In the beginning, God created … (Gen 1:1)

The importance of the arts needs no defending. The first five words of the Bible affirm the fact that God is creative. From the beginning of human history, we’ve been co-creating — painting on cave walls, beating on drums, telling stories — in an irrepressible expression of our identity as the Creator’s image-bearers.

Given that the arts are such an organic part of human flourishing, it makes sense that they might be important in our spiritual formation. Engagement with the arts is an important spiritual discipline available to any disciple of Jesus. Following the principle that, when it comes to spiritual formation, we are better off training than trying, I want to identify four specific ways the arts can help train us for greater receptivity to the God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Four ways (of many) the arts are important in our training to follow Jesus:

  • The arts help us train to pay attention
  • The arts help us train in longing
  • The arts help us train for the renewing of our minds
  • The arts help us train to appreciate things (and especially people) for more than their usefulness”

The Arts Help Us Train to Pay Attention

Whoever has ears, let them hear.” – Matthew 11:5

We live in a world of relentless stimuli and input. Even before the advent of WiFi, Henri Nouwen diagnosed our problem, noting that we live with so much noise — both in our environments and in our own heads — that we struggle to hear God. In the ensuing chaos, our lives become absurd” — a word we get from the Latin word surdus, which means deaf.”

When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means listening.” A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance.1

As a follower of Jesus, I want to develop eyes and ears that detect his presence and movement in the world around me. But simply trying harder to see and hear him will not do. The arts (in concert with classic disciplines like silence and solitude) can be important allies in training to pay attention. 

Carefully listening to a great piece of music — especially an initially challenging or foreign one — is a powerful way of disciplining our hearing, much the way engaging with a work of visual art trains our sight. Might the scent of incense, or lilacs, discipline our sense of smell? Could rough wood or cool marble rehabilitate our sense of touch? Might the culinary arts retrain our taste buds to savour food which will both nourish and delight?

Only God can release us from spiritual deafness and blindness. But apprenticing ourselves to great art is one of the spiritual disciplines we can use to cooperate with him in the healing of our senses. Receptivity to art teaches us to focus, to press beyond surface impressions, and to look, listen, smell, touch and taste with care, thought, and patience. 

The Arts Help Us Train in Longing

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” – Psalm 42:10

In his letter to the Romans, Paul reveals that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Not only that, he tells us, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22 – 23). 

We live in a world that bombards us with the message that we are entitled to comfort, and that we must do everything in our power to avoid discomfort. For many of us, the holy longing for God’s kingdom that should characterize our existence has been anesthetized into a chronically distracted complacence. The arts can be an important ally in recovering some of God’s vision for the world — and in helping us experience the gap between what the world is now and what it can and will be. 

Why do truly breathtaking things bring tears to our eyes? Why does intense beauty actually hurt a little? Exquisite art reacquaints us with our incompleteness and awakens the hunger for more. Sometimes, for there to be genuine hope, we must despair of business as usual.” In his book, Pursuing Christ, Creating Art, Gary Molander makes just this sort of case.2

Art not only communicates truth. It also creates emotional uprisings. In this way, art opens, then resolves nothing. … It gives people the chance to sit, to contemplate, and to experience a wider variety of emotions.

I mean, rather than causing us to leave church with a smile, what if God’s will is for us to sit in our own personal pond of holy agitation the whole morning and actually experience the ache of seeing no way out? …

Paintings displayed at the right location.

Sculptures that people are forced to walk past, even to touch.

A beautifully designed table during the Eucharist.

Images on the screen, with an underscore of silence.

Stories told beautifully.

Smells of smoke, or roses, or bread.

Music that drops dead with dynamic, and never rises again.

Lighting that helps people focus on the beauty found in the moment.

So what if art can provide an opening, not only a closing? What if, every week your church had the ability to drop a beautiful piece of art into the worship experience, and to just let it sit there? Using art like this isn’t the opposite of using art to communicate truth.

It’s actually the beautiful sister many of us have never met.

Only God can awaken our hunger for him and for his kingdom. But apprenticing ourselves to great art is one of the spiritual disciplines we can use to cooperate with him in the stirring of our spirits. 

The Arts Help Us Train for the Renewing of our Minds

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” – Romans 12:2

Musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie argues that a defining characteristic of all art is that it is metaphorical; whatever the medium, art always pulls together at least two elements that are normally apart.3

This metaphorical nature of art matters in our spiritual formation, because metaphors are the lenses through which we view the world, and they shape the way we understand it. If you always look at the night sky through a piece of glass with straight lines streaked on it, you’re going to mistakenly think the stars all line up in neatly gapped rows.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was constantly trying to give people new, healthier metaphors for God — loving Father, shepherd-of-the-lost sheep, extravagant host, keeper-of-the-sparrows. Today, our metaphors continue to need remediation. Once again, the arts can help.

For example, ever since Newton gave us the metaphor of the world-as-machine, we’ve tended to see the universe increasingly mechanistically. But art can give us new vistas for understanding. The world is in some ways like a machine, yes. But it can also be like a Baryshnikov leap, a Van Gogh sunflower, a Bach fugue, or a U2 anthem.

Furthermore, the fact that art works metaphorically means that it always generates a surplus of meaning” — which helps us train for the renewing of our minds in another way. Begbie argues that a great story or painting or dance can challenge our assumptions that the world is something we can master, because it confronts us with the reality that the universe — and the God who made it — is inexhaustible.

Begbie makes his case by analyzing Shakespeare’s straightforward figure of speech: Juliet is the sun.” If we wanted to translate that metaphor into propositional language, we’d have to flatten it into a singular meaning: Juliet seems to glow or Juliet makes me warm or Juliet gives me life. But if we leave the metaphor intact, we enjoy a richness of meaning that is irreducible. It contains very specific meaning, but that meaning cannot be exhausted.

We need our minds and imaginations to be renewed — discipled — because of our tendency to reduce the world into more manageable dimensions. Author Ronald Rolheiser suggests that when we attempt to flatten out reality in this way we suffer from a low symbolic hedge” that drains the meaning out of experience. He asks us to imagine a middle-aged man beset by chronic back pain.

What does this pain mean? It can mean that he has arthritis, a medical symbol; or it can mean he is undergoing some mid-life crisis, a psychological symbol; or it can mean that he is undergoing the paschal mystery, that this is his cross, a religious symbol. Or it might mean all three. The symbols with which we enter and interpret our experience can be low (suffering arthritis) or high (being part of the paschal mystery!).”4

Art — religious or otherwise — can contribute powerfully to the life of the spirit by inviting us to make explicit the multiplicity of meaning implicit in ordinary life. Only God can transform us through the renewing of our minds. But apprenticing ourselves to great art is one of the spiritual disciplines we can use to cooperate with him in the sanctifying of our imaginations. 

The Arts Help Us Train To Appreciate Things (And Especially People) For More Than Their Usefulness”

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” – Psalm 27:4

Many pieces of art have a practical purpose (think of a crystal water jug, or a richly elegant pen), but usually what helps us identify art as art is the fact that we appreciate it for more than its usefulness. We value it purely for its aesthetic qualities. In this sense, art is extra-utilitarian.

The stubborn streaks of both pragmatism and narcissism in our culture push us towards utilitarianism. They make us highly prone to see other things — and especially other people — only in terms of how they map onto us and our perceived needs. We tend to pursue relationships that can fill particular roles in our lives, teach us something, or improve our professional or social standings.

We can try, of course, to pay attention to others for who they really are, but the arts can help us train to appreciate things and people on their own terms. Only the God who takes note of every sparrow and knows the hairs on our heads can give us eyes to see every creature the way he does. But the arts can and should be means of grace, given to us by the Master Artist, that help us learn to attend to his image in every single one of his image bearers. 

It is us, after all, who God considers his work of art (Eph 2:10).

Suggestions for Practicing Intentional Engagement with the Arts

  • Listen with careful attention to a type of music you might not otherwise hear. What is happening in the bass? Is there more than one instrumental melody playing at once? If there are words, ask yourself whether the music is saying” the same thing as the lyrics. 
  • Visit an art gallery. Wander through slowly. Find a painting you are drawn to and look at it for two full minutes. Do you see anything at the end of your looking that you didn’t see at the beginning? Now do the same thing with a painting you find baffling.
  • Make a meal as artfully as you possibly can, using fresh whole ingredients and spices. Invite over friends and family to eat it, and serve it on your very best china.
  • Read the poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins every day for one week. After day three, feel free to google the poem to learn more about its meaning. 
  • Do you know an artist? See if you can buy her a coffee. Ask what inspires her, and ask her to teach you one thing about her craft that you probably don’t know.
  • If possible, ask your church worship leaders to consider the idea of including one art form (maybe a sculpture, or a dance, or even a scent) they’ve never used before in an upcoming service.

First published in Faith Today, July/​August, 2016

[1] Nouwen, Henri, J. M. Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life

[2] Molander, Gary A. Pursuing Christ, Creating Art. Exploring Life at the Intersection of Faith and Creativity

[3] Begbie, Jeremy, Resounding Truth

[4] Rolheiser, Ronald, The Shattered Lantern

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