Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. ii–iii 

From the Editor: Faith and the Arts

Douglas B. Miller

The Scriptures would seem to reflect a high view of the arts. For substantiation, one need only consult the tremendous amount of creative effort which went into the construction of the tabernacle as the people of Israel journeyed in the wilderness from Egypt (Exod. 35-39). Bezalel and Oholiab are particularly noted as persons “in whom the Lord has put skill and understanding” in matters of art and construction (Exod. 36:1). Color, sculpture, music, story, and dance are all celebrated as part of Israel’s worship.

Yet there is another side to this issue. The Israelites were also instructed never to make images to worship (Exod. 20:4-5). New Testament believers had no tabernacle, and the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. was no impediment to their worship. The history of the Christian church reveals ambivalence in the matter of the arts. Some of the greatest artistic pieces in the western world have been related to the Christian faith, and yet the Protestant Reformation inspired a period of iconoclasm. Today Christian buildings of worship and their contents reflect a diversity of theologies on faith and the arts. Part of the concern is a recognition that the arts, including literature, are never quite safe. They are unpredictable and sometimes scandalous.

In the midst of such diversity, it is valuable to hear one another’s stories. My own testimony to the importance of the arts begins with literature. Once while in college I happened to mention to a friend of mine that I had been advised to take courses in English literature in preparation for seminary. This friend, who was preparing for service on the mission field as an airplane pilot, nodded knowingly. “The study of literature helps one to think metaphorically,” he said, “and metaphor is crucial for understanding the Bible.” Later I was able to appreciate and attest to the significance of this insight.

The power of the arts often comes through their ability to catch us by surprise. Once while in seminary, we were visited by an artist who was pursuing her M.Div. degree in another institution by creating works of art rather than by writing papers or taking exams. She invited us to explore and meditate upon various of her pieces, which ranged from sculpture, to oil, to watercolor, to ceramics. It was an exercise in the rewards of patient attention to the power of the arts. In her ceramic pieces devoted to the days of Genesis 1, for example, I was enabled to appreciate the creativity of God in ways I had never understood before.

More recently Henri Nouwen’s patient attention to detail in Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (reported in Nouwen’s book by the same title) reminded me of my impoverishment relative to the works of the masters. Might it be too much to hope that both the threat and the promise of art, along with the challenging ambiguity of its interpretation, could motivate a deeper commitment to struggle to insight in the midst of the hermeneutical community, the family of faith wherein the guiding Spirit resides?

The pages of Direction have previously had only occasional space devoted to the gift of artistry. In a partial attempt at amends, the present issue cuts an intentionally wide swath. Contributors represent the visual arts, narrative, poetry, and drama in addition to a concern for the arts within the gathered community of worship.

The authors in this issue help us to wade through the troubled waters of being an artist in a Christian community, a community which both narrows the field of acceptable art and mistrusts those who would go beyond that narrow vision. There is a sense in which each essay repeats a common though complex theme: the arts are God’s gifts to humanity, especially to the church, and though they cry out to be recognized, they are typically feared or mistrusted. But each essay nuances this theme in a slightly different way. Sarah Klassen and Luci Shaw examine the critical importance of the arts for faith. Jean Janzen explores the bases of our fear of the arts. Pleas for the church to embrace artists and their contributions for worship are offered by Craig Ginn and Tony Funk. Two fascinating studies of specific artists are presented by Rachel Baerg (Vincent van Gogh) and Paul Friesen (Flannery O’Connor). The theme pieces conclude with Doug Caskey’s reflections on being a Mennonite theater professor.

Sarah Klassen annotates a helpful selection of books on faith and the arts (Books I Recommend). For those desiring further help in these matters, a number of journals are available which devote themselves to the intersection of art with Christian faith: Image, Christianity and Literature, Christianity and the Arts, Mars Hill Review, Radix, and Kairos, a small paper devoted to Mennonite artists.

Additional contributions to this issue include Lynn Jost’s exploration of the difficult terrain of violence and warfare in the Old Testament. Jost offers a proposal for contemporary Anabaptist faithfulness. Pastor Russell Rosser presents, in Ministry Compass, his vision for a multiethnic congregation. The issue concludes with reviews of four books and a five-year index of articles and book reviews.

I wish you rich reading and reflection.

Douglas Miller, General Editor