August 25th, 2016
It wasn’t that long ago we let a work of art teach us a lesson about morality, with Malcolm Gladwell serving as our docent for that Backstory.
Since then–as recently as last Saturday–CtK took a first step toward cultivating artistic expression as a community. It’s not that we haven’t cherished the arts before; our worship, this column, and some of the events we’ve promoted all speak to our implicit affirmation of ars artis gratis (“art for art’s sake”). But at our inaugural Open Arts Night we signaled a clear desire for our collective aesthetic sensibilities to come down from our walls, lifted out of our notebooks and craft closets, and downloaded from our card readers–to say nothing of our hearts that might otherwise be too timid to share our work.
What’s behind this move? Why provide a forum for our creativity to be on display?
Is it the desire to make room in our busy lives to behold beauty? Is it to draw out those parts of us that often remain hidden in our heads and hearts? Are we trying to recover a tradition, birthed long ago within the church but lost to other ostensibly more “critical” priorities? Or is it because we’re trying to find a common space with our wider community?
For all those possible motivations, do we even need a reason to celebrate what appeals to intuitions in us that no other expression can–ars artis gratis, right?
Perhaps not, but notwithstanding the warrant that any one of those motives provides, I think there’s a larger reason for raising a banner to communal artistic expression. And it’s a recent book review we read that made that reason crystal clear.
Over at agreatercourage (remember him?) Derrick Peterson reviews the most recent book from Graham Ward, Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Ward’s book is entitled Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t. Neither a work primarily about theology or apologetics, Ward instead takes up the the question of, in a world (or at least a western culture) arguing that facts are to be trusted while beliefs are to be held with suspicion, whether the latter retains any plausibility upon which to make meaningful decisions and by which to orient our lives. (Beliefs, in Ward’s construal, are that which have some basis in facts but which do not rest entirely on the verifiable.)
Ward contends that for all that modern sensibility asserts about trusting only in knowledge–that is in hard facts–humans everywhere, and inescapably, ground their lives on beliefs that require some measure of unverifiable acceptance. There’s too much cultural production out there–in, for example, advertising and the arts–to assert the we have given up on our aboriginal believing ways to fall fully and finally on facts. And for that, Ward argues, we should not be ashamed.
Read all of Peterson’s review, or Ward’s book for that matter, to find renewed respect for life lived, not in defiance of rationality but not constrained entirely by it either. But I point to the book and its review for what comes at the end of the latter. In showcasing the only part of Ward’s book that trades explicitly in theology, Peterson notes Ward’s insistence that theological expression must recover some rooting in both the humanities and the creative arts–in Peterson’s words, “not just for aesthetic pleasure, but as a vehicle for the enterprise of coming to know the world theologically.” But then Peterson ends with Ward’s own words to underscore the same:
The soul is the source of intellection, but is profoundly related to a theological anthropology that focuses on human beings created in the image of God. We are makers of images because we are in the image of. And in being actively engaged in a world created by God, the imagination as that capacity for image making works analogically: ferreting out and fabricating relations between things—the mental patterns that ‘make’ sense of our experience of the world and respond to the Logos through whom all things were made, the Logos who in and as Christ ‘is a persuasion, a form’ (David Bentley Hart), theologically we might even say that the imagination is that receptive capacity of the soul that responds to a world so created and also to creation as a divine gift. … Certain forms of ‘seeing as’ can take on the quality and power of epiphanies. [emphasis mine]
Ward says a lot there in a little space, more than we have time to explicate. But what of Ward that Derrick Peterson has seen fit to emphasize is this idea:
We need art to know God.
We need to produce art to understand not just ourselves or our moment, but to understand Him who like an artist feels compelled to create. And it’s in the creation and expression of our aesthetic sensibilities that we are imaging God in ways arguments for Him cannot (notwithstanding the value of arguments!). The art is itself an argument, only a different and, some might say, more persuasive kind.
So we hope to make room for the arts in our life together henceforth–for their own sake, but moreover for our own souls’ sake.
To round out this theme on arts and theology, here’s an excerpt from an event recently held by the Brehm Center (remember them?) with Dana Gioia, the poet laureate of California (and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts). Listen to how he corroborates Ward’s sense of the arts’ importance to our humanity, and to our understanding of what is indubitably true. (HT: CtK’s Assistant Pastor)