(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
– e. e. cummings, “i thank You God for most this amazing”
I’m Jeffrey Overstreet, and I invite you to join me in the richly rewarding exercise of looking and listening closer: to movies, music, literature — to all kinds of art. This opens up opportunities for us to attend more closely to each other, to the world around us, and to our own mysterious hearts.
Don’t worry: It’s not as complicated as it sounds. It’s a way of enjoying everything from Tchaikovsky to Taylor Swift, from The Seventh Seal to Star Wars, from The Brothers Karamazov to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The rewards don’t come from me: I’m just inviting you to experience them with me. The rewards — surprise, revelation, joy, transformation — come from our encounters with beautiful, mysterious, and truth in art. What’s more: As we attend to art, gleaning meaning from it with the “ears of our ears” and the “eyes of our eyes,” the more we will learn to glean meaning from our lives.
I exercise the muscles of “looking closer” in three ways:
through contemplative criticism (I practiced this for many years as a reviewer for Paste, Image, Christianity Today, and many other publications, journals, and websites);
through my own creative writing, fiction and non-fiction (So far, I’ve surrendered four novels to Random House’s WaterBrook imprint, and a memoir called Through a Screen Darkly published by Regal — and I am earning my MFA in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University);
through teaching and public speaking (I been blessed with opportunities to speak at conferences around the world, and teach workshops and classes on creative writing, film studies, and multi-disciplinary art interpretation).
When I listen to people talk about art, I notice two common responses: a reaction (“I liked it!” or “I didn’t like it”), or an analysis (demonstrations of knowledge about the art and the artist). Both are interesting and valuable. But occasionally I get a response that resonates with something richer than a reaction or an analysis. I hear wisdom.
I want to grow in wisdom. I want to encourage it in others. How does that happen?
In the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 6, verses 22–23), we read, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Something is lost in translation here, and it is vital that we get it back.
A fellow I consider a friend, a mentor, and a favorite poet — Scott Cairns — was the first to explain this to me. This scripture is not referring merely to those two eyes in your head. The ancient Greeks had a word: “nous.” Place your hand at the base of your throat, just above your heart — that’s the nous, the place where the mind and the heart meet. You could call it “the eye of the soul.”
What does the eye of the soul do? The nous does a particular work that the ancient Greeks call “theoria” (θεωρία). Theoria is the act of observing, experiencing, and comprehending with the nous. It involves both the intellect and the spirit. Theoria runs deeper than mere analysis; and it reaches farther than mere feeling. It engages the conscience. It involves leaning into the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit within us. It involves a weighing of what we know and what we do not know. The nous, through the exercise of theoria, cultivates faith.
I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he tells his strange, subversive stories and then says “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” When we look and look, and listen and listen, in a spirit of humility and vulnerability, we will be blessed with revelation. What is more, the result of all this close looking and attentive listening will be this: When we look and listen to our neighbors and their creative expressions, we will love them. When we look and listen to the world, we will love the world. Intimately.
I was taught, as a young evangelical, to see my neighbors and the world as an audience upon whom to foist my gospel. This set me automatically in a posture of superiority, of being the one with the answer. It made me look down on their artistic expressions, and it made me presumptuous about my own mediocre inventions. But Christ has called us to set ourselves in a posture of humility and service, and in doing so we will imitate the way he loves us. When we do, God will do a work mysterious work in both the servant and the one being served.
This is true in the endeavor that we call art as well.
It is impossible to exercise theoria without humility, for theoria is about opening ourselves to receive something we cannot explain or know. It is impossible for theoria to be mistaken for emotionalism, because it requires the application of the intellect, and it maintains a healthy distrust of emotions (which are fickle and easily misguided). Theoria is a work of collaborative contemplation, requiring deep attention over time, the acknowledgement that we can never arrive at a final judgment of an experience, and the expectation that there is always more to be discovered and revealed.
When I discovered the words nous and theoria, I realized that they name the sensibility and the activity within which I have enjoyed the most rewarding and transformative experiences of my life.
I call it “Looking Closer.”
Let’s look into the arts together with the eyes of our souls — contemplating, enjoying, and learning from what we find in front of us today.