Art

On having triple vision

MirrorWhile their respective projects are not always as divorced from one another as is sometimes suggested, it would be fair to say that theologians and artists do not always share the same concerns. That said, I suspect that every reader of the Book of Psalms will have sensed something germane to the vocation of both theologian and artist. Both are concerned, it seems to me, with a deep commitment to fostering and sharpening a triple vision—to take seriously what has been, what will be, and what is contemporary. (Another way of thinking about this is to simply take the journey with St Paul through Romans 5 to 8.) And theology, like art, responds to that triple awareness, resists the temptation to dissect the tri-part vision, and keeps asking—in its own particular way and with its own particular tongue—the foundational questions for all being; namely, who is Jesus Christ, and what has God done, what is God doing, and what has God promised to do in him?

Put otherwise, both art and theology properly seek to speak about what our eyes have seen, about what our ears have heard, about what our lips have tasted, and about what our hands have touched. And both are equally concerned with the matter of hope—about what our eyes hope to see, our ears hope to hear, our lips hope to taste, and our hands hope to touch. And both are concerned too to be attentive to the immediate, to what is, to those realities contemporary to our senses. So art and theology are fixed on a triple vision—of attention to what is behind and before and over the horizon—a vision grounded in the history of God’s own past, future and contemporaneity.

some thursday afternoon link love

Finally, I want to give a big shout out to a friend, minister and musician named Malcolm Gordon. Malcs has been busy writing material for his latest album. (You can check out some of his earlier work here and here. You can even get some of it for free here.) The songs have grown out of his preaching ministry at St Paul’s Presbyterian in Katikati, in the Bay of Plenty. For a while now, Malcs has known that most of our theology (good and bad) is sung. He writes: ‘That’s how we retain and take ownership of anything, we hum it, we whistle it – we take the word made flesh and make it a song’.

Malcolm has recently stepped out of parish ministry to make more space for this wildly unpredictable gift of music, and he’s about to head into the studio to record an album that has the tentative working title, ‘Into the deep.’ You can listen to the title track itself here:

About this song, Malcolm writes: ‘This song seems to capture the incredible feeling of being out of our depth as we seek to follow the call of God into something that doesn’t even seem to exist yet. Still God’s word is a creative word, making so as it calls us to – well here’s hoping!’

Malcolm is currently and shamelessly trying to raise funds to complete the album through the mixing and mastering stage. So if you like what you hear, and want the church to hear more of it, and sing more of it, then please consider helping him out through this campaign on Social backing.

On the art of disassociation

‘When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous’. So penned Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. In such ecclesiolatrous gogglesness, the Christian artist, O’Connor believes, sacrifices reality birthed and fostered through extra-ecclesial but no-less graced experience in favour of a sole voice very likely to soon sing out of key. And O’Connor calls for an end to what she understands to be a false dichotomy while drawing attention to a genuine tension which is neither false nor one typically handled with due care. O’Connor’s concern, however, is not here to dissolve this tension between what the church sees and what the artist sees; rather, she wishes to understand the nature of the Catholic artist’s responsibility to look with both eyes, as it were. The real vocation of (prophetic) artists, she argues, is to achieve and communicate a wholeness of vision, and to take a stand on such a vision rather than engage in enterprises about which side in the conflict is more correct or more fitting. This can only be done through the artist’s willingness to look at what is there to see – and further, to what is not yet seen. Either way, we are talking about activities of hope. (Here, too, the artist and the preacher have much in common.)

It seems to me that Jacques Maritain is trumpeting an analogous (though not the same) melody in Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry when he writes:

Do not make the absurd attempt to disassociate in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are truly one, if you are truly Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some system of aesthetics. But apply only the artist to the work; precisely because the artist and the Christian are one, the work will derive wholly from each of them.

To press even further, or perhaps to press backwards, I would still want to argue (with Paul Ricœur and others) for a more pronounced expression of and commitment to communal (ecclesial and other) existence; that the Christian artist – whether a prophet or not – does not carve out her own story ex nihilo, as it were, but rather works both at different levels of consciousness in the streams and side pools of narratives – and of that most basic of all Narratives – into which her existence and vocation have been gathered up and formed, and in a network of relationality in which her existence and vocation find the kind of meaning that is both healing and abiding. There is an acute difference, it seems to me, between disregarding one’s own eyes in favour of those of others alone (so O’Connor’s concern), and abandoning the cloud of witnesses altogether. The former posture is, among other things, a denial of our being-as-responsible. The latter is a performance (understood in its positive sense) of proper humility, hope and love, and an act of faith born of the conviction that whenever Jesus comes to us he always tends to bring his friends along with him as well. In like vein, there is no art without community.

Music and Theology in the European Reformations

The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven is planning to host a ‘Music and Theology in the European Reformations’ conference on 19–21 September 2012 at which theologians, historians, biblical scholars and musicologists will come together to consider the relationship between music and theology during the sixteenth century with a particular emphasis on the question of reformation in all its forms (Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, and Radical).

More information is available here, and short paper proposals can be submitted via here before 15 May.

some friday link love

The biggest threat to science and scientific progress is not religion or religious believers, with our superstitious or supernatural beliefs, but the arrogance of those atheist fundamentalists among the scientific community who believe that science is the only legitimate and conceivable way to explain or understand the world – and who antagonise a sceptical public in the process.

some monday morning link love

Human artistry and the adding of value to creation

While preparing some lectures recently on theology and the arts, I was struck again by one limitation that both art and Christian theology share – namely, the impossibility of absolute innovation. As Rowan Williams noted, ‘To add to the world, to extend the world and its possibilities, the artist [like the theologian] has no option but to take his [or her] material from the world as it is’. Even our best attempts at liberation from words, from the determinations of human language and imaginings, can only carry us so far as we are brought to what Williams calls ‘a complete imaginative void, the dark night of an utter alienation from the “available” world, “the desert of the heart”’.

Still, the human response of taking up ‘material from the world as it is’ does not obviate the truth that the world is God’s, nor suggest that God ‘“made something” and then wondered what to do with it’. Rather, as Ruth Etchells puts it in A Model of Making: Literary Criticism and its Theology, ‘from the first the creative purpose was one of profound and secure relationship’. And, it seems, if such a relationship is to be truly characterised by love, then its prime instigator will also create ‘room’ for creation to be itself. In other words, God’s love achieves its end not through brute force but by patient regard for what Emmanuel Levinas termed the ‘otherness of the other’. To be sure, God never retreats from creation into some kind of self-imposed impotence, but rather remains unswervingly faithful, interested and involved in all that goes on. But this is not to suggest that all is, so to speak, in order. And so Christians, when they speak of creation, will want to speak, as many physicists too will want to do, not only of creation’s order and but also of its disorder, not only about its being but also about its becoming, and about the space that God has granted the world, space which implies some risk, and which can neither be ignored nor annihilated if all there is is to be brought to love telos; i.e., to all that ‘God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2.9).

Not a few scholars and practitioners are now talking about the sense in which art serves to make this space meaningful, and of the way that art is concerned to transform created things, to improve creation, to add value to creation, to, in Auden’s words, ‘make a vineyard of the curse’. J.R.R Tolkien understood this well, as his fairy stories and indeed his entire project of mythopoesis attest his concern to not merely ennoble, challenge and inspire, but also to heighten reality itself, to invite us to look again at familiar things, and see them as if for the first time. Jacques Maritain, too, in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, once wrote that ‘Things are not only what they are. They ceaselessly pass beyond themselves, and give more than they have …’. In other words, it is claimed that there is absolutely nothing passive going on when a painter picks up a piece of charcoal, or a dancer performs Swan Lake. Abraham Kuyper was right to insist in his 1898 Stone lectures that art ‘discover[s] in those natural forms the order of the beautiful, and … produce[s] a beautiful world that transcends the beautiful of nature’. And others, too, have spoken of the way that the arts contribute to the transformation of disorder, bearing witness to the belief that creation is not indispensable to God’s liberating purposes for all that God has made, purposes which point not to a return to a paradise lost but to a creation made new, a making new which apprehends the reality of human artistry and which proceeds in the hope that both the location and the vocation of the children of God is inseparable from creation itself.

Alfonse Borysewicz on his art

For regular readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem, the name of New York-based artist Alfonse Borysewicz will be somewhat familiar. While on a trip recently to the USA, I had the privilege and joy of staying with Alfonse and his family, during which time my appreciation of his work and its importance at this moment in history was more-deeply confirmed. (I was almost-equally impressed with the intimate knowledge he had of, and affection he displayed about, NYC’s subway system). Alfonse’s bookshelves betray a mind that has long-wrestled with theology, philosophy and aesthetics. But like most artists, Alfonse is more comfortable speaking into and through his art than he is speaking about his art. Still, he does a good deal of, and good job with, the latter too. Here he is in a recent interview produced by Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids:

Art that Tells the Story: a commendation

We homo sapiens are, essentially, both a storied people and a story-telling people. So, a basic human question is not primarily, ‘What am I, as an individual, to do or decide?’ but rather, ‘Of what stories do I find myself a part, and thus who should I be?’; for we literally live by stories. The Church, too, understands itself as a pilgrim people, as a people storied on the way, as a people whose very way becomes the material which shapes the narrative that has long preceded it and which is being written with it. It understands that being human never begins with a white piece of paper. As Alasdair MacIntyre rightly reminds us in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, we never start anywhere. Rather, we simply find ourselves within a story that has been going on long before our arrival and will continue long after our departure. Moreover, Christian community begins with being found in the very act of God’s self-disclosure, an act which, in Jamie Smith’s words, ‘cuts against the grain of myths of progress and chronological snobbery’ and places us in the grain of the universe. And what – or, more properly, who – is disclosed in that crisis of discovery is one who provides memory, unity, identity and meaning to the story of our life. So Eberhard Jüngel: ‘We are not … simply agents; we are not just the authors of our biography. We are also those who are acted upon; we are also a text written by the hand of another’. Hence it is not just any story by which the Church lives but rather a particular story given to it – namely, Israel’s story in which, in the words of R.S. Thomas, it ‘gaspingly … partake[s] of a shifting identity never [its] own’.

Back in 1993, Robert Jenson wrote a great little piece titled ‘How the World Lost Its Story’ (First Things 36 (1993), 19–24). He opened that essay with these words:

It is the whole mission of the church to speak the gospel … It is the church’s constitutive task to tell the biblical narrative to the world in proclamation and to God in worship, and to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative, that is, as a promise claimed from God and proclaimed to the world. It is the church’s mission to tell all who will listen, God included, that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead, and to unpack the soteriological and doxological import of that fact.

To speak the gospel and, in Jenson’s parlance, to ‘do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative’, the Church is given a pulpit, a font and a table; in fact, many pulpits, fonts and tables. And these remain the principle ‘places’ where the people of God can expect to hear and to see and to taste and to learn and to proclaim the story into which they have been gathered, redeemed and made an indispensable character. This is not, however, to suggest that these are the only places wherefrom the free and sovereign Lord may speak, nor to aver in any way that the gospel is somehow kept alive by the Church’s attempt to be a story teller, for the story is itself nothing but God’s own free and ongoing history in Jesus. As Jüngel put it in God as the Mystery of the World, ‘God does not have stories, he is history’. To speak gospel is literally to proclaim God, speech that would be a lie and completely empty were it not the story of God with us, of the saving history which has become part of God’s own narrative, of the world which has, in Jesus Christ, become ‘entangled in the story of the humanity of God’ (Jüngel), a story at core kerygmatic and missionary, and unfinished until all its recipients are included in its text. For, as Jenson has written in his much-too-neglected Story and Promise, the story of Jesus – who is the content of the gospel – ‘is the encompassing plot of all men’s stories; it promises the outcome of the entire human enterprise and of each man’s involvement in it’. To know this man’s story, therefore, is to know not only the story of God but also our own story. Indeed, it is the story that makes human life possible at all. As Jenson would write elsewhere, ‘Human life is possible — or in recent jargon “meaningful” — only if past and future are somehow bracketed, only if their disconnection is somehow transcended, only if our lives somehow cohere to make a story’.

And here we come up against the perennial question of human speech, and it’s back to Jüngel (and to Peter Kline’s article on Jüngel and Jenson) to help me out: ‘The language which corresponds to the humanity of God’, writes Jüngel, ‘must be oriented in a highly temporal way in its language structure. This is the case in the language mode of narration, [or] telling a story’. In other words, if Kline reads Jüngel correctly, Jüngel is suggesting that narrative or story is the mode of human language which most appropriately corresponds to the form of God’s life among and with us. Commenting on Jüngel, Kline argues that narrative alone witnesses to the change from old to new, can capture the movement and becoming in which God has his being, corresponds to the eschatological event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and brings ‘the word of the cross’ to expression in a way apposite to us. So Jüngel: ‘God’s humanity introduces itself into the world as a story to be told’. Kline notes that for Jüngel, the church is given a story to tell, but, in Jüngel’s words, it ‘can correspond in [its] language to the humanity of God only by constantly telling the story anew’. God’s humanity ‘as a story which has happened does not cease being history which is happening now, because God remains the subject of his own story . . . God’s being remains a being which is coming’. The community, Kline says, tells only the story of Jesus Christ’s history, and so it constantly looks back to what has happened. Yet the telling of this story is also always new because God’s entrance into human language that once happened continues to happen again and again as Jesus Christ continues to live in the freedom of the Spirit. God is not confined to his once-enacted history, to one language or culture; history does not consume God. So Jüngel again: ‘God who is eschatologically active and who in his reliability is never old [is] always coming into language in a new way’.

‘Telling the story anew’. ‘God … [is] always coming into language in a new way’. Which brings me to Chris Brewer’s new book, Art that Tells the Story. Others have already summarised the book, so let me simply say that Art that Tells the Story is a freshly-presented and beautifully-produced book which attempts to tell the old, old story … again. Boasting some intriguing prose (by Michael E. Wittmer) and coupled with well-curated images from a diverse array of accomplished visual artists including Jim DeVries, Wayne Forte, Edward Knippers, Barbara Februar, Clay Enoch, Julie Quinn, Michael Buesking and Alfonse Borysewicz, among others, herein, word and image work in concert to open readers up to hear and see again, and to hear and see as if for the first time, the Bible’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, inviting – nay commanding!, for the gospel is command – readers to comprehend in this story their own, and to enter with joy into the narrative which is the life of all things. A book this beautiful ought to be in hardback; but may it, all the same, find itself opened and dialogued with next to many coffee mugs, and in good and diverse company. Like its subject, this is one to sit with, to be transformed by, and to share with others.

Flannery O’Connor once confessed, in Mystery and Manners, that ‘there is a certain embarrassment about being a story teller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics’. ‘But’, she continued, ‘in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or statistics, but by the stories it tells’. And so the dogged persistence of theologians and artists. Indeed, it is stories – in fact, a particular, if not very short or simple, story – that Brewer’s book is primarily concerned to tell. That his chosen medium is the visual arts reminded me of something that NT Wright once said, and which is, I think, worth repeating:

We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art [on] the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we … And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public … with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in.

Art that Tells the Story is grounded upon the premise that artists and theologians can not only help us to see better, but also that like all human gestures toward the truth of things, the work of artists can become an instrument through which God calls for our attention. And here I wish to conclude by re-sounding a call trumpeted by Michael Austin in Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination:

Theologians must be on their guard against commandeering art for religion, must allow artists to speak to them in their own language, and must try to make what they can of what they hear. What they will hear will tell of correspondences and connections, of similarities, of interactions and of parallel interpretations and perceptions which will suggest a far closer relationship of essence between art and religion than many theologians have been prepared to acknowledge. As the churches at the beginning of the twenty-first century become more fearful and therefore more conservative there may be fewer theologians prepared to take the risks that embracing a truly incarnational religion demands of them. In particular what they hear may suggest to them that their many (often contradictory) understandings of God and redemption and salvation in Christ need to be radically reconsidered if a new world is to be made.

Chris Brewer’s Art that Tells the Story is just such an attempt. It’s good stuff.

Fred Williams: Intimate Horizons

The day has been filled with a number of highlights, not least of which was the discovery of a piece about Fred Williams by Peter Conrad in the latest issue of The Monthly. Williams is certainly among my favourite painters, from Australia or elsewhere. I well remember his show at the National Gallery of Victoria back in the 80s – it was absolutely mind-blowing. Anyway, here’s a wee snippet from Conrad’s piece:

In 1947 the art historian Kenneth Clark sympathised with Sidney Nolan’s early efforts to paint “the Australian countryside (if one can call that inhospitable fringe between sea and desert by such a reassuring name)”. Clark suspected that art, with its play of bright but not blinding light and soft shadow, was disabled because Australia contained “no dark woods … no thick, sappy substances”, no excuse for pictorial impasto.

A decade later, Fred Williams returned to Melbourne after spending six years as a student in London and began to prove Clark wrong. The work Williams had done in England – mostly figurative, with wistful urban vignettes of buskers and beggars, or souvenirs of the desperately jaunty acrobats and comedians in the last remaining music halls – proved to be a false start. In Australia the land was starkly depopulated bush, with no workers tidily pruning the trees, as seen in one of his English etchings, and no church steeples to organise and sanctify the view. The affectionately downtrodden rural scenery of Constable seemed irrelevant, as did Turner’s frothy sublimity. On a trip to Kosciuszko National Park, Williams discovered something quite unlike the Alps that had excited the European Romantics. Storm clouds pummelled the Australian mountains in an aerial bombardment and snow, as it settled onto rock, sketched grotesque, leering faces.

The geometrical boulders painted by Cézanne were of some help, because they reminded Williams to consider what the land was made of, but his visual education did little to prepare him for his first expeditions to Mittagong in the Southern Highlands, New South Wales, and Upwey in the Dandenongs, Victoria. He was bewildered by the lack of a skyline, and by the eye’s inability to find a track through the mess of scrub: perspective is an urban convenience, allowing us to travel to the horizon in a straight line, and Australian space refused to be regulated.

You can read the whole piece here.

I was especially pleased, too, to read that the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra will be hosting an exhibition of Williams’ work entitled ‘Infinite Horizons’, from 12 August to 6 November 2011. It’s enough to make one want to jump onto a plane, very soon.

 

The good, the beautiful and the true

Last week, a conference and exhibition (actually, the exhibition is still running) took place which I had the privilege to help organise. We chose for our theme the Hebrew phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ – to mend the world – and invited artists and theologians to converse together about the following questions: Can there be repair? Can art and can theology tell the truth of the world’s woundedness and still speak of hope?

One of the themes to arise from the conversations concerned the Church’s long and deep indebtment to the three-fold notion of the good, the beautiful and the true, a notion articulated in Plato and given significant mileage through Thomas Aquinas in whom it reaches something of a dead end because in the final analysis Thomas’s articulation – like Kant’s after him – is too divorced from the particular form that God’s life actually takes in the world. For God’s beauty is not, as some suggest, the infinite serenity of God’s life. Rather, God’s beauty is the infinite drama of God’s life, a drama which, as Jonathan Edwards so wonderfully articulated, draws attention to God’s intrinsic plurality – God is beautiful precisely because God is Triune.

And so it is perhaps not too odd that the twentieth century which witnessed something of a renaissance of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity also witnessed a widescale broadening of the notion of beauty in the discourse of aesthetics. Beauty was no longer understood in the narrow terms outlined by Kant and others, and it became rightly recognised as having to do, in John de Gruchy’s words, with ‘the experience and perception of reality that we associate with the imagination and creativity, with metaphor and symbol, with games, playfulness, and friendship. The arts, whether fine or popular in all their manifold forms are central to aesthetics because they embody and express this dimension of experience, they evoke memories and suggest possibilities, thereby enabling us to see reality differently’.

Where beauty has been banished from contemporary aesthetic discourse, it has largely been in ‘reaction to the aestheticism of those who pursued beauty for its own sake, a Romantic escapism oblivious to the ugly realities of a world gripped by oppression’. But movements birthed by reaction alone are doomed to fail; and anyway, any account of aesthetics which claims the name ‘Christian’ will have to deal with the fact that the very centre of divine unveiling recalls that the beautiful and the ugly are not so easy to disentangle as we might first expect. Indeed, a Christian account of beauty can neither ignore nor offer easy escape from evil.

It is not, therefore, improper – indeed, it may be incumbent upon Christian theologians and artists – to approach the question of beauty through a consideration of its opposite, namely ugliness. Indeed, it is sometimes the case, as Theodor Adorno observes, that ‘art has to make use of the ugly in order to denounce the world which creates and recreates ugliness in its own image’. John de Gruchy suggests that ‘it is precisely this protest against unjust ugliness that reinforces the value and significance of beauty as something potentially redemptive. Indeed, if aesthetics were just about the beautiful we would never really understand “the dynamic life inherent in the concept of beauty”’. If ugliness has the capacity to destroy life, then Dostoevsky’s claim that ‘beauty will save the world’ invites us to not only (as PT Forsyth put it) ‘distrust the easy optimism of the merely happy creeds’, but also to see the invitation towards theological aesthetics as about faith seeking to understand reality – in its ugly forms too – from the vista of the beauty of God revealed primarily in the bloodied wounds of the cross where all that is ugly is transfigured by a profundity of beauty. Such beauty, as Karl Barth insists, ‘embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we might call the ugly as well as what we might call the beautiful’. To speak of beauty in its deepest reality is, in other words, to speak not just of any beauty, but rather of a very specific beauty. Indeed, it is beauty so specific that it goes by a particular name – Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ – who he is and what God does in him – is the very beauty of God.

To Mend the World: gratitude

Those for whom Per Crucem ad Lucem is a regular stopping place will know that recent months have seen me involved in birthing a twin project called To Mend the World. With the exhibition now in full swing (at the Temple Gallery) and the conference furniture packed away, it’s good to be able to pause a while, to claim some space to do an initial reflection. It has been a wonderful and wonderfully-full two days.

It has certainly been a privilege to be part of a small band who together envisioned the conference, whose energy made it possible, and whose commitment to the conversation between art and theology is long and outstanding. We had a great line up of speakers who, via some wonderfully-stimulating presentations, modelled what the organisers of the conference had hoped – a humble and respectful but no less critical and intelligent conversation by artists and theologians around the conference theme of ‘Tikkun olam’. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who registered for the conference – around double what we had initially anticipated – plus a number of welcomed-walk ins too, all of whom engaged in the conversations with enthusiasm and grace. Like every conference of which I’ve been a part, this one too provided opportunity to re-connect with friends, to finally put some faces to names, and to meet in-the-flesh those with whom one has only ever ‘met’ in e-land. Of this latter category, it was really great to finally meet Paul Fromont, with whom I enjoyed a very rewarding conversation and my first pint of Moe Methode.

An event of this kind is an all-too-rare thing, and its happening has been both a real joy and a long-time goal for me personally. I hope that all who attended left the event as encouraged, challenged and enriched as I was by the encounter.

Speaking of theology and the arts, here’s a few recent links of interest:

‘To Mend the World’: conference and exhibition

I want to give the ‘To Mend the World’ conference and exhibition one final plug. The conference runs from 29–30 July, and the exhibition from 29 July through to 6 August. It really is shaping up to be a very exciting twin-project, with an impressive line-up of speakers and artists. Registration for the conference has exceeded expectation, and is still open if you’re keen to attend.

Nota Bene

Dunedin to host two theology conferences

There can be little doubt that the 5-month delay of the parousia (until 21 October) is principally so that Dunedin – the global centre for theology, semi-decent coffee, and steep streets – can serve as host to two planned theological conferences.

The first, from July 29–30, is a conference on theology and art titled ‘To Mend the World’. The keynote speaker will be Professor Bill Dyrness from Fuller Theological Seminary and the conference will include an exhibition on the conference theme at the Temple Gallery, and a special screening of ‘The Insatiable Moon’ followed by discussion with the writer Mike Riddell. Further details here.

The second conference, to be held from September 2–3, will offer a Christian response to the phenomenon of  ‘The New Atheism’ as represented by writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. This conference, ‘The New Atheism: A Christian Response’, will be jointly hosted by the Faraday Institute at Cambridge University and the University of Otago. Further details here.

To Mend the World: a confluence of theology and the arts

The sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, Isaac Luria, made much of the notion of tikkun olam, a phrase which we might translate as ‘to mend the world’. Luria believed that the Creator of all things, in deciding to create a world, drew in – contracted – the divine breath in order to make room for the creation coming into being. In this enlarged space, the Creator then set vessels and poured into them the radiance of the divine light. But the light was too brilliant for the vessels, causing them to shatter and scatter widely. Since then, the vocation given to human person has consisted of picking up and to trying to mend or refashion the shards of creation.

Tikkun olam is also the theme of a conference and exhibition that I’m involved in organising, and which will take place in Dunedin this July. It is shaping up to be a very exciting twin-project, with an impressive line-up of speakers and artists. Registration for the conference has exceeded expectation for this stage so far out from the date, is still open, and there’s still some time to get in on the ‘early-bird’ rate.

Around the traps: To the memory of ulcers scraped with a tin spoon

To Mend the World (Tikkun Olam): a confluence of theology and the arts

The traditions of artistic expression and of Christian faith are richly intertwined. Artists help us to see differently. They draw attention to the order of things, and to their disorder. They help us to see the world’s beauty; they present us with its simplicity, and confront us with its tragedy. Now and again the work of artists becomes something more. Like all human gestures toward the truth of things, the work of artists can become an instrument through which God calls for our attention.

Attentiveness to God is also the task of Christian theology. Theology is, simply, a mode of attentiveness to the self-disclosure of God, and a striving to see the truth of things in light of that self-disclosure.

A group of us here in Dunedin are organising a conference and exhibition which will bring together artists and theologians to foster this intertwining.

The conference and exhibition are premised on the conviction that artists, theologians and people of faith have things to learn from one another, things about the complex inter-relationality of life, and about a coherence of things given and sustained by God.

The aim is to bring painters, poets, musicians, indeed, artists of all descriptions, together with theologians, and with people of faith, to explore a particular theme; can there be repair? Can there be a mending of the world, wounded as it is by war, by hatred, by exploitation and by neglect. We have chosen the Hebrew phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ – to mend the world – to signal the conference theme, and to pose the question: Can there be repair? Can art and can theology tell the truth of the world’s woundedness and still speak of hope? Can poetry still be written after unspeakable tragedy, a concerto played, a brush taken up? Must it be written, played, or taken up, perhaps more than ever?

We invite you to join us in exploring this theme.

Conference Dates & Place

29–30 July 2011. Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Knox College, Arden Street, Dunedin.

Conference Speakers

The theme will be addressed by a range of speakers including Professor William Dyrness, Professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, California.

Exhibition Dates & Place

An exhibition of work that picks up the theme of the conference – To mend the world: Tikkun Olam – is also being organised and will run for a week over the period of the conference.

Invitation to Artists

Artists are invited to participate in a group exhibition to be held at a Dunedin gallery. Information about submissions is available here.

More information on both the conference and exhibition is available here.

‘Life in Gaza Today’: an exhibition

Christian World Service are sponsoring an exhibition of paintings by Christian and Muslim children and adult artists who live in Gaza.

WhereKnox Church, 449 George St, Dunedin, in the Gathering Area.

When: 20–22 December 2010, 3–5 January 2011. 10.00 am – 4.00 pm.

The exhibition will be launched on Monday 20 December @ 5.15pm with a talk by Mai Tamimi.

Enquiries: email or phone (03) 477 0229.

Are images of Jesus idolatrous?

It is impossible, it seems, for a theologian to think seriously about the arts and not before long be confronted with the question of visual representations of God and, for the Christian theologian, of God as incarnate. The Orthodox and the Reformed traditions, in particular, have long taken this question with the utmost seriousness (and that beside heated debates on the communicatio idiomatum or of those on the question of Christ’s presence in the Supper). The four main objections seem to be:

# 1. Violation of the second commandment

There are no commands to make pictures of our Lord. In fact such pictures, it is argued, clearly violate the second commandment. There are issues here of the ongoing question of idolatry, witnessed to in the Old Testament’s depiction of pagan idols described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone – i.e. of the ‘stuff’ of creation, of the work of human hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18). And, of course, there is the Decalogue’s second commandment:

‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. (Exodus 20:3–4)

Does this commandment put a fence around what artists can – and cannot – depict of God? Are images of Jesus – whether in Sunday School books, galleries, or spaces dedicated for public worship – idolatry? And if not, then how ought we understand the relation between the unique and unrepeatable revelation of God in the incarnation (and that attested to in the inscripturated word and from the Church’s pulpit, font and table) and visual depictions of that Word?

# 2. All attempts are false representations

Since no accurate representation of Christ can be produced by creatures, all attempts are false representations and can only promote idolatry.

# 3. We don’t know what Jesus looks like

Despite passages like Isaiah 53:2 and Revelation 1:13–16, the Bible does not give us enough information to make a faithful representation of Christ’s physical appearance. Therefore, it is obvious that God does not sanction portraits of God’s Son.

# 4. All plastic (i.e. material) representations of Jesus implicitly promote the ancient heresy of Nestorianism

The most serious objection to artists’ attempts to represent Jesus pictorially has been associated with this charge of Nestorianism. In other words, even if we had a photo of Jesus which depicted what he looked like, no human artistry can portray Christ’s divine nature. Therefore, all attempts are a lie and portray Jesus as infinitely less, or other, than he is as the God-human. This argument was proposed by the Council of Constantinople in 754:

‘If any person shall divide human nature, united to the Person of God the Word; and, having it only in the imagination of his mind, shall therefore, attempt to paint the same in an Image; let him be holden as accursed. If any person shall divide Christ, being but one, into two persons; placing on the one side the Son of God, and on the other side the son of Mary; neither doth confess the continual union that is made; and by that reason doth paint in an Image of the son of Mary, as subsisting by himself; let him be accursed. If any person shall paint in an Image the human nature, being deified by the uniting thereof to God the Word; separating the same as it were from the Godhead assumpted and deified; let him be holden as accursed’.

Regarding this council Philip Schaff, in History of the Christian Church. Volume IV: Mediæval Christianity from Gregory I to Gregory VI; A.D. 590–1073, writes:

The council [of Constantinople, 754], appealing to the second commandment and other Scripture passages denouncing idolatry (Rom. 1:23, 25; John 4:24), and opinions of the Fathers (Epiphanius, Eusebius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, etc.), condemned and forbade the public and private worship of sacred images on pain of deposition and excommunication … It denounced all religious representations by painter or sculptor as presumptuous, pagan and idolatrous. Those who make pictures of the Saviour, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures, like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy. The eucharist alone is the proper image of Christ. (pp. 457–8.)

This issue is just one of the many in which the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth and his reformation great-grandfather, John Calvin, agree. They both held that:

  • Preaching and sacraments are central to the community’s activity;
  • That static works are a distraction to the ‘listening community’;
  • That the community should not be bound to a particular conception of Jesus;
  • That even the best art cannot ‘display Jesus Christ in his truth, i.e., in his unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted’ (Barth, CD IV.3.2, 867). To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV.2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship. See CD IV.2, 102–3.
  • ‘Whatever [people] learn of God in images is futile’ (Calvin, Institutes, I.xi.5). God’s majesty ‘is far above the perception of our eyes … Even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching’ (Inst., I.xi.12); and
  • ‘Theology cannot fix upon, consider, and put into words any truths which rest on or are moved by themselves – neither an abstract truth about God nor about man nor about the intercourse between God and man. It can never verify, reflect or report in a monologue. Incidentally, let it be said that there is no theological visual art. Since it is an event, the humanity of God does not permit itself to be fixed in an image’ (Barth, The Humanity of God, 57).

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Karl Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (CD III.2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

While Barth and Calvin could and did find proper recognition of the gift of God’s love expressed in human culture, they both failed to find in their theology a positive place for the plastic arts that they could find, for example, in music. Ah Wolfgang!

So what ought we make of Barth’s – and others (e.g. Calvin, Kierkegaard) – judgement against visual representations of Jesus? Are visual representations of Jesus really any more susceptible than words (poetry, sermons, etc) about Jesus? (One recalls here Calvin’s insistence that it is the heart that is factory of idols.) Does not God’s act of redeeming creation not extend to the arts’ service of giving an account to the creatureliness of God in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s and Calvin’s rejection misunderstand the nature of the dynamic and continuing event which is the relationship of the viewer of a painting or a sculpture with the artwork, and of the freedom of the Word in that event? (See Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination, 21.)

For most of the Reformed, theology is something that is meant to be done with words, and not with images. But, of course, every decision we make about how we choose to communicate the good news is loaded with visual symbolism and reinforces a perception that God communicates with us in a particular kind of way. The question, therefore, is not, whether or not we should communicate visually; it is, rather, how we do so and what we say when we do.

One of the things that good art does is to shed light on the true nature of things; it broadens our horizons, enriches our capacity to see, alerts us to dimensions of reality that we had not seen before, and for which words, sometimes, are simply not enough. The arts help us to birth the kind of imagination and re-imagination that the good news itself fosters and encourages and demands and makes and invites. Artists see differently, but no less truthfully than scientists, how things are with the world. If we are to walk in our world well, and justly and with the mercy of God, then we cannot do so without the kind of re-imagining of reality and of human society that the arts promote and invite.

So NT Wright:

‘We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art in the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we. You can do that in music, and you can do that in painting. And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public in America with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in’. (NT Wright, ‘Jesus, the Cross and the Power of God’. Conference paper presented at European Leaders’ Conference, Warsaw, February, 2006).

Of course, as Murray Rae recently reminded a bunch of us here in Dunedin, the risk-taking work of re-imagining means that there can be no guarantee that misunderstanding and misinterpretation will be avoided. But neither do we have any such guarantee in the use of our words. In both cases, it seems, what we offer is an act of faith given under God’s imperative that we should share the good news. We offer in Christian witness so much as we have understood, knowing it to be partial, inadequate, and marred by our own sinfulness. And we do so in the name and under the inspiration of the God who makes eloquent the stumbling witness of our faith, and moulds our communication to good and loving purpose. It’s risky, but it is, it seems, God’s risk too.

Perhaps a few words from John de Gruchy would be a fitting way to conclude this post:

Art in itself cannot change society, but good art, whatever its form, helps us both individually and corporately to perceive reality in a new way, and by so doing, it opens up possibilities of transformation. In this way art has the potential to change both our personal and corporate consciousness and perception, challenging perceived reality and enabling us to remember what was best in the past even as it evokes fresh images that serve transformation in the present. This it does through its ability to evoke imagination and wonder, causing us to pause and reflect and thereby opening up the possibility of changing our perception and ultimately our lives … From a Christian perspective, the supreme image that contradicts the inhuman and in doing so becomes the icon of redemption is that of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. So it is not surprising that artists through the centuries have sought to represent that alien beauty as a counter to the ugliness of injustice. We are not redeemed by art nor by beauty alone, but by the holy beauty which is revealed in Christ and which, through the Spirit evokes wonder and stirs our imagination. (John W. de Gruchy, ‘Holy Beauty: A Reformed Perspective on Aesthetics Within a World of Ugly Injustice’ in Reformed Theology for the Third Christian Millennium: The 2001 Sprunt Lectures, 14–5).