In 2012 I began teaching a course called “Christianity & the Arts,” and in 2014 I published a book on the same subject but directed specifically toward music, entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music. In the process of researching for both the class and the book, I ended up reading almost every book I could find on Christianity and the arts, and I decided to write a brief review on most of those books here. My hope is that anyone looking to find a good book on some subject related to Christianity and the arts can find the best resources more quickly after scanning the list. And as I read others, I’ll keep adding them here to try to keep the list updated. If you have any questions about any of the books, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help you out.

 

Resonate Mark BeuvingResonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music by Mark Beuving (2014, 224 pages)

I’m listing my book first, not because I’m claiming it’s the best, but because it’s the only one on the list I’ve written. I do think, however, that it’s worth your time. My approach was to first highlight the significance of music, then to explore the biblical and theological basis for listening to music. I addressed questions of why music is so meaningful, what it means for music to be “Christian,” what kinds of music Christians should listen to (spoiler alert: it’s all kinds, but we must be discerning), how music works, the missional opportunities that music offers, and just a bit on music and worship. This is not a book about “Christian music” or about “worship music,” though I do discuss both concepts a bit. If you like music and want to dive deeper into this world, this is the best book you could read on the subject, in my hugely biased opinion. For more on this book, click here.

 

ImagineImagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (2001, 131 pages)

This is my favorite book on the arts overall. Steve Turner is a music journalist, which means that (1) his examples tend to come more from the world of music and (2) he is an excellent writer. Imagine addresses most (perhaps all?) of the pertinent issues related to what art is, what it means for art to be Christian (or not), what it looks like for a Christian to create art, how we can benefit from all types of art (whether created by a Christian or not), etc. His writing style is compelling and he is consistently insightful on this topic. If you’re going to read one book on Christianity and the arts in general, this is where you should start.

 

The Liberated ImaginationThe Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts by Leland Ryken (2005, 284 pages)

This is the most thorough book on arts in general that I’ve found. As I began researching how Christianity should relate to art, I found Ryken’s book addressed every major question I had. As always, Ryken is insightful, compelling, and graceful in his writing. He addresses what art is, how it works, why and how we are affected by it, how we might define “Christian art,” what it means to be a Christian artist, how Christians can be inspired, challenged, and aided by non-Christian artists, and a variety of other important topics. As a professor of literature, the majority of Ryken’s examples come from literature, but he also delves into painting and other art forms. I find this book just as helpful as Imagine (even a bit more so), and the only reason I recommend Imagine over Ryken’s book in some contexts is that Imagine is a bit more concise. If you want to be a bit more thorough, this book is the one you should read.

 

Culture CareCulture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura (2015, 124 pages)

This is an important book. Many books focus on understanding the arts or engaging the arts, but Fujimura’s book focuses on caring for the arts and culture around us. Fujimura is a phenomenal and widely respected artist, and he challenges us to see culture and art, not as a battleground to fight over, but as a rich field to be cultivated. This takes us several steps beyond the critical approach and launches us into the world of actively and lovingly participating in the culture being produced around us. I believe this is an essential concept, and anyone interested in how Christians should think about and engage with the arts needs to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

On Becoming GenerativeOn Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura (2013, 25 pages)

This tiny and inexpensive book was launched by Fujimura in advance of his Culture Care book to introduce the topic. This book is simply the first two chapters of the longer Culture Care.

 

Art and the BibleArt & the Bible by Francis Schaeffer (1973, 95 pages)

This is the book that began my own fascination with the arts. Schaeffer’s insightful approach to Christianity and its relation to the surrounding culture is on display here, as in all of his books. The book is short, but Schaeffer does a masterful job of helping the reader understand what the Bible says about art and to delight in art in the same way that God does. At the same time, Schaeffer offers helpful instructions for being discerning in our approach to art, and aids Christian artists in thinking through their task. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially those who sense the arts are significant for Christians, but haven’t put their finger on precisely why this is so.

 

Meaning at the MoviesMeaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer by Grant Horner (2010, 224 pages)

This is the best book I’ve read on the intersection of faith and film. The first chapter, which gives a biblical and theological explanation of art and culture, is worth more than the price of the book on its own. Horner uses Romans 1 to explain that all human production is characterized by both a knowledge of God and his truth and also the suppression of that knowledge. For this reason, Horner argues, we must be discerning when we watch movies. We can enjoy them and learn much from them, even when the film has been crafted by a non-Christian. But we also need to be discerning (even when the film has been crafted by a Christian). Horner’s book is well written and his arguments are persuasive. The last half of the book features an insightful look at a handful of important film genres, and in each case Horner gives a wonderful discussion of the genre itself, along with a theological look at why we find that particular genre appealing. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in faith and film, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the arts in general. For more on this book, click here.

 

Mystery and MannersMystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor (1969, 256 pages)

This is one of the most influential books on art that I have read. It has shaped many aspects of my thinking on the arts. The book is a collection of fiction writer Flannery O’Connor’s letters and speeches, published posthumously. There is a fair amount of overlap from essay to essay, but even the repetition is rewarding. She specifically addresses issues of how a person’s faith should affect their art (fiction writing is her focus), and she refuses to validate the view that “Christian art” must focus on Christian subject matter or exposit Christian doctrine. Her craft is more subtle and profound, and she explains how she sees grace operating in even some of her darkest stories. Some readers may be frustrated by wading through a variety of speeches and letters delivered on a variety of occasions, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone.

 

Art for God's SakeArt for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts by Philip Graham Ryken (2006, 64 pages)

This tiny book is an excellent place to get started in learning about how Christianity and the arts relate. Ryken is a wonderful writer, and this brief treatment of the subject is filled with wisdom and inspiration. The book is probably too short to seriously aid those who have already invested a lot of time into studying the topic, but those who are getting started will find this very helpful and accessible.

 

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art by Madeleine L’Engle (2001, 256 pages)

This book is a classic on the relationship between faith and art. L’Engle does an excellent job of helping the reader to feel the tension in defining art and in clarifying the role that faith plays in one’s arWalking on Watert. She cuts through many of the lame definitions of “Christian art,” insisting that if a person is truly Christian, then their art will be Christian, no matter what the subject matter. She weaves through various proposals for the definition of art and gives helpful statements such as: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in a such a new light that the old becomes new.” Those wanting a straightforward answer to the question of how faith relates to art may be frustrated with L’Engle’s meandering approach. But she writes as an artist (L’Engle was a fiction writer), and her insights have done much to help my understanding of this subject.

 

The Crowd, the Critic, & the MuseThe Crowd, the Critic, & the Muse: A Book for Creators by Michael Gungor (2012, 230 pages)

This book by the popular Christian musician Michael Gungor is a wonderful read. Gungor is passionate, humorous, and insightful in his approach to the subject of how a person’s faith should affect their art. As a musician, the majority of Gungor’s examples are drawn from the world of music, but the implications are clear for every art form. The book includes several powerful quotes, as well as a very helpful discussion on the frustrations inherent in the “Christian Music Industry.” I would highly recommend this book for artist and every art lover. For more on this book, click here.

 

RefractionsRefractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, & Culture by Makoto Fujimura (2009, 176 pages)

This beautiful book consists of refined blog posts written by Fujimura on a number of topics related to faith, art, and culture. Because these chapters started as blogs, the tone is more reflective, which is perfect for a book on art. Readers wanting strong definitions on what art is and straightforward answers about how Christians should relate to art will be frustrated, but I found Refractions to be very helpful for my own understanding of art and culture. Fujimura is a talented and gracious writer, and the book includes photos of some of his artwork.

 

Echoes of EdenEchoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, & the Arts by Jerram Barrs (2013, 208 pages)

This book is excellent on the world of literature. Actually, Barrs’ book gives an excellent approach to the arts in general, but he focuses his examples and attention on literature. His basic argument is that all art (and literature in particular) carries “echoes of Eden.” This is basically a way of talking about the knowledge of God that is ingrained in us all (see Rom. 1:18-25), the “sense of eternity” that God has placed in our hearts (see Eccl. 3). We will find much to disagree with in the world of literature, but we also consistently find human beings (Christian or not) wrestling with God’s truth, God’s world, and what it means to be truly human. Barrs first lays out the theoretical argument of his book, then he tests this theory with several helpful examples, the best of which (in my opinion) is his chapter on Harry Potter (see my post about that chapter here).

 

For the Beauty of the ChurchFor the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts ed. by W. David O. Taylor (2010, 208 pages)

This book is a collection of chapters from various authors, all based on a conference on Christianity and the arts. It addresses all of the arts and focuses on how Christians (and more specifically, the church) should relate to the arts. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but this is an excellent book overall. The bright spot for me is the first chapter by Andy Crouch, which I consider to be worth more than the price of the entire book. Other chapters cover helpful areas that many Christians will be wrestling with, such as the role of art in the church’s worship, why and how Christians can be patrons of the arts, and how art functions in relation to pastoral ministry.

 

The Mind of the MakerThe Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (1987, 256 pages)

This book is excellent. Fiction writer Dorothy Sayers is sharp, and her writing is profound. Her arguments are tightly wound and throughout the book I found myself deeply resonating with Sayers’ insights. If every artist would heed Sayers’ wisdom here, the art produced by the church would be deeper and more powerful. As a fiction writer, Sayers primarily focuses on writing and draws her examples from that world. Her practical instruction for writing well is based in and intricately intertwined with Trinitarian theology. And this leads me to a caution: The Mind of the Maker is not for the casual arts tourist. Her arguments are profound, and sometimes tricky to follow. The reader must buckle up and hold on tightly. But any effort you put into understanding this important book will be well rewarded.

 

An Experiment in CriticismAn Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (1961, 152 pages)

As with everything C. S. Lewis has written, this book is powerful. It is not for the faint of heart, however, as Lewis’ skill as a litterateur and critic is in full effect, his arguments are tightly wound, and his examples are drawn from works of literature that most modern readers will not be familiar with. However, for those willing to invest the energy to follow Lewis’ argument, the book will prove rich. The book is on literature, and Lewis’ basic argument is that we should judge books not according to how they are written (a trend in literary criticism that Lewis found disturbing), but more about how they are read. Lewis proposes that what makes a book good or bad is the type of reading it invites. He begins by stating that he wants to define good literature as “that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading” and bad literature as “that which does the same for bad reading.” He is forced to conclude, however, that adding the word “compels” is only wishful thinking. Ultimately, “what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones.” The book is full of wisdom and many memorable (and transformational) quotes. Any serious about literature ought to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

Every Good EndeavorEvery Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller (2012, 288 pages)

As with everything Tim Keller writes, this book is amazing. Actually, I think this is one of the most important books Tim Keller has written, and I believe it should be required reading for anyone in the work force and anyone pastoring people in the work force (i.e., everybody). Keller’s contention is that everything we do in life matters, and that even our most “secular” activities can be a means of God spreading his grace and provision throughout his earth. The book is not about art—it’s broader than that—but Keller gives a healthy amount of attention to the arts and any artist will find Keller’s insights helpful and inspiring. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in life, I implore you to read this book for the sake of God’s kingdom.

 

Saving LeonardoSaving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning by Nancy Pearcey (2010, 336 pages)

I found Saving Leonardo to be very helpful in understanding several types of art, and several aspects of art history in particular. Pearcey is a sharp writer, and (in the spirit of her teacher, Francis Schaeffer) she has done much to alert the evangelical world to the dangers of dividing the secular and the sacred. What I love most about this book is its careful discussions on why certain types of art emerged and why styles, themes, and transitions are significant. But I do have one caveat. As the subtitle suggests, Saving Leonardo is a bit defensive: it recognizes an onslaught of secularism, and Pearcey sees that onslaught clearly on many fronts. But I do sense that Pearcey is taking a slightly cynical stance in regards to many works of art, several of which are capable of a more congenial interpretation. I appreciate Pearcey’s concern to induce discernment, but at times one gets the feeling that Pearcey sees all art produced by non-Christians as a massive conspiracy to get Christians to renounce their faith. However, Pearcey ends the book by denying this accusation, and she rightly points out that art—even art made by non-Christians—can be God-glorifying and beneficial to Christians. With that caveat, I would heartily recommend this book.

 

Resounding TruthResounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy Begbie (2007, 416 pages)

This is one of the first books I read on Christianity and the arts, and I found it very helpful. Jeremy Begbie explores the world of music and covers a lot of ground. He discusses the power of music and its important role in our daily lives. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the history of music and to the history of music theory. From the ancient Greeks to Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Bach, the book traces the prevailing theories regarding what music is and how it works. This includes both philosophy and theology. Begbie also discusses some intriguing facets of music that can aid us in the way we think about God (and the Trinity in particular). I would caution the average reader that this book is written at the scholarly level, which means that it’s well researched and carefully nuanced, but this will likely be a barrier for most readers.

 

Music, Modernity, and GodMusic, Modernity, & God: Essays in Listening by Jeremy Begbie (2014, 272 pages)

This is another scholarly work by Jeremy Begbie, and it offers a handful of essays that engage the modernist worldview, how it has affected our music, and how music might offer some paths leading beyond the stalemate that modernist philosophy and theology have left us with. Most readers will find this book overly scholarly (too nuanced, too sparse on explanations of philosophers and philosophical concepts, too lacking in passionate appeals), so I would only recommend this book to those deeply interested in both modernity and music. However, Begbie’s collection of essays here are insightful into the nature of music, and he offers some profound analogies from the world of music that can aid our thinking and discussions about several areas of theology and philosophy, not to mention music itself. For more on this book, see my review on Themelios.

 

Beholding the GloryBeholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts ed. by Jeremy Begbie (2000, 159 pages)

This is a compilation, edited by Jeremy Begbie, focusing on how the concept of Incarnation relates to the arts. First, the concept of incarnation (of God taking on flesh in Jesus) is explained and compared to the process of incarnating through the arts—taking a concept and then giving it “flesh” through paint, sound, words, etc. This is an essential concept for the arts, and for the Christian life in general, and Beholding the Glory does an excellent job of explaining its significance. Subsequent chapters explain how incarnation works in specific art forms: poetry, music, dance, sculpture, icons, etc. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but I found this book helpful and insightful overall.

 

God in the GalleryGod in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art by Daniel Siedell (2008, 192 pages)

As the name suggests, Siedell’s focus is visual art in general, and modern art in particular. This is a helpful book for those who have trouble understanding modern art, and especially for those who wonder if there is any point in a Christian engaging modern art. Siedell is knowledgeable (he has worked as a curator) and gracious. This book is part of Baker’s Cultural Exegesis series, which means that it is more on the scholarly side. The average reader will struggle a bit, but I would still recommend this book for those wanting to understand modern art.

 

Visual FaithVisual Faith: Art, Theology, & Worship in Dialogue by William Dyrness (2001, 190 pages)

Dyrness focuses on visual art. The book offers a history of the visual arts, an exploration of what the Bible says about art, and an overview of the contemporary art scene. Dyrness’ book is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, which means it is a scholarly work and therefore more heavily nuanced and technical than most readers will want. Nevertheless, the book would be very helpful for those hoping to understand the visual arts better, particularly in conjunction with a Christian worldview.

 

Reel SpiritualityReel Spirituality: Theology & Film in Dialogue by Robert Johnston (2006, 352 pages)

Johnston provides a helpful explanation of how film works and how our faith informs our experience with film. Johnston challenges Christians to go beyond the rating system to decide which movies are helpful and/or redemptive. One of Johnston’s key concerns is that many people today go to the theatre as a worshipful experience, as a sort of replacement for church and traditional spirituality. One of his key arguments is that we will often find God in the theatre. I would personally side more with Grant Horner’s contention that what we find in the theatre is humanity, but I would still affirm Johnston’s writing because human beings are made in God’s image, and God is reflected in the things we make, often in surprising ways. Once again, Reel Spirituality is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, and the scholarly style will make this work more inaccessible to the average reader, but it is worth the time for those who want to learn more about a Christian approach to film and want to go deeper than Horner’s book (Meaning at the Movies).

 

Personal JesusPersonal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls by Clive Marsh & Vaughan Roberts (2013, 256 pages)

Marsh and Roberts examine pop music and the modern person’s listening habits in an attempt to discover how our experience with pop music shapes us. The subject matter is fascinating, and Marsh and Roberts incorporate theology, psychology, and a wonderful knowledge of pop music into their text. I will say, however, that I found this book to be a bit disappointing, mostly because the writing style was so technical and every point so carefully nuanced that I felt an absence of firm conviction (this book is also in Baker’s Engaging Culture series). The scholarly approach gives the book lasting value, and many writers will want to build on what the authors have put together here, but when an author is working so hard to avoid making assertions beyond what their research will allow, the book often becomes tedious. For me personally, the scholarly strength of the book made it fall flat, aside from a few wonderful insights that I took away. I hope other readers will disagree.

 

Outreach and the ArtistOutreach & the Artist: Sharing the Gospel with the Arts by Con Campbell (2013, 128 pages)

As the title of this book suggests, Campbell focuses on the arts as a means of sharing one’s faith. Campbell is a jazz musician, so many of his examples are about music in general, and jazz in particular. Outreach and the Artist provides a fairly robust vision for what it means to incorporate the arts into outreach. At times, I felt as though Campbell was recommending the bait and switch: throw a jazz concert, and once you’ve got people there for the fun event, hit them with the gospel. But in the end Campbell’s approach was much more robust, and he does address how art itself, communicating as art can be an outreach opportunity. The book is more specifically focused than most readers will want, but for those wanting to do outreach, this will be a helpful read.

 

Imagination RedeemedImagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Matthew Ristuccia (2014, 176 pages)

Imagination Redeemed is not primarily about art. As the title suggests, the book is about the imagination in general. Each chapter follows the same structure: Veith writes some on the importance of the imagination for life and art, then Ristuccia writes about some appeal to the imagination in the book of Ezekiel. In one sense, the book is broad because it addresses imagination for all of life, but the book is also oddly narrow in that most of the application focuses on the book of Ezekiel. It’s part encomium to imagination and part commentary on Ezekiel. The strength is that the sections on Ezekiel show how powerfully the Bible makes use of the imagination. The weakness is that those less interested in the background and text of Ezekiel will find the book difficult to finish. The book is full of insights on the imagination, however, and the sections on Ezekiel are also insightful.

 

How to Read SlowlyHow to Read Slowly by James Sire (2000, 192 pages)

This is not a book about art, it’s a book about reading well. But I’m including it here because Sire gives a significant amount of attention to reading poetry and fiction. The book as a whole is helpful and definitely worth reading, and those interested in fiction and poetry will find much help in reading, understanding, and enjoying these art forms. Sire is a great teacher, he uses many excellent examples, and he is always clear in explaining why it matters.

 

The Artisan SoulThe Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art by Erwin McManus (2014, 208 pages)

McManus writes as a pastor of a highly artist-saturated congregation. In other words, he knows what it means to be a shepherd to artists. The book includes helpful discussions on the nature of art, the importance of craftsmanship, and the importance of the imagination. While the book continually interacts with the world of art, the book is not about art, strictly speaking. McManus uses art as an analogy for life: you want your life to be a work of art. So while I would recommend this book, if you are looking for a book specifically on art or what it means to be an artist, I’d start elsewhere. If you enjoy art and want to be a better person, this would be a great book for you.

A couple of days ago I wrote about God’s presence—all around us at every moment, but somehow eluding our attention. Yesterday I had a discussion with one of my students about the things we do in “secret” that we would never do if we were cognizant of God’s presence in that moment, and I feel compelled to add on to my previous post.

Theologically, we know we’re never actually alone. As David asks God rhetorically in Psalm 139: “Where can I flee from your presence?” We know this, but we don’t believe it. Or we struggle to hold it in mind at every moment. So my student and I discussed the things Christians would never do if they could only remember God’s inescapable presence in moments of temptation.

PrayerThe problem, however, is that we fail to take God’s presence seriously in such moments. You wouldn’t do it if another human being were standing there. You certainly wouldn’t do it if God incarnate were standing there. But God is there. So why are you doing it?

The problem of not being aware of God’s presence in such moments is actually much bigger than that. We have trouble caring about God’s presence in moments of temptation because we have trouble caring about God’s presence in general. You’re not going to turn on the switch of “Oh wait, be careful what you do because God is here” in your battle with temptation. That switch will stay off as long as your master switch of “Everything I’m doing right now is done in the active presence of God” is off. And for most of us, it’s just off all the time, unless we apathetically turn it back on during a church service or prayer time. But we’re always diligent about turning the switch off again when those times are over, if not before.

What we desperately need to cultivate for many reasons is a constant awareness of the presence of God. This is not a theological study, it’s a matter of getting a biblical truth to sink down into our bones and permeate the furthest recesses of our minds. This requires training, and in this regard, I think we can find some help from Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, Practicing the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence was a French monk who lived in the seventeenth century. As he would do his daily, monotonous activities, such as washing dishes, he would simply train himself to be aware of God’s presence. He describes the result of these years of training like this: “I am come to a state wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of God as it was at first to accustom myself to it.” This statement reveals that continued awareness of God’s presence is hard won, but it also holds out hope that this could one day become natural for us.

Kitchen SinkBrother Lawrence said, “Our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own.” In other words, awareness of God’s presence is not the result of doing only “spiritual activities;” it’s about doing the things we do already, but doing them with God by our side.

It was said of Brother Lawrence that “he was more united to God in his outward employments than when he left them for devotion and retirement.” Leaving his daily business to go spend devotional time with God amounted to being with God in abstraction rather than being with God in the tangible stuff of daily life. If you don’t see God in another human being, you’ll have trouble seeing God in a formalized prayer. If you don’t see God in the stunning beauty and intricacy of his creation, you’ll have trouble seeing him in your devotional routine.

Brother Lawrence’s prescription is this: “Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you; why, then, must God be neglected?” This is where theology meets reality, where knowledge becomes embedded in practice. God is all around us, we must learn to see him. He is not hiding; the problem is our blindness.

Perhaps our goal should be arriving at this reality: “Sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us while we are with Him; and the greatest pleasures will be without Him, a cruel punishment to us.” It doesn’t matter what God calls us to: in his presence there is fullness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). And it doesn’t matter how strong the pull of sin, any activity that cannot be done by God’s side is inherently repellent.

May we practice God’s presence in every moment, including those that would seek to pull us away from him.

It’s all around us at every moment, yet we never see it. It runs through us, in every thought, every gesture, every strand of DNA. It is present in every great world event, in every circumstantial triviality, in ever beat of every heart.

It is the presence of God. The involvement of the Almighty in the world he created. Biblically speaking, the question “Where can God be found?” is nonsense. The question “Where can God NOT be found?” gets us closer to reality, but it’s still invalid. Psalm 139 uses rhetorical questions to drive the point home: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?”

Foggy Vineyard

Every Christian has known this from their first Sunday School lesson, but in my experience, we are almost completely blind to the presence of God in our world.

God is present in our church services, in our Bible reading, and in our small groups. He rejoins us when we do an act of service or say a prayer. We may sometimes see him in our family life. But other than that, we’re blind. We have relegated God to religious moments, to Christian activities, to spiritual books.

But God is not so bound; we need to learn to open our eyes. You have never engaged in a secular task. You have never left a sacred space. You have never walked out of God’s presence. You have never attempted a feat too big for God’s power, nor have you slumped into an activity too trivial for his active concern. Everything you do matters to God. Everything you see and think and apathetically pass by involves the Creator of all.

Our lives would change dramatically if we could only see the God who is there at every moment. I often use this quote from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov because I find it so helpful:

“Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”

We’re not to “love the universe” in a hippy, “we’re all one with the Cosmic One, man,” kind of way. But if we actually looked at what was around us—using the senses God gave us—we would see that this world is full of wonder. Every bit of it. And if we began to notice the wonder pressing in on us at every moment, we would be overcome by the kind of place we inhabit. By the kind of people we are. By the miracles that surround us at every moment. And when we become overwhelmed by the reality we take for granted, we can begin to ask David’s question with the same rhetorical conviction: “Indeed, where CAN I flee from your presence?”

Step outside and you’re in the presence of trees that steal sunshine, inhale carbon dioxide, and miraculously produce green living matter even as they exhale precious oxygen for us to breathe. Step outside and there’s always the possibility that you’ll be hit with water that God pulls up out of rivers and oceans, flies through the air for miles, and then deposits onto dry ground—thereby watering his enormous garden.

Sunset 1

Sit in your car and be propelled at unbelievable speeds by the fire burning at many hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit just a few feet in front of you. Enjoy the cool air that God’s image bearers have learned to create by harnessing the power of explosions in your engine.

Check your smart phone and consider the “air waves” that miraculously and invisibly transport whatever your phone is doing through space. Be amazed that God made a world in which such things are possible and created image bearers who could learn to create devices to send, receive, process, and share this kind of invisible information in nanoseconds.

Go to your office and marvel that God uses industries to provide for his world—distributing food, enriching lives, shaping social interactions, providing safety, spreading information, and the millions of other activities that we call “work” and that God uses to care for the people he created.

You will never spend a second of your life outside of God’s presence. You will never engage in any activity that is not in some way related to what God is doing in this world.

It’s there. He’s there. All around you. In everything. Working. Shaping. Calling. Grieving. Redeeming.

And you’re there. In the world. In your very specific setting. As God’s image bearer. As his ambassador. Extending God’s care to the people around you, whether that be through technology or agriculture or customer service or industrial production. Your work ties in to God’s. Your “secular” activities are anything but. Your “boring” moments are anything but. Your “insignificance” is anything but.

Open your eyes. See the world. See God. And live the prayer: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Music Is Medicine

Mark Beuving —  July 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

The title of this post is probably enough. We all know what it’s like to somehow feel better or consoled or validated or inspired after listening to a piece of music—as if by magic. And magic is not the worst term for it: much of music’s power comes from an indefinable quality ingrained in this mysterious art form by the Creator. Many have tried to explain why it is that music is so powerful. No one has succeeded.

In this post I won’t be trying to explain the “active ingredient” that makes music medicinal; I simply want to honor the power of this gift of God and commend it to you as an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flannery O’Connor, a legendary Catholic fiction writer, explains the art of fiction in a way that helps me understand what music is doing when it helps me feel better. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate,” she explains. In other words, when you have something to say that can’t be said, you turn to art—in O’Connor’s case this meant fiction writing. She says,

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

A kind statement from a loving friend that “Everything’s going to be alright” is important. But there’s another dimension at work when we hear the Five Stairsteps sing “O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier; o-o-h child, things’ll get brighter.” The words mean what the words mean, but their poetic arrangement allows them to mean more, and the music itself is an added balm, another layer of significance and exploration and auditory compassion.

Headphones2

Wheaton literature professor Leland Ryken adds some helpful thoughts here:

“A rich confusion of awareness lies below the level of our consciousness. Artists reach into that confusion and give it an order. As we stand before a painting or listen to music or read a poem, we suddenly see our own experiences and insights projected onto the details of the work before us. Artists turn our pain into art so we can bear it. They turn our joys into art so we can prolong them.”

This thought was recently beautifully expressed by the band U2 in the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: “We got…music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” Bono was apparently inspired when he heard the Ramones as a youth, and found in music something that spoke to him deeply, a reality that he expresses in the song:

Vinyl“Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

Bono has written about his early experiences with music, and speculates a bit on what was happening to him deep down when he listened to the musicians he loved:

“When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for…my ‘soul’ I guess. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music.”

The National acknowledges this type of connection when they sing (in “Don’t Swallow the Cap”):

“If you want to hear me cry, play ‘Let It Be’ [The Beatles] or ‘Nevermind’ [Nirvana].”

I’m not trying to be overly mystical about all of this. My point is ultimately very simple: music often “speaks” to us more deeply than words can go. We could take a “mystical” approach that views music as a type of impersonal magic. Some Christians feel threatened when they hear arguments about a “power” of music that supersedes logic. But we shouldn’t feel threatened by this. Instead, we should remember that God is the one who designed music. Music is his gift. That indefinable quality that makes music so powerful was implanted by God. Music has no power aside from what God has placed within this amazing art form. Rather than downplaying the power of music, we should acknowledge the power and beauty of God’s good gift.

I’ve always loved the introductory song on Wilco’s self-titled album, which introduces the whole album with: “This is an hour of arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on. Wilco will love you, baby.” For me, Wilco is a great place to go when I need a sonic shoulder. You might choose to go somewhere else. But the point is, music is medicine because God has made it so. May we find comfort and hope and empowerment as we explore God’s gift, and may we sense the loving arms of the Creator as we experience the healing that often flows through this mysterious part of his creation.

For more on this and other related subjects, click here.

I have written several posts in defense of social media (for example, here, here, and here). My basic argument has been that social media is a series of platforms that are not inherently harmful. I have expressed concern over the way that many people use social media—replacing true friendship with “likes,” superficializing relationships, making unhealthy comparisons, etc.—but my argument has been that it comes down to each person’s heart. If you are a committed friend in real life, then social media can only supplement those friendships, giving you an added dimension to help you stay connected.

I still agree with the basic thrust of my arguments, and I still find the common arguments against social media silly. (The most common argument I encounter is that social media is distracting and time consuming, and I still think my arguments in my earlier posts sufficiently address these concerns.)

Imagining the KingdomHowever, I recently read an excellent critique of social media practices in the important work of James K. A. Smith, specifically in Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s concern throughout the book is that we give much thought to the intellectual ideas we encounter, but few consider the practices that shape us at a preconscious level. And it’s this preconscious element inherent in everyday practices (or liturgies, as Smith likes to call them) that shapes us the most.

Smith contends that as we scroll through friendships and use our touch screens to manipulate whose updates we will see—choosing who to interact with, how to present ourselves, and who to ignore—we are actually being shaped by these seemingly innocent practices. It is absolutely true that your heart matters for the way you interact with Facebook: if you have a superficial approach to friendship, Facebook will aid your superficiality. But Smith’s point is that Facebook itself is not neutral. It orients us to the world in a specific way, and that orientation shapes us deeply, at a preconscious level.

Think of it like a boot camp for life. What sort of training is a person receiving by using Facebook on a regular basis? She is engaging in a world where everything is under her complete control. Friends are accessible at every moment, inconvenient interruptions are non-existent; or, if a friend goes on a political rant, he can be immediately muted or permanently banished. Interactions always happen at her own pace—friends wait patiently to fit into her schedule.

Don’t get this wrong. The point is not that Facebook is evil or that it was designed in an effort to make us into bad friends. The point is simply this: every activity in our world carries an inherent orientation toward the world. I am thankful for the added connectivity that social media adds to my friendships (particularly those who live out of town), but I must take seriously the way in which social media frames my interactions. It’s naive to imagine that Facebook is not training my heart.

Social Media Distraction

At this moment, I still believe that Facebook and other social media are wonderful means of interacting with my friends and the rest of the world. But I must take seriously Smith’s caution that the platform itself plays a significant role in shaping me. I have to keep an eye on my formation, my training. To what extent do I find myself frustrated when my friends don’t fit my schedule? How annoyed do I get when I have to respond to a political rant instead of simply muting it? Do I try to surround myself with only those people I find interesting? If I see these things becoming reality in my life, I’ll know that my training is off base. I agree with Smith that social media is tendentious—it is pushing me in these directions through the effortless power it offers me to manipulate my world. And I agree with Smith that social media is not trying to convince me to view the world in these ways, it is actually training me to do so at a deep level.

So I partially recant of some of my praise of social media. I at least want to add another dimension to the discussion. Perhaps I was right to say that Facebook itself is not the whole problem—it’s more about how we use it. But I need to add Smith’s important recognition that it’s also about how Facebook uses us. Social media is not neutral. Pay attention to the way it orients you to the world, to the way it shapes your desires. All of us are being shaped more often and more deeply than we think.

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