L'Engle's fiction, especially The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp.
Thank you for this, Melissa.

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