Thursday, May 03, 2007

it was good: making art to the glory of God

Bustard, Ned, ed. It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2000.

Christian periodicals in the 1980s and 90s were peppered with reports of sacrilegious works of art that were being funded by American tax dollars. Conservative Christians by and large shunned the arts as a result, counting it off as pagan and crude. The image of the crucifix in a jar filled with urine triggered gag reflexes. Blood boiled when Christians read of Karen Finley smearing her nude body with chocolate and proudly proclaiming it “art”. In the midst of this debauchery, Christians yearned for “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). Christian art became confined to cute depictions of Bible stories, praise songs, and Christian historical romance novels. Looking back, some Christians now observe that in the process of shunning evil, they ignored their embrace of the mediocre.

What exactly is good Christian art? What was it about God’s creation that made him pronounce it “good” at the end of the day? Editor Ned Buster and twelve other Christians in the arts take a different approach to many Christian books addressing Christians’ place in the arts to examine biblical perspectives of the actual act of creating art. It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God is a compilation of essays covering a range of important issues Christian artists must consider when demonstrating God’s creativity as men and women made in God’s image. The chapters cover the topics of good, evil, form and content, community, glory, subject and theme, Christ, identity, creativity, light, truth, symbolism, and imagination. Together, they make an inspiring resource for any Christian concerned about how they may glorify God by creating works of excellence with their minds and hands.

Bustard begins the “conversation” by addressing the issue of good. To understand the concept of good one must understand the attributes of God, for all of his attributes (his justice, mercy, etc.) may be summed up in truth that God is good. He reveals his goodness to man in creation, redemption, and his providence. The world has a limited view of goodness. They are like fish who only know the wet sand at the bottom of the sea. However, those who are redeemed and found in Christ have a broader perspective of the world just like the turtle that emerges from the sea to sun himself on the dry sand. Bustard encourages Christians to build a strong foundation concerning their understanding of good. To do so, he urges Christian artists to study God’s attributes as he is revealed in the Scriptures. God’s goodness may also be known when believers regularly engage in Christian “fellowship, prayer, and the sacraments.” An artist must know goodness before he can express it in his craft.

Christian artists have the responsibility of revealing God’s goodness to the world in a balanced manner. Too many “Christian artists” equate good with sweet and nice. Their work is sugar-coated and lacking in balance. If you are portraying God’s mercy, is his justice also apparent? Bustard puts forth Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment as a worthy example. On one side of the painting Christ is condemning sinners to their punishment in hell. However, on the other side Jesus beckons to the elects to find their rest forever with him in eternity. The work, centered on Christ, offers a balanced view of a good God who necessarily hates evil.

“It is out of the life-giving understanding that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond that which we can imagine, that we can produce good fruit that is rich in the fullness of our humanity” (p. 26). As sinners redeemed by the grace of God, Christian artists ought to be consumed with reflecting God through their lives and work. Understanding God’s goodness and man’s lack thereof, enables them to creatively find ways to reveal God’s nature and truth to a world in darkness. Bustard ends his chapter with the charge given by Paul to the Galatians, “let us not grow weary of doing good.”

The following chapters by various men and women dedicated to glorifying God in all aspects of their lives offer both theoretical and practical advice for those who wish to do the same in the arts.
  • William Edgar counters Bustard’s chapter with an artists perspective on how to portray the reality of evil in the world.
  • Painter Makato Fujimura challenges artists to allow content to drive their form; just as their identity is found in Christ, their art (like their lives) must represent the message of God.
  • The need for fellowship among the body of Christ is the topic of David Giardiniere’s chapter in which he rebukes those who isolate themselves, neither giving to nor receiving from the communion of the saints.
  • Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Philadelphia, Tim Keller explains to readers why it is the church needs the aid of artists to help them understand truth and assist in their worship.
  • Edward Knipper uses several artists’ examples of how to communicate the truth of the gospel plain in art through subject matter and theme.
  • Charlie Peacock-Ashworth instructs artists in the art of glorifying God not only in the making of their art but also in the living of their lives.
  • Theodore Prescott cautions artists to find their identity in Christ rather than conforming to the world’s (or the church’s) perception of what they ought to be.
  • James Romaine examines Michelangelo’s Trinity-inspired work of creativity on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
  • Photographer Krystyna Sanderson writes not only about the practical use of light in her work, but also of the symbolic quality of light pointing to the Light of the World.
  • Steve Scott emphasizes the commitment of Christian artists to Truth in a culture that rejects it.
  • Gaylen Stewart tackles the task of using symbolism to communicate and connect with the audience.
Each of these chapters cover different topics by different authors who use different mediums to communicate to the world their worship of the Creator.

Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, concludes the book with his chapter on the imagination. “It is my conviction that the Christian community, despite its many laudable efforts to preserve traditional morality and the social fabric, has abdicated its stewardship of culture and, more importantly, has frequently chosen ideology rather than imagination when approaching the challenges of the present” (p. 260). Wolfe claims that it is the imagination that truly communicates and develops understanding, and those Christians holding on to tradition rather than engaging the present culture’s imagination have broken down the communication barrier. The West has been reduced to politics and ideology, everyone shouting and fighting from power … no one actually communicating. “The imagination calls us to leave our personalities behind and to temporarily inhabit another’s experience, looking at the world with new eyes” (266). Wolfe concludes that the art of Christians will only be effective if it achieves “an new synthesis between the condition of the world around us and the unique ways in which grace can speak to that condition” (267).

One might find the cover of the It Was Good a bit daunting with its long list of contributing authors, however, this book is invaluable as a unique resource that is filled with practical of examples of men and women who are actually engaging the culture for the glory of God. The personal stories, descriptions of works of art whether their own or another’s, black and white as well as color reproductions all serve to encourage the minister, artist, and layman that Christians are, in fact, making a difference by producing visual, audible, and verbal works that point people to Christ.

Novelist, Ron Hansen is presented as one such contemporary example of an artist who is a “steward of the culture”. He engages the imaginations of both believers and nonbelievers in his novel Mariette in Ecstacy (published in 1992) by delving into the little known world of convents and the bizarre phenomenon of the stigmata. Hansen effectively ties all the topics covered in the chapter together in order to challenge one’s view of spirituality. Hansen does not play the role of the removed narrator who shares the story as actual propaganda for his agenda. Instead the reader, due to the masterful writing of the author, finds himself to be an observer of the events free of authorial commentary on how the reader ought to perceive the events. One is permitted to side with the conclusions of various characters throughout the story, whether it’s awe of the young woman’s devout (almost erotic) love for her Savior, fear of the unknown, or disdain. Either way, the audience is engaged in a realm where good, evil, form and content, glory, subject and theme, Christ, creativity, light, truth, and symbolism all connect with the imagination pointing readers to God and his glory.

The only apparent fault of this book is the lack of detailed citation. Original authors are always given their credit, but at times without mentioning which text the quote was taken from and never a page number. Someone who might find a particular quote inspiring might have to wade through the murky waters of an entire book in order to find the context in which that quote was made (if, that is, the reader even knows what book the quote may be found in). This proves unhelpful for those who wish to deepen their understanding of a topic.

The church has a lot of ground to retrieve as a result of their retreat from the culture. Church leaders must encourage their people in developing their talent and skill to use for the church and to transform and redeem the culture around them. Reading It Was Good helps one to think about one’s life as a Christian. Are you an artist and separately a Christian? Or does your faith permeate every area of your life. Is your worldview so transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit in your life that you wish to see the culture around you redeemed, transformed through freedom from sin in Christ? The theoretical and practical advice given by the contributing authors inspires believers to be creative for the glory of God. The personal experiences shared encourage those who desire to engage the culture and uplift the church. Whether you read one essay or the entire book, your heart will be ministered to and your faith will be challenged to grow and reveal itself creatively to manifest God’s magnificence.

In conclusion, the church must heed the warning of Gregory Wolfe in the final statement of the book: “Unless we contribute to the renewal of culture by participating in the life of art in our own time, we will find that the barbarians have entered by gates that we ourselves have torn down.”


byron said...

The image of the crucifix in a jar filled with urine triggered gag reflexes.
I found Piss Christ a very powerful reflection upon the scandal of the cross. It is easy for us to consider it a holy religious symbol, but the visceral nature of the image can help recapture something of the shame and degradation associated with this form of execution. At the very least, it helps us question how symbols work.

Bobby said...

This book seems right up my alley. Very enlightening blog post.

Ashley said...

I enjoyed this post, and I'd love to pick up that book. I went to a Christian university, and I remember discussing in depth a lot of the sensational and controversial works of the 90s, from a Christian perspective. I really enjoyed the discussion. We also talked a lot about how culture can dictate the offensiveness of a subject. I think that while I wouldn't display the image of Piss Christ on my wall, it CAN be a powerful piece, as Byron pointed out.

ckhnat said...

Does anybody remember watching Sister Wendy Art History videos ... I showed a video to my 8th graders ... it was a little difficult for them to get over the fact that it was a NUN with huge glasses and "different manner of speaking" that was teaching them about art.

I was trying to find her quote of the Piss Christ but found this review on Amazon which sums it up nicely.

"Sister Wendy's credibility was, for me, increased when Moyers asked her what she thought of Andres Serrano's "Piss-Christ," a work in which a replica of Christ was immersed in a container of urine. She didn't dismiss the work as something created merely to shock, rather she thought the artist meant to represent the irreverence with which most people treat Christ and his teachings. She qualified her judgment by stating that she considered it a rather mediocre work because it didn't challenge the viewer: people had an immediate and visceral reaction that didn't require consideration or time to form."

mike said...

Dad loves sister Wendy... you guys will get along really well.