Monday, 7 September 2009

Art and Grace

"Look at the world around you. It supplies all your bodily needs. It feasts your eyes with beauty. It's glory reflects the glory of God, and so it feasts your soul".

John Chrysostom.

Last week brought a time of trail and challenge leading to unforeseen assistance and rich creativity in my seeking to run an arts workshop, (which I've written about further here).
It reminded me, once again, just how important it is to recognize the deeper, the spiritual, within all that we do, especially our creative activities, which it's easy to mis-construe due to certain forms of spirituality as alien and excluded from the Christian life.

With those considerations in mind, I've placed below a paper on the subject that you might find of interest, and I'd be happy to hear your feedback, thoughts and comments. I hope it proves useful to anyone thinking about or engaged in this field:

Seeing the Rainbow
Redemptive Insights for the Arts.
By Howard Nowlan

Although we live in the present, we do not contend according to the current trends or views. The instruments we employ in our struggle are empowered before God to demoralise and confuse those theories and world-views that suppositionally work against a true knowledge of God. Our testimony seeks to bring everything to the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Regarding life in general, whatever is true, worthy of reverence, honorable, lovely and lovable, whatever is pure, whatever is kind, winsome or gracious, wherever there is virtue or excellence, if there is something worthy of praise, consider and weigh up such things and fix your thoughts upon these”. (Philippians 4:8).


Some years ago, I had an experience that has always remained with me when I consider my engagement with art. I was on a visit to the British museum, and had spent a few hours exploring the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian galleries – countless stele, inscriptions, sarcophagi and the like. I then came to a point of transformation. I entered a small, circular room, which contained a single sculpture – an almost life-like white marble representation of Diana bathing. This simple but striking moment informed me that I had moved into the realm of the Greeks.

My immediate impression in that room was that I had crossed a threshold; from the dark, somewhat primitive ancient past into the era of modern civilisation. Here was clearly something that looked more human, more natural, than all those strange galleries that had preceded this vision. I was transfixed – the very response, no doubt, that the artist had hoped for. It was only later that I reflected on the problems with the startling image in that room.

Genuine divinity or humanity, of course, have to be something deeper than that marble vision, and whilst I still revel at such beauty in art, this image serves us well in this session, and I will explain why.

I often recall that very experience when I think of the day when Paul found himself troubled amidst the numerous supposedly ‘divine’ figures in the city of Athens (Acts 17:16). Outwardly, no doubt, many of them were as beautiful as the sculpture of the naked Diana I viewed in the British Museum, but like that image, they spoke of something far deeper to the Apostle, an inherent (often willful) ignorance within that particular culture when it came to the issue of very nature of reality.

In unpacking the reasons behind Paul’s grief and anger on that day, we can really begin to gain an insight into some of the problems we face with some of the attitudes and intentions in a diverse array of artistic endeavors in our own age, and equally, I think, begin to glean something of a understanding of the way we can productively engage with and involve ourselves in art – in terms of either examination or participation. So let’s look at the Athens incident a little deeper.

The Broken Fiber
Inherent in our tasting and testing of all things will be a discernment regarding both the structure (the composition and nature) and the direction (the objective) of the item or supposition that is before us. That may sound a little complex, so think of this in terms of applying a ‘salt and light’ test of the kind that Jesus Himself provides (Matthew 5:13) to Paul’s day and encounter at Athens.

Calvin Seerveld notes that when it comes to Greek art, there was an inherent fracture that essentially tainted their entire world view.

Plato, for example, viewed poets and the like as mad, and sculptors and artisans were generally tolerated as menials, hired labour; indulged because of their product.
The West today tends to admire the Greeks for their achievements, but in this quite common aristocratic attitude of their day, which actually abhorred direct labor within the physical world, we can identify a key problem in Greek living and gain our first foothold into Christianity’s aversion of this philosophy.

The artists of that time were not seeking to fashion a genuine expression of either their own world or the divine; they were conforming their work to an ideology where, as Paul would write to the Romans, the genuine glory of both God and His creation is exchanged for forms and images that conform to our present demeaned notions of spirituality (Romans 1:23).

The Christian’s concern regarding the images that surround us today, equally cannot be merely at the immediate level – the ‘who, why and where’ are going to be key in how we view and weigh these things.

Paul was angered not because what he saw had no artistic form or skill, but because these very gifts were being employed to propagate a lie concerning the nature of God and Mankind.

How is it really possible for a culture to adore and venerate a female persona as divine, for example, when its most inspired teachers declared women to be ‘mutilated males, without souls’ (Aristotle – De Generatione Animalium)? Amongst the Greeks, the female actually represented the realm of “matter and the body, of imperfection” (Phillip Samson – The Body), only enlightened men were close to truth.
How different to the Biblical understanding, where, for example, in Ephesians we are informed that in the physical union of man and woman as one flesh, brings us the closest image possible of the spiritual bond that has occurred between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31,32).

The inherent lie within so much ‘beautiful’ art and philosophy is that the material world does not really matter; we can spurn its claims either by Platonic or Epicurean belief and thereby dissect the body and the soul. The world denies the God in whom we now ‘live and move and have our being’, and that is bad enough, but the pain for the Christian seeking to be true to their faith in understanding and action does not end there.

Hollywood film producer Ralph Winter notes that the place where there is least understanding of His work and vocation is amongst those that he encounters at church. How can a Christian, they ask, be involved in making science fiction or supernatural comedy? How can someone like Rene Russo, they ask, claim to be a Christian and appear unclothed on screen?
The assumption, of course, is that true righteousness views such activity as unclean, but as we hinted at the beginning, could it be that this ‘do not’ approach has actually swallowed the same poison as the Greeks? It is time to face the full force Paul’s message to the philosopher’s head on!

Tearing Down and Building Up

Sharing the Christian message, notes John Frame, is all about meaningfully expressing the reason that we have the hope that we do, so, what kind of argument is Paul making for our faith against the reasoning of his day?
It’s actually quite familiar. Here’s a snippet – a slightly amended rendition - of a recent popular version entitled The Unquiet Dead:

Charles Dickens: We must be under some mesmeric influence
The Doctor: No we’re not, this is really happening
Dickens: Poppycock! – I saw nothing but an illusion
Doctor: If you’re going to deny what really happened, don’t waste my time
Dickens: There must be some mechanism behind all this
Doctor: Oh come on Charles, you can see what’s happening
Dickens: Can it be that I have the world entirely wrong?
Doctor: Not entirely – there’s just much more to learn

The shock of Christianity is that it brings us to realise that the forces we often take for granted – the power of sin and death – are not natural or good; they are alien to the life God created and is seeking to renew through His redemptive work in Jesus Christ. This world will be a place where landscapes and life exist unbent by the forces of entropy and decay. What will it be like to inhabit such a universe?

The conclusion of all human understanding of the present is that it is fleeting, leaving us like the teacher in ecclesiaties, with nothing of value; so we must merely enjoy the moment or transcend to a higher realm, but that is not the case. Paul tells the wise of his day that God has concluded the entire value and meaning of history in an event in the life of one man – the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:32).
No more disembodied realms beyond, no more about it being over at the grave – this man defines the future – and the future will be as real as our being here now.
The entire realm of creation, writes Paul, is currently groaning for the day when this same Jesus will bring about the resurrection of God’s children, that this order may become the delight that it is truly meant to be. God is revealed in Jesus Christ for a specific purpose – to reconcile this world, and all creation with it, to Him.

Perhaps now we can also begin to see why the Christian who seeks to totally rubbish those involved in the arts is actually on very thin ice. The attitude toward life and the body imported from the Greeks into Christianity by Augustine and others does not sit well with the actual kind of life that is supposed to be seen amongst us.

Don’t allow your faith to become spoiled, notes Paul, by deceitful ideas that miss-understand the nature of the spiritual. Do not accept the notion that by abiding to countless rules with regards to diet, clothing, religious duties and the like, you will become a more ‘spiritual’ person; these things are like specters before the substance found in Jesus Christ. You have escaped this nonsense, so do not give ground to the ‘do not touch, do not taste’ fraud again, because there is no value in it (Colossians 2).

It is only when we see God’s work impacting upon our lives in this direct and relevant way that we can take up our vocation – whether that be dancing, writing, painting or preaching – and use it well, invest it with value. If we ignore or spurn the Apostle’s guidance, then we will effectively bury the very resources that God has granted each of us to express the richness of His life within the world.

What is needed, then, amongst Christians is a creational approach to life, what some have called the ‘Reformation of the Natural’ (Wittmer) because God’s work in creation is established, underpinned and finally brought to full expression through the Redemptive work of our Lord and Saviour.
Christ, the one who made all things, came as the peacemaker that all things in heaven and earth may be reconciled to Him (Paul to the Colossians).

“Picture a diver”, writes C S Lewis, “stripping off his clothes until naked, then hanging for a moment as he jumps high into the air, before going down into the deep pitch black – cold, freezing as he descends to the bottom, to the very mud and slime, and then up, back towards the light, his lungs aching, as he bursts out upon the surface, holding in his hand the thing he went so deep to gain. This thing is our redemption, but not only ours – all things: a renewed universe”. (The Grand Miracle)

A Few Pointers

When we look at Christianity, we see that this revelation is at the heart, not only of God’s general revelation of Himself (Genesis 1&2), but equally in the acceptance of the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Word, notes John, is the one who made all things, so we have to forsake any secular or dualistic attitude to vocation that inherently detaches itself from Him.

Through Christ, we will reject a deformed or negating understanding of what has truly occurred on earth in the events of creation, fall and redemption. Our lives will seek to express and address these things, and art can be a very striking and viable means of doing so. The Christian true to their calling will live in interactive correspondence with the passages we read at the beginning, and that flavour will prove to be something savouring and telling to those we encounter.

If we really are those who trust in the one who has made everything beautiful in its time and placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then our engagement with life will provide some insight to others that will aid against, as one scientist puts it, “the key human illness of fragmentation” – the inability to genuinely “assimilate the experience of the depth of beauty and meaning” around us (Bohm – Creativity). “If we understand that all matter is God-breathed, we will not merely view it as a vehicle for an idea, or an inconvenient veil to be penetrated and then abandoned. We will discover ‘the fascinating, the mysterious, oft times frustrating and occasionally exhilarating experience of being lead along ‘in conversation’ with the material realm, so that our engagement works best as one dancer put it, when the dance has danced you” (Brand and Chaplin – Art and Soul). This will undoubtedly involve risk-taking and learning from what people state that will bring about constructive, valid changes to our work. Because of where our certainty lies, our engagement with the arts, whether it is in the form of writing or performing, painting or merely understanding, can be true and honest, because our conviction and confidence rests within a certain reality concerning the nature and future of all things.

Let me summarize through the words of a favorite artist:
"An artist explores enlightenment through the material world. Unfortunately, the nature – the material of us is often dismissed as ungodly. It's an old concept in our culture that the material world is the work of the devil and to be seeking after God, you have to dismiss this. I think the opposite is really true. The material world is really something both sacred and spiritual, and the artist, if he neglects that, is being driven by cultural forces that are making a mistake. We explore our spirituality through the material". (Roger Dean: Views DVD Biography)

God, in Christ Incarnate, is reconciling the material world to Himself.
May our lives and our enjoyment and engagement with art reflect this.

Reference Material:

Calvin Seerveld – Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves – Piquant 2000
Philip J Sampson – Six Modern Myths – IVP 2000
John M Frame – Apologetics to the Glory of God – P&R 1994
BBC Television – Dr Who: The Unquiet Dead – Aired April 2005
Michael E Wittmer – Heaven is a Place on Earth – Zondervan 2004
C S Lewis – God in the Dock – Harper-Collins 1971
David Bohm – Creativity – Routledge Press 1998
Hilary Brand & Adrienne Chaplin – Art & Soul – Solway 1999
Roger Dean: Views: The Authorised Biography (DVD) – Classic Rock 2002

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