Even in high school I had been looking for an overarching conception of the world that would make sense of all my experiences. From time to time I would think that at last I’d found it, but always there was something that didn’t fit quite comfortably into my cosmorama. My picture of the world was always in need of repairs and revision, for new things were always being discovered.
During my undergraduate days at university I tried to reshape my image of the world with the help of whatever current philosophy I happened to be studying. The task is like having to fit together one of those baffling puzzles that will go together well enough in a dozen different patterns—except for the fact that there are always a few pieces left over! After my graduation I was still working away at the same project.
Several times during one particular year out West, I heard professors drop the remark that “theology and art, of course, are much the same thing.” Since I happen to enjoy painting, poetry, music and photography, these remarks caught my attention. In hope of discovering a model in artistic activity by which theology could be translated for nontheological minds, I began to read up on theories of art and beauty.
Art is a potent way of communicating ideas nonverbally. “One picture is worth a thousand words,” said Chinese wisdom. I needed to learn more about this kind of communication that uses symbols other than words.
I worked into the subject of Christianity and art, and gave an illustrated lecture course with that title. Perhaps you’d be interested in some of the ideas that seemed important to me at that stage of my thinking.
The Greek word poiein means “to make,” and in that language “poetry” means making things or composing things, especially songs. The classical Greeks had noticed that art and making things had a great deal in common. Since Christians commonly refer to God as their Maker, I thought that “making” would be a good starting point for a theological model. In his parables Jesus had spoken about “God’s work” in all sorts of ways. Since God is commonly conceived as one who shapes and manages things, there surely must be a fairly rich and extensive analogy between artistic activity and the ways of God.
Right away, however, when I tried to think of God as an artist, I ran into difficulties. The classical doctrine concerning God’s creating the world asserts that he created all things from absolutely nothing, from scratch, from a dead start. When a human artist does a painting, however, he or she is said to “merely rearrange” the pigmental substances which God created, in the “true” sense of creating from .scratch.
The artist does indeed rearrange pigments during the painting process. They are squeezed out of the tubes they came in, mixed a bit, then distributed to various portions of the support surface.
A painting, however, is much more than an aggregation of pigment particles. It is a unique configuration of relationships between the particles. Never before has anyone ever arranged those particular particles in exactly that way. Beyond the level of pigment particles there is the metalevel of the forms that emerge as the net effect of the positions of the pigments on the canvas. Each original painting is a first-time, absolutely novel organization of materials and forms. God may have created the substances of the pigments, but the artist can be truly said also to have created the particular patterns of relationship that constitute a particular painting. Theologians who confine “creating” to the de novo creation of substances are the first cousins of old-time materialists.
In the book of Genesis, the story of the creation of the world does not mention the creation of “substances” as such. That was later read into the story by philosophers and theologians. Genesis lays the emphasis on the creation of forms. At first the earth was formless, empty and dark. But the breath (wind? spirit?) of God moved over the fluid situation. The first “thing” that appeared was light. Light consists of wave forms, not of material substances in the ordinary sense. We used to assume that all waves, like water waves and sound waves, require a material medium through which to propagate. Light waves, however, can travel freely through a vacuum, devoid of all substances.
We never see anything more than patterns of light. We usually presume that the light which we see is reflected off substances, or that it originates from substances. But what are the substances? Contemporary physics considers material substances to be organizations of energy. Since the atomic bomb everyone knows that “matter” can be dissolved into energy. The molecules in the “matter” of the painter’s pigments consist of arrangements of atoms. An atom is an arrangement of subatomic particles. All we know about subatomic particles is that they leave tracks when they whiz through cloud chambers, and that they make other patterns in various other kinds of detection apparatus. Particle physicists can detect patterns, only patterns. “Substances” are patterns of energy. Energy radiates as “photons.” A photon, as a minimal “particle” of light, is a far cry from what traditional philosophy and theology meant by a particle of a substance. In the company of physicists today, theologians should not speak too loudly about God creating the substances which artists only rearrange. It would be better to say that God created light, and that artists have something to say about when, where and how it reaches people’s eyes.
In the book of Genesis, God, like an artist, is represented as an organizer of forms. The sky and the dry land must be distinguished from the sea. Out of sea and land the various forms of organisms appeared. God shaped man out of the dust of the earth. He reshaped that part of the man which was nearest his heart and made a woman. What glorious creatures the divine artist has made!
It is conceivable that God created artists, and all others who make things, in order to speed up the creative process by which he is making the world. God makes makers, one could say, as an amplification of his creative versatility. The whole project will move faster if he creates other creators. God has an appetite for new things and situations. If God can set thousands of artists and craftspeople to work, he need never take a brush or a tool into his own hand to explore the possibilities which lie latently in his world. His universe is incredibly pregnant with untold possibilities, and God can hardly wait to see them come forth into actuality. The woods of the world are full of sleeping beauties awaiting the kiss and touch of some artist prince.
I see nothing theologically incorrect in regarding artistic activity, i.e., designing and organizing, as at least part of the “image of God, the Creator,”1 which part may be seen very clearly in humans.
In order to achieve a certain effect in the minds of viewers, a painter must control his or her materials. All arts and crafts rely upon methods of control. The score written by a music composer is intended to control the performance of the work by musicians. The movements of dancers are expected to follow the choreographer’s score.
God’s sovereign control over his world is a common biblical theme. God’s word as Law was intended to control the behavior of his people. In keeping control, God can give or withhold power from anyone or anything. The prophet Jeremiah spoke at length of God as a potter who has absolute power over his clay. The apostle Paul took up the same theme.2
As the artists control their materials and plan out the whole enterprise, they operate from a metalevel. The painter in the actual world is outside the virtual world of the painting. The dramatic director doesn’t usually appear in the play. As a writer develops a story, his or her metaworldly initiative overrules all events in the virtual fictional world where the story unfolds. God as artist can be conceived as the ultimate metamodulator behind all transformations and organizations, whether actual, possible or virtual. Yet he himself may never appear in any of them.
Making ends meet
Why do artists do art? Why do they engage in artistic activity?
Some people make their living that way. They do art and sell it in order to eat. But many artists, both amateur and professional, would pursue their art even if no one ever paid them for it. They would do other work in order to buy materials for their art. Besides, a work of art can exist entirely within the mind of an artist, where it can be neither bought nor sold.
The work of some artists appears to express strong inner feelings in symbolic form. But why should anyone want to communicate their strong inner feelings to perfect strangers? Lots of people feel strongly about certain situations, yet they don’t feel driven to take up some forms of artistic activity. Why does one artist write a poem about a certain matter, while another paints a picture and yet another works up a dance?
Some works of art are obviously representations of known objects and scenes out there in the world. Granted that human beings have a basic inclination to imitate things and people around them, why does an artist elect to make a likeness of a certain scene and not of some others? Why do certain configurations and events “speak” or “call” to a certain artist, while in that situation other artists remain altogether unmoved? In any case, a mere “urge to imitate” cannot explain all those extraordinary art forms that don’t appear to imitate any actual thing whatsoever—art that owes its existence almost entirely to creative imagination.
Every artist knows what it is to be “gripped” by a great idea or “possessed” by passion for a project. Some elusive but extremely attractive vision lures the artist on in a certain direction to work in a certain way with a certain subject matter. Not until the work has been completed does what it was that kept beckoning so compellingly become known.
Perhaps artistic activity belongs in the same general class along with phenomena such as electromagnetic attraction, with whatever draws migrating creatures off on long journeys toward distant places, and whatever lures astronauts from the comforts of home to visit the desolate moon. In all of these remarkable events, things which were initially quite remote from each other are strangely brought together in a relationship which never existed previously.
If God is the maker of all things, including artists, God knows both where the artist is and where the subject matter is that would start creative sparks flying if those things and the artist were somehow brought together. God can make both ends meet. He can bring them together in a creative meeting out of which new compositions and novel arrangements are sure to emerge.
“Divine inspiration” is the oldest explanation of artistic activity. The artist certainly feels “carried away” by a great desire to create, to express or to represent something.
Artistic activity certainly originates somewhere beyond conscious rational purposes. It begins oftentimes with nothing much more than a vague feelingful idea. For days or even years that obscure notion may alter and shift, remaining indeterminate throughout a long formative process until eventually it emerges in a final and definite form. Only when the work has been completed does what was so long in the making stand clear in the light.
Psychologically oriented contemporary folklore prefers to replace “divine inspiration” with “the subconscious mind” as the source of an artist’s motivation and preoccupations. But inasmuch as the contents of the subconscious remain entirely unconscious, i.e., quite unknown, until such time as they become consciously known, neither the artist nor the art theorist can make much of what has been heretofore entirely unknown.
The mere existence of inert material in memory storage is not enough to explain its unpredictable eruptions and lively incursions into consciousness and art. Imaginative theorists therefore like to populate the murky depths of the subconscious with seething energies, struggling contradictions, forceful torrents, whirlpools of insecurity and writhing hordes of clawing nameless dynamic entities. If such things are actually known to be down there deep within an artist, are they really subconscious? Why is it that only some of them manage to burst into the daylight of consciousness? Why not others? Why not all of them? If everybody has a subconscious, why don’t we all become artists? If we have to choose between “the subconscious” and “divine inspiration” in explaining artistic activity, I’ll take God!
The wellsprings of artistic activity are part of the mystery of transcendence. The artist experiences a reaching-out to something beyond, a groping toward an all-encompassing meaning which is always there to be grasped, but can never quite be attained. There is an unresting awareness of an all-important absence, an intense yearning to fill a dimly understood vacancy. The artist longs for a fully satisfying completion that even the latest and best of his or her works has been unable to provide. These words which attempt to express the inexpressible apply equally well to both art and religion.
Too often, discussions of artistic activity concentrate either on the artist or on the products of his or her artistic endeavors. One must not overlook the whole process of production and what follows after an artwork’s technical completion. Artistic activity is a “doing.” But we must not forget that the artist’s doing still continues as long as a work of art holds someone’s attention and is being considered, enjoyed, appreciated or criticized. The artist rearranges more than art materials. The artist exerts an ongoing influence upon individuals and society.
Thinking makes it
Good art is never an unexplained miscellaneous heap that just happened. Good art possesses unity in variety and variety in unity—its elements are harmoniously interdependent. They belong together and work well together.
Not all works of art, however, are well integrated either within the composition or with respect to their social context. Some which are formally excellent nevertheless offend certain individuals or antagonize society. Artworks may sometimes appear to be rebellious, perverted, sinful or criminal. Has this art also been inspired by God? Who but God can say? Perhaps even so-called perversions may yet find a not insignificant place in some larger scheme of things. Darks and grays render a definite though obscure service among the bright-colored pigments.
If God is the artist of creation, his studio workshop can be a messy place, as “cluttered” as any other artist’s place. In the world that human hands have never touched there is plenty of untidiness by “good housekeeping” standards. Just take a walk in the woods. There are also misshapen monstrosities, incongruous mismatches and deadly conflicts. While many a social problem involves sexuality, human beings did not invent sexuality. Everything that seems so “out of place” in this world, everything that does not appear to be in keeping with the character of the Great Artist, is undoubtedly necessary in some way. The mining and preparation of pigments, the destruction of plants and trees to make art paper, the discarding of preliminary sketches—these are not in themselves pretty, pleasing or tidy operations. We have to wait for the finished production to evaluate the various phases of the preparatory process. An occasional or final masterpiece would justify it all.
We have been discussing the source of artistic activity in artists. We have been conceiving God as an artist who is creatively originating and reshaping the world. But why should God create any world at all, let alone take the trouble to reshape it? Why, for that matter, should he create artists?
Classical theologians have traditionally claimed that God is Pure Being, without desires, without passions or even feelings. They have called him the “unmoved mover,” for he neither changes, nor needs to exert himself in the least to push or pull things. He simply lures them on by his sheer attractiveness so that all things work together toward the best possible world.
Theologians generally regard a question as to God’s motivation as impious and wrong-headed. They say God needs nothing. He is self-sufficient, therefore he desires nothing. He would not allow himself to be moved to action by anything he himself has created, for he must retain all the power and initiative. Nor is God moved by capricious surges of inner feelings. God never changes. If he does anything, he does it right the first time. (But can a God so characterized really do anything ever?)
Biblical writers, unlike classical theologians, however, never hesitated to tell of God’s acts of will3 and guidance,4 as well as his persuadability5 and his changes of mind.6 As presented in the Bible, God can love and hate,7 be well pleased8 and become angry.9 God speaks10 again and again. He works with his hands11 and also rests from his work.12 The God of the Bible definitely has desires,13 sets forth requirements14 and dispenses rewards15 to those who have performed well.
Academic theologians usually smile tolerantly at these “figures of speech,” these unfortunate “anthropomorphisms” which, they say, are “concessions to human ignorance and the intellectual deficiency of the uneducated.” Such expressions seem to imply that these authorities have some means of privileged access to the “real” truth about the nature of God which was not available to biblical writers. But how could they, highly educated or not, come to know so surely that the Creator is not in fact actually describable in humanesque terms very like these familiar biblical expressions which they deplore? Who has the right to decree with an air of finality that God may not and cannot have his own dreams, desires, feelings and satisfactions like earthly artists?
A barren “ontomorphism”—the analogy of Pure Being which provided the metaphysical foundation for classical philosophical theology—has seldom inspired in human hearts much worship, service or fellowship. The biblical portrayal of God makes much more sense. It can at least awaken a lively and relevant human response.
Now let’s return to the question as to why God created a world at all, especially one containing comakers. Maybe he simply likes making things. The vast and intricate enterprise of creating the earth and all its sun-powered systems tamed out so marvellously and so beautifully that the Creator seems to have gotten carried away with creative exhilaration, lust for the fun of it, he flung thousands of millions of stars into space! “He made the stars also.”16 And it was good.
Maybe God also likes watching people make things. It is fascinating to look over the shoulder of someone at work on an artistic project. There are countless kinds of things to be made, and most of us like making them. I think God takes pleasure in his people, in their music and their joy.17 If God gets no satisfaction out ofhis world, the reason he created it with all its artists and makers must remain forever inscrutable. Because scientific accounts of the world’s origin never include any use or purpose for the whole vast enterprise, to many people speculations which never go beyond science seem hopelessly incomplete and humanly unsatisfying.
In the Bible God rejoices in whatever delights us. The Tabernacle was made to be beautiful. So was the Temple in Jerusalem. The beauty of the New Jerusalem envisioned by John in tile Revelation surpassed the apostle’s powers of description. “And the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it… and they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it.”l8 Presumably God delights in all this and intends to share it with his people.
The first question of the old Presbyterian catechism was, “What is man’s chief end?” The answer? “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” “Enjoy” in those days meant “to fill someone with joy” rather man “to receive joy from something.” The chief purpose of human endeavors is to please God—the same purpose as that for which all other things were and are created by the Greatest Artist of all. The slogan “art for art’s sake” should read “art for God’s sake.” I believe that’s why God makes artists.
The artist image
In the Genesis story, God was interested in having a garden. He created a man and a woman to look after it for him. No doubt they moved plants, stones and soils about, arranging them into pleasing and useful formations. Adam and Eve were landscape architects: they were created to be artists—in the image of God. The two of them enjoyed the creative work so much that it never felt like burdensome toil. But when making a garden for God had deteriorated into desperate agriculture for the sake of survival, it was obvious that the significance of their lives had sadly deteriorated.
In the wilderness God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle as a spiritual focus for the people. Moses understood that the Spirit of God himself had given skills for artistic designing in all kinds of crafts to Bezaleel and his coworkers.1S
Artists—and who isn’t an artist in some way?—have a special role in God’s world. They bring out hidden possibilities which lie dormant in what God has created. Their new combinations of old forms source new emergences, thus furthering God’s creative process. The artist works in a world that already exists, but works toward all sorts of forms that have never yet appeared. Artistic activity forges ahead along paths no one else ever followed, discovering what no other eyes have yet seen. None of the beautiful and useful creations of human artistry would have come to pass if God had not called someone to do what artists and designers keep doing.
The call to artistic activity is definitely akin to religious experience. Sometimes in fact, the artist feels as if divine revelation has been received. Familiar things are suddenly seen in an entirely different way, and the world seems made new. It is as if a common desert bush appears to be burning with a strange, important fire, but yet it is not being consumed. Something new is urgently pressing to be born. Some significant pattern lying there hidden in a clutter of irrelevancies, is calling to be freed from its encumbrances to stand out clearly in pure splendor, gleaming for all. Some chance conjunction of things may set off a vision of countless echelons of significant analogies that range out and up and down far beyond where the mind can reach.
Entranced by such visions and expanding experiences, the artist feels impelled to express them somehow to share them with others. The inner revelation must be embodied in materialized forms so arranged that the message can be read by all. One artist’s insight may inspire other artists to expand the vision still further. Like compound fireworks, burst after burst of brilliance may light up the night of human mediocrity as new virtual worlds appear in the midst of the commonplace.
Products of artistic activity are rightly called works. It takes hard work to bring some dimly intuited but significant form into actuality. There must be commitment to the task, a heavy commitment of time, energy and resources, as well as a redirection of one’s life and materials. There may be many false starts, many repudiations of first efforts, many times of beginning again.
In beginning a work of art, the artist always takes a great risk. Some better idea may turn up or unforeseen technical problems may develop while the work is under way. Materials seem to have a mind of their own. They never really belong to the artist entirely and exclusively. After the artist has done his or her best, the completed work will likely fall short of capturing the fullness of that original elusive dream. Nevertheless, despite ever-present anxiety, and the prospect of long hours of labor, new works of art are always being commenced in faith and hope and love.
So it is with God’s work, in his making of the world throughout the ages.
If anything goes wrong in the process, the artist alone is responsible. No one else may be blamed. Every time a new painting is begun, the artist’s self-esteem is laid on the line. When the world goes wrong, God suffers with our suffering. He is afflicted with our affliction.>9 Here we draw near to the foot of the Cross.
An artist engages in the artistic task with a deep and sincere desire. That’s awfully close to what a prayer is. Musical parents are always deeply involved in their child’s performance at a music festival. Their muscles ache with a tense desire that their child may do everything just right. I can believe that the artist at work is caught up in the urgent current of God’s own creative prayer: “Let it be done just so.” This may be the source of that great responsibility an artist feels for “getting this just right.”
Artistic activity and technical activity are similar in many ways, but in others they are quite different. Both kinds of making begin with a mental conception and end with a material realization of that idea. The end product of technical work is expected to fill a gap in some physical pathway of communication, some vacant place in the continuity of a causal linkage or process. Without one of the gears in the train the clock won’t run. Without a carburetor the car is out of commission. Once the gearwheel has been put in place and the carburetor has been installed, the clock and the car engine will keep on running whether or not someone is watching.
The end product of artistic activity, however, depends upon the presence of a conscious viewer, listener, participant or performer. The working of a piece of art ceases when no one is paying attention to it.
While technical activity makes something work in the actual world, artistic activity arranges forms in space and time to create a whole new virtual world. If a painter depicts slender saplings bending over in one direction with tall grass almost flattened in that same direction and a blurry scat of leaves hustling along just above the ground, the viewer sees a strong wind blowing. No actual wind is even stirring among the pigmented forms on the canvas. But nonetheless there is a strong virtual wind in that virtual place.
During a ballet performance, when one dancer makes a yanking motion and another distant dancer moves at the tug, the audience immediately senses some invisible connection between the two dancers—a virtual rope. By skillfully representing effects, an artist can evoke a virtual world of causes. A good mime, by simulating the reactions that characteristically follow certain actions, can populate an empty stage with characters that are not actually there. Virtual situations presented by artistic means evoke in the viewers much the same feelings as those which would be appropriate in the corresponding real-life situations.
Religions postulate the actual existence of authoritative but invisible “spiritual” personages and principles. Although these cannot ordinarily be seen in actual places at actual times, the effects of their presence and power are nonetheless visible in the actual world. Artistic activity can therefore be very useful in religions, for it can create a virtual world in which these transcendent persons and principles may be seen and heard. Stories, dramas and rituals, with or without music, dancing or magical effects, can teach people how to identify and handle potentially dangerous social situations, as well as how to explain the mysterious aspects of their experience.
Unsophisticated people with literalistic minds seldom make a clear distinction between virtual worlds and the actual world. They assume mat events recounted in ancient tales actually happened exactly as told in the stories. Labeling those old narratives as “myths” is intensely resented. Contemporary children (of any age!) love and hate characters in movies or TV as if the actors were really the people they are portraying. Nowadays even university students easily confuse movie or TV stories with actual history.
A painter deliberately composes the forms in a picture so as to direct the course of the viewer’s gaze from a point of entry into the picture’s virtual world, through one minilocale after another until the essentials of the scene have been visited. This controlled little virtual tour can arouse much the same feelings in a viewer as he or she would have experienced during a walk through similar actual places, under the commanding guidance of the artist. Led on by the compositional technique, the viewer leaves his or her actual setting behind and follows the artist’s cunningly placed suggestions that subtly lead ever onward through the virtual world of the picture space. The artist controls not only the materials and forms within the picture, but also the eyes, feelings and thoughts of its viewer.
Every fine art is a similar instrument of personal power. Everyone knows what it is like to be hooked by a TV program or to be glued to a midnight movie until the wee small hours. The movie director has the camera lowered over a cliff, and in the depths of an easy chair your stomach sickens from falling.
The divine Artist provides for our entry into the world. Thereafter he arranges situation after situation which bears strongly on our directional choices. We can take these situations as annoying delays, frustrating barriers and miserable handicaps, or we can accept them graciously and gratefully as guiding devices designed by God to turn our attention and energies in directions we had not intended. If we don’t run our consciousness through the right itinerary, we may never really see the picture God intended us to see.
Works of art can help a viewer-participant to experience the mystery of the ineffable, the glory of the divine, and the meaning of life. Because a virtual world is by its very nature “other worldly,” art can generate and express profound feelings of worship. In the presence of sacred symbols a worshiper feels overcome by a power from beyond. This experience renews a sense of the reality of the divine realm from which earthly events derive supernal meaning. Art therefore can function as a powerful persuader in matters of conduct and service.
At one time or another religious leaders in the Western world have employed all the modes of all the arts for religious purposes. Occasionally nevertheless bare-bones restrictions have been imposed upon the religious use of the arts, allowing only the spoken word, the written word and a dozen or so tunes for singing or chanting.
Relations between religion and the arts have always been somewhat controversial. Sometimes they can be allies, friends, or almost identical twins. At other times and in certain respects they become the worst of rivals or enemies. Let’s consider some of the main sources of tension.
The virtual worlds created by the arts are akin to the mentacosmic realms created by games. Serious religious temperaments feel bound to insist that real life is no game. When one’s eternal destiny and one’s personal well-being and the impact of society upon one’s children are things at stake, life is not to be taken lightly. It must be admitted, however, mat there is nothing like a little playful humor or a well-barbed cartoon for deflating the overswollen pomposity of ecclesiastical personages who on the other hand can sometimes take themselves far too seriously.
A loose-living actor or actress can simulate a virtuous person. Religious people are anxious to distinguish pretended goodness from the real thing. To them imitation virtue is an outrageous affront to genuine honesty. The difference between appearance and reality, between deception and truth, should never be blurred by mere acting.
It seems an extreme overreaction, however, in the name of religious sentiment to renounce interest in all of the imitative skills of artists. Every form of religious communication, including the spoken and written word, must possess some kind of style. What could be wrong about observing, seeking out and trying to use the most effective possible appropriate style? Some church leaders could learn valuable pointers from the successful practitioners of the performing arts. All preachers give some thought, it is to be hoped, to the effective delivery of their messages. Why should they not adopt the best means available, even if the same methods are also used by actors and actresses whose personal lives seem unsavory.
To some religious thinkers, people who live by the arts are wasting their valuable lifetimes in creating fanciful fictions. They would be much better off to spend their days engaging in some more useful, down-to-earth occupation. Solid material achievements seem to be very superior to the empty illusions produced by the arts.
People in the arts, however, are not the only ones who use their creative imagination. Religious depictions of invisible spiritual realms, events of the distant past and those yet to come, have not been at all times free from fantastic embellishments. Some funeral eulogies have been an exercise in not-so-pure fiction. It has always been difficult to separate the sober whole truth from interpretation, from fanciful fiction and deliberate deception. Christian teachers have sometimes been so effective at turning biblical stories into events in a virtual world which they themselves have created that the “Egypt” of Moses has nothing whatever to do with contemporary geographical Egypt. Christians know full well that Jesus was a man among men, but many believers have preferred to think of him as someone who never got his feet dirty, who never took a bath or had to relieve his excretory needs.
The forgiveness of sins, as conceived in some theology, puts God in the position of one who plays “let’s pretend this person has not sinned.” God himself then becomes a creator of fiction. In the Old Testament the basis of the forgiveness of sins had two conditions attached to it. There had to be a due and proper repentance, and also an offering of the appropriate sacrifice. The blood of the sacrifice “covered” the sins. “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!”20 The notion of “covering” seems to imply that though a person’s sins were very real, God will treat them “as though” they had never been committed. The point is that while the repentant sinner is still a sinner, he or she is not permanently rejected because of the sinning.
The apostle Paul, believing that the end of the world was at hand, advised Corinthian Christians to live in a virtual, “as if” kind of world. “The time has been shortened, so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of the world is passing away.”21
Traditional presentations of the Incarnation teach that Jesus of Nazareth, although to all appearances and in every way a man, was “really” God in human form and flesh. Traditional “Either-or” logic would ask Christians to make up their minds. Was Jesus man or was he God? Was God putting on an act in human flesh? Magical religions characteristically don’t object to the interchangeability of appearance and reality. A fox following a traveler will routinely turn out to be “really” an evil magician in that animal’s form.
The “persons” of the Holy Trinity, actors remind us, were called “persons” because of the “persona” or mask which was worn by an actor, through which he or she spoke when portraying some special character. Does God also employ theatrical art?
Christian theology, like every other system of thought, makes full use of “virtual” language such as “is really,” “as if,” “as though,” and the like. It therefore ill behooves the church to despise artists because they deal in “appearances” and illusions. Even the soberest of logic begins every chain of reasoning with the words (assumed), “If it be taken as true that… ” Virtual truth, the artist’s stock in trade, is apparently welcome in the best of intellectual company.
Biblical religion is dead set against any kind of idolatry. Any picture or statue created by an artist could always be taken for an idol. So could movie stars and athletes. It is difficult to distinguish “idol worship” from the “veneration” of icons, statues and symbols. Here the distinction between “actual reality” and “virtual appearance” is crucial. Let those decide who can.
Church people have sometimes damned art because its techniques can be used to elicit emotional states which are religiously, morally and socially undesirable. Sensuality can be seductively portrayed in ways that subvert the best interests of social and family life. Artistic productions can satirize and ridicule things which are of great spiritual and social value. Art can strengthen the hands of the enemies of society.
Technical developments can also be used for destructive purposes. The church, however, does not repudiate all techniques because some technical products and processes have caused some severe problems. Why then should all art forms be rejected by the church.
All of the cardinal Christian doctrines can be set forth in terms of artistic activity.
The creation of a visible, moving world by the will and word of a creating God has always been easy for most of us to assimilate.
The incarnation has always been easy to understand as the coming of a new and divinely ideal form of life which would inform the physical world and transform it into the likeness of God. Art similarly imparts a new form to its materials and remarkably upgrades their significance.
The work of Christ has often been called that of’ “redemption.” The primary meaning of the word redemption is the purchase of a slave from a slave owner, in order to set the slave free. In an analogous way, artists have sometimes thought of their work as that of liberating some forms which they value from surroundings or contexts that obscure their significance. The sculptor “frees the angel from the stone,” or the faces of presidents from Mount Rushmore.
I once was struck by the beauty of a particular grouping of trees on a rocky point along the shore of Sechelt Inlet. Hoping to paint that scene some day, I preserved it in a photograph. But when I projected the colored slide I couldn’t discern just what in that scene had moved me to take that picture. On the screen the underbrush and background vegetation stood on equal terms with whatever other features had once impressed me with the beauty of their composition. To paint that scene powerfully I would have to eliminate most of the irrelevant contextual clutter, downplaying the background in order to emphasize only those essential elements which originally caught my eye. To liberate some particular form, I have to abstract it from the whole complex scene. I can include only a selected few of all the relationships. My eye discriminates but my camera does not.
The actual world which God makes is so richly complex that innumerable paintings can arise from the same situation. Each will capture only selected aspects of a certain scene. But each of those aspects, subtle, elusive and fleeting as many of them are, can be “eternalized” by artistic activity for others to look upon and appreciate. One hopes that God also “eternalizes” in his memory only the most Christ-like excerpts of our lives.
Given an enhancing setting in the proper light, nothing is so ugly that from a certain perspective it cannot shine with beauty, interest and charm. Is there not here some analogy between artistic activity and Christ’s work of sanctification? What the Spirit of Christ was able to do with Saul, the murdering persecutor of the Christians, was a glorious thing. There is hope for the ugliest situation if the Spirit of God is at work there.
In considering the process of painting an actual scene, we must not forget what happens to the pigments, the brushes, the medium and the canvas. These uncelebrated, rather ordinary materials almost lose their own separate identities as they merge their contributions into the whole painting. But as they lose their original state to this other pictorial scheme of things, they find a new and heightened significance. Similarly the various items and aspects of the physical world which affect our lives, the plants and animals with which we associate, as well as the unnamed people who serve us in passing, all of them participate in whatever worthiness may be achieved in us as we shape up before God. Of course they themselves may have achieved a degree of worthiness by the quality of the service which they administered to unknowns.
In artistic work, the phenomenon of emergence is particularly striking. Materials in combinations may be transfigured and come to shine with a glory not their own. The meaning of an artist’s brush strokes does not squirt out of the tubes with the pigments. Nor does it lie somewhere behind them, as in cause-and-effect thinking. The meaning of the artist’s brush strokes lies somewhere ahead of what is presently going on, in a picture that was totally unknown to the pigment grinder, the brush, manufacturer and the canvas weaver.
Similarly the meaning of the sacraments does not lie in a reservoir of water, a granary full of wheat or baskets full of grapes. To gain their sublime meaning, these things must be taken up and used, that is, reshaped into other forms related to human intentions, personal faith, institutional practices, and the working of God. The servants of God never quite know what they do. Their words and deeds may accomplish things they never dreamed of, unto the ends of the earth and of time.
Good composition is essential to great painting. Composition is a relational phenomenon, a matter of organization. By the word and spirit of Jesus, the Maker of makers has accomplished a major reorganization of many individual lives, of various societies and of the religious consciousness of the whole world. The history of the physical world is a story of continual shifting and reorganization.
In a work of art, inappropriate discordant elements should not occur unintentionally. All parts of it should be brought together and related harmoniously into one larger whole. This brings to mind Christ’s work of reconciliation or at-one-ment. The most wonderful dream of which humans are capable is an actual cosmic harmony between all things, all creatures, all humans and God. This must surely also be the highest aim of the divine Artist. The fulfilling of that primordial vision in the kingdom of God would certainly give clearer significance to what has been in the making all through history. Not until we see the finished production will we be able to grasp and appreciate the significance of all the divine artistic activity which is presently proceeding. Not until all things are consummated in harmonious unicity will it be possible to say with finality why God made a world of makers, or how any one individual maker fits into the total picture.
It is a truly God-sized task to carry through to completion this colossal aim of constructing a new heaven and a new earth out of the human achievements and historical experience of this earth plus that of whatever other worlds there may be. Such a task throughout the ages requires superlative ingenuity, unsurpassable patience, indelible memory and inconceivably skillful management.
In the day of the consummation of all things, it would be great to be even the tiniest dab of the divine brush somewhere in God’s completed cosmorama—or to be in one of the frames that will be run in the final divine film festival! A phrase in the greatest symphony of all time! Oh to recognize a small patina of one’s own life-treasure incorporated in the noblest of all structures, risen transfigured from the ashes of decay, completely restored and filling an appropriate and significant place in the glorious exposition of the kingdom of God!
Presumptuous or not, this sort of attempt to perceive the working of God in terms of artistic activity was my first conscious attempt to bridge the gap between technical people and the theological mind.
Communication takes place only when those who speak speak so their hearers can hear and grasp meaning in the messages. An understanding between people may be accomplished by means of the spoken word, the printed word, or by many kinds of analogical symbols, as in art. If one believes that God desires to create a people in harmony with himself, with each other, and with their environment, and mat this creative purpose is to be achieved by God’s “word” heard and obeyed, all means of communication, including art, should be explored for theological insights.
One morning the sergeant on duty in the North Vancouver police station picked up his phone. A lady explained that she had a problem. “Our house is on a hillside, and the recreation room downstairs opens out onto a lawn that runs back to the woods. My little girl didn’t shut the rec room door last night. And what do you suppose we have under the stairs this morning? A SKUNK! I don’t want to shoot it or poison it. What shall I do?”
After a brief consultation with another officer, the sergeant advised her to leave the door open and lay a trail of wiener chunks or other food all the way out to the woods. During the night the hungry animal would follow the trail, eating its way back out into the woods.
The next morning—you guessed it—she had TWO SKUNKS in her basement!
Pathways for communication are two-way streets. If I can communicate with you, you can communicate with me. If a theologian’s effort to understand artists is at all successful, the artist can also come to understand theologians. If God fully understands what it is to be a human being and speaks to us in terms of the human existence with which we are familiar, we can also speak to God and speak of God also to one another in humanly significant terms. When a theologian becomes an artist or an engineer, his or her theology should become more meaningful to artists or engineers.
If only there were some way for each of us to learn all the languages, or for all people to learn the same one language! Christians must work diligently at learning other people’s languages so that new paths of communication may be opened up. Then the word of God in Jesus and in all things can course back and forth more effectively, contributing more positively toward the harmonization of this fragmented world.
1. Genesis 1:27.
2. Jeremiah 18:1-6; Romans 9:20-23.
3. John 6:38-40.
4. Psalm 32:8.
5. Genesis 18:22-33.
6. Genesis 6:6.
7. Romans 9:13.
8. Isaiah 56:4.
9. Numbers 11:10. 10. Genesis 3:8ff.
11. Psalm 8:3,6; John 5:17.
12. Genesis 2:2.
13. Psalm 68:16.
14. Micah 6:8.
15. Matthew 6:1.
16. Genesis 1:16.
17. Psalm 149:1-4.
18. Exodus 35:30ff.
19. Isaiah 63:9.
20. Psalm 32:1.
21. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.