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You never know who you may meet mucking around a remote Canadian village. Take Combermere, Ontario, where mega-talented Christian artist Michael O’Brien pours forth enough work to stagger 10 ordinary souls.
Not content with merely producing best-selling novels, O’Brien writes apologetics and essays, paints prolifically and illustrates books for other authors. On his days off he lectures on a variety of subjects such as Christian worldview and sexual abuse in the church.
O’Brien’s writing and visual art is unabashedly Christian, and he sees himself a type of cultural crusader venturing into the dark lands of pagan modernity. Noting the dangers facing Western civilization, O’Brien fears that when “the moral order of the universe” is dismissed, we will be left with only ideology, impulse and “derivative power struggles.”
His “A Landscape with Dragons” is concerned with the effects of the anti-Christian mindset and conditioning used in children’s literature, even criticizing church favorites such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien over the use of mythology and secular fantasies. He concerns himself with themes that contribute to the “restoration of Christian culture.”
O’Brien’s paintings echo his Catholicism, the use of Scripture and biblical stories almost exclusively. Beyond the religious themes, he also bucks the tendency for artists to market only through galleries, finding support and sales in the church instead. Many of O’Brien’s pieces are displayed in church buildings, particularly in the U.S. For example, Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon commissioned him in to do a series of icons similar to the earliest one known to exist, “Christ Panctorator” from Mt. Sinai, Egypt.
Through decades of painting, O’Brien’s art alters slightly but is still quickly recognizable, a type of roughened and modern iconography or Bible illustration in the best sense. Brilliant colors, simplicity of composition with only a figure or two, signify his works. The faces and edges are usually soft with dreamlike flattened landscapes behind them. His portraits of Christ often bear a likeness to the Shroud of Turin or older icons, which seem to have been influence by the relic.
O’Brien is self-educated in the arts and became a success in spite of the Canadian cultural milieu, which would exclude him and others like him. He notes that he’s always forced to publish in the U.S. or Europe as there is a philosophically closed market in his native Canada.
For two decades the author piled up rejection letters from Canadian publishers who said something like the following: “We like your writing very much and it’s a great story. However, the reading public is no longer interested in this worldview”.
They suggested revisions toeing the party line of modern orthodoxy and a “more contemporary vision of life.”
The obstacles openly Christian artists face in Canada can be summed up by the term “Canlit,” which has come to mean “not you” to conservatives. “Canlit” emphasizes the diversity and ethnicity of the population with a strong aversion to national identity. It’s embraced by “most” popular, postmodern Canadian writers although some non-observant authors may still make it into print.
O’Brien notes that “Canlit” is comparative to the “politically safe art” produced by the Soviet Union in its day, only without the physical threats. Though the same spirit is present in the U.S., there’s no mirror term for the PC teachers of American literature who so loathe their nation that they often avoid using the term “American” at all.
Fortunately, O’Brien found U.S. publishers willing to market his novels. He also finds his bread isn’t particularly well-buttered in English-speaking lands, which led to translations into 10 languages with particularly high sales in the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia. This can probably be explained by O’Brien’s astonishing knowledge of Slavic languages, literature, art and history, which he incorporates into many of his novels.
One of these is his latest, “A Father’s Tale,” published in 2011, a massive tome that incorporates spiritual, familial, political and literary information into its complex storyline. A type of prodigal son/father parable, “A Father’s Tale” deals with a missing son and his father’s long odyssey, which takes him to many nations, principally Russia.
With such a broad canvas to work with, O’Brien incorporates political intrigue and history into deeply personal observations of good and evil. His knowledge of Russian culture, language and even icons, makes “A Father’s Tale” much more believable. O’Brien’s protagonist “Graham” experiences many adventures and trials as he encounters plot twists and surprises on his quest. Along the way Graham learns what the fatherhood of God means for his own life.
I’ll admit I haven’t yet finished the 1,070-page novel, but the first part is simple with a kind of embryonic potential. It reminded me of the Russians such as Tolstoy, whom O’Brien’s been compared to by some reviewers (along with Dostoevsky, Dickens, Chesterton and Lewis!). At any rate, finishing this novel should be a snap compared to the colossal effort it must have taken to research and produce it.
Other O’Brien novels feature ancient civilizations, the Holocaust, Popes, Catholicism, the Anti-Christ and St. Luke among other themes. He’s also had to personally joust with what he calls the “New Totalitarianism” in his dealings with mainstream publishing and art circles in Canada. Perhaps Michael O’Brien won’t change these institutions, but he’s definitely an inspiration for artists of all types who find themselves up against the monolith of Western political correctness and academia. His next novel or series of paintings should be inspired by David and Goliath.