(In The Life Of The Church)
Josh asked me to write an entry for the newsletter this week while he’s on vacation. I’ve been thinking about beauty quite a bit lately, so I’ve decided to ramble about that for a few paragraphs. I've been thinking primarily about how I can get drawn in to looking at certain images. I'll go ahead and assume I'm not alone in this. Isn’t it interesting that beauty grabs our attention so well? Sure, an eye for beauty is in some sense an acquired taste (and those with "acquired tastes" sometimes disagree on what fits the bill), but I would venture to guess that most of us have found ourselves captivated by something. For example, I can get lost staring at pictures of Space—like this image of the Crab Nebula:
There is something overwhelmingly beautiful to me about stuff like this—the colors, the light and darkness— I sometimes find it hard to look away.
Let’s assume for a second that the gravitational pull of beauty isn’t an accident—let’s assume it was a design choice that was carefully selected when God crafted this thing we call humanity. Could it be that God uses beauty to draw us closer to Godself? If this is the case, does God speak to us—teach us—through beauty? I’d say yes.
In For All God’s Worth, N.T. Wright says this about beauty:
I want to suggest to you… that our ordinary experiences of beauty are given to us to provide a clue, a starting-point, a signpost, from which we move on to recognize, to glimpse, to be overwhelmed by, to adore, and so to worship, not just the majesty, but the beauty of God himself. And, just as we don’t very often use the word ‘worship’ in connection with beauty in the natural world, so we don’t very often use the word ‘beauty’ in connection with God. That is our loss, and I suggest we set about making it good. (7)
He also says:
The beauty of God is the beauty of love; love in creation, love in re-creation of a world spoiled by sin. It is the same love; which is why all the beauty of the world, the beauty that calls forth our admiration, our gratitude, our worth-ship at the earthly level, is meant as a set of hints, of conspiratorial whispers, of clues and suggestions and flickers of light, all nudging us into believing that behind the beautiful world is not random chance but the loving God. (12)
I think Wright is. . . well…right. And I think many people have no problem accepting the notion that beauty, as it is evident in the natural world, points us to God in worship. But here’s the thing: in the same way that I get lost staring into pictures of Space, captivated by what it might mean, I get lost staring at beautiful things that humans made. For instance there’s this painting called “Farm Garden with Crucifix,” by Gustav Klimt:
Or this photograph of Mont Saint Michel by William Clift:
Something in these images grabs me by the soul (or whatever I've got in there) and pulls me in. I can’t put words to the why—I can tell you things I like about them, but those things aren’t the things that suck me in. Furthermore, this doesn’t just happen with images: I could pull examples of poems, novels, songs, and films that do the same thing. They grab me in such a way that I keep going back; looking, listening, absorbing every detail.
Since early June, I’ve been thinking about faith and art with the Summer Sunday school class. We’ve been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, a book that I’ve had recommended to me several times in the past few years, but never had a chance to read.
Early on in the book, L’Engle makes a bold claim: all true art is Christian art. It’s difficult to read this statement and not assume that she is saying that only art that brands itself as "Christian" can truly be called art, but this is by no means what she is getting at. Instead, she is claiming, in a broad sense, that all art that contains the essence of whatever “art” is has been created out of obedience to the Creator, mirroring God's creativity—whether the artist was intending to do so or not. Interestingly, she spends much more time talking about the role of God in Christian art than she does the artist.
“Christian” in this sense seems to mean “transformed by an encounter with God." When and where God uses a work of art to communicate something to us, it is more than itself— it is Christian art. This means that we can’t put confidence in categories like “sacred” and “secular.” God is “on the move,” so to speak, and we do not have the privilege of mandating where God cannot go.
We Christians are no strangers to thinking about God revealing Godself to us in humanity and divinity simultaneously—this is what happened in Jesus. Because of this, we do not have to neglect the value of art for its own sake, as if art were only valuable insofar as God uses it to speak to us. Exploring this further will have to wait: I'm already flirting with the TLDR line (and I've probably passed it).
Now, the point.
In thinking about this stuff, I've been challenged to start paying more attention to art. Though I am a musician, Worship & Arts Pastor, and the husband of an Art Historian, I do not have the most robust impulse to seek out art and think about it. I've made more of a point to do so this summer, as we've been discussing these things in Sunday School, and I've been surprised at the difference I've noticed. The fact of the matter is, when we engage art thoroughly--when we embrace the beauty it contains--we open ourselves to an avenue of engaging God that we otherwise miss.
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