I want to jump into this, into my thoughts and reactions and emotions and conclusions. I want to explore what it all means—what this book means—and how my life is affected by that meaning. I want to wrestle out truth from this confusion. But, like any good story, I think I need to start at the beginning.
I read a book called My Name is Asher Lev. It’s by Chaim Potok, the one who wrote The Chosen, which I so lauded a few months ago. It is about—what is it about? Well, obviously, a boy named Asher Lev. Asher has an insatiable desire to draw, to put the world around him into lines and shapes and color and paint. This is a problem, because Asher is a Hasidic Jew, and Hasidic Jews believe art is from the Other Side—the devil. But what is really about?
It is about tension, about being torn, about two worlds you strain in vain to reconcile. Tension between father and son, husband and wife, leader and messenger. Tension between tradition and truth—the truth that Asher has a gift and must satisfy its demands. Tension between his desire to be a good Jew and obey his parents and his desire to paint—no, his need to paint.
It is about art and what makes one an artist. It is about completing things, finishing what others have started. It is about inheritance and heritage, these great, glorious burdens we must shoulder—or must we? It is about identity. It is about separation and diverging paths. It is about choices.
I don’t know if I should write spoilers. I want to, I feel that it will make this richer, but I don’t want to ruin anything for you. I don’t want to drive you away from this. So I will say this:
In the climax, Asher faces a choice: be true to himself and paint the truest painting he can, or paint a good but less true painting. The problem? Truth hurts. Truth is painful. Sometimes truth destroys. And the truth he feels he must paint will wound those closest to him so deeply that the scars may never heal. But he does not have to do this. He can paint something else, something that will still bring him money and even fame, but something less raw, less real, less true. It will mean that his relationship with his family will strengthen, that they will finally be at peace with him and the profession he has chosen.
Which will he choose?
Others have remarked at Potok’s genius, how he can pull the reader along and create such a effect on them, such a climax, when there is essentially no plot. The book is a chronicle of the beginning of a boy’s life—it is the journey from child prodigy to full-fledged artist. But very little really happens. Much of the book is taken up with Asher’s inward turmoil and thoughts and perceptions. Yet still, readers are captured by it. No one can read it and avoid becoming invested in it, intellectually and emotionally.
Still others comment on the writing style, the sparse, unemotional, terse sentences, the episodic narrative, how these give us further insight into Asher’s mind and personality and highlight the struggles he is facing. There are dozens of literary approaches to take to this book, technical ways of analyzing it. But when I finished the book, all I could think about was what it meant.
I say you can tell how good a book was by what your reaction to finishing it is. What do you do when you close the cover?
For My Name is Asher Lev, my heart was thumping wildly during the last pages, the climax, because I had to believe, was desperate to believe, that it would end happily. That there would be resolution, reconciliation, healing. That it couldn’t—
“Oh man.” I had closed the book. “Wow oh man.”
I jumped up; I had been lying on my bed. I jumped up, paced up and down the massive corridor of a hallway outside my room. Oh man.
Then I had to collect myself; it was time to be with people. But my heart didn’t stop racing, and all I could think was, Oh man.
It happened maybe an hour later, in the shower, all by myself: I cried. I bawled. I was afraid, I was disturbed—I had said once I loved books that shook me up. I hadn’t known what I was talking about. I hate them. I hate this book.
I am afraid of it.
But with that fear came anger. I was so angry. The book was wrong, wrong, wrong. It had to be. But that was where the fear came in:
For I was not completely sure that it was wrong. I was not sure at all. What if it was right? There was something niggling in the back of my mind, in my heart—it’s right, and this is real life (time you finally faced it), and you will have to make that choice, too.
That is the key, the breaking point. I read a goodreads review by a man who said he had trouble relating to Asher or understand his drive to paint—because this man had not experienced something like it. I understand that. I think that many readers, while they might be deeply moved by this book and appreciate it and analyze it (probably more thoroughly and more accurately than I), will not quite be able to understand Asher’s passion. And thus I think they will not be so affected—or affected in the same way—as I was.
You see, I can understand Asher. I too am an artist, just with a different medium. Oh, the differences are quite large, I know—the differences between paint and poetry, portrait and prose. But this is the same: the passion. The insatiable need to create. George Orwell called it a demon that drives one to write, and I rather agree (not an actual demon, just the idea of some powerful force you cannot fight forever forcing you to write something). Asher has the demon, too.
And this is why, the beginning of why, this book made me cry and rage and tremble. Because whatever happened to Asher—whatever choices he faced—I will face too. I too am devoted to my religion, and I too am driven to create. If he had to choose between them, won’t I have to?
I am terrified of that choice.
I know sometimes either-or statements are valid. God says,”You are against me or for me. You cannot serve two masters.” Those are sound. But most often? No way.
My Name is Asher Lev presents a dilemma: create true art and hurt those you love or create something less true but keep harmony with those you love. You can see why it made me so afraid. I deeply value truth and one of the things I seek the most is to create something true. But I also value harmony. I value people, and I deeply desire to make people happy, to bring them together, to heal them. And if it’s people I love—I will do anything for them. You’re saying I have to choose between those two things?
More than that, must I choose between art and my religion? I don’t like using the term “religion”—it sounds so … impersonal, so ritualistic and external, as opposed to this personal relationship and purpose for every single moment that I have in Christ. But I think you know what I mean. In My Name is Asher Lev, he stays a Jew, a devout Jew, but he does defy much of its tradition and alienates himself from most, almost all, of his people. It makes me feel like, can I stay a true Christian and be an artist? You’re saying I have to choose between those two things?
I rebel against that choice.
I do not believe you have to choose. I believe there is another way.
I hate that choice. I hate it.
I know why: I want to believe that anything is possible. You say it can’t happen, and I immediately think, Yes, it can. Nothing is impossible. Okay, I do have my limits, but really, I believe far more things are possible than what people think. This means that one of my greatest dislikes is a false dilemma. Either you do this or that happens. There are only two options. Only two. Choose. Choose. And my reaction is: There are more than two choices. There is another option—are many other options. Don’t you dare lie to me with this false set of choices.
A few days after I finished My Name is Asher Lev, I happened to pick up a book called Art and the Bible by Francis Shaeffer. I’d actually started it a week or so ago, and being the compulsive clutter-clean-upper that I am, I decided I’d better finish it so I could clear off another book from my in-progress stack.
Shaeffer shouts it in small words hung in the middle of the page:
“The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
In the forward, Michael Card writes, “We were free, he insisted, our imaginations were free. We were free to create, as long as we never forgot that we are slaves to Jesus.”
What is this book about? Basically this: There is another way. You do not have to choose.
Shaeffer journeys through Scripture, pointing out how art was used in it, how God commanded it to be used, and how God wanted beautiful things made just for the sake of being beautiful. He then lays out important things to keep in mind as a Christian artist. Running through it all is the assurance:
You do not have to choose.
Jesus already chose you. And when He did, He freed you. He freed your hands and your mind from the chains of sin so you can create truth. So you can create truth. He freed your soul to know Ultimate Beauty, the God who created beauty, who embodies beauty. He made a child and heir of the God who is the Creator of all. He made you the truest artist you can be on this earth.
When you are a Christian,there is no choice between art and faith because faith encompasses art. In fact, true art is only possible when you have true faith.
But of course it isn’t that simple.
You do still have to make choices. For instance, what if you want to tell your story of how God has saved you from darkness, a story that you can tell beautifully and that could bless so many people, drawing them closer to God? But what if that story might hurt or embarrass those close to you who are involved in it? Do you hide some of the details to protect them? Does that make the story less true? Is it possible to protect them at all? If not, should you still tell it?
So, choices. But there is this: that God will work out everything for the good of those who love him. The feeling that they are stifled in their art because of fear of hurting others, the lack of peace in a family because they created something true but painful—follow God’s will, and He will do the healing. This promise, too: God’s will is always what is best for us. So you cannot tell that story out of respect for your loved ones? That is not stifling your artistry or limiting you, though it may feel like it. God commands you to respect your parents, so if you abstain from a certain piece of artwork because you are honoring that, He will bless you. He has better things in store—better art for you to create, truer art, more satisfying art.
Asher had neither of these promises.
It’s still not simple. It’s still not easy. It’s a lifetime of trying and failing and trying again, trying to do right, trying to figure out and follow God’s will. Shaeffer knows this, and he wrote something about it that I found immensely encouraging:
And as a Christian adopts and adapts various contemporary techniques, he must wrestle with the whole question, looking to the Holy Spirit for help to know when to invent, when to adopt, when to adapt and when not to use a specific style at all. This is something each artist wrestles with for a lifetime, not something he settles once and for all.
As Christian artists, we must wrestle. We must struggle and sweat. Our whole lives. A demon indeed. But we have hope. For Christianity finds no separation between truth and beauty, and God will never call us to do opposing things, like honoring family while also creating beautiful truth. If those things seem to oppose, we have His promise that He will not give us more than we can handle. He will provide a way out. He never makes us choose between two evils. That is one dilemma that is always false.
Shaeffer talks about the “wholeness of man” in Christ. That tension Asher always experienced—we do not have to. He didn’t have to. When Jesus is lord, all the tensions fade as everything settles into its rightful, redeemed, perfect, complete place.
I pick up My Name is Asher Lev, turn it over.
I want you to know I am not bashing this book. In fact, I urge every artist—and non-artist—to read it. Not only is it masterfully well-written and a fascinating insight into the life of a Hasidic Jew and artist, but it makes you think. It shakes you up. And that is good.
Yes, it’s good. I hated how this book shook me up, but I have come to realize that it may not be fun, but it is good. I know I needed to be shaken up. I needed to think about this. I needed to be afraid, to have doubts. How can you find answers if you don’t question?
I still feel a little shaken. But I am not so terrified by that anymore.
One of the best things about this book was how I could connect with Asher. That was what made it so upsetting, but it was also deeply comforting. I’m not alone. Others look at the world and are compelled (in the truest sense of the word) to translate it into art. Thank you for that, Chaim Potok. Thank you for your honesty and your insights and your willingness to handle hard topics and ask hard questions and stand against the crowd. Thank you.
And thank You, God, for being All-Good, All-Beautiful, and All-True.