Faith and the Artist: Is There A Place in the World for a Christian in the Arts? (Nov-Dec 2000)

By Matt Dabbs

by Carmen Perry Beaubeaux
November – December, 2000

The Trap

Art is not a mirror but a banner – it does not reflect, it shapes.
Bertolt Brecht

A man of sincerity is less interested in defending the truth than in stating it clearly, for he thinks that if the truth be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself.
Thomas Merton

Roger Hazelton, in his essay, A Theological Approach to the Arts, compares the church to the theater. Both, he says, are “a trap for meditation.” Like the formal assemblies of the church, the theater “has the power of attracting and then holding a soul’s attention, of engaging a spectator for at least a fleeting moment on its own terms, evoking a response.” For a believer, the church is a time and space set aside for believers to gather in community and to engage in the work of meeting with the Divine. It is a consecrated place because something wholly other happens here. In a moment, like Jacob, we are firmly convicted that this place is holy and we leave an altar in response to the moment that placed a being of dust and ashes in the center of the universe.

Many artists of faith insist that art loses its innate creative pulse when it is separated from the Holy. Like fraternal twins, art and faith are counterparts from the same Source. In reaction to the Reformation, many Protestants severed art from the church and sent it packing into the wilderness, scape-goated as an example of all that is “worldly.” Other Protestant groups – the Shakers, for example – purified the altar of Art, and in their silent, ascetic way, reintegrated the soul of art with worship.

As a movement they have not survived, but their altar … their dialogue with God endures and continues to evoke a response.

In other times, beore art was severed from the church, the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. These days, the individual – or the Self – has become the highest form and a great hindrance of artistic creation. Like a priest, the artist’s sole concern should not be herself, but whether or not the work evokes a response. When a work evokes a response the response is directd toward the truth or the Divine – not toward the artist.

The public’s clamor for attribution of authorship has become an overbearing taskmaster of the creative process. Likewise the church burdens art when it requires Christian authorship to qualify and endorse a work. When we do this we are screening the Sacred by putting not only the Self or “reputation” of the artist before the art, but the Self of the institution as well! Indeed, we have seen “Christian Theater” presenters and their audience become so enamored with “trap-making” that the meditation or response a work is intended to provoke never happens.

The presenter – eager to “get the message across” – discloses too much, too soon. When the spectators quickly become numb, desensitized, and eventually indifferent … when the presenter does not trust the power of truth and pushes the message so terribly hard, so “meaningfully” that the spectator feels like an intruder and is robbed of a need to respond, we know tha the presenter has fallen into his own trap. When everything is geared high through “teaching” and induced emotion, there is nothing left for the spectator to discover … nothing left to feel … nothing left to “own.” If ALL is disclosed there is little left for contemplation or meditation. If all is taken by the artist then nothing is “delivered” to the spectator. This is not art, it is self-gratification and self-gratification is the very thing that repels people of faith from the profane world. Art could be described as disclosure. And with the gift of disclosure comes responsibility. The sincere artist is not interested in self-expression or personal truth or promoting an institution, but in truth itself. Art is the creative expression of truth, and truth is Divine.

Because we live in the world, we must trap in season and cultivate in season. We are not interested in the obvious and what can draw the church quick benefits in terms of souls (or numbers of souls). Theate that honors God is interested in carefully and patiently turning the soil of theater … measuring the moisture … planting seeds in due season … lettin the work of truth grow upon us and move us toward Goard out of its own depth … out of love for the Creator who made that soil: The God of History and Story. Like the church, theater that honors God is interested in purifying the world one moment, one response at a time.

All good theater is godly if it is intent on making possible a seeing of things as they are … to realize truth and be set free by it. And theater art, I feel, is the ultimate form of communication because with it we have a trap to reveal truth, and truth – when it is respectfully unveiled – demands a response! This is real art … it is godly art … it is “deep calling to deep.” The one-way communication we often see in the name of “Christian Theater” or any theate that serves Self is totally incongruous with what happens in real theater, and for that matter, for what happens in real worship. As John Couctou puts it, “Christ wants art with all its teeth.” Any child can tell you that teeth demand a response!

The Response

Where do I find Thee and where do I not find Thee?
medieval poet-philosopher Judah Halevi

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, called this “response” to truth the I-Thou encounter. As with Jacob, God the Revealer – the discloser of truth – is the eternally active “I” who addresses man as “thou” and opens the ear of humankind. Man responds by building an altar to mark the place where truth was revealed.

This I-Thou encounter happens in theater when God remains the Subject and not the object of the work. One reveals or discloses God, the other conceals and protects God. One opens the soul’s eyes to the power of God and the other, as Rilke puts it “encircles God as though he were a fugitive and bewails him as if he were a captured, wounded creature.”

Theater artists who honor God in their work hold up God as the divine Subject – not the object – of everything in the world. Christians dedicated to the theater arts perceive that all stories are either about about the misery of man without God or the wholeness of man with God. “In ‘the imitation of human action,’ as Aristotle called it, the spectator is drawn with the actor into a milieu in which the inner meaning of all human action is released and stands forth for what it truly is. By consenting to this imitation, by agreeing to play this game according to dramatic traditions and conventions, we devise a breakthrough for the sharing of experienced truth. It is as if we could really understand our life only by stylizing it, letting truth speak its piece in a highly amplified voice under elaborately controlled conditions” (Hazelton).

Theater reveals the spiritual condition of the world – how the sacred is darkened by the profane and how the profane cannot help but be illuminated by the sacred. God is the Subject of everything!

The Sacred and the Profane
Only a Sufering God can help.
Dietrich Bonhoffer

We must always hold to the difficult.
Rilke,
Letters To a Young Poet

Sacred and profane are sometimes confused with religious and secular, but the sacred is not always the religious and the secular is not always the profane. When we see works of film like Children of Heaven or Babette’s Feast we see the sacred and divine within the secular. Also, a work is not Christian merely because Christians are doing it – that would be like saying that your jeans are Jewish because they were made by Levi Strauss or that our taxes are Christian because they were prepared by a Protestant CPA. As Hazelton explains, “A work of art is Christian if it holds forth the gospel to humankind; if God in Jesus Christ informs it and lives in it.” The transforming gospel of Christ can be seen in works like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, van Gogh’s painting of the Good Samaritan, Rembrandt’s painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Jim Leonard’s play The Diviners. Even though these works lift up the Gospel (the sacred) and expose abominations in the religious (the profane), they are almost never recognized by the church or Christian institutions as works of faith.

The Subject

In this little thing (a hazelnut) I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that He loves it, and the third is that God preserves it.
Julian of Norwich, Showings

Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free
Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
and when we find ourselves in the place just right
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamedto turn, turn, will be our delight
’til by turning we come round right.
Shaker Hymn

The revival of the Arts and Crafts movement is an opportunity for artists of faith to navigate and express the relationship of artist and Creator. The work of the Shakers reveals God as Subject of the work. The work in its spare simplicity discloses the heart of an unnamed servant that will not attempt to upstage the Creator of All Things. Shaker art celebrates the elements – wood and metal and stone – as God’s servants and witnesses to humankind. Like the Hebrews, the Shakers understood that the world of nature and world of Spirit were not separate but integrated into the Whole which is God.

Protestants tend to protect themselves from art that is passionate and expressive and welcome art that is sentimental and contrived. Hazelton says, “We underplay exuberance of imagination ‘to keep art in its place.’ We are modest, restrained and hesitant.” We certainly do not celebrate the earth! As people of the Word, we have depended upon the verbal to dialogue with God and are uncomfortable with the nonverbal, earthy symbols used in theater and art to explain our relationship to the divine.

The artist of faith has eyes to see the Bible as well as ears to hear … he wants to see the Word … see Truth … see God. “What negligence, what delay is this? Run to the mountain and get rid of the slough which keeps you from seeing God” (Thomas Merton). And so he runs to the mountain. As he runs he sheds the slough … the conventions, the emotions, the ideals that weigh him down. Once at the mountain he can see the landscape of his journey and understand the sacrifices that brought him there. And all the while his soul is undergoing this revelation … this transformation … he must move carefully among his people with respect for the conflicting belief that the community of the curch is the only true and valuable source of faith. yes, there is a conflict, but the quarrel is not between the artist and God, rather, it is the historic rift between the church and the world.

It is a paradox that while the arts remain a constant in the world the chrch expels the arts as “worldly” and eagerly opens the sanctuary to the conventions and strategies employed by media artists to put forth their work in the “secular” world. Modern Protestant sanctuaries are enhanced with “state-of-the-art” tools while they remain mostly devoid of art and natural environment. Just as I worry about people who live in dark rooms, I worry that if we insulate our church buildings against the world we are not far from insulating ourselves against God. On materialism, Thomas Merton, the hermit monk, observes that humans are like crows. We adorn our nests with an abundance of sparkling and shiny things which we will eventually have to abandon for something more practical in which to live. We are hungry – for spiritual nourishment – for the the spiritual value of real worship, the satisfaction of being together, the assurance that what we do and how we do it is sustaining our souls.

Like the journey of a disciple of Christ, the life of the artist sactifies – or purifies – the soul. One exits the process with less baggage – not more – than he entered with. He empties, exfoliates, and strips himself so that he can be filled and clothed with his true essence from his true Source. He does not accept substitutes or empty spiritual calories. The artist and the true disciple of Christ seeks to be pure and whole “because our happiness consists in the recovery of our true nature: the nature according to which we re made in the image of God, and the fulfillment of our purified natural capacities by supernatural grace and glory. Our happiness consists in being like God – the power to love another for his own sake is one of the things that makes us like God. And the highest perfection of our nature is loving God, the Source of love” (Merton).

The Shakers as artists of faith, unerstood this process of emptying (the abandonment of the Self) so that one can be filled. They did not retreat from the world, but to a higher place in the world. The more they loved, the more joyful they were. The less they possessed, the richer they were. God supplied eternal truth from the abundance of the world through the poverty of an emptied will. This simplicity … this gift … did not come from a dependence or intrigue with the procurement of things and mainstreaming into popular culture. It came from living with God in the world – possessing nothing and releasing all.
The World
Since everything that is, is good, and since the world is full of things that are good in themselves and which all proclaim the infinite goodness and power of God: if we rejoiced in the good that is possessed by others, formally as possessed by them, we would not be able to look at a a flower or a blade of grass or an insect or a drop of water or a grain of sand or a leaf, let alone a whole tree, or a bird, or a living animal, or a human being without exploding with exultation.
Thomas Merton
Purity does not lie in a separation from the universe, but a deeper penetration of it.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,

Essays

Often what we in the church call “discernment” is really picking and choosing what we find to be more attractive … more acceptable. But the artist of faith demands something purer. She understands that such “attractions” are merely appropriate distractions. When we “play it safe” to keep ourselves distant from the influence of “the world” we put forth the message for the world to stay at a distance as well. This historic conflict of interest confounds the missionary purpose of the church and, sadly, is not likely to change in the near future.

So, the title question remains: How can the artist of faith who wants to minister in the world manage to do so without getting lost in the world? Hazelton says, “The exercise of Christ-like discrimination, ‘taking forth the precious from the vile,’ is the first step. The long second step is changing our concept that the world is vile. Who should know this more than Christians?”

The world which “God so loved” claims the artist of faith. She understands in the doctrine of creation that it is God’s world. Only to say the word “creation” is to affirm the goodness of the world. The fact that evil has entered into it also affirms the goodness of the world. The Christian faith is world-affirming – not world-denying – at its core. Thomas a Kempis wrote that “all perfection in this life has some imperfection mixed with it, and all our light is not without some darkness.”

Christianity Is Elemental

The coming of Christ to the world is as much about the world as it is about Christ. Everything we call “world” is different because God entered into the world in Christ. This world is where our salvation must be worked out. The world is the theater of God’s grace. If it was good enough for God to dwell in, then we are not at liberty to despise it, if we want to remain faithful. But why reject the world for its appeal to the flesh? Christianity, after all, is rooted in Flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
Hazelton

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
Isaiah 6

Symbols are something that both the artist and the priest hold up as a substitute for the divine. Symbols and metaphor express, however imperfectly, our connection with someone or something. Symbols are simultaneously an external, rational object to “arise the heart” and the internal – or deeper – subject of God’s divine Presence. Like the priest, the artist employs symbols with a deep concern for their power to evoke a response.

The modern believer’s steadfast attempts to explain God and his character and attributes and power apart from his creation is especially curious when one observes that these are precisely the faces God employs to describe himself. The Lord spoke to Job out of a whirlwind, to Moses out of a fire, to the desert refugees out of a cloud; Jesus introduces himself as light, lamb, water, vine, wine and bread; the Spirit of God moves like the wind.

God describes the elements not as equals but as agents, subjects, witnesses and servants. Psalm 147 reveals that he gives names to each of his stars and calls them by name; He answers the prayer of the ravens when they “cry out” to him for food and to the lion “who seeks his food from God” (Psalm 104) “living things both small and great – these all look to thee.” Is it a coincidence that water, earth, wind and fire had paranormal appearances in the lives of Moses, Elijah and Jesus? If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the word of God reveals in every moment and in every place, the whole of creation which loves, glorifies, worships and serves by the voice of the one, the Subject of everything!

The Divine Creator extends toward us and draws us to himself through his continuous expression of the elements in creation. God appoints the elements as a place to meet with and reveal himself to humankind; a cool garden … a fiery bush … a dry and thirsty wilderness … a cross of wood.

The Altar

The bread is made from many ears of corn … therefore it signifies unity. The wine is made from many grapes, and therefore it, too, signifies unity. A unity of similar things, equal and united. Therefore it means truth and brotherhood too; these are things that go well together.
Ignazio Silone,

The Bread and the Wine

The difference that separated the Hebrew’s concept of God and creation and the pluralist’s fascination with Earth was one of experience and faith. What the pluralist saw as a bewildering ensemble of earth mysteries, the Hebrew understood as a concentrated unified Whole.
We should not take the Hebrews’ scoffing at their blind and deaf neighbors’ multiple deities as a cue to deny the witness of God’s creation. The modern Christian response to Jesus’ statement that bread and wine are his body and blood, is to go through a series of intellectual contortions to demonstrate that these words and statements are not “in reality” intended to mean what they actually say, that the earth provides the basic tools of our faith. But rather than to accept this challenge and delve past the incandescent surface, we lightly dismiss the rich texture and depth of truth as an aesthetic of poetry and figures of speech.

Just as the elements are the basic tools of the priest, they are also the basic tools of the artist. The earth is an altar. It provides a way to meet with God. The creation is accessible to us at every moment and is able to describe God at the immediate and sensual level. The elements are teachers in logic as well and instruct us under the watchful and caring protection of God. Those who express God in the world are called witnesses. So the elements can accurately be described as witnesses of God.

The Artist As Priest and Prophet

Art has to have some dirt on its shoes or it’s all air.
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Since our contemporary understanding of the elements is mostly scientific, to apply that knowledge to a Judeo-Chriistian theology of God is to many of us, suspicious, hazy, and unreal. Yet, for the artist who has run to the mountain, the mundane hidden world of God’s nature is alive with spiritual form and texture.

The artist of faith understands that God, who creates and redeems the world, does not intend that nature and grace should remain insulated and apart. In God’s world nature is the geography of grace and grace is the Source of nature. In the Son of Man, God turns the Spirit into the soil of his own creation … and that soil is the earth … all of nature and the blood of humankind. Nature and Grace are meant one for the other in the Christian and in the Hebrew understanding of the world. We see this in water baptism and in the Lord’s Supper. The elements, at God’s command, have their part in the work of redemption. The Word in becoming flesh causes the flesh to become Word. The artist has the gift of seeing – not only reading – the Word. In this divine ability to see the truth, the vocation of the artist may be compared with the calling of priest and prophet.

It is with great joy, love and abandonment of Self that the servant-artist turns the soil of theater with God. Gifted with an awesome responsibility, she persists in the task until some soul has meditated … until the revealed truth becomes significant to someone and properly embraced or vehemently denied. She persists in this because it is her vocation to do so until the Master Artist calls her home. And that vocation is not for the faith of heart – because the power to do it comes from the very heart of God!Wineskins Magazine

Carmen Perry Beaubeaux

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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