02 May 2011
Art: Revealing God's presence in His world
In the first half of the 20th century, the Pentecostal Howard Carter attended art college. He lived for his art. Yet, he felt he had to make a choice between Christ and art. And so: "One day never to be forgotten, Howard walked out of the art school, leaving everything behind – paints, brushes, palette, canvasses, modeling, tools - everything, and never went back. Christ had triumphed gloriously." Carter became chair of the British Assemblies of God.
Half a century later, church leadership asked a young musician to choose between being a rock artist or a Christian. He chose both. Ever since, U2 has inspired generations, while Bono uses his fame as a platform to draw attention to biblical justice for the extreme poor. Both his music and advocacy are 'class acts': two strands twined in one vocation.
Another half century later, NT Wright recounts his upbringing in a world where the arts constituted "the pretty border around the edge of reality, rather than a window on reality itself. The arts were for recreation and relaxation for those who liked that kind of thing, but…we didn't expect them to impinge on how we organised the world, how we ran the country, how we did our work, or indeed how we understood and expressed our faith".
Too often we have embraced a dualistic theology that divides mind from body and humanity from the divine. Also, a separation between the spiritual and the material in western culture has influenced our evangelical expression of church. And so, we have at times separated the arts from faith and have favoured the 'Word' as the primary means of engaging with the creator and the world.
John tells us: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14)." The beauty of this love story reveals God's desire to be intimately present. He is present within us now as our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
The artist's calling is to reveal God's presence in this world. Be they poet, painter, writer, sculptor, musician or performer, the artists tend to see beyond the surface of things; to observe colour, texture, shape and form, to be alert to sound, smell, emotion and movement. They aim to contain what they see through image, word, object or performance. Perhaps we need to rediscover our sense of wonder at the mystery of the indwelling of God in His creation, to draw attention to the minutiae of daily living, to things often unseen or passed by, and in this way seek to expose the human condition, to reveal both its beauty and its vulnerability; to try and hold in perfect tension the reality of the present moment, with all its pain and suffering, alongside the certain hope of the glory that is to come.
Observing the ordinary
The poet sees with the eyes of possibility - observing in the ordinary the hope of the hand of God continuing His work of creation, bringing all things together in Him. The imagination of the artist sees the world as it will be, through the seed of hope and truth present within the ordinariness of the present moment, be that the reflection of God in a beautiful landscape, or in the loving eyes of a friend during times of sorrow and loss.
Through the arts we can draw our attention to humanity's journey - from the pain of Good Friday to the hope and beauty of Easter Sunday. As Christian artists we need to shy away from sentimental interpretations of the gospel, reducing art to little more than religious propaganda and instead to embrace honesty in our portrayal of the wounding and the crosses that we bear as well as the light and hope of the resurrection.
We need to challenge the atheistic artistic expressions that dominate our galleries and screens with their violent and ugly reflections of the meaninglessness and pointlessness of life. In the words of NT Wright: "The vocation of the artist is to speak of the present as beautiful in itself but as pointing beyond itself, to enable us to see both the glory that already fills the earth and the glory that shall flood it to overflowing…The artist is thus to be like the Israelite spies in the desert, bringing back fruit from the promised land to be tasted in advance…to tell the story of the new world so that people can taste it, and want it, even while acknowledging the reality of the desert in which we presently live."
We are all expressions of God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Our vocations find their roots in who we are and the sense of purpose we have. Among a multitude of roles, the Spirit of God is still creating. In our architecture, urban planning, literature, education, movies, music, visual arts, enterprise and community work there are endless possibilities to create spaces that reflect the value of people and creation and so contribute to an environment where we all flourish. Art invites mystery and possibility; it awakens the inner spaces of spirit and soul where our belief and faith emerge. In this way, we bring expressions of the divine into everyday life. Our prophetic presence drawing attention to the Creator who has set eternity in the human heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11).