Sunday, April 5, 2009

Children Bearing Gifts: the Relationship of Christians to Art.

Children Bearing Gifts: the Relationship of Christians to Art.

Originally given at Café a Dieu, 04.04.2009,

at The Golden Center, St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale.

The first personal encounter with art that I can recall comes from the age of ten, when my sister and I attended a class taught by a professional artist from our church. Once a week, we would pick up our sketchbooks and shoeboxes full of art supplies, be packed up in the back of our minivan, and dropped off at a church classroom. There, Mrs. Barrett would teach us about perspective, colors, or shading, then turn us loose, pencils and oil paints in hand. Our parents, as they arrived to pick us up, were be greeted by arms filled with paintings and sketches, the fruits of our labors and their monthly tuition checks.

Even now, returning home, I still occasionally come across sketchbooks filled with my youthful handiwork. Browsing through the artwork, I often wonder what my mother must have thought, every week, as her son returned bearing page after page of lovingly, painstakingly, and poorly drawn STAR WARS spaceships.

My mother has preserved sketchbooks that are literally filled, cover to cover, with illustrations of X-Wings, TIE Fighters, and the occasional attempt to illustrate the Battle of the Death Star. And, let me tell you: what I lacked in aesthetic skill, I more than made up for in productivity.

By high school, I had begun to regard these drawings with a hint of embarrassment. It wasn’t that I had grown artistically; but I had grown ashamed of my youthful enthusiasm for Luke Skywalker. Recalling my younger artistic streak, I would wonder what could possibly have motivated my parents to store such pitiful things away so carefully.

Reflecting back now, I think I’ve begun to understand why my parents saved those drawings. It’s not that my art - in either content or execution - was of any aesthetic value. But they are still dear to them because of what they represent: memories of me running up to my mom after class, bearing my latest work, filled with the childish joy and simple pride of spending my youthful reserves of skill and energy to produce something just for her. And, while my mother has never been a STAR WARS fanatic, her love for me transformed my interests and delight into her own. For this reason, I think, my mother finds twofold pleasure in that artwork: first, as a symbol of her importance to me; and, second, as a genuine representation of me as I was at the time; my childhood interests and passions.

I suspect that the work of a Christian Artist is best performed when it stems from similar desires, turned towards God: beyond displays of ability, or the production of aesthetically stunning works, the Christian who finds herself engaged in Art is engaged in the same pursuit as that child painting, singing, or dancing for his loving parents: we are conveying, to God, His unequalled significance to us; and we are producing work that brings its audience into an honest encounter with the truth of our love and passions.

I. To convey to God our unequalled enjoyment of Him.

These may sound vague: what does it mean to tell God that He is of unequalled importance to us?

The first answer that springs to mind comes from the Protestant and Catholic catechisms, which open by addressing the goals of human existence: in the Reformed Church’s Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first question is asked, What is the chief end of man?, and this answer provided: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever. Similarly, the Second Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church begins with a prologue that trumpets that “The Life of Man” has as its purpose “To Know and Love God”.

To Know God; to Glorify Him; to enjoy Him; to Love Him. If these are the primary ends for which we, as Christians, believe we have been created, how do we pursue them? How do we, limited, weak, fragile human beings, bring Glory to an almighty God?

In 1st Peter Chapter 2, Verse 9, the apostle writes that “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, so that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Receiving the love and care of a vast and intimate God uniquely enables us to bring Him glory by proclaiming in His presence our joy at having seen ourselves “called out of darkness, into His wonderful light”. We were once guilty of an infinitely terrible crime, and faced with an infinite punishment, the only escape from which comes by an infinite grace, which, having been received, evokes in us infinite gratitude and joy.

And, in just the same way that my youthful dedication to my parents led me to hand them the fruits of my artistic labor – poorly executed, but faithfully offered – our infinite gratitude to God finds its expression in faithfully handing Him the poor fruits of our lives: our paintings and poems, songs and dances. In every facet of our selves, including the artistic, it is right to find ourselves desiring, first and foremost, to bring God praise, by demonstrating the quality and abundance of our lives in Him. As we begin to understand what it really means to be saved by grace, this desire to respond in joyful gratitude begins to push out all the other competing desires and patrons clamoring for our attention and service.

But, there is an objection that can be raised to all this; after all, it may sound troubling to limit the scope of our artistic expression simply to those things which bring God glory. After all, why can’t we let art be free of such external constraints, let it simply be “art for art’s sake”?

Well, for one thing, love, even as it brings freedom, also necessitates limits. Any mutual love imposes on the lives of those whom it touches; but it is a joyful imposition! Yes, Love limits us; it limits us in our impatience, when we desire to withhold forgiveness; It restrains us in our jealousy, in our boasting, in our pride, and in our anger. Love, when truly tasted, makes us long to stare into its depths and lose sight of everything else as we contemplate and adore the object of our love.

II. To provide audiences an honest encounter with the truth we find surrounding us.

And also, by saying that our art should bring God glory, I don’t simply mean that the truths we convey have to be uniformly pleasant.

A natural part of becoming a Christian is that a man gradually finds himself peering into two worlds at once: the world that is “real-at-the-moment”, and the world of “actual reality.” The world of the moment is the world of suffering, of distance, of sin; but, being brought more and more sharply into focus as we grow more familiar with God, is the world as it actually was intended to be: a world of peace, of intimacy, of healing and loving unity.

This is what I mean by saying that it the second goal of the Christian Artist to provide the audience with an honest encounter of truth: God’s revelation of Himself – at once intimately personal and immensely large-scale – provides the Christian with two points of view, both of which serve the artist as inspiration. To limit the scope of artistic revelation to one or another of these viewpoints rings false: while our hope is sure and our faith secure, to claim that we can distill our experience of Christ into feel-good, pastel-colored images of serenity and passivity is a dramatic oversimplification. If we do so, we create kitsch, a shallow sentimentality that is the opposite of Good Art, because it has no connection to the complex experiences and dreams of the audiences we invite to partake in the artistic experience with us.

The opposite oversimplification – presenting the dire state of sin, while withholding a sense of overpowering hope – is equally poor art, for it is also untrue. As Christians, for whom “in all things, we are more than conquerors, because of Christ who loved us” (Rom. 8:37), it is disingenuous to pretend that our eternal well-being can be jeopardized by the passing and momentary ills of this world.

We Christians have space to discuss both despair and hope precisely because our hope can be counted on to endure. In the Christian life, there is room for both the sad truth of the fallen world as well as the glad tidings of the redemption that is beginning to shine through its cracks. After all, without death, resurrection is meaningless; but, without resurrection, death is simply a cold, inevitable end-of-story. So it is necessary to present, in our every creative work, the full trajectory of the Gospel, never shrinking from honestly portraying the total story of fallenness and redemption; but always hinting at glimpses of the Hope to overcome the despair, and the Comforter who seeks us out in our loneliness.

Art expresses the truth, hope, and passion that we have found, or want to find, in the world around us. At age 10, I found my passion in STAR WARS; and my art reflected that. But now, for today, and tomorrow, and increasingly as the days pass, that passion is focused on the being and character of God. And I hope that the work of my hands can come to daily reflect that focused passion more and more.

Once, I drew pictures of spaceships, and happily presented the results of my work to my parents. Today, right now, we are all creating, not just as artists, but as humans going about our daily lives. I pray that we can, one day, happily present the results to our Heavenly Father.

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