God’s Design: The Arts as a Way of Being Human, Learning Truth, and Doing Justice
There has been an uneasy relationship between the church and the arts in the past, but a new renaissance appears to be underway. Witness the veritable flood of books on Christianity and the arts in the past decade. 1 There are now at least seven graduate degree programs in Theology and the Arts in the United States, Canada, and the U.K., 2 and several internationally recognized organizations promoting the integration of these two disciplines. 3 There is a bubbling excitement among a broad spectrum of Christians about the redemption of “the arts” (visual and literary arts, music, theatre, film, and dance) as a valid way of expressing our faith and creativity as believers and giving glory to God. Others have written about the healing of the post-Reformation rift between Christianity and the arts; in fact, a whole issue of Direction was devoted to Faith and the Arts. 4 And this buzz about the arts is already filtering into many churches. (My little Mennonite church in Vancouver now has regular rotations of artwork by members of the congregation exhibited on the sanctuary walls, and we are not unique in this.) Thus I think I can take for granted a certain level of comfort among readers with the arts as a noble Christian pursuit. However, I would like to argue that not only is it approved by God, but art plays a vital role for humanity; we need it in the church and in the world; more of us ought to develop our artistic gifts and our ability to thoughtfully interact with art from a Christian perspective; and we need to support the artists in our midst, both spiritually and through our patronage.
We need the sensitivity of the artist to bring to light what has gone unnoticed in our humdrum everyday experience, so that we notice things for the first time.
There are three reasons why I believe art is important for us as Christians and why many of us should be engaged in it ourselves, while others appreciate it and encourage Christian artists. The first has to do with the essence of our humanity and our relationship to God as humans; second is the ability of art to reveal truth and to transform; third is the way beauty causes people to long for the good, for justice, and ultimately for God.
ART AND HUMANITY
Creativity is a gift from God who made us in his image as creative beings. It is part of what makes us human and differentiates us from the rest of creation. Beauty is all around us in God’s world, but it is we alone among all his creatures who, in collaboration with God, can make new things of beauty out of the materials he has provided. Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Being in the image of the Creator, we are called upon to have creativity.” 5 When we create art, then, we are manifesting the image of God and becoming more who we were meant to be.
God has set aside some of us with a particular vocation as artists. The very first instance of God’s spirit being given to someone in the Bible was to an artist! In the instructions for making the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, God said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel . . . of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship” (Exod. 31:3–4). Here was fine art being used for the worship of God, one service that Christian artists perform, but by no means the only one.
While some are called specifically to be artists and are given more talent and/or desire in that area than others, being creative is central to who we all are as humans. As the Shorter Catechism puts it, the chief end (purpose) of man is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” 6 The arts play a fundamental role in this, giving us both means commensurate with God’s own beauty with which to worship him, and derivative beauty to expand our enjoyment of God’s creation. Francis Schaeffer asserts: “The arts . . . have a place in the Christian life—they are not peripheral. For a Christian . . . the Lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God.” 7
During the Renaissance, which emerged first in Italy, art was one of the things that woke people up to their own individuality, as painters began depicting emotion and personality in people’s faces. Jacob Burckhardt, writing of the civilizing influence of the Renaissance, says, “In the Middle Ages . . . [m]an was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation. . . . In Italy, man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.” 8 In an age when there are so many influences dragging us back towards a loss of individuality and personhood (mass consumerism, the “war on terror,” among others), we need art to humanize us again and make us attentive to the image of God in us.
ART AND TRUTH
The second reason I think the arts are so important for people of faith is that art can communicate truth in ways that text and spoken word simply cannot. It can interpret the scriptures to us, and can reach us emotionally when rational blinders prevent the gospel message from impacting us. I was traveling in Florence recently with a group of Christians studying art and cultural transformation in the Renaissance. One of the people in our seminar, a pastor from the United States, recounted to me an experience he had some years prior. He was totally transfixed while standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of seeing that work in a particular setting where it was on loan had a powerful effect on his life. It brought him to tears just telling me about it. Somehow that aesthetic encounter revealed to him some deep-rooted anger in his life. He was touched emotionally in a way that began to break down the sources of that anger and transform him. That is more than merely a revelation of truth. It is nothing short of redemptive!
Another aspect of the truth-revelatory nature of art is evident when we engage in it ourselves. Creating art can be a way of learning about God and the world and coming to understand theological truths. The playwright Nigel Forde writes, “Like most writers, I don’t know what I know until I start to write about it. The very process of writing becomes the process of revelation. I write not because I see but in order to see.” 9 My photographer-essayist friend Paul Butzi talks about art as a verb rather than a noun, something we do to learn about the world around us, rather than something static to possess. 10 Jeremy Begbie, founder of the Theology Through the Arts project, quotes John Macquarrie describing art as “something like revelation. What is revealed has been there all the time, but it has gone unnoticed in our humdrum everyday experience. It needs the sensitivity of the artist to bring it to light, so that we notice things for the first time.” 11 Begbie goes on to say that art has an “indispensable role to play in [how] the wisdom of God comes to be learned and articulated.” 12
We in the postmodern era face some particular challenges. Claims to truth are being assailed on all sides, and no one voice seems to have ultimate authority anymore. As Margaret Loewen Reimer writes, “Christians are not immune to the erosion of what they thought they knew for sure.” 13 But she holds out hope that “the artistic imagination can help us hold together the many clashing realities we all live with.” 14
ART, JUSTICE, AND ULTIMATE GOOD
The third reason I believe the arts are vital for Christians to engage with is that they embody beauty which can create in people a longing for something more—for the good and ultimately for God. St. Augustine wrote a classic account of how beauty drew him to God:
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours. 15
Thus the arts can draw those who do not yet know God to the ultimate Source of all beauty.
One might ask why we should patronize the arts, which some might see as merely entertainment, when there is so much strife and hunger in the world. I don’t believe it is an either/or proposition. Beauty can give humans dignity and make living more tolerable in the midst of horrific conditions. Consider the musicians who composed and performed in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust. It gave them a reason for living. In the end most of them died, but some of their music lives on and gives meaning to their existence, and causes others to say “never again.” There is also the experience of the black slaves in America whose spirituals portrayed a home up yonder where they were headed, and gave them strength to carry on.
Or to give a more contemporary and visual example, the creation of art in Haiti, against the backdrop of untold suffering, remains one small avenue of hope for a better future. Andrew Meade, founder of the Vassar Haiti Project, writes, “Despite the poverty, the political turmoil, the environmental devastation, and lack for years of any kind of governmental infrastructure, the dignity and spirit of the Haitian people remains powerfully strong, vibrant and free. It is this vibrant spirit which translates so colorfully and creatively into art, which is one of that country’s few remaining viable exports.” 16 I am also reminded of the redemptive work of New York photographer Zana Briski among the children in the red light district of Calcutta, as portrayed in the documentary film “Born Into Brothels.” In such ways art can give oppressed people hope that there is something beyond what they experience now.
The ancient Greek philosophers saw a connection between beauty and justice. Their concept of beauty revolved around a sense of balance or symmetry. Symmetry is also a hallmark of justice, as we are reminded by the balance scales Lady Justice carries. When things lack balance or harmony, they are no longer beautiful. An ugly painting, a strip-mined hillside, an arrogant tourist who is disrespectful of a foreign country, an intractable situation where hatred and violence beget more of same . . . all share a quality of ugliness, of something being out of balance. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Swiss theologian and aesthetician, wrote that “whoever sneers at [beauty] . . . can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” 17 Art, because it gives us pleasure and trains us to appreciate beauty, can teach us to recognize “not-beauty” when we see it. World hunger and other problems of injustice will remain until we long for the pleasure of doing good. Dostoyevsky says, at the end of The Idiot, 18 “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” 19
Artists have a long history of feeling feared and rejected or at least underappreciated by the church. Many who grew up in Christian communities have left to do their work elsewhere. They have missed out on nurture and discipleship in the faith, and the church has been impoverished in their absence. Christians have encouraged their young people to pursue other “more serious” studies (with an eye to employability or usefulness in evangelism) and to leave the arts behind as childish, impractical, or downright dangerous. But the arts are too important to be left to the rest of the world.
I believe that Christians individually and the church communally should embrace the arts, nurture the artists in our midst, and recover the practice of patronage for the flourishing of the arts as a Christian vocation. While higher secular education may bring challenges to faith, exposure to the arts will not be a threat. On the contrary, advanced study of the arts can help people to achieve integration of faith and learning. Knowledge of the arts can help students in their intellectual development and faith struggles. It can serve as an anchor when faith is challenged.
Picasso said that we are all born artists, and the challenge is to stay that way as we grow up. We lose that capacity as we are trained out of it through the education system. 20 I am reminded of the poet William Stafford’s reply when asked, “When did you start writing poetry?” He said “When did everyone else stop?” Many adults regret not having kept up their creative sides from childhood. It does not have to be that way. University students would be well-advised to take one or more courses in the arts, to keep up the practice of an instrument, get involved in theatre, learn to paint or make films. There are immediate as well as life-long benefits and rewards.
Because Mennonites do not have a strong aesthetic heritage (apart from music, quilting, and more recently poetry and fiction), we have a great deal of catching up to do and a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions when it comes to creating “visible expressions of our faith.” 21 We should be about our Father’s business as we learn to use the arts to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” 22
- Some of the better ones are: Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2000); Jeremy Begbie, ed., Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000); Jeremy Begbie, ed., Sounding the Depths (London: SCM Press, 2002); Gregory Wolfe, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2003); Ned Bustard, ed., It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2000); Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin, The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007); Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit: Reflections on Creativity and Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007). There are dozens more.
- Andover-Newton Theological School (Massachusetts), Fuller Seminary (California), Regent College (British Columbia), St. Andrews University (Scotland), Union Theological Seminary (New York), United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (Minnesota), Yale Divinity School (Connecticut).
- Image (http://www.imagejournal.org), a Christian journal of art, faith, and mystery—one of the top literary and visual arts quarterlies in the world—which also organizes seminars, workshops, and scholarships for artists, and is linked with the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University; Imago (http://www.imago-arts.on.ca), a Canadian organization promoting the development of Christians in the performing and visual arts; CIVA (http://www.civa.org), a membership-based organization encouraging Christians in the visual arts to develop their callings professionally without compromising their faith or standard of artistic endeavor; and the International Arts Movement (http://www.iamny.org), an organization that “gathers artists and creative catalysts to wrestle with the deep questions of art, faith and humanity in order to inspire the community to engage the culture that is and create the world that ought to be.”
- See, in particular, Sarah Klassen, “Faith, Art, and Reconciliation,” Direction 27 (Fall 1998), 101–8 (http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?980). The rest of that special issue on Faith and the Arts is also worth reading.
- Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 34.
- Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), Question 1. (http://www.reformed.org/documents/WSC.html).
- Schaeffer, 10.
- Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (London: Phaidon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1944), 81.
- Nigel Forde, “The Playwright’s Tale,” in Sounding the Depths, ed. Jeremy Begbie (London: SCM Press, 2002), 64.
- See http://www.butzi.net.
- John Macquarrie, In Search of Humanity (London: SCM, 1982), p. 195; quoted in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000), xii.
- Begbie, Beholding the Glory, xii.
- Margaret Loewen Reimer, Mennonites and the Artistic Imagination, The 1998 CMBC Winter Lectures (Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite Bible College, 1998), 39.
- Reimer, 25.
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 10.27.38.
- See http://projects.vassar.edu/haiti/whoweare.htm.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics vol. 1 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 18.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, trans. David Magarshack (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955), 419–20.
- For the material in this paragraph, I am indebted to a talk on “Art vs. Hunger” by David Jennings to a private audience (October 1, 2007) and to the sermon “The Beauty of Justice: Living Artfully” by Todd F. Eklof (http://www.cliftonunitarian.com/TheBeautyofJustice.htm).
- See Sir Ken Robinson’s excellent and entertaining talk “Do schools kill creativity?” from the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, February 2006. (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/66).
- Reimer, 43.
- Micah 6:8. Some online resources of interest include: Diary of an Arts Pastor (http://artspastor.blogspot.com), the writings of David Taylor, a leading edge arts pastor (one of the first ever) and lucid thinker on Christianity and the arts; Movie Theology (http://www.cmu.ca/library/faithfilm.html), an excellent reference list compiled by Gordon Matties, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at Canadian Mennonite University; and Theology Through the Arts (http://www.theolarts.org), home of a UK-based project that helped spur on the present renaissance in Christianity and the arts.