Faith Through Art

I recently posted some musings about faith and art.  Here’s a paper I wrote about their necessary intersection (with examples from Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein!).  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it!  I’d very much like to hear your thoughts, but be warned – it’s a long post.

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Introduction: Asking the Right Questions

What makes art or entertainment acceptable for Christian viewers?  Should we as Christians avoid the so-called “secular” arts in favour of works that explicitly reinforce our religious beliefs?  These questions are prevalent in the North American Church today, and many responses to these questions have proven problematic.  Speaking of controversy around this issue, one scholar writes:

In the spirit of the “culture wars”, many [people] divided movies, music, and television programming into either “Christian” or “secular” categories with an artwork’s merit riding on simplistic moral, theological, or ideological evaluations.[1]

Focus on the Family, one of the largest Christian media groups, devotes an entire publication (Plugged In) to this process, rating the products of popular culture based on their merits (“pro-social content”) and their demerits (“objectionable content”).  General affirmations of love, peace, and other Christian values get positive points, while explicit Christian content – being evangelistic messages, testimonies, or worship – gets an automatic pass.  Objectionable content includes, among other things, a cuss-count (how many cusses is considered acceptable?), nudity, sexuality, violence, spirituality that is not Christian, and even criticism of the President of the United States.[2]  The message that Plugged In and publications like it ultimately send is that media and culture is only considered to be Christian if it is explicitly evangelistic or worshipful, while “secular” culture (i.e. everything else) is something that Christians must be protected from.  At the same time, the “art” that is produced for Christian consumption tends toward flaccid imitations of “secular” works, pasted over with overt and often cheesy messages of Christian evangelism and worship.

While there is some merit in the above questions about art, they only approach art from one perspective – namely that of wary consumers seeking to place limits on our consumption of art and culture.  There are other questions that get to the root of the Christian relationship with culture: What is the relationship between faith, serious theological reflection, and art?  How has the Church traditionally produced and interacted with art?  Is art important for our faith?

It is my conviction that the arts – literature, music, visual arts, and performance arts – are not only important for the life of faith, but that they are essential to it.  The more that I reflect on these questions, the more I relate to Madeleine L’Engle when she said “I am beginning to see that almost every definition I find of being a Christian is also a definition of being an artist.”[3]  Without realizing it, Christians rely on their ability to engage with art in its many forms as a part of their understanding and worship of God.  We interact with art in our engagement with the sources of our faith, the articulation of our faith, and the expression of our faith.  With examples from “secular” literature, I will explore this relationship between faith and art, and find that ultimately our faith comes to us and through us in artistic forms.

The Sources of Faith: Scripture and Story

The Church has long argued over the sources of our faith.  Protestants stand on the principle of sola scriptura, seeing the Bible as the only authoritative source of theological truth, while the Roman Catholic Church has long held to two books, the Bible and the traditions of the Church.  What we often fail to note in this argument is the nature of the source materials: the Bible is entirely literature of different sorts, while tradition may also include music, visual arts, and even performing arts.  Perhaps their positive affirmation of the traditions of the Church is one reason that Catholics seem to have a greater appreciation for and acceptance of the arts.  But it is the artistic nature of the Bible itself that we will now examine.

It is interesting that fundamentalists often seem to be the most averse to the arts, considering one of their central tenets, the authority of the original autographs of scripture, reveres the text in its original form.  While our modern mindset places value on the conceptual content of texts over their form – the message, rather than the medium – the doctrine of the infallibility of the original autographs of scripture places a distinct importance on the medium as well: God has inspired the text in such a direct way that it was written exactly as He wanted it to be, completely infallible in its original form.  That the original form of the text is that of literature in the form of myth, story, epic verse, sensual poetry, song, parable, and testimony somehow fails to get much attention.

That the artistic form of the Bible is overlooked by North American Evangelicals is most likely due to our general insistence on a literal reading of scripture, which fails to recognize any of the literary genres and their associated devices that make up the Bible.  This method of interpretation flourishes in conservative Evangelical circles, particularly those whose heritages include the camp meetings and anti-intellectualism that swept through Protestant America in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is a quite understandable extension of the Protestant insistence on people being able to read the Bible in their own vernacular, as well as the Evangelical belief that anyone can understand the saving message of the Gospel.  While these beliefs are good on their own, their extension to a strict literalist interpretation of scripture has removed the art – and much of the meaning – from the Bible.

Even if we misread the scriptures as a literal, historical handbook for life, our reading of the text does not change its nature as literature.  Nor can we claim that the subject matter of this literature is always explicitly “Christian” in the same sense that we seek in popular culture today.  Scripture deals with sexuality, non-Christian spirituality, violence, and sin in unflinching and gritty portrayals of the lives of our heroes of the faith.  We are not sensitive to the graphic nature of the Bible only because we face a barrier of language and culture that makes us unable to understand the original text in the same way we do a modern novel or television series.  Even the Bible’s most explicit portrayals of faith often have ambiguities and raise troubling theological questions – and often do so deliberately.  The book of Job, for example, deals with the struggle of a righteous man whose theology of providence makes it clear that his suffering comes from God; this book raises the problem of evil and the question of whether God performs or approves evil acts, whether He is just or unjust, and leaves the reader with no answer.  Art, as the book of Job certainly is, often serves the purpose of forcing its audience to ask difficult questions for themselves, rather than feeding them the answers.  The Bible does this very frequently, and we should not deny its nature by insisting that it is a book of answers.  After all, if the Bible answered all of our questions, we wouldn’t need theology to articulate its theological content.

The Articulation of Faith: Theology, Art, and Inquiry

For thousands of years, Christians have been writing theology.  Whether in the form of commentaries on scripture, creeds, didache, epistles of instruction and exhortation, or in the form of theological treatises and papal decrees, we have found the need to clearly articulate exactly what it is we believe about God and the world He has created.  These types of writings usually fall into the category of science rather than art, utilizing conceptual or philosophical language and frameworks for the sake of precise and unambiguous articulation of beliefs.  Today more than ever, theology is the subject of an entire publishing industry, whose scope of subjects and issues expands while its methods and materials are refined.  Theology is, and has always been, tremendously important for the Church: it helps us to affirm our common beliefs, articulate them to others in evangelism and debate, and defend them against those who would profit from their misuse.

North American Evangelicals tend to favour Biblical Theology, as it affirms our doctrine of sola scriptura while at the same time attempting to explain the subtle complexities of scripture.  While mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics may look to the great theologians of history for guidance, we prefer a good study Bible or a commentary, usually to clear up issues of language and context; after all, if the message of the Bible is clear to anyone who reads it, all we must do is eliminate the barriers to the reading of it!  Evangelical theologies go so far as to compile the texts which deal with specific theological issues (e.g., take scriptures from Daniel, Ezekiel, Joel, Thessalonians, and Revelation in order to formulate an eschatological timeline), and many attempt to solve theological questions (e.g., Arminian free-will vs. Calvinist predestination), but very few commentators or theologians deal with the artistic and rhetorical issues of a text except in a brief introduction.  In short, as noted above, we are much more concerned with what the Bible says (the message) than with how it says it (the medium), and our commentaries and theologies are much more concerned with helping us know what it said than with helping us to actually read it.

This should give us pause.  Our method of articulating our faith involves distilling the powerful and often ambiguous stories and poetry of the Bible down into the cold, conceptual, and precise language of science, so that they can better be communicated to a wider audience.  This may be a clear and concise way to communicate intellectual information to which one may give intellectual assent, but this does not constitute sharing our faith, nor is it able to convey an accurate understanding of the messy complexities of life.  It is not clear that conceptual language is even up to the task of describing, much less explaining, the truths of God in Christ.  If conceptual language could clearly describe, for example, the salvific power of the death of Christ and the nature of the cosmic transaction that took place, why would we need to resort to metaphor?  In this instance, we have the metaphor of Christ as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, Christ as redeeming us from slavery to sin, and Christ as being subjected to execution in our place, among others – all used to describe the spiritual implications of the event of the execution of Jesus Christ by the Roman and Jewish authorities of Judea on charges of treason.  We rely on the literary device of metaphor because a scientific description of events cannot capture the significance of those events – neither the cosmic, historical, spiritual, or personal significance.  And when we try to communicate these metaphors to others we use “illustrations”, or stories, to do it.  Inevitably, we turn a story into bare concepts before turning it back into a new story, all in an effort to articulate a thought more clearly than the original story allowed.  That we do this without realizing it should also cause us to reflect on the inescapable presence of story and art in our life and faith: we cannot hear about or describe God apart from story.

Even when Evangelicals consciously write new stories to articulate our faith, we are very careful to make our stories line up reverently with the Bible.  “Christian fiction” tends to feature pious heroes (or wretched sinners who convert into pious heroes) and themes and morals that are explicit to the point of being preachy.  We do not allow ourselves to write variations on Biblical stories – at least, none that vary too widely.  Just as we used to violently oppose the critical study of the Bible, we continue to oppose critical re-imaginings of it.  Writers who use too much subtlety when dealing with Biblical themes are relegated to the realm of the “secular”, no matter how clearly their work articulates matters of Christian life, or even theological issues.  Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time is banned from many Evangelical bookstores to this day, yet I can find no better depiction of the difficult biblical concept of Powers and Principalities, much less written in a book that children both understand and adore.  Literature and other arts have a powerful ability to show, not just to describe, complex theological truths: allow me to use an analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to illustrate the importance of artistic reinterpretations for the sake of our understanding and articulation of our faith.

Faith and Frankenstein

Madeleine L’Engle once wrote,

“I often seek theological insights in reading science fiction, because this is a genre eminently suited to explorations of the nature of the Creator and creation.  I’m never surprised when I discover that one of my favourite science fiction writers is Christian, because to think about worlds in other galaxies, other modes of being, is a theological enterprise.”[4]

Though it does not deal with other worlds in other galaxies, Mary Shelley’s contribution to early science fiction, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus provides a serious and powerful examination of the nature of the Creator and creation, in a story that has been re-told many times since.[5]

In the story of the creation and fall of mankind in Genesis, God creates human beings who, being deceived, disobey God; this is marked as the cosmic event that led to all evil in the world.  Human beings are cast out of the garden of Eden, symbolic of their separation from God, and are doomed to eventually die.  Medieval theology and art reinterpreted this event: if the serpent who deceived Adam and Eve represents Satan, then Satan must have already fallen before he caused human beings to sin.  John Milton’s classic epic Paradise Lost places the reader in the company of Satan as he plots to spite God by turning His own creatures against Him.  For centuries, Milton’s account of this has informed our imagination of the events of the Fall, and indeed of the character of Satan.

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s central character is Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who becomes obsessed (as many scientists and alchemists before him) with creating life, and tells his tale in the first-person.  This allows us to identify not with the creature as we do in Genesis, or with Satan as we do in Paradise Lost, but with the creator, seeing the classic creation narrative from a different perspective.  This change in perspective, of course, does not only reflect on God but also very strongly on the nature of humankind by way of contrast: God creates with a word and for the sake of love and order, while Frankenstein creates in an obsessive fervour and for the sake of knowledge and self-fulfillment; everything that God creates is good and has a place and a purpose, while Frankenstein’s creation is a hideous monster who has no place in this world; God loves His creatures, and banishes them due to their own disobedience and moral failure, while Frankenstein despises his creature from the moment it begins to live, and projects evil deeds and intents onto the “daemon” (as he calls it even before it could possibly have done any evil deeds).  So though we are forced to relate to the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, and though he is a completely different type of creator than God is, through this we are able to better relate to God by gaining insight into His character through the contrast with Frankenstein; Frankenstein is a foil for God.

As the story moves on, the creature is allowed to tell his tale to his creator.  The creature has been outcast for two years, and in that time has learned to speak and read.  One of the books that has a great impact on his conception of himself is Paradise Lost, and so we are again drawn back into the story of creation and fall from yet another perspective; though perhaps not the one we expect.  Indeed, when the creature confronts his creator, he says “Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed…I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.  Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”[6]  In Genesis, Adam blames Eve for his sin, Eve blames the serpent, but all three are held responsible for their actions and cast out of the garden; here, we see the response that the serpent did not give in Genesis – to blame God Himself.  It is easy to think that this is the response that Satan would give to God, being warped and evil as he is, but thus far in the novel we have witnessed no evil from the creature, and much hatred toward him from his creator, Frankenstein.  Like Paradise Lost, Frankenstein invites us to think about the events in Heaven that preceded the fall of humankind in the Garden, and perhaps even feel a little sympathy for the Devil.

While this may not be a comfortable notion for many Christians, it is a real question that comes out of Genesis, and deserves to be answered: why did the serpent tempt Eve?  And later, why does Satan seek to destroy Job?  And why, in both cases, does God allow it?  Scripture is silent on this matter, but literature is unafraid to explore that silence.  Perhaps this is one reason that Christian traditions which favour systematic theology also tend to favour the arts: while Biblical theology is content to articulate the message of the books of the Bible, to describe what they say and remain silent where they are silent, systematic theology asks questions that the Bible does not always answer, but on which the arts are free to speculate and inquire.  And inquiry, after all, is such a powerful and necessary part of engagement with the Bible, and with God, that we should embrace it wherever possible.

The Expression of Faith: Worship and Witness

Worship is an area of Christian life whose connection with the arts is rarely questioned, as music has long been a central element of most church services.  Mainline denominations and Roman Catholics have long adorned their church buildings with beautiful and symbolic stained glass depicting the saints and heroes of Christianity, and symbolic icons have been a major aid to prayer for the Orthodox Church for millennia.  It should be pointed out, however, that none of these elements of worship (as much as they are taken for granted in their popular settings) are without controversy.  The Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches had much to do with iconoclasm (the destruction of icons, as they were thought to be a form of idolatry), and that attitude toward images eventually led many Evangelical churches to their current state of bland, blank walls, the only adornment being an empty cross.  Attitudes toward music vary, from Brethren churches that do not allow musical instruments, to chanting monks, to churches that only allow hymns to be sung, to the modern choruses of Evangelical and Charismatic churches.

In the past few decades, churches in North America have begun to embrace the visual and performing arts within their services: theatre is promoted as a means of evangelism and growing a church, while visual arts are seen as an act of worship in itself.  Many churches now host annual art shows featuring the paintings and photography of their congregants, and a friend of mine has been known to set up an easel on the stage during a worship service, painting while we sing as an alternative act of worship.  What all of these expressions of art have in common is that they are, with the exception of the art galleries, explicitly Christian; there is little subtlety in them, nor is any required in such a context.  The content of worship music is obviously Christian (naturally), and the plays shown in churches are almost always explicitly evangelistic.  And as for my friend’s paintings, if the content of her paintings were not explicitly Christian I’m not sure how they would be accepted in that context.  That said, this branching out from traditionally accepted art forms in the context of Church is a huge step forward, because it recognizes human creativity as God-given, and the expression of that creativity as an act of worship.  Slowly, the sphere of “worship” is widening out to embrace much more of Christian life, with creative arts being a primary method of extending worship outside the bounds of music and Sunday services.

Why do we use the arts to worship God, when we do not seem to be comfortable using them to learn about God?  We avoid the arts in our articulation of faith, because the arts are so subjective; but in our personal response to God, subjectivity seems not only acceptable, but somewhat necessary.  The arts allow us to express the inexpressible, relying on music to inspire and direct our deepest emotions toward God, picking up the meaning where the words of the song end.  A canvas with unformed strokes of colour can resonate in our spirit in ways we cannot describe, much as the Holy Spirit does; and symbolic representations of Christ allow us to meditate on him in ways our mental projections of the concept of the invisible God cannot facilitate.  A friend of mine recently made a powerful (and somewhat shocking) comparison: that music and art allow us to express the inexpressible in the same way that Paul describes speaking in tongues.  Speaking in tongues is a way for us to connect with God beyond words and conscious intellectual articulation, as facilitated by the Holy Spirit; perhaps we should think of art in similar terms?

An area of the life of faith that most people do not consider to be art is that of witness.  Worship and witness are the two primary ways that we respond to God, and both terms are rather expansive, collectively covering every area of Christian life.  If worship is an expression of our faith to God, then witness is how we express our faith to the world around us.  Traditionally, we tend to think of this in terms of either explicit evangelism and personal testimony, or in the lived-out expressions of a Christian life well-lived.  It is rather strange that this part of our faith is rarely connected with art considering how deeply dependent it is on story, or how well-represented it is in art.

Evangelism is rarely subtle: evangelists quote scripture and attempt to persuade people (ideally non-Christians, though crusades are inevitably populated primarily by Christians) to give their lives to Christ.  Passages often preached in evangelistic sermons usually include Bible stories or parables such as the parable of the Lost Sheep or the Lost Son – using story to express spiritual truths.  Often just as powerful (or even more powerful) than reading scripture to others is the practice of telling your personal story of redemption – your testimony.  We love telling testimonies because they communicate a truth about God to someone through a story that is true; and though it is explicit, it is not usually considered to be “preachy”, as it makes no demand of its audience.  These two points, being true and not being preachy, are essential to a testimony; the former because we want to show the truth of what God is doing in the world, and the latter because people generally do not respond well to messages that are personally challenging, or worse, condescending.

What we often fail to recognize about testimonies is that our audience is not automatically convinced of the truthfulness of our claims, nor are true stories always the most effective stories for the communication of truths.  Considering our awareness of the poison pill of preachy proclamation, we ought to make the connection to our use of stories to spread the gospel: our lack of subtlety regarding our evangelistic intent or the religious or theological content of our testimonies often comes across as condescending at best, and just plain unbelievable at worst.  Regardless of the truth of our testimony, the message we are trying to deliver suffers for our heavy-handed approach.  The testimonies that we tell are usually without sufficient context or character development to resonate with the audience; they are to a story what an advertisement is to a television show – a quick dump of product information, presented in a way designed to elicit a sense of need in the audience.  Rather than giving commercials to try to “sell” God to people, perhaps we should think of our testimonies more as movie trailers, which only show a small part of a greater story and engage their audience by leaving something to the imagination.  What a good story shows, a testimony only tells, and showing is always better than telling because it forces the audience to discern the message for themselves.

Strangely, though much of English literature either includes or resembles Christian testimony, we tend to label all but the most explicitly evangelistic works as “secular”.  What is the difference between Charles Dickens’ works and Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps?  Both are the product of the Social Gospel in England, and both portray Christians having powerful impacts on the lives of the poor around them through acts of Christian charity and kindness.  Dickens’ work is without doubt far superior, and the message of both is equally “Christian”, yet In His Steps is considered a “Christian classic” while Dickens’ works are considered classics by all lovers of literature.  In His Steps’ lack of subtlety makes it almost unreadable toward the end, while Dickens requires his readers to discern the message themselves; this is the difference that makes Dickens accessible to everyone, yet earns him the “secular” label from Christians.

We ought to better recognize the power of the arts, and particularly literature, to bear witness to God’s work in the world in ways that are intriguing and believable, and to use them accordingly.  But more than that, we need to recognize how much the arts are already bearing witness to God’s work in the world.  Our evangelism can only get easier when we learn to recognize God at work everywhere, and learn to help others to see that as well.  In this regard, allow me to illustrate with a brief examination of the first English-language novel, Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe: A Testimony of Providence

Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe is a first-person account of the misadventures of a 17th-century English Protestant who seeks a life at sea rather than follow the good advice of his parents.  When he sets out on his first voyage to another port in England, little does he realize that his route home will be through storms and shipwrecks, slavery and salvation, taking him to Africa and Brasil before depositing him on an uninhabited island for twenty-eight years.

The religious messages of the book are far from subtle.  The book serves on one hand as a travel narrative, and on the other as a Christian testimony.  This latter purpose is laid out explicitly in the preface:

The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always apply them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honour the Wisdom of Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen as they will.[7]

 

Crusoe’s adventures before being shipwrecked alone on the island involved a predictable pattern of facing danger, praying for deliverance and bargaining with God, and then promptly forgetting all about his bargain once the danger had passed.  It was only after his deliverance from the shipwreck that killed his entire crew that he began to see the hand of God, or Providence, in his physical salvation – and even then, it took a frightening fever dream to bring him to repentance:

…I found my Heart more deeply and sincerely affected with the Wickedness of my past Life: The Impression of my Dream reviv’d, and the Words, All these Things have not brought thee to Repentance, ran earnestly in my Thought…I cry’d out aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance![8]

 

Throughout the rest of the book, Crusoe periodically reflects on the theological implications of the events that have just transpired.  After a long description of his work on the island he would reflect and see the hand of God, or Providence, providing for his every need.  As the book goes on his account of the time of his sojourn compresses, so the theological reflections become more frequent and lengthy.

Crusoe frequently makes allusions to the book of Proverbs, describing himself as the foolish child who does not heed the good advice of his parents, and thus making the biblical moral of his bad example clear.  At the same time, his industrious work on the island is a positive example that brings to mind other passages from Proverbs.  When he finally does encounter other human beings and finds them to be cannibals, his first response (a desire to kill them all in disgust) is tempered by his growing awareness of the providence of God, and his inspired prudence is to his profit.  Throughout the book there is a balance between relying on (and most of all being grateful for) Providence, and working to make the most out of what is provided.

Defoe wrote to portray the ultimate Christian of his era: 1) not a “Catholick”, or “papist”; 2) brave and hard-working; 3) deeply repentant and thankful to God; 4) conqueror and lord wherever he goes; and 5) using his power and influence to convert others to Christ.  Though we would look on Crusoe as being barbarically colonialist, racist, arrogant, and with no regard for animal life, in his own time he was a Christian ideal, an example of the transformation that overtakes those who are repentant and truly thankful for the opportunities that Providence grants.  Particularly to its original audience, this book is a powerful testimony of what God is doing in the world, encased in an exciting adventure to give it even more appeal and wonder.

But the identity of the audience is a key point here.  Defoe wrote to an audience that was most likely almost entirely Puritan Christian; he was, in a sense, preaching to the converted.  While testimonies are valuable for Christians to hear, they hope to inspire a response in those who need to hear it, i.e. the unsaved or the backslidden.  Since Christianity was a state religion in all Western European countries in Defoe’s time, those two categories were one and the same.  His audience, then, would have no problem picking up an explicitly Christian book with blatant religious messages.  Audiences today are not so eager to pick up religious propaganda, so like Defoe, our testimonies (as valuable as they are) only preach to the converted.  This is especially true of our fictional testimonies, otherwise known as “Christian fiction”, to which a non-Christian would typically find it very difficult to relate, and in which the obvious moral messages are the only thing of value.  As Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”[9]  As blunt as Defoe is in his pious subject, he was innovative in his art form; what kind of religion do the writers of today’s “Christian fiction” promote?

Robinson Crusoe shows us how powerful a Christian testimony can be, particularly for other Christians; but it also shows us what not to do, because we know that, even if its language were updated, Robinson Crusoe would not command so wide a readership today.  We can take a lesson from it by telling intriguing stories about how God is at work in the world; and we can improve upon it by refusing to allow the message to overpower its artistic medium, losing all credibility in the process.

 

Conclusion: Faith through Art

We can’t escape art, and we can’t dress it up in pious clothing in an attempt to sanitize it.  We are concerned that art will make fiction or falsehood seem true; but when we attempt to subordinate our art to a particular message, that message comes across as false, no matter how true it is.  We interact with art at every point in our Christian life, and doing so not only enriches but also simply enables our life of faith.  It is the primary medium through which we receive, understand, and express our knowledge of and relationship with God.  Art is not safe, or sterile – but neither is God.  Let us co-create with God, not out of obsession and fear like Frankenstein, but out of the joy and love of abundance that God shares with us.  Let us proclaim the providence of God, not as an object lesson like Robinson Crusoe, but as an expression of the reality in which we live.  Our attempts at crafting “Christian art” continue to fail; let us instead simply be Christian, and allow our art to express our Christian selves naturally.

 

WORKS CITED

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. Ed. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Michael Shinagel. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1994.

 

L’Engle, Madeleine.  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.  Toronto: Bantam Books, 1982.

 

Romanowski, William D.  Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture.  Revised and Expanded Edition.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007.

 

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Ed. D. L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf. 2d ed. Peterborough: Broadview, 1999.

 


[1] William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 31.

[2] For example, see Plugged In’s review of the Beastie Boys album “To the 5 Boroughs”: http://www.pluggedin.ca/music/albums/2004/beastieboys-tothe5boroughs.aspx

[3] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1982), 189.

[4] L’Engle, 134-35.

[5] Notable re-tellings of this same story in the science fiction genre include I, Robot, the Terminator series, The Matrix trilogy, Battlestar Galactica, and the Ultron saga of the Marvel comic book series The Avengers.

[6] Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf, Eds., 2nd ed. (Peterborough: Broadview, 1999), 126.

[7] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719 Ed., Norton Critical Edition, Michael Shinagel, ed., 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1994), 3.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] L’Engle, 14.

 

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8 thoughts on “Faith Through Art

  1. Jeff, this is good. The one thought that resonated with me the most is the question: should we oppose critical re-imagining of the Bible? My initial reaction is “yeah, probably” but the only reason I could come up with is that most people who have done it have been really really bad at it, or it was just a thin veil for their hatred of Christianity.

    But we have fantastic examples of it throughout the literary landscape that have added to theology–Paradise Lost, Divine Comedy, shoot..basically any poetic movement. I mean, kids who grow up in the Church can easily breeze through an English Undergrad because they pick up on all the biblical references and get bonus marks for mentioning them in their essays. So we are not light on past artistic works for contemplation.

    What we are light on are contemporary ones. Systematic theology comes close to filling the gap–especially a narrative theology based one, and I deeply believe that good theology comes from an understanding of good art–but I think you got it right when you said that we have an over focus on the message and not on the medium. Or maybe not an over-focus on the message (how can you do that!?) but we have weak and underdeveloped medium-understanding intellectual muscles. Where are the modern poets playing with the lament form of poetry for example? Modern parables? Re-imagining a lot of the weird parts of the bible (the nephalim anyone?)

    I think there is room for a really creative commentary series that responds to the particular stories with a bunch of different mediums. I mean, preachers do it all the time (some badly, some good) by saying things like “what was that boy with the loaves and fishes really doing there?” etc. Or other creative endeavours–maybe copying Augustine and writing our own “confessions” about our life. Why not pick a book of the bible and do a “creative commentary” in that way?

    (What we don’t have are wealthy churches or church members/benefactors, financing such things as they did in the Renaissance.)

    But this is great food for thought. And maybe something we should try putting into practise? How creative do you feel?

    • Yes! You’ve nailed it!

      I’ve been considering trying to write parables for a month or so, but I’m too nervous! A little anxiety of influence added to a whole lot of inadequacy compared to…well, to Jesus, adds up to good intentions with no follow through. But you’re right, we need to put it in practice, and I’m certainly game. Should we start a writing competition? Every month we could submit a new piece: one month, a parable; the next, a lament; the next, a chiasmus…etc. What do you think?

      I’m almost finished a paper that ties in with what you’re saying. I won’t say too much now, but I will say that I think that the only biblical literary style that we’re currently riffing on in our culture is apocalyptic, and we’re doing it in a medium that gets no credibility or respect.

  2. You and your comic books 🙂
    Actually there have been some really great TV shows that deal with biblical themes too: Battlestar Galactica dealing with the Exile, prophecy and restoration. The Walking Dead dealing with apocalypse etc.

    But yeah, I think that would be a fun exercise! We should come up with a list of things and then plan a schedule for them. I’ll think about it tonight (Sunday) and post some of my list thoughts tomorrow.

  3. Ok, the one’s I’ve come up with are: lament, chiasmus, parable, prophecy (not an oracle, but more like a “repent, O generation” type thing), re-imagining of a story or weird/underdeveloped biblical mention, apocalypse. Can you think of any others?
    I’d say we start with a lament. How do we do this? Can we pick our own themes? Should we agree on the structure of what a lament is in the first place? I’m 4 years out of seminary, so I’ve forgotten everything 🙂

    (Oh and this is my FB account I’m commenting from.)

    • Sounds good, though I regret saying Chiasmus simply because it’s a device rather than a genre. Let’s replace it with another word that starts with pr – a proverb. And bonus points if we structure our poetry in chiasm!

      I don’t think I want to limit what we come up with here. I think that if we work too hard at copying biblical forms exactly, the anxiety of influence will be paralyzing. Write a lament the way you would write a lament, about whatever you want (though I’m still going to read Lamentations to get me in the mood). Part of the point of all of this is that we need to be able to adapt the forms in order to truly re-appropriate them into our culture. And don’t be afraid of them sounding dumb; what we’re about to do will be like operas in English, and it will all sound strange at first, because this isn’t our cultural language yet.

      I’m excited! The next step: where shall we do this? I think I’ll need to set up another new blog…I’ll email you with info!

  4. Pingback: Adapting Apocalyptic | Chiasmus Redux

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