Appreciating the Masterpiece, Part 1

by Greg Mackie

"What is A Course in Miracles?" Robert Perry has offered his answer to this vitally important question elsewhere on this website (see Robert's article, What is A Course in Miracles?). He suggests that a complete answer requires us to recognize that the Course's author combines a stunning variety of categories, all of which must be included to get a complete picture of the Course.

Once we recognize this, I think we can look at the Course from the perspective of any one or any combination of these categories and discover new insights that will contribute to this larger picture. In that spirit, this two-part series of articles is an exploration of one of those categories: the Course as a great work of art. I believe the Course truly is an artistic masterpiece that we have only begun to appreciate, and that seeing it as such will yield immense benefits. For, besides the sheer joy of contemplating an artistic masterpiece, this vision of the Course offers us, in my mind, 1) a key to making sense of its initially baffling style of writing, and 2) a bridge to a new way of studying it that allows us to draw more deeply and more fully from all of its magnificent treasures.

With that in mind, Part 1 of this series will unveil the Course as a great work of art, and show how this vision reveals both the transformative depth and the ultimate clarity of its seemingly impenetrable writing style. Part 2 will explore how this new understanding and appreciation can greatly enrich our Course study.

The Course as an educational course

One of the other categories Robert's article discusses is that of educational course, a category that we need to keep in mind as we consider the Course as art. In his article, Robert says that as an educational course, the Course's "ultimate goal is for the student to learn a particular body of ideas—a thought system—and teach it to others." He then points out several differences between the Course and a more typical educational course. I'd like to focus here on the difference in writing style.

Since the typical educational course aims to successfully transmit information, it is usually written in a way that reflects that goal. Its structure is usually linear, starting out with the most basic ideas and building subsequent ideas upon them. It generally uses relatively simple, direct sentences. It employs concise, straightforward language, and carefully defines technical terms. In short, it aims first and foremost for clarity of meaning. To the degree that a course can clearly state exactly what it intends to teach, that course will successfully convey its information to students.

And here is one place where A Course in Miracles and the typical educational course part company. For as every frustrated Course student knows, the Course is anything but clear, at least at first glance. What Course student hasn't had the experience of wading through its obtuse, convoluted verbiage, growing more confused by the minute, and finally throwing up her hands and exclaiming, "Why doesn't he just say it clearly!?"

I believe the reason Jesus doesn't "just say it clearly" is because he wants to do much more than simply inform; he wants to truly transform our lives. And so he needed to write his course in a way that was truly transformative. The typical educational course is not very transformative precisely because it is so clear and concise. Its rigid clarity precludes deeper layers of meaning and strips it of emotional resonance. If the Course had been written more like the typical course in applied physics or clinical psychology, it may well have been much clearer. But in the process, I believe that it would have lost much of its transformative power. In aiming at clarity of meaning, the typical educational course sacrifices depth of meaning. And it is depth that is truly transformative.

So how did Jesus bring transformative depth into his educational course? It is my contention that he did so by making his educational course a work of art.

The Course as a work of art

Just what makes something a work of art? Theories about the nature, methods, and goals of art are many and varied, but the following can be safely said: a typical educational course, in the service of clarity, uses the presentation techniques discussed above to speak to us intellectually and give us a new body of information; but a work of art, in the service of depth, uses artistic techniques to move us emotionally and give us a new way of seeing. Let's take a closer look at these aspects of art, contrasting them with the typical educational course, and see how these artistic aims and methods are reflected in the style of A Course in Miracles.

As a work of art, the Course uses artistic techniques to accomplish its goals

Writers of educational courses have developed numerous presentation techniques aimed at enhancing clarity. We have already seen some of these techniques above: linear writing style, simple sentence structure, straightforward language, and carefully defined terms. But the Course rarely uses these techniques, opting instead for the techniques of music, poetry, and literature—artistic techniques aimed at enhancing depth. (See the accompanying article, Artistic Techniques Used in the Course, for a further discussion of some of these techniques, with Course examples.)

Rather than linear, the Course, as Ken Wapnick has pointed out, is written symphonically: it introduces themes, develops them, lays them aside, and then brings them together, exploring their connections much like a symphony. Rather than simple sentence structure, the Course is written poetically: large portions are written in iambic pentameter, and even those parts not written in this poetic meter have a poetic quality, even occasionally using alliteration and rhyme. Rather than straightforward language, the Course often resorts to the literary language of simile, metaphor, symbol, personification, imagery, and allusion. And rather than carefully defining its terms, the Course, like much literature and poetry, uses terms that are more suggestive than definitive. Terms are rarely strictly defined, but instead have flexible meanings that depend upon the context of the words around them. All of these techniques enhance depth; they reveal deeper layers of meaning and beauty, free words from the limitations of strict definition, and open them up to deeper connotations and connections.

As a work of art, the Course aims to move us emotionally

While the typical educational course gives us intellectual information to ponder and perhaps use, an artist wants his work of art to move us. While great art is often rooted in ideas and often stimulates the intellect, for the artist this is only a means to the goal of emotional experience. Bringing about this experience is a major goal of the artistic techniques described above. The Greek philosopher Longinus said that the end of prose is clarity, but "in poetry the end is enthrallment."(1) The Course's style aims to give us this enthrallment.

Tight linear structure and dry technical language, however clear, does not touch our hearts. A well-written biology textbook doesn't move anyone to tears. But poetry is, in Benedetto Croce's words, "the language of feeling."(2) We are moved by the music of poetry, by images that carry deep emotional resonance, by words that go to our core and call to mind our deepest fears and longings. Knowing this, Jesus in the Course frequently employs vivid images that carry great emotional impact: words that horrify us, shock us, touch us, and inspire us. He does this because emotion motivates, and he wants us to take his words to heart and be motivated to apply them to our lives. To inspire this kind of motivation, his Course must have that special quality that transpersonal theorist Ken Wilber says is the hallmark of any great work of art: "the capacity to simply take your breath away."(3) And that is exactly what the Course frequently does for me: it takes my breath away.

As a work of art, the Course aims ultimately to give us a new way of seeing

The typical educational course may give us useful information, and may even present us with ideas that are truly life-changing. The Course itself does this all the time. But a work of art does more. It doesn't just tell us about a new perspective; it shows that perspective to us. Art aims directly at changing perception, at facilitating a deeper vision, at giving us a new way of seeing. (I am using "seeing" here to refer to all of the various modes of perception, physical and non-physical.) One commentator, Jack Chambers, said that "the artist is a perceptual window."(4) Here's Ken Wilber again, describing the opening of this perceptual window as you experience a great work of art:

You swoon a little bit, you are slightly stunned, you are open to perceptions that you had not seen before. Sometimes, of course, it is much quieter than that: the work seeps into your pores gently, and yet you are changed somehow, maybe just a little, maybe a lot; but you are changed.(5)

Great art confronts us with the artist's perspective and thus forces us to reconsider our own. Art opens our eyes to a whole new world, pointing ultimately to the ineffable, to things beyond the form of the art itself. Art, as Robert Browning said of poetry, is the act of "putting the infinite within the finite."(6)

It is easy to see how all of this applies to the Course. For Jesus, of course, wants above all to change our perception. Jesus' work of art, the Course, confronts us with a new vision that requires us "to question every value that [we] hold" (T-24.In.2:1). He confronts us with his unique perspective and forces us to reconsider our own. So deeply transformative are the Course's words that merely repeating them slowly with an eye to the meaning Jesus has given them (as we do in Course practice) can literally open us up to the wordless experience of Heaven. As Wilber says, we are changed.

Educational course versus work of art: a comparison

To get a better sense of the difference in style and effect between a typical educational course and a work of art, let's compare two passages from the Course itself. The first is from the Clarification of Terms, Section 1, which aims to define the Course terms "mind" and "spirit," along with related terms. This section is a real anomaly in the Course, a rare instance in which it abandons its usual artistic style and sounds much more like an academic textbook. If you would, read this excerpt slowly now, not so much attempting to figure out what it says about mind and spirit, but instead paying attention to the response it evokes in you:

The term mind is used to represent the activating agent of spirit, supplying its creative energy. When the term is capitalized it refers to God or Christ (i.e, the Mind of God or the Mind of Christ). Spirit is the Thought of God which He created like Himself. The unified spirit is God's one Son, or Christ.

In this world, because the mind is split, the Sons of God appear to be separate. Nor do their minds seem to be joined. In this illusory state, the concept of an "individual mind" seems to be meaningful. It is therefore described in the course as if it has two parts; spirit and ego. (C-1.1-2)

How did this passage make you feel? Did it move you, excite you, or motivate you to look at the world in a different way? I don't know about you, but this passage (and the entire section, which continues in this vein) does nothing for me emotionally. I really find it rather dead. It provides a lot of very useful information, but little more.

I studied this section with my Course "study buddy" recently, and she had the same reaction to it that I did. In a typical study session, the two of us are frequently very inspired as we finish a paragraph. We often say things to one another like, "Wow, isn't that beautiful? I want to accept my function as savior of the world right now!" But this section was a whole different story. After finishing a paragraph, we'd look at each other and one of us would say something like, "Well…that's pretty clear, isn't it?", and the other would respond with, "Yep…OK, let's move on." It just didn't have that same emotional pull, and both of us noticed the difference.

Ironically, this section gives those who wish the Course were written more clearly exactly what they want. It reads like a typical educational course. Its language is quite academic, almost pedantic; it even makes use of the academic abbreviation, "i.e." It gives relatively straightforward technical definitions of mind and spirit, using short, simple sentences. It reads like something one might find in a dictionary. As a result, clarity is gained, but at great cost of depth. Some people may wish the entire Course were written this way, but I can't count myself among them. My friend and I are agreed that, while we are glad for the clarification of terms that this section brings us, we are equally glad that the vast majority of the Course is not written this way.

Now let's look at a passage from the very next section, which ostensibly claims to define the terms "ego" and "miracle," but does so in a completely different way. As with the last passage, read this one slowly and focus again on the response it draws forth from you:

What is a miracle? [Like the ego] a dream as well. But look at all the aspects of this dream and you will never question any more. Look at the kindly world you see extend before you as you walk in gentleness. Look at the helpers all along the way you travel, happy in the certainty of Heaven and the surety of peace. And look an instant, too, on what you left behind at last and finally passed by.

This was the ego—all the cruel hate, the need for vengeance and the cries of pain, the fear of dying and the urge to kill, the brotherless illusion and the self that seemed alone in all the universe. This terrible mistake about yourself the miracle corrects as gently as a loving mother sings her child to rest. Is not a song like this what you would hear? Would it not answer all you thought to ask, and even make the question meaningless? (C-2.7-8)

How did this passage make you feel? I find it incredibly moving; it inspires me to seek the miracle and listen for its beautiful song. This passage shows the Course in its more typical mode: the Course as work of art. There is no academic language here. This passage (and entire section) is written in beautiful iambic pentameter, and makes use of vivid imagery. Who doesn't recoil at the grim egoic images of cruelty, suffering, murderous rage, and bitter loneliness presented here? Who is not touched by the picture of the gentle world ushered in by the miracle, a miracle which sings to us "as a loving mother sings her child to rest"? This passage never gives a clear, technical definition of the ego or the miracle, focusing less on telling us what they are, and more on showing us what they do, on their effects. In this way, Jesus offers us a new way of seeing. He forces us to look without blinders upon the horrible effects of the ego, to compare them with the beatific vision offered by the miracle, and thus be inspired to choose the miracle and end our suffering. The previous passage, for all its clarity, could do little beyond helping us intellectually understand a few of the Course's main ideas. But the transformative depth of this passage, if really taken to heart, could literally lift us out of hell and place us at Heaven's gate.

The Course's unique style: educational course as work of art

We have seen that the Course is a work of art: it uses the techniques of art to achieve art's goals of moving us emotionally and giving us a new way of seeing. Yet it is also an educational course. But how can this be? Given the profound differences we have seen between a work of art and the typical educational course, how can the Course be both at the same time? This is the Course's unique genius: it uses artistic techniques in an unprecedented way that allows it to accomplish the goals of both a work of art and an educational course.

This is quite a feat, for it doesn't seem possible that the goals of art could ever be reconciled with those of an educational course. We saw above that a typical educational course sacrifices depth of meaning for the sake of clarity. But it is equally true that a work of art generally sacrifices clarity of meaning for the sake of depth. It is a truism that you can't tell exactly what a work of art means. While we can get a very good general idea of what many works of art mean, especially with written works, precise meaning will usually elude us (and in many cases simply doesn't exist).

This is often seen as one of art's virtues: ambiguity is prized as a source of depth, and clarity of meaning is seen as the death of art. When questioned about the meaning of his music, Bob Dylan gave the memorable reply, "Definition destroys."(7) And I suspect that this ambiguity really is a virtue for many works of art. This elusiveness of meaning is certainly one of the reasons we find works of art so endlessly fascinating.

But the Course is different in this regard. Jesus is no lover of ambiguity; he insists that "this course is perfectly clear" (T-11.VI.3:1) and "totally unambiguous" (W-pI.39.1:2). How can this be so? The key to the Course's ultimate clarity lies in the same place that holds the key to its depth: its symphonic style.(8) Recall that with this symphonic style, the Course interweaves numerous themes and explores their interconnections. Each passage brings together multiple themes drawn from numerous other passages that are connected to it via common words, phrases, or ideas; because of this, each passage carries multiple layers of meaning. Thus this technique, a technique rooted in the techniques of art, enhances depth of meaning.

But precisely because the Course is so deeply interconnected, this symphonic style also ultimately leads to remarkable clarity of meaning. For these interconnected passages are also a tightly-woven web of references, references that you can consult if you want to gain insight into the meaning of, say, a particular sentence. If you examine enough of the references connected with your sentence, its meaning becomes crystal clear. (By "crystal clear," I mean that you can get a clear, definite understanding of the basic meaning of the sentence within its immediate context.) It is like assembling the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: if you fit them all together properly, with no pieces missing and no pieces left over, a beautifully clear and complete picture is revealed. So, the ultimate answer to the question "Why doesn't he just say it clearly?" is that he does say it clearly. But this clarity is not immediate clarity—it is only revealed as one puts the pieces of the puzzle together.

How the Course's symphonic style brings us both depth and clarity: an example

Let's look at one brief example to see how the Course's symphonic style brings us both depth and clarity. In "The Obstacles to Peace" (T-19.IV), we learn that the first obstacle to peace is the desire to get rid of peace, and then we are told in very obscure terms why we want to get rid of peace:

Why would you want peace homeless? What do you think that it must dispossess to dwell with you? What seems to be the cost you are so unwilling to pay? The little barrier of sand still stands between you and your brother…. Would you let a little bank of sand, a wall of dust, a tiny seeming barrier, stand between your brothers and salvation? (T-19.IV(A).2:1-4,9)

The question is, just what exactly is this "little barrier of sand" that we prefer to peace? Certainly, this can't mean that we are literally building heavily-fortified sand castles—this must be a metaphorical image. But of what? Later in this paragraph this barrier is called a "remnant of attack" and a "wall of hatred," but these still seem rather abstract. What is this barrier of sand in concrete terms?

Surprisingly, the answer is found five sections earlier in the Text (I highly recommend purchasing the Course on computer, which has a word search feature to help find connections like this one). Sentences 4 and 9 of our passage, which refer to "the little barrier of sand" and the "wall of dust," are direct references to a sentence from "The Little Garden" (T-18.VIII): "Only a little wall of dust still stands between you and your brother" (13:6; all quotes in this paragraph are from T-18.VIII). And this sentence, in turn, occurs in the context of a discussion in which the barrier between you and your brother is clearly the body: the body is depicted in this section as "a limit on love" (1:2), "a tiny fence around a little part of a glorious and complete idea [you]" (2:6), "the barrier you built" against the Thought of God (9:1), and one of "the barriers you hold against your brother" (12:2). And so, by noticing the connection between our passage and this earlier reference, we have a very clear and concise answer to our initial question (an answer that is further confirmed by later references in "The Obstacles to Peace"): the little barrier of sand that we prefer to peace is the body.

But the reference to the earlier passage doesn't just allow us to clearly identify the barrier of sand; it also brings greater depth to our passage. This is because the simple phrases "barrier of sand" and "wall of dust" call to mind the entire discussion of "The Little Garden," a section which depicts the tiny part of our mind walled off by the body as a desolate desert kingdom ruled cruelly by the ego. If we have been reading the Course sequentially (and attentively), then the brief references in our passage, which serve as leitmotifs (see accompanying article for more on leitmotifs), will call to mind the earlier imagery and pour all of its meaning into what we are now reading.

And this imagery packs a real wallop. It taps into a deep well of associations. The depiction of our separate bodily existence as a desert, "dry and unproductive, scorched and joyless" (T-18.VIII.8:6), is a shocking image of barren emptiness. This desert image brings further clarity to the "barrier of sand" image in our passage: the "sand" is desert sand. Associating the body with dust alludes to the Biblical references to man being created from the dust of the earth and condemned to return to it. It recalls words traditionally said at funerals: "Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust." In short, all of these images—desert, dust, and body—point to death. Our bodily "life" is really death. Thus the simple connection of the little phrases "barrier of sand" and "wall of dust" to the earlier discussion brings to our passage a whole set of themes that suggest whole new levels of meaning.

And so, amazingly, the Course's unique writing style, rooted more in the techniques of art than in those of an educational course, ends up accomplishing the goals of both. As an educational course, it ultimately does teach us a very clear and specific body of ideas. As a work of art, it ultimately does move us emotionally and give us a new way of seeing. It gives us the clarity of an educational course, but not at the expense of depth. It gives us the depth of a work of art, but not at the expense of clarity. In A Course in Miracles, clarity and depth merge into one. This combination is an achievement of breathtaking brilliance, and makes the Course, in my mind, an unparalleled artistic masterpiece.

Appreciating the masterpiece

This vision of the Course as an artistic masterpiece has greatly deepened my own appreciation of it. It places the Course squarely in the realm of creative genius, in the realm of Shakespeare, Mozart, Dante, and da Vinci—a realm in which it truly belongs. I believe this vision can open our hearts and minds to a much greater appreciation for the profound depths, stunning clarity, and magnificent genius of the Course. How might this greater appreciation enrich our study and experience of the Course? In Part 2 of this series, we shall see.

Notes

1. Quoted in William C. Cavanaugh, Introduction to Poetry (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1974), p. 25.

2. Quoted in Eugene E. Brussell, ed., Dictionary of Quotable Definitions (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 442.

3. Ken Wilber, The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), p. 134.

4. Quoted in Lawrence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Time (New York: Morrow, 1977), p. 60.

5. Wilber, op. cit., pp. 134-35.

6. Quoted in Peter, op. cit., p. 390.

7. This quote was passed on to me by Robert, who read it in a TV Guide interview of Bob Dylan.

8. I am indebted to Robert for his insights on how the Course's symphonic style brings clarity, which are reflected in the following discussion.


To read the second part of this series, go to Appreciating the Masterpiece, Part 2. Also see the companion piece to this series, Artistic Techniques Used in the Course.

One Comment

  1. Diann
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Yes, the Course is the most beautifully written text I have ever encountered. As a retired English teacher, I taught many Shakespeare plays and would marvel even after the twentieth time of reading Macbeth at the beauty and depth of the language. When I started reading the Course, I had the same experience, only much more intense, as though my being were elevated and somehow cleansed by absorbing these deep truths. Through the reading of these words, it is as though Jesus is able to transmit a tiny piece of heaven that evokes feelings of peace, joy, and clarity. Thank you for pointing out just how this is done.

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