If you are an artist of faith – especially if you are “of a certain age” – you know My Name Is Asher Lev. In a time when many faith communities had no idea what to do with the arts, or with the artists in their midst, Chaim Potok’s novel was a lighthouse glimpsed from a stormy sea. The book brought hope to a lot of people who loved God but who also loved making art – it may not have been a happy story, but at least it was their story. Somebody got it. I have met people who feel they owe their life to this book.
Artists can be intense.
Because, of course, it takes intensity to create. To wrestle into being a particular thing that has never existed before. To see vividly, to be seized by an idea, to push aside every other thing to do the work of making something new. No wonder it’s become a cliché to say that creating is like giving birth. This work is as all-consuming as it is messy, painful and – for some – inescapable. Once the birth pangs start, once you start going into labour, your other plans are pretty well shot.
That sort of fierceness can be hard for the people nearby – parents, husbands and wives and children, communities, friends, co-workers. Hard to understand, hard to live with. That sort of devotion can be particularly hard for people of faith to understand: there’s a thin, maybe indistinguishable line between holy calling and soul-corroding idolatry.
It’s hard for the people around, and maybe harder for God-loving artists. Who no more want to be enslaved to idols than their friends and lovers and pastors and rabbis want them to be. But, as Asher says, "If You don't want me to use the gift, why did You give it to me?" True, you can’t serve two masters: but what if your art is the way you’ve been given to serve your master? Perhaps your means of grace? You don’t dare cut yourself off from that. Quite apart from the certainty your soul could die of starvation, it just seems so tragic a waste. To set it aside, compromise it, bury it. “I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the earth” – not a viable solution. Not without weeping, gnashing of teeth, outer darkness, all that.
So how do these wild, all-consuming, sometimes divine obsessions fit into a family, a community, a life? In a religious community that values order, peace, humility, tradition, how does this wildness find a place? Can you really fulfill the calling, honour the gift, “in moderation”? Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday evenings and holidays.
There are times when it all works together – God and calling and family and community and all the practical demands of living a life on this planet. But there are also times when it does not. Even whole lifetimes when it does not. When those great, magnificent, terrible, maybe-holy passions collide, clash, do battle, do damage. When “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence,” when it comes “not with peace, but with a sword.”
Welcome to the world of Asher Lev.
My Name Is Asher Lev runs at Pacific Theatre until February 25