Wednesday, March 31, 2010

God and the Arts

by: Bernard Bell
Within the evangelical world we are frequently told that we must be busily about God’s service. There are so many needs in the world and we must give God a helping hand to ensure that these needs are met. “If you don’t respond,” we are told, “who will?” Thus we are driven either by guilt or by genuine enthusiasm to a lifestyle of ceaseless activity in the service of God, spurred on by regular motivational speeches and books, and by assurances that God is using us mightily. Our God, it seems, is a utilitarian God—one who needs us, one who has redeemed us in order to help him, one who can’t get by without us.

But if we turn to God’s self-revelation in Creation, we find a remarkably non-utilitarian God. He places flowers on a thousand hills where no human will ever see them. He oversees the life cycle of myriad stunningly beautiful insects, unobserved by any human eye. He has placed millions of galaxies far beyond the limit of human eyesight, beyond even the range of the Hubble Telescope. A look at the Bird of Paradise flower or at the peacock should suggest to us that God is extravagant in his creation of beauty and wonder. What good do such birds and flowers play in the grand scheme of things, in the urgent task of evangelism and mission?

Turning to the Scriptures we find a similar delight in beauty on the part of God. Those urgent about the task of evangelism and mission would prefer a clear outline of the four spiritual laws or of the plan of salvation. The nearest we get in Paul’s “Repent and be baptized.” Instead, we find a great number of stories, which modern literary critics acknowledge are marvelous models of literary creation. Such stories cannot be quickly read and put into practice. They must be read slowly, audibly, preferably in community. They must be chewed over, reflected upon, tossed around and around in the inner recesses of the brain. They are distinctly unpractical, though we are ever ready to force the process in our search for quick application. But if we mull over these stories long enough we will find them to be immensely practical, not because they will make us go out and do things, but because they will transform us. All good stories, and the biblical narratives are no exception, have the capacity to be subversive. If they work long enough in our mind, they will perform a radical work on us, changing us. This is the transforming power of art of which Dorothy Sayers wrote.

Why does God delight so much in placing his artwork in Creation and in the Scriptures? I can think of several reasons. Firstly, God delights in making things that are good and beautiful. Beauty is an integral part of his created order. Secondly, God does not need our help. Just as man is gratuitous in his activity, so is God gratuitous in all his activity. He makes flowers bloom on a thousand hills not because he needs to but because he wants to. He surely made the peacock with a smile on his face. One can sense this delight on God’s part as he brought the animals to Adam to name. God does not need us: he was perfectly fulfilled within the Trinity but freely chose to bring mankind into being. He does not need to save us, but freely chooses to do so. He does not even need us for the work of mission and evangelism. The world is full of needs, the sum total of which is beyond the capacity of humans to meet. If we are driven by a sense of need, we will burn ourselves out, for this is not the way God has designed.

God even uses artistic imagery in describing our participation in his work. We are to be a fragrant aroma of the Lord Jesus Christ wherever we go, mediating his beauty to all around us. We have the perfect model in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was constantly surrounded by people in need, yet frequently turned his back on them and sought out solitary places. He drew people’s attention to his Father’s artistic beauty in creation, reminding them of the lilies of the field and of the sparrow. Through the way in which he lived he was a fragrant aroma of life to some, and an aroma of death to others. Yes, he was about his father’s business, but that business included much that we would define as distractions from the urgent task at hand. He told stories of great artistic merit, which defied translation into immediate action, for their meaning was deliberately concealed. If God chose to so act through his Son, should we not hesitate in our haste to rush into action?

Perhaps the greatest argument for the arts is that put forward by God himself in his questioning of Job (Job 37-41). From a utilitarian perspective, God’s answer was useless: he answered none of Job’s questions. But it was deeply subversive, for it subverted Job’s whole being. In a dazzling round of questions, God showed that he is completely non-contingent, that he delights in the bizarre things he has made. Is not this also the sense of Lady Wisdom skipping as a child at Creation (Proverbs 8)?

In fine, God is an artist who delights to make things for sheer pleasure. He does remarkably little to address the immediate task at hand, but through his constant subversive artistic activity he is bringing about an entirely new creation. Should we not follow suit in delighting in the glorious impractical activity of artistic creation, of telling our stories, of smelling God’s flowers, of mulling over Biblical narrative, and so find ourselves profoundly subverted, and find also that we are a fragrant aroma of the Lord Jesus Christ?

I'm interested in the intention of creation as an act unto itself. I feel that we are inspired, even compelled to create, because God is a creative being and He designed our beings after Himself. I find it almost magical, then, to put into action something that was birthed in me by the Master Himself. Of course not everything made by human hands is beautiful and/or reflects their original intent, but the simple act of pouring your heart into something that is a part of you but exists on its own brings a kind of satisfaction that nothing else does. I think there is almost more value in the act of creation than in the final product itself. That is why art is often more about the process. I think one of the best challenges we can give ourselves as artists is the one-a-day concept. I know that I'm not diligent at this at all, but I would love to one day be. To just pick something, and make one of them every single day for a set period of time. You would learn so much about process, time, ability, art as a changing phenomenon and even human nature. I think the longer you do this, the more you will begin to see yourself both in the artworks themselves, and as part of a Created network.

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