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.

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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

Originally published June 2016