Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Arts as Soulcraft -- Introduction

GK Chesterton, in one of his essays on Shakespeare (regrettably, I forget which one, and he has a corpus of work that is as large as his physical corpus was), critiqued protestants for a shallow view of Shakespeare’s work. He said that Protestants were always looking for “a lesson” or “a teaching” in Shakespeare’s work, rather than simply enjoying it. Sadly, his comment does hit close to the mark. Ever since the Reformation, with its right return to Sola Scriptura, protestants have had an uncomfortable relationship with the arts – save music and poetry, which flourished as means of telling the story.

Protestants were suspicious of visual arts as objects of “popery”. They were known for stripping paintings and ornamentation from houses of worship, and thus gaining a reputation for being anti-art. That reputation is somewhat unjustified, for the scruples were against using images as an aid to worship and against having representations of the Lord. Cromwell and other Puritans had no problem with secular paintings that were used to adorn the home – indeed the protestant sense of exaltation of the homey and common led to the whole Dutch school of painting and a democratization that brought art out of the realm of the elite and into the realm of the everyday man.

Even so, protestants have often had issues with the arts for promoting sinful behavior and leading people into temptation. This led some of the more fundamentalistic branches of Christianity into a broad rejection of the arts – no dancing, no movies, no theatre, no entertaining novels of any kind (unless they contained a good moral) – the arts existed to be exemplary, not anything else. Thus, protestants have not developed a deep independent understanding of the arts.

There have been many laudable efforts – Schaeffer in his Art and the Bible and Phillip Ryken’s Art for God’s Sake have been diligent efforts at laying down a theology of Arts. However, most protestant efforts have centered around a biblical justification for the arts – starting with Bezalel and Oholiab as examples and moving through all different sorts of arts, they work to show how the arts are justifiable means of bringing praise to God. I’m not terribly interested in reduplicating the work, and indeed I question the necessity of it. After all, none of us feel the need to biblically justify the work of physicians. Seldom do we see anyone pointing to Jesus command to shake the dust off your shoes as a justification for the profession of cobbler. Lydia’s trade in purple cloth is not often used as a justification for engaging in trade. We recognize that most professions (yes there are one or two notable exceptions – but these exceptions are often perversions of a legitimate profession – and that is an idea that must be worked out in a separate essay) are fields in which righteousness or villany are worked out --- truly Paul says in Colossians “…whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)

I’m interested in exploring how the arts are a vehicle for growing in our sanctification. How is it that the arts make us stronger in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)? Theologically, we all understand that such growth is a gift from the Holy Spirit, and we ought to pray and diligently seek it. Of course, we’re all aware that, relying on grace alone, we engage in the discipline of obedience to God’s word as a way of responding to Christ’s love. However, we also know that our spiritual lives are worked out in the fields of the world on a daily basis. I don’t propose to come up with a definitive framework – for sanctification is necessarily a personal process of drawing closer to God and becoming more Christlike. I do however believe that we can look at the arts through the lens of each one of these fruit of the spirit and ask “how is it that we’ve seen God at work through the arts to accomplish this end.”

So that’s what I propose to be chewing through over the next several months – not posting every day, but if I’m lucky once a week or every couple of weeks. These are just stumbling beginning thoughts, and I hope for your thoughts as we move forward. I’ll likely take them out of order – mainly because I have some thoughts around Patience that I would like to work up. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Soli Deo Gloria