I recognize it: it's the same feeling in the pit of my stomach as when two enormous standing Buddhas were dynamited to bits by the Taliban in 2001. This time, it's a film. "The Kite Runner" is being released, and a young actor may have to flee Afghanistan because his life is in danger: his Christ-like character endures a rape. It's not on camera, the reporter says. But apparently that doesn't matter. In Afghanistan, the victim of such a thing bears easily as much shame as the perpetrator. Probably more.
The actor and his frightened father are back-pedaling desperately: We didn't know what the scene was, they told us it was a film about flying kites, we did not agree to this. I did not take down my trousers, says the boy to the reporter, because that is wrong. But it will probably take more than these facts to satisfy the censors. The film is not flattering to the Taliban, a group more sensitive to slights to their own honor than to the pain of anyone else. Khaled Hosseini, the author of "Kite Runner" is devastated by what has happened; the very last thing he wanted was to be a lightning rod for further violence in his homeland, and it was the very first thing that happened.
Sometimes I wonder if it is possible to reach across such a great divide. It is as if we had traveled back in time to a tribal past we no longer recognize and cannot help offending, and which cannot help but offend us. Sometimes it all looks impossible to me.
Why must such a beautiful book occasion such ugliness? Why cannot art be allowed to perform its healing miracles in the human spirit, its graceful interpretation of one culture to another? Of course, I know the answer: art names what the defenders of power cannot or will not yet name. Art does it first. The future appears first in the imagination, long before it makes its entrance in politics or manners.
At such times, those times of human impossibility, all I know to do is pray. And so I am praying for the book, and for the film. I am praying for all writers and artists, those brave ones whose work attracts and repels, names the unnameable, sings it out loud. I am praying for the great religions of the world, all of them, each one custodian of certain truths, each riddled with error as well, inhabiting, also, the domain of imagination. Much closer to the artists than they think they are.
The Book of Common Prayer contains among its treasures a prayer "For Church Musicians and Artists." We used it at evening prayer when I was at St. Clement's, since so many there were artists of one kind or another. I never pray it now without remembering us in the chapel as evening fell, as the horse-drawn carriages began to clip-clop across town on 46th Street, as people out on the street began to head for the theaters, as the technical crew in our own theater began their first sound check. Perhaps the person who wrote this prayer had in mind those artists specifically involved in devotional work --organists, choir singers, stained glass artists, vestment makers. I don't know. I do know that we didn't -- we prayed for all artists, knowing that God is creative inside the church and outside its boundaries, that God creates beauty everywhere, and that human beings mirror God's creative work whenever and wherever we ourselves create.
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven:
Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and
music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth;
and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make
them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.