August 24, 2009
Below is the link to the first part of “Call of the Artist: a recovering of image in the Church,” a piece I wrote about 18 months ago exploring the connection between the human body and art in the Church. (I never posted it because it includes a story involving another Fuller student, who has since graduated and moved away.) You can find excerpts from the second part through the “theology pop culture and emerging church” category at the bottom of the page, or follow the links at the end of this post. I am posting this first part in its entirety (sans footnotes), so for the sake of space, you can access the majority of the piece through the link below.
Here’s the opening paragraph as a teaser:
My body betrays me. It attracts attention I don’t want. It fails to attract attention I do want. It crumples into a weepy heap when I get angry or frustrated or tired. It breaks down entirely on occasions when it has a responsibility to get me to work on time. It reminds me of my ability to procreate at the most inconvenient time of the month. It sweats and farts—so very unladylike. Most of all, it ties me—the real me, the me inside, that spiritual, ethereal self—to an existence that often wearies me beyond expression. It, this body I am reduced to, is not on my side.
Part 1: Body Theology
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. We have lost, I think, the ancients’ sense of beauty as that which is supremely Good, 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 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 and that he pronounced his creation good not because it is capable of standing alone but because it contains that element of truth 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. 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. 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, the one who doesn’t disrupt our body-soul division or challenge us to live bodily into our role as the imago Dei.
 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).
 Martin explains the Platonic belief that one ascends to the Good through an experience of Beauty” (15).
 “Biblical Israel,” Martin writes, “celebrated holiness over beauty—but not religion over aesthetics” (11).
 “Human beings” says Harries, “made in the image of God, share in divine creativity” (102).
 “Beauty,” Harries writes, “is the persuasive power of God’s truth and goodness” (11).
 But Harries argues that “the physical world, including our bodies, is created fundamentally good and beautiful” (37).
 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).
 Nelson discusses the reentrance of Docetism in the contemporary church (51).
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. 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. 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,” I give voice to those around me who journey 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, and beauty in the human form. 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. 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, and God incarnate—as images of the beauty of God’s holiness.
 Indeed, “works of art can awaken faith, or at least the longing for faith” (Harries 132).
 “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).
 Nelson uses this term frequently.
 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).
 “Beauty defined in imagination,” notes Barger, is “truly transcendent of shifting cultural trends” (42).
 “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).
 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).
 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).
March 9, 2008
I’ve been thinking about “One Punk Under God” since we watched one of the episodes last week. It has made me ask some uncomfortable questions, such as: is it possible for a church community to be open, welcoming, and healing to those who differ in their sexual orientation without making the theological proclamation that homosexuality is not a sin? I had several gay and lesbian friends in college; we were able to enjoy each other’s company and have lively literary discussions even though they knew where I stood on the issue. But a one-to-one relationship has more flexibility, I think, than a church structure charged with moral teaching. It just seems to me that Bakker believed he had to make a theological shift in order to open Revolution’s doors to the homosexual community, and I wonder if that is the only solution. The concept of sexual orientation has a foot in the discussion we had the week before about body theology. If the Church isn’t capable of handling a healthy and theologically sound discussion regarding heterosexuality and its implications for gendered leadership and family life, is there any hope for discussions and theological understandings of less straight forward forms of sexual orientation? Gender and sexuality issues, though hot topics in the western (or at least American) Church today, are so uncomfortable and so deeply rooted in our very identities as humans and as children of God that it has been more often than not simply swept under the rug or whispered in hallways. The undercurrent of discomfort and the inability to speak freely and knowledgably on issues of gender and sexuality has drastically overblown these topics that, in scripture, relatively speaking, play a much smaller role than we are often led to believe by the historical emphasis on the squelching and misrepresentation of the biblical understanding of the body.
Again I am drawn back to the first discussion of the relation between holiness and beauty. Why is it that in the realm of art the body is glorified, nakedness and even sexuality are lauded? Historically, on a skill level, an artist had to prove command of both the complicated representation of the crucifixion and of the human body in its original, uncovered state. Yet in the Church, once a great supporter of artistic expression in all mediums, we fear and shame that which art simultaneously reveals as beautiful in the name of piety. In our effort to be pure, we have lost that sense of holiness present in the very fact that our physical forms were created in the image of God, by God, and pronounced good. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we confuse the recognition of beauty and holiness in the human body with lewdness and vulgarity, but in our efforts to avoid the latter, we have lost in some profound way our understanding of the former. Fear and shame, those stumbling blocks to faith, have skewed the lens through which the Church views the world, to the extent that some churches refuse even simple stained glass or a cross hung on the wall for fear of idolatry. For the sake of a holiness we cannot understand, we have lost that sense of beauty that was meant to be its vehicle. I am reminded of Aristotle’s discussion of the chairs: the painting of a chair points to the chair itself, which is more real, that in turn points to the true Form of the chair that exists outside our realm of perception and is most real, the epitome of reality. Not that we can’t take issue with Aristotle’s Forms, but there is a correlation.
March 2, 2008
I loved The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Watching the film reminded me of our earlier discussion of the relation between beauty and holiness. There is something extraordinarily beautiful about the way the main character chose to express himself poetically despite the tediousness of the task and the utterly humiliating state of being he had been reduced to from his former position of influence and affluence. I was most impacted by our conversation afterward about the reality and positive nature of imagination. Story has in the modern world been considered as falsehood or at best as escapism, yet the tide is shifting as we come to realize the power of imagination for good purpose. I remember the story Olive Drane told us in my storytelling class last quarter about the twin boys Truth and Parable, how only when Truth was disguised in Parable’s clothing was he accepted and listened to among the townspeople. I have for several quarters now been wrestling with the concept of story and how truth plays out in the midst of it. I still don’t have it figured out, but I keep coming back to a line in my favorite poem by Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Yet one of my favorite short story writers Flannery O’Connor determined to write her message in large print on the wall so that the blind could see it. Is it subtlety or shouting that wins the day? In the film, Bauby tells his life story in painfully real detail, yet the success of his life lies in his ability to imagine, to feed his soul though he is locked in. Jesus, who is the truth, speaks often in parable and usually refuses to explain himself even to his disciples. What is the role of the artist, then? To imagine, surely, but also to explicate? It is this tension that I have yet to work out.
The class on body theology brought up several different issues for me. Not entirely unrelated to the above consideration of story and truth is the question we tried to answer: what does it mean to engage culture and image and to dialogue with truth? Our discussion reminded me of the link between beauty and holiness. Is there anything holy to be found in our visually-driven culture? If the line between secular and sacred is truly blurred, how do we bring the holiness of God into our cultural conversations about what is beautiful? I know that in my own experience it has been very healing to speak God’s truth into the lies culture told me about my body image that I believed for so long without even being aware of their influence. I think educating people about the ways to deconstruct the advertising and entertainment industries can go a long way in bringing truth into cultural light. It reminds me of the Alison Jackson photographs and our discussion of voyeurism. Our consumerist culture buys into nearly anything these days that will feed into the need for instant gratification. The naming of the root cause as fear is especially apt and perceptive. Fear, which is the opposite of faith, and sin, which certainly gets in the way of experiencing God’s holiness, are the roots of body image issues, especially in the west. There is that appealing quality about Gnosticism, the denying of the flesh in order to free the soul. That fear of being out of control is certainly a known root cause of many eating disorders. But we were given bodies, and our bodies were pronounced good—a fact we often forget in our effort to control something. It is worth remembering that abundant life necessitates a willingness to release control and experience something extraordinary, something unknown, something beautiful.
February 28, 2008
I had a few different thoughts from this past week’s conversations in one of my classes. First, having never really taken a theology and film class, I really appreciated the discussion of Michael Clayton after we watched the movie on Monday. Being an English major, it’s a (relatively) new concept that what before seemed to me to be purely entertainment is now employing a parallel depth and intelligence that has always drawn me to the written word. I most appreciated the part of the discussion about the complicated nature of our lives, how things are not simple and orderly and easily categorized. Characters have layers, stories have layers, we have layers (I’m getting an unnecessary image of Shrek and the onion). Everything is connected, but no lines are clearly drawn. I would benefit from watching the movie again.
The second thought that captured my attention was the TED-talk Alison Jackson gave on how photography seduces us into voyeurism. I am not much drawn to celebrity life, personally. When I took Theology and Culture last year, I was unable to participate in the discussion of our favorite celebrities because I really just have little interest in the lives of people I do not know personally. But the idea that we believe what we see in a picture, that we cannot tell what is real and what is not, and that maybe we do not even care if something sensational turns out not to be true—the idea that we are aware of the seduction and continue to consume fascinates me. We are such a visually driven culture. Where I grew up reading books and imagining for myself, children today grow up watching TV and movies based on those books, fixed into someone else’s vision. There is something about being fed information through a screen that turns off our active intelligence in favor of passive acceptance: we receive and receive and receive, but how much do we evaluate and ponder? How much are we aware of the effect of the visual on our daily lives? This idea draws me back to my first thought, the revelation that movies may have more than entertainment value. They might cause us to think and criticize and respond. They might cause change. Someone in class said that where music used to be the catalyst for change, film is stepping into that slot.
The third thought I had from the week concerned the issue of icon and idol. Peter Rollins discusses the issue in his book How (Not) to Speak of God. I remember writing a paper for Aesthetics in college on the veneration of icons in the Christian tradition: is it idolatry? I never could quite decide; both positions were persuasive. I remember concluding that if I were in a congregation where my fellow Christians had trouble separating the veneration of an image from the worship of it, I would rather remove images from the sanctuary than mess with their faith. But for myself, I hunger for color and light, texture and symbol and anything beautiful that inspires for me a sense of the holy that we talked about the first week. I thought of my paper when we discussed idols and icons in class, and I thought about the comment someone made that the Bible itself is an icon—pointing through itself to God. But we can get stuck at the page, bogged down in the text, and we miss the whole point; our vision arrests and cannot pierce through the page to see God. This takes me back to the idea of God’s creative word that speaks into existence and the correlation with the Word that arrives in human form to give us an image of God, for whomever has seen Jesus has seen his Father in heaven. The words on the page point to God, just as the Word points to God. Yet Jesus is more than an icon. Clearly there is still more to think about here. But the idea that images are so important is one that stuck with me all week long.
February 27, 2008
I was profoundly struck by the discussion we had in one of my classes about the relation between holiness and beauty—specifically the definition of holiness as that which is beautiful. Being an amateur philosopher and a lover of the liberal arts, beauty and aesthetics have always fascinated me. The image of God as Creator, the ultimate source of creativity, has inspired unspeakable awe and wonder. The idea that beauty embodies holiness, or that one may find holiness in the experience of beauty (visually or as we said in class, through the beautiful act or the recognition of beautiful character), has sent me back to my undergrad days, reading Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, meditating on the character and mind of God.
The relation between holiness and beauty was an especially apt concept for me last week as I prepared to do something new and rather innovative (relatively speaking) in Presbyterian Chapel. We had our first “Worship with Creative Arts” chapel. As I sat in the prayer room the week before, I thought about this definition of holiness as beauty, and I began meditating on that relationship. I thought about how God’s holiness is reflected in the beauty of the earth God has created—with just a word! What creative power that word holds! We, in response, can participate in that holiness when we participate in beauty—enjoying it and creating it. So in chapel this morning, we spread out art supplies all over the room and asked people to meditate on Isaiah 58:11 and Matthew 6:28-33 and respond to that meditation by creating something—anything—to offer to God at the end of the service. What a response! It was truly inspiring to see Presbyterians (traditionally the “frozen chosen”) able to glorify God by participating in the services with their gifts and their creativity.
I started out with these two verses, asking what they told us about God. The nature imagery grabbed my attention: the well-watered garden, the sun-scorched desert, the splendor of Solomon, the lilies of the field. And then the context of these verses struck me: Isaiah 58:11 comes as a promise in the midst of fasting, observing the Sabbath, and serving the poor and marginalized. Matthew 6:28 comes in the midst of the sermon on the mount, as Jesus taught his listeners how to live and serve God. These passages, these promises, require action on our parts. They require response! Yet they promise in the midst of stress, grief, brokenness, doubt, uncertainty about the future that God will sustain. They promise that whether we bear concerns of finances, employment, community, love, wisdom and discernment, gifts (creative, intellectual, or spiritual), God will provide. And our response in chapel? We sang a song and drew a picture.
In my own meditations on these theme verses, so many more began to come to mind: Psalm 8—what is the human that God is mindful of us? Psalm 42—the deer pants for water. Isaiah 6—the imagery-laden call in God’s throne room. Revelation 22:17 – all who are thirsty come to the river of life. 1 Kings 10:23-25—an account of Solomon’s glory. Particularly with Solomon, I think it’s interesting that with all we can do and create on our own, with all the glory that Solomon amassed, it cannot hold a candle to the creative word of God that would speak a lily into existence. God’s creativity and beauty, as God’s holiness, are so wholly other; yet we are made in the image of that creative and beautiful and holy God, and our words contain the power to create as well.
I thought also about John 15:1-17—the fruit of the vine that results when we abide in the vine that is Jesus. It is from God that we get our creative gifts, but to use them properly and to their full abundance, we must remain attached to the God through whom flows that creative power. That holiness. That holy, holy, holy holiness. Otherwise we are nothing more than Solomon’s glory, amazing for a moment but lost forever because of the disconnect with the holiness and beauty of God. Also Psalm 29 – the beauty of holiness, this is not a new thought! The Israelites understood this deep connection between beauty and holiness, this innate part of God’s glory that must be recognized and responded to. This creativity is what we were created for (Gen 1-2), to bring forth fruit from the earth.
As I sat in chapel last week, watching my fellow “frozen chosen” mold play-dough, cut up pieces of paper, glue glitter on card stock, and paint the beautiful bouquet of lilies my friend gave me for Valentine’s Day—as I listened to the gifts of music and poetry being offered throughout the hour—I was overwhelmed with the presence of God among us. Out of our chaos, out of our disordered and last-minute scrambling, out of our lifeless planning and preparing, out of our concerns and fears and misunderstandings, in the midst of our stress and grief and doubt, God moved. God moved powerfully. God spoke in our hearts, and we responded with crayons and glue. And God was honored. God was glorified. We experienced the holiness and beauty of God in our communal creation for God’s name this morning. A bunch of Presbyterians made Sunday-School artwork for God. And what a blessing it was to us all!
That is my meditation on the relation between holiness and beauty, inspired by class. I don’t have it all worked out yet. I’m still thinking and wondering. I still want to know how exactly those words are related in Hebrew and Greek. I still want to know if it’s the beauty of holiness or the holiness of beauty. Or both. I’m still deciding whether it’s the heart or the head that experiences this intertwining of holiness and beauty. Maybe it’s both as well. What I do know is that God provides. God sustains. God by that creative word speaks life into us, and we in turn are able to speak life into each other, into the world. And that is—for me—a holy, awesome thought.