by Shannon Gianotti
Art is the human impulse to create something in response to the mystery of life. In works of art, humans explore and express something of the paradoxes of life in this world—transcendence and immanence, particularity and universality, autonomy and community. All art, whether the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, a Russian ballet, or a poem written by an high school student respond to the mystery of life—the wonder, the wounded-ness,1 the hope, and the despair. But, despite being an expression of human experience in the world, art has been neglected by the post-Reformation, western church. The the result is a loss of spaces that trains us how to bring our whole selves into creative interaction with God, and not just our brains and spirits.
In the Bible, art shows up as an assumed facet of God’s creation, spanning both the human response to the Divine and God’s own movement toward humanity. God embedded the capacity for art-making within the imago Dei.2 The Bible itself is comprised of widely divergent literary genres from personal letters to poems to stories and allegories. The communal spaces God created for his people were rich with art. First, the tabernacle and, then, the temple were filled with the Spirit-inspired work of metal smiths, jewel workers, carpenters, weavers, bakers, and architects. Then, when God chose to disseminate his locus of activity from Israel to the nations, he centered worship around bread and wine, which as Andy Crouch points out, are artistic improvements on wheat and grapes.3 Throughout history, the places where God promised to be present and active were saturated with art.
Biblically, then, there has always been a fluidity between art and worship as a natural response to a God who is both transcendent and immanent, who is completely different from what he is made, but who is also present and active in his creation. Moses, for example, would have been unable to conceive of the tabernacle (image) apart from the law (word). To conceive of the law only would be to omit the presence of God, to which the law speaks. To conceive of the tabernacle only would be to omit the knowledge that enables one to enter the tabernacle’s holy space without dying. King David would have had a similar perspective, living in a world that knew nothing of art versus science or head versus heart. So, he wrote of God knitting together his physical existence like an artisan weaving an embryo.4 This fluidity, however, has been disrupted. We live in a world where art and science, image and word, are believed to be discreet entities which are often antithetically opposed.
A discussion of the significance and role of art necessarily takes place within a linguistic tradition saturated with this schism. To consider the role of art, not just as descriptive, but as prescriptive for the church, requires an understanding of the origins and reasons for the current cultural divide between word and image.
The rift began during the Reformation when sola Scriptura was emphasized over the other sacraments.5 Preaching Scripture became the prominent focus of most Protestant worship services.6 While this was not a direct attack on art, the use of images in the church soon came under suspicion as leading to idolatry. This left the fledgling Protestant church ultimately neglectful of art.7
Second, with the rise of modernity and the scientific revolution, science applied its scalpel to truth. Mystery, along with anything else that could not be analyzed, comprehended, and reproduced, was jettisoned. While conservative Christianity held onto it’s belief in a God who is, by definition, mysterious, it swallowed the modern understanding of knowledge as information. This further strengthened the post-Reformation church’s prioritization of scriptural pedagogy over and against the use of images and art.
What is the the role of art? Art is essential to life, and therefore worship, because it offers us space for experiencing the brokenness and wonder of life and invites our creative participation. It draws us in a unique way, as whole bodied creature (rational and emotional, spiritual and physical) into creative participation with God in life.
Art offers us space to experience. In a modern world dominated by rationalism, art creates space to experience, not just to think. Art engages the brain, but also reaches further into our humanity. It communicates meaning to us through our senses, evoking our imagination—the organ of meaning8 that helps us bridge from physical immanence to transcendence, from the limitations of our own particularity to universality, from autonomy to community. Art offers us space to traverse the paradoxes we are unable to articulate, the places where reason would stop at the shore of mystery and resist further exploration. Art engages us as phenomenological beings, honoring and activating the unified diversity within each of us—the social, physical, spiritual, and rational dimensions of our humanity. To this, end art gives us a place to be fully human, to experience our humanity.
Art offers us a space to experience the brokenness and wonder of life. Art invites us into the immanence of life, it’s physicality with all the limitations and brokenness that involves in a world after Eden. It invites us to dwell in the gift and burden of life. Art can help us face the reality of our humanness, expose our need for transcendence and salvation.9 Art is also in touch with the ineffable10 in a way that our words, prone to precision and finality are often not11 and can communicate hope and truth to us where propositions and definitions fall short. As such, art can position us to face our brokenness so that we long and look for the in-breaking of the holy12—a transformative power beyond us that move us beyond our brokenness.
Art offers us an experience of the brokenness and wonder of life that invites our creative participation.13 While any experience requires our biological participation (hearing wind in the trees, for example, involves the cochlea and acoustic nerve), not all experiences evoke a response. Art, once engaged, activates the unified dimensions of our humanity, and in doing so bids for response—like or dislike, grief or transcendent joy, action or non-action, etc. Each work of art offers us a refraction of the world which we are invited to internalize and respond to from our individuality. This synthesis of a work of art into our unique experience and the resulting response is itself a creative act. In this way, art invites us into a creative interaction with the world.
To speak of this world, though, is to speak of it’s creator, since God participates in the world he made.14 Whether through creation, Scripture, the person of Jesus, or his body the church, God is disclosing himself to us and inviting us to participate in his self-disclosure. As creatures given free-will, our response to his invitation is either one of refusal or creative participation. This is, in a fundamental sense, the whole of life, and why art matters. Art is our creative response to the mystery behind all life, to what it means to be fallen, limited creatures in relationship (or severed from) the transcendent and holy God.
Art allows us to grapple with these mysteries and engages our full humanity in the process. It is a natural expression of our humanity in the face of a wholly other God, and as such it is essential for life in the church. While we’ve inherited a humanity fractured into mind versus body, reason versus imagination, spirituality versus physicality, art can bridge those divides, simultaneously activating the various dimensions of our humanity. In doing so, it can help us relearn how to bring our full humanity back into participation with our Creator.
1 Alejandro R. Garcia-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p.14.
2 Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (Harcourt: HarperCollins Publishers, 1941), p.22. Sayers points out that when readers reach Genesis 1:26 and hear God saying “Let us make man in our own image” the primary knowledge of God from the preceding verses is that of maker, so that the image of God is primarily one of being a maker. Andy Crouch similarly argues for a “maker” understanding of the image of God in his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.
3 Justin Taylor. “An Interview with Andy Crouch about the Idol and Gift of Power,” The Gospel Coalition, last modified September 30, 2013, accessed April 5, 2016, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2013/09/30/an-interview-with-andy-crouch-about-the-idol-and-gift-of-power/
4 Psalm 139:13.
5 Sacrament in this essay refers to any activity or object through which God is present and active to his people.
6 Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: William B. Eeardemans Publishing Company, 2011), Kindle location 1027-1031.
7 Trevor Hart, Between the Image and the Word, (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013), Kindle location 4415.
8 Hart, Between the Image and the Word, p.14, referencing C. S. Lewis.
9 Garcia-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence, p.38.
10 Steven Guthrie, Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), p.10.
11 Hart, Between the Image and the Word, p. 81.
12 Esther Lightcap Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), p. 36.
13 Garcia-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence, p.115.
14 Boersma, A Heavenly Tapestry, Kindle location 382, 472.
Boersma, Hans. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Grand Rapids: William B. Eeardemans Publishing Company, 2011.
Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro R. A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003.
Guthrie, Steven. Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.
Hart, Trevor. Between the Image and the Word. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013
Lightcap Meek, Esther. A Little Manual for Knowing. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014.
Sayers, Dorothy L. The Mind of the Maker. Harcourt: HarperCollins Publishers, 1941.
Taylor, Justin. “An Interview with Andy Crouch about the Idol and Gift of Power.” The Gospel Coalition. Last modified September 30, 2013, Accessed April 5, 2016. https://blogs.the- gospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2013/09/30/an-interview-with-andy-crouch-about-the- idol-and-gift-of-power/