More Call of the Artist

April 26, 2008

Since the previous post seems to be getting a fair amount of traffic, I am adding a bit more of the art section of my final project concerning the link between body theology and visual art in the Church.

There is profound beauty in the Incarnation of God in human form, a good human form that was just like every other image of God.[1] We have lost, I think, the ancients’ sense of beauty as that which is supremely Good,[2] as that which possesses a unique expression of truth in a way that draws us to look through it to that ultimate Beauty—the beauty of God. The Hebrew Bible draws a nuanced connection between beauty and holiness, preferring God’s glory as an expression of the beauty of holiness[3] rather than beauty for its own sake; yet its language and imagery is masterfully, powerfully creative—worthy of being deemed both good and beautiful for its ability to point beyond itself to the Goodness and Beauty of God.

Even our Newer Testament scriptures contain creativity in narrative and imagery, especially in the gospels and the Revelation of John. But as evangelicals we tend to narrow our focus to Paul’s letters which, though worthy of literary merit, were not designed or intended as artistic expressions of God’s truth. We focus on the divine and humiliated Jesus of the Philippians 2 hymn, on creedal statements, and on Paul’s contextual lists of do’s and don’ts for his churches. We have lost our emphasis on aesthetics for proper worship, as though God is better glorified by whining in a white-and-brown room than with the Sistine Chapel and Handel’s Messiah. We forget that our God is creative[4] and that he pronounced his creation good not because it is capable of standing alone but because it contains that element of truth[5] that points beyond itself to the goodness, beauty, truth, glory, holiness of our creative God. We forget, in our fear and shame, what we have been created for.

What I have discovered in particular, in my delving into the lies the Church perpetuated in my life concerning my own body and how to relate to other bodies is the connection, or perhaps more aptly the disconnection, between beauty expressed in art and the holiness of God expressed through Christian piety. We the-evangelical-community don’t know how to deal with our bodies. We don’t know what they’re for. We don’t understand physical beauty or its relation to any other kind of beauty.[6] We don’t know how to deal with our physicality, so we just label it sin to be safe. And anything in art that reminds us of our humanity or—dare I say it—Jesus’ humanity, is labeled just as sinful.[7] Consider the controversy in the Church when Caravaggio began depicting Jesus as ordinary and fleshly and real. We prefer the Gnostic or even Docetic Jesus,[8] the one who doesn’t disrupt our body-soul division or challenge us to live bodily into our role as the imago Dei.

[1] Richard Harries argues that “spiritual beauty can also shine in a special way through human beauty and artistic creation. In the traditional Christmas story spiritual beauty and artistic beauty coalesce” (13). Likewise, “the glory of God shines out in the Cross and Resurrection” (55). Similarly, Barger notes that “the cross with its debasement and bloodiness is an unlikely location to find beauty” (172), yet it is the cross that “restores our imagination, destroyed by culture’s images” (173). Even James Alfred Martin agrees, for “the highest beauty is the unmerited redemptive work of God in history…beauty is something that happened” (10).

[2] Martin explains the Platonic belief that one ascends to the Good through an experience of Beauty” (15).

[3] “Biblical Israel,” Martin writes, “celebrated holiness over beauty—but not religion over aesthetics” (11).

[4] “Human beings” says Harries, “made in the image of God, share in divine creativity” (102).

[5] “Beauty,” Harries writes, “is the persuasive power of God’s truth and goodness” (11).

[6] But Harries argues that “the physical world, including our bodies, is created fundamentally good and beautiful” (37).

[7] Yet, as Barger argues, it is “the incarnation of God in Jesus [that] gives us a basis for including our bodies in the spiritual search” (161).

[8] Nelson discusses the reentrance of Docetism in the contemporary church (51).

Pages numbers refer to excerpts found in Elizabeth Clark’s Women in the Early Church (1983).

Monica (245ff)

I first read about Monica in college when I was introduced to St. Augustine’s Confessions. I remember being surprised that a woman would be so persistent in her prayers for her son and found myself cheering her on for her perseverance even when he would deceive her and leave the country without her. My great-grandmother went through a similar experience with my grandfather’s waywardness, and in his twenties he converted, went to seminary, and became a pioneer missionary in the Brazilian Amazon for nearly forty years. He always gave credit to his mother’s prayers for his breakthrough into the faith, just as Augustine described: “a mother who…had wept over me for many years that I might live in Your eyes” (257-8). I admire that perseverance in Monica, suffering having an unbelieving husband, a mean mother-in-law, and wayward children, all of whom she “conquered by her submissiveness, persevering in endurance and gentleness” (253). She was so steadfast, never giving up her cause before God’s throne, and God answered her prayers even though she did not see the fruit of it for many years. To have that kind of faith in the power of prayer, to be that persistent and consistent, to endure over decades the abuse of those she prayed for daily—that is what I admire about Monica, about any woman who faithfully advocates the cause of her family before God.

As much as I admire her, I cannot identify with Monica’s submissiveness. I could not willingly marry a non-Christian and pray him into the faith, never seeing the fruition of that prayer until his deathbed. I am too opinionated and too stubborn to submit to someone I know is wrong, as much as I’d like to be able to say I could. A son’s waywardness is one thing, but a husband’s is entirely another. Perhaps I could have been a submissive wife in Monica’s time, when that was just how it was, but with today’s possibility for an egalitarian marriage, I don’t think I could settle for less.

Drusiana (88ff)

Now Drusiana is a woman I can identify with, strong-willed enough to stand up to her husband and convince him “to consider the matter as she did” (89). Even after he entombed her in effort to induce her by force to sleep with him, she remained resolute, and it was he who submitted to her decision rather than have her die. Of course, women only seem to show their stronger side in fictional works like this one.

Perpetua (98ff)

The real-life Perpetua certainly showed her strength of will as she endured a long process of persecution and martyrdom with her slave Felicitas. Both women gave up their duty as mothers of infants in order to die for their confession of faith. Perpetua describes in her diary the events leading up to her death, and someone else describes their final fight in the amphitheater: “as if to Heaven [they entered], with faces composed; if perchance they trembled, it was not from fear but from joy” (103). In fact, Perpetua finally had to help the executioner finish his job. The recorder notes, “Perhaps so great a woman…could not be killed in any other way than unless she herself wished it” (105). Her endurance, perseverance, and strength of courage and will are traits I admire in this true-to-life martyr of the faith.

I have trouble identifying with her ability to give away her nursing child, likewise with Felicitas’ ability to give birth in the prison cell, hand over her newborn, and march into the amphitheater to be executed. I think I might have given in had my father pleaded with me the way Perpetua’s did (99) to think of my child, of my duty as a mother to care for my family. To abstain from wifely duties is one thing, but to orphan a child is another altogether. Would my faith have superseded my motherly instinct?

Marcella (162-3, 205ff)

Of course, most of the models of great Christian women were ascetics who would not have the concerns of children to distract them from their commitment to God’s work. Marcella, one of the earliest female ascetics, provides a wonderful example of chastity and charity, taking care of the poor wherever she went. What I most admire about Marcella is her feistiness concerning the refutation of heretics. Though her brother Jerome takes great pains to note that she never set herself up as a teacher so as to go against 1Timothy, he also depicts her in public debate: “She was in the front line in condemning heretics” (163). In Jerome’s place she was sought after for instruction: “if an argument arose about some evidence from Scripture, the question was pursued with her as the judge” (208). She may have played the part of a dutiful woman, but she was clearly knowledgeable and gifted not only in instructing others but also in living out her beliefs, “because she understood how to please Christ” (206-7).

It makes me sad that women so gifted were forced to choose an ascetic life in order to exercise their talents more openly. While I love the fact that Marcella battled heresy and taught her fellow Christians regarding spiritual things, I cannot so readily identify with a lifestyle of fasting. Marcella only ate every other day, and it is no wonder that she suffered constant illness and stomach trouble on such an insufficient diet. Seasonal fasting is one thing, but a lifetime of such rigorous denial I think brings more detriment to the body God has given than good to the soul. I think I would make a terrible ascetic, but I might try it for the sake of having the freedom to debate, learn, examine, teach, and judge as Marcella did under her brother’s sanction.

I did not, on my first reading of the church fathers Clement and Tertullian, pick up on the different emphases these men have for the proper living of a Christian life. That Tertullian is ascetic and gears his argument on fashion toward that end is apparent now that I am less focused on the absurdity of his various arguments for that purpose. That Clement is greatly influenced by the richness of Alexandria is not a context I was aware of before reading Suzanne Heine’s account in Women in Early Christianity (1987). I can certainly see the differences in value system between the two men. I think Heine has a point that Clement does just as much, if not more, damage than good by advocating for women’s place in the home as designed by nature.

I am less convinced that Tertullian has a positive effect on women’s roles simply because he later becomes a Montanist. Clearly, his comments concerning the place of women designate them to household tasks and relegate them to their husbands’ rule as much as Clement’s comments do. Or how else are we to read Tertullian’s conclusion to women to “paint…your mouth with silence…Submit your head to hour husbands…Busy your hands with spinning; keep your feet at home” (25)? Heine does have a point that an argument from faith as opposed to an argument from nature designates the freedom of choice, that is, women are indirectly empowered to choose the ascetic lifestyle Tertullian advocates for the sake of being faithful wives and faithful Christians. That implicit ability to choose is in itself a significant point. However, the empowerment of women is undermined by the simultaneous advocation that a faithful Christian woman will dress with “the silk of uprightness, the fine linen of holiness, the purple of modesty” (25) rather than with fine clothes and precious stones. Women are thus left with the choice to perform a lifetime of penance for the guilt they have incurred from Eve (by apparently refusing to use popular means of enhancing beauty and also by concealing any natural beauty, which as it turns out is almost as displeasing to God as the unnatural) or, essentially, to leave the faith and forfeit a chance at eternal life.

Heine’s argument that the new feminist interest is to be a non-agenda-driven, objective understanding of history is one that I cannot imagine as a possibility. If we have learned anything from deconstruction and the postmodern movement, it is the realization that one always brings one’s agenda to the text. The best chance we have at anything like “objective” scholarship is to approach a text or time period with the honest acknowledgement of one’s agenda and cultural lens and to remain open to the balancing criticism of other and diverse agendas and lenses. Perhaps that what Heine proposes by labeling her “new interest” as a “feminist interest,” one that—we hope—will refrain from “appeal[ing] only to one side” at the expense of the other (47). One thing I respect about my experiences here at Fuller when we must engage a difficult text regarding women is the careful patience with which professors have laid out the opposing viewpoints and guided students in most frustrating task of wrestling with particular texts that have no easy solutions to translation or interpretation. Somewhere in the midst of exegesis and eisegesis, in the midst of argument and finger-pointing and tears and resignation—somewhere in it all, God is present with us. I cling to that promise.

A Woman’s Place

April 20, 2008

After my initial reading of Ephesians and 1-2 Timothy, I conclude that women led varied lives depending on their economic and marital status. In Ephesians, married women are encouraged to submit to the authority of their husbands as they would to Christ and to respect their husbands as part of the union of two into one flesh. In the Timothy letters, the emphasis is on the widows. The young ones are encouraged to get remarried so that they will be too occupied with household tasks to fall into gossip and idleness. The old ones are encouraged to mentor the younger ones and can only receive aid if they have, in a sense, proved themselves worthy by a lifestyle of service, submission, and obedience. Concerning corporate worship, women regardless of marital state are encouraged to be modest, submissive, quiet…and fertile? I never have discovered how to interpret 1 Tim 2:15. My impression, then, of the lives of women at this time is that women were expected to submit to male authority, behave with modesty and decorum, and serve with hospitality as part of running a good household. They were not expected to take up authority themselves, abandon or neglect their duties, or behave or dress indecently. But the fact that women are being “put in their place” in some of these passages implies that some women perhaps were teaching or asking questions or neglecting household tasks or gossiping among themselves or any number of other expressions of their newfound freedom in Christ that shocked and appalled observers both within the Christian community and outside of it. There seems to be an effort in the letters to recall women to (or to remind them, lest they forget, of) proper etiquette that would bring honor to both themselves and their husbands or families and would keep them from bringing the shame of the world on the early church as it struggled against the world’s accusations and persecutions.

Osiek and MacDonald, in A Woman’s Place, concern themselves largely with cultural and social context in exegeting these texts and other references to women in the New Testament. Interestingly, the authors spend time exegeting the Ephesians text as an extended metaphor for Christ and the church, insisting that the metaphor would have been clear to the early readers or listeners. They label the passage “an important socio-political statement” rather than a concerted teaching on the roles of men and women in marriage (120). The use of marriage is symbolic, not necessarily prescriptive, and certainly reflects an ideal that cannot be realistic in our fallen world (125). Moreover, the authors argue that the text is a central pivoting point for the themes of the letter, marriage serving as a useful conventional metaphor (121). The text turns the convention of marriage on its head: “The husband is head of his wife as Chris is head of the majestic and heavenly church. Human ‘wifely’ behavior within the church becomes an indicator of the community’s dislocation as an apparently conventional but nevertheless heavenly body” (127). Thus, in taking the passage at face value, we miss the point.

Growing up in the evangelically conservative South, I was taught as a general rule that the Bible was to be taken literally, its texts at face value, and its every word as the infallible authority of God. Now, I believe in the authority of the Bible, but its literal interpretation has fallen short of my understanding of who God is and what it means to be a child of God. I appreciate Osiek and MacDonald’s effort to take a more holistic approach to the texts by both reading them in conjunction with each other and by considering at length the cultural context of the day as a lens through which to interpret the women’s issue. They broaden the older scholarly perspective by including what the text does not say, what has been left out or assumed concerning the daily lives of women. The metaphorical interpretation is an interesting approach to the problem of Ephesians 5. I am not sure that I could hold an audience long enough to explain such a position with those who expect a quick, two-punch sound bite or proof text. Nevertheless, the interpretation is a useful reminder that texts should not always be taken at face value or as prescriptive when they are just as likely meant to function as literary or as descriptive. This approach, both to the Ephesians text and in general, does make a significant difference in the reading of scripture because it (at the risk of using a buzz word) liberates the text from its pigeonhole and consequently liberates women from relegation to the older understanding of “submission” and “authority” as ordained by God to keep women under the proverbial thumb of their men.

Call of the Artist

April 20, 2008

Here is the conclusion to my final project for “Theology, Popular Culture, and the Emerging Church” concerning body theology and its implications for the “Call of the Artist” in the Church. Full bibliographical information available if anyone’s interested.

Art has a prophetic role in the Church today.[1] We must regain what we have lost—that understanding we used to have of the deep connection between artistic beauty and an experience of the holy.[2] What others can do with a paintbrush or a chisel, I can do with words. When I relate my own experiences, my own journey through uncovering lies to the healing truths that come with learning to relate to people in a way that does not exploit or ignore my “bodyself,”[3] I give voice to those around me who journeyProphet Isaiah by Raphael similarly—wading through lies, searching for truth. It feels very selfish to invite others to walk with me on a very personal journey that includes criticism of a tradition that I respect and love dearly, that has molded and shaped me into the kind of person I am, that has deeply embedded within me a profound sense of God’s goodness, grace, forgiveness, and mercy. But I believe that in my willingness to be thus publicly vulnerable, to open myself in that vulnerability to attack for my criticism, is a necessary part not only of the healing process but of the role of the artist—whether I am “really” an artist or not.

Art for art’s sake has its place. But there is need for artists to restore in the Church a sense of God’s holiness as expressed through beauty,[4] and beauty in the human form.[5] This is not to say that the artist has free reign to sensationalize, shock, or otherwise offend the Christian community “all willy, nilly,” as my grandmother would say, in the name of the prophetic voice.[6] But gently, with kindness and genuine understanding, the more subtle artist is uniquely positioned to affect real change in the orientation of the spiritual life to the body, welcoming that necessary and undeniable part of ourselves into the conversation, into the experience of relating to one another and relating to God[7], and God incarnate[8]—as images of the beauty of God’s holiness.

[1] Indeed, “works of art can awaken faith, or at least the longing for faith” (Harries 132).

[2] “If a religious perspective on life is to carry conviction it has to account of the powerful spiritual impact which the arts, in all forms, have on people. Christianity needs to have a proper place both for the arts and for beauty” (Harries 2).

[3] Nelson uses this term frequently.

[4] Martin explains that if God is primary beauty and the created order is secondary beauty, then according to Jonathan Edwards’s theology of the body, it is “the work of grace that facilitates perception of that primary beauty that places the secondary beauty of the world in authentic perspective” (31).

[5] “Beauty defined in imagination,” notes Barger, is “truly transcendent of shifting cultural trends” (42).

[6] “True beauty,” Harries writes, “is inseparable from the quest for truth and those moral qualities which make for a true quest. In the world of art this means integrity” (62).

[7] Harries asserts, “The yearning aroused by experiences of beauty is a longing for God himself, for communion with his beauty” (94). Again, “we are invited to take the divine beauty into our very being through Eucharist” (98). Barger also notes this correlation, advocating that “ritual connects the body with spirituality” (183).

[8] Nelson writes, “In a culture that does not really honor matter but cheapens it, in a culture that does not love the body but uses it, belief in God’s incarnation is countercultural stuff” (195).