Archives For The Arts

Last week I did a series of posts on Jesus and his church as the Light of the World. Today I want to add one final related thought.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was a brilliant fiction writer. She was also Catholic and deeply committed to Scripture. Though her fiction is often dark and disturbing, she insisted that it flowed out of her belief in Christian truth. How did she explain this? By appealing to Jesus as the light of the world. As a fiction writer, she said,

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

This line of thinking is so profound for thinking through the kind of art we make as Christians. But I also believe that it extends much farther than that. If Jesus is the light of the world, then he illuminates everything we see. We simply cannot see anything without him. The objects around you are not the light, but you cannot see them apart from the light.

Sometimes as Christians we get that idea that we must only be looking at Jesus, as though our books must be Christian, our music and movies must be Christian, our clothing must be Christian, our jobs and our cars and our friends must be Christian. But the reality that Jesus is the light of the world gives us another way to view the world. It’s not that everything we view will have the face of Jesus painted onto it, but everything we see will be seen in the light of Jesus.

Light Bulb 3If you’re a Christian plumber, for example, your job is not necessarily to install Christian pipeworks, adding as many cross-shaped pipe junctions as you can, thinking that this is what it means to be a Christian plumber. If you’re a Christian police officer, your Christianity does not mean that you will sneak in the Apostles’ Creed every time you read a criminal his rights. If you’re a Christian salesman, your Christianity will not mean swapping out the items your customers order with a New Testament, saying “They don’t really know what they want, this will do them eternal good.”

This is not what it means to bear witness to the light of the world. Jesus is the light of the world, so everything we see will be painted in his light. Jesus doesn’t want us engaged in “religious” activities every moment of every day.

He wants the plumbers among us to see their plumbing in light of who he is. So they will be hardworking, fair, gracious, and they will honor God with their work. Our Christian policeman will see God’s image stamped on every victim and every criminal they encounter. They will uphold God’s justice, and also love his mercy. Our Christian salespeople will see their wares and their customers in light of Jesus. They will temper their healthy desire for profit with the best interests of their customers, considering the ways that grace, truth, and the biblical definition of the good life affects their product, their approach to sales, and the way they treat their customers.

Jesus is the light of the world. He’s more than a message we proclaim. He also provides the illumination through which we view every aspect of our existence. As Christians, we should encounter nothing that we do not view in light of Jesus. As the light of the world, he is our interpretive grid for everything.

 

Spray PainterIn recent years, there has been a sharp increase in books published on Christianity and the arts. This seems to be increasingly on the radar in many of our churches and theological circles. Unfortunately, this renewed emphasis on art stands in contrast to the past four or five hundred years in which the Protestant church has been sometimes ambivalent and often hostile toward Christians serving in the arts.

Even with the renewed emphasis on the arts, however, many of our churches are unsure of how to relate to the artists in our churches. How should we view their calling as artists? How does that calling fit within the overall life and mission of the church? What role should we play in shaping their spiritual and even artistic lives? What role should the artist play in shaping ours?

These are important questions, and unfortunately, the church doesn’t have a great track record in answering them with insight or sensitivity. If you’re wrestling with some of these questions, I’ll point you to a couple of resources that will help you think this through.

  • Philip Graham Ryken“How to Discourage Artists in the Church.” This is a short online article written by Philip Graham Ryken, arts advocate and president of Wheaton College. It’s humorous and insightful, and will orient you to some of the pitfalls of misunderstanding artists in your church. (For those wanting a bit more, Ryken wrote a great little book on how Christians should relate to art in general: Art For God’s Sake).
  • For the Beauty of the ChurchFor the Beauty of the Church. Each chapter in this book began as an address for a Christian arts conference, and carries some insightful thoughts for how art should enrich our churches.

There are many excellent books on the arts, but I mention these for their specific focus on art in the church. If you want to look more into the arts from a Christian perspective, take a look at our blog series on the subject, or consider the following books:

 

 

I actually hate grading papers. There, I said it. I love to read and I love to learn. But there’s just something tedious about slugging my way through a stack of papers that makes my eyes bleed—even if the papers are gradingwell-written. This is why I’ve tried to mix it up a bit by assigning papers that demand creativity rather than just analytical content. Sure, students need to be able to gather information, synthesize it, and present it in a clear way. But analytical, content-driven research is only one way to learn. In our quest for truth, sometimes we ignore creativity. So over the last few years I’ve tried to mix in fiction writing as a way to harness my students’ imagination as they process information.

I tried this a while back when I gave my students the option of writing a 10 page research paper or a 20 page historical fiction short story for my New Testament Backgrounds class. Most of them opted for the predictable research paper, but one student (Bobby Hansen) took up the challenge to write a historical fiction. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I received was nothing short of brilliant. Bobby decided to put himself in the dress of the woman who had a flood of blood for 12 years in Matthew 9:20-22. I darn near came close to crying—and I never cry—as I experienced the shame that hovered over this poor little woman. I followed her around her village, I felt the cold stares of judgmental men, and my heart broke when my husband left me because I could bear him no children. 12 years with a flow of blood. It’s not just a story. It’s was the unbearable pain of a Jewish girl living in an honor/shame culture 2,000 years ago. Imagine the day that Jesus healed her!

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Now, for this assignment I required Bobby to dig into the first century world and integrate nitty gritty facts into his story. It’s a historical fiction, not just some myth. And Bobby did just that. He drew upon the Jewish culture, imagined what life would have been like for this girl, and presented a story that was aligned with truth and piercing to the heart. He made me read—and re-read—that familiar story with dirt under my nails. And I will never read it the same.

So I’ve made this type of assignment mandatory for more of my classes. I’m currently reading through papers for my Old Testament Backgrounds course (I love backgrounds!), where students are required to research an ancient city and a near eastern religion and then write a short fictional story about someone living in that city or worshiping at that pagan alter. I hope this has been effective, and I would love for any of my students to drop in comments below to describe their experience. But one thing is clear: I’m learning a ton about the ancient world as my students are clothing me with tunics and shoving sandals on my feet and forcing me to walk the sands of the Mediterranean world. Not only has this made grading much more enjoyable, but it’s forcing me to use that other side of my brain (is it the right or left? I can’t remember…) as I process the history of the ancient world—the world where two thirds of the Bible took place.

It’s a shame that we measure intelligence by how well we use the non-imaginative side of our brains. The smart people are those who know lots of facts and construct well-reasoned arguments, while those who exploit their God-given creativity are just artsy fartsy. I disagree with this. skinny jeanSince we are created in God’s image, and since imagination and creativity are a vital—not a subsidiary—part of our information-processing humanity, then robust, imaginative art (e.g. fictional writing, music, poetry) isn’t just a byproduct of too many years crammed inside a pair of skinny jeans. It’s divine. Imagination is a necessary tool—though often neglected—that we should wield in order to better understand, process, and synthesize truth.

God does not prioritize the left part of the brain. (I just Googled it. Left-brain is cognitive.) He wants us to honor Him with both sides. And truth is not limited to facts, information, or logic. Truth—and beauty—is tucked away in pockets of creation that are discovered by waking up that right side of your brain and taking hold of it. Grab it! Twist it! Imagine it! And you will not just learn truth, but feel and experience truth like never before.

My hat goes off to all you right brain, tatted and pierced, fair-trade coffee drinking, Radiohead listening, emotional, sometimes over emotional, multicolor haired people who wrestle with God’s world through art, music, film—and creative writing. Do it for the glory of Christ, and Christ, who was perfectly right and left brained, will be magnified.