“We’re All Here”: Responding to Trauma Through Art

mural, photo, paris

On the 13th of November people all over Paris were making plans for their weekend. They finished their day’s work, they began their commutes home, they went to football games, concerts, or out for a quiet drink with friends. One moment their lives were progressing normally, the next moment, the instant when bullets rang out across the concert hall, or a loud explosion rattled the windows, they had entered into a new, unprecedented stage of life: life following the Paris terrorist attacks.

As I watched from afar, checking Facebook statuses of friends in that wounded city and praying my choked and dismayed prayers, my thoughts turned to the artistic response that would inevitably come. Indeed, it had already begun to appear: the Eiffel Tower drawn into a peace symbol, an image believed to be associated with French graphic artist Jean Jullien; ​Street artists creatively appropriating the Twitter hashtag #prayforParis with their own artistic call for unity: Spray4Paris​;​ Graffiti murals bearing the slogan fluctuat nec mergitur, the ancient motto of Paris (‘Tossed by the waves but not sunk’) which appears on the Parisian coat of arms; and​ ​a​s a physical demonstration of the Parisian desire to reclaim their city from the actions of terrorists, an expansive chalk mural on the rue Richard-Lenoir, the decorative ground just steps away from where a suicide bomber began his attack.

Mural at rue Richard-Lenoir. Image from The Guardian.

Mural at rue Richard-Lenoir. Image from The Guardian.

Is it surprising to us that when tragedy strikes, art emerges?

It shouldn’t be, given the way that humans process traumatic events. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, explains that ‘To suffer from traumatic stress disorder is to live in a mental world where the usual landmarks have fallen down. The most familiar path to re-ordering this disordered world is to repeat the event.’[3] Traumatic events rush through our mental processes without being organized properly and interpreted fully; as a result, we are destined to repeat the story until it is fully understood to us. According to Jones, it is the responsibility of the church – both individually and as a community – to bring Christ’s narrative into this process of repeated re-telling, and to thus ‘help write the scripts of the Christian imagination as it seeks to bring order to this disorder’ (31).

Yet this can be a profound challenge for the church, especially in the wake of violence that claims to be driven by religious conviction. Society can issue an overwhelming rejection of the religious narrative during times like these. But even if that was not the case, what does it mean to re-tell the story of trauma through the Christian narrative?

Jones suggests that we re-tell our own stories through the narratives provided for us through our Christian heritage, the Biblical narratives and the narrative of the Cross itself. The Cross provides for us a traumatic narrative not dissimilar from the agony we might feel in response to world events. Jones highlights the similarities by describing the horror of the Cross as strangely ‘alluring’; for just as we are repulsed by what we see unfolding—the unjust murder of an innocent man—we are also drawn towards it because ‘as we gaze up at this dying body, we are asked to find comfort in it, to desire its goodness, to embrace its hope’ (73).

We are compelled to re-tell the story of the Cross over and over, to re-preach it and re-learn it, in order that we can understand the hope it brings us. When we pursue art in the wake of trauma, both as individuals and within a community, we pursue that same understanding. We attempt to process how goodness can be drawn out of horror, if it ever can. In our response, artistic and otherwise, we are tasked with this relentless pursuit, seeking to find the hope of the Cross standing over all our trauma.

As a theatrical writer, I look to other playwrights when I consider how to respond to traumatic events. The Events, a play by David Greig, is the work I am most drawn to when considering pieces that are honest about the depth of world tragedy while successfully re-framing such tragedy within a narrative of hope. An anguished, raw production with a cast of only two actors, The Events encounters Claire, a small church minister, in the aftermath of a terrible crime: a young man came into her multi-cultural choir practise with an automatic weapon and slaughtered her parishioners. The crime itself is non-specific in terms of location – Greig is a Scottish writer and there are elements of the play that encourage the audience to believe they might be in remote, rural Scotland – but it has been linked more specifically with a real life event: the 2011 massacre in Norway.

The production itself is bare. Two actors sweat out the unanswerable questions that follow a trauma of unimaginable proportion. There is nothing about the play that is easy watching and the audience is given a front row seat to Claire’s psychological unraveling. Yet hope remains as redemption is weaved throughout the piece. Claire moves through the stages of grief towards eventual acceptance and heroic forgiveness—a tortured process of letting go to those that have been lost all while remaining present (at least in song) by the accompanying choir which follows each grieving character. The choir’s constancy is the physical form of the undeniable reality of love; these people were here and they were loved, and their memory proves to be a stronger force than terror. We can identify the crucified God in this moment, see his story of over-reaching hope and love extended through the voices of the choir as they serenade Claire’s grief.

Jones says simply, ‘Grace is Grace. It comes’ (73). And so it does. When we cannot possibly expect it, and when the crimes of humanity are too great to number. In Grieg’s play I see an artistic response to trauma that encompasses the moment of grace’s arrival and so sings of that hope which is being scribbled and spray-painted across the streets of Paris today. It comes in the form of a chorus, accompanied by the audience at the play’s conclusion, singing, “We’re all here.” Despite the agony and the horror that has been seen and done, here is grace and kindness, offering to sing for us. Calling us back into hope.

 

Article by Emma Hinds.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/14/eiffel-tower-peace-sign-solidarity-paris-artwork
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/nov/22/sprayforparis-street-art-spreads-love-and-resilience-in-pictures
[3] Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 30.

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