Friday, November 26, 2010

Theological Competence Exam Question #3 - Art

We were given a choice to answer one of two different questions for the third and final part of the Theological Competence exam.  Although the question that asked us to respond theologically to issues that arise out of dealing with a loved one struggling with Alzheimers was important to me for personal reasons, I really didn't have to think too hard about deciding to respond to the question below.  There is a sense in which I feel like I've been answering this question for years.  It was this question, more than the other two, that left me with the conviction that this was the best chance of passing the exam I was ever likely to have.  I'm glad to see my feelings were rewarded!

You are pastor of a church and post a sign-up sheet for a trip to a local art exhibit.  Members begin the following conversation with you.
Lois: Pastor, I am surprised that you would suggest this trip.  I thought that, given the Reformation, Presbyterians were against art.

Tim: My former church had an artist-in-residence who helped us understand God through the use of Scripture and painting.

Bruce: I think the arts are a bridge to help us understand our culture and bring the gospel to culture.

Abby: But some particular works of art today are just anti-Christian.
  1. Write an essay articulating a Reformed understanding of the place of the arts in Christian life.  Base your discussion on your knowledge of Reformed theology, using at least one (1) of these resources: the Scriptures, classical theology, contemporary theology.
  2. Building on your essay in Required Response 1, respond theologically to three (3) of the comments above.
This part of the exam was closed book.

1.        For the first several hundred years of the Church’s history, the vast majority people could not read.  Creating works of art such as statues, paintings, stained glass windows, and other items were often used as a tool with which to teach believers about the works of God when reading the Bible itself was simply not an option for most of them.

By the time of the Reformation, some Reformers, recognizing the commandment not to create idols, began to grow concerned about this practice.  The fear was that people would worship the works of art, rather than the God that the works of art were intended to point people to.  Indeed, as Moses was coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his brother Aaron told people that the golden calf he had created was the God who had just freed them from Egypt.  The story was essentially right, but the object was all wrong.  It wasn’t the calf that saved God’s people!  And the calf was in no way being used to point people to the God that actually did the action.  If such a grievous abuse of art could happen so quickly after people had seen the real works of the authentic God, surely the works of art created to tell the story of God through Jesus Christ held that same dangerous potential!

For this reason, many of the Reformed denominations prohibited the use of art in their worship spaces, and indeed in Christians’ lives.  The concern that the art would become an idol, an object of worship in its own right, was simply too great a risk.

In more recent times, Reformed believers sought to recapture some of what was positive about the use of art as a tool to help convey the story of God, while remaining mindful of the dangers of idolatry.  Remembering that Paul could point to the statues dedicated to “an unknown God” at the Acropolis (works that were by no means “Christian”), using them as a point of evangelism from which to tell them the truth about the authentic God, Reformed believers began to advocate for the use of art as an expression of how God has blessed the world once again.  Moreover, Christians could argue for the myriad of ways in which God has gifted people with talents and abilities specifically for the edification of the church, and recognize that artistic talent is indeed one of those talents which could be used, if used in response and recognition of God, pointing people toward God as being behind it all, and not confusing the work of art with the object of worship itself.  Thus, Reformed believers of today have become more comfortable (at least in comparison with times past) with the use of art in Christian life.

2.        Lois is right to recognize that Presbyterians have indeed been against art in certain times and for certain reasons.  There has been a real, historic concern that art could become an object of worship, and that this would be a clear violation of the commandment against idolatry.  We must always keep in mind that art is not to be worshiped, and should always point to some greater truth beyond the art itself.  However, God is (among a great many other things) a God from which all good and beautiful things come, and thus it is appropriate to enjoy art and remember that all good and beautiful things come from God.  To the extent that art does remind us of God, Presbyterians need not be against art.

Tim’s artist-in-residence stands in a strong tradition of artists from the centuries of the church’s history who have used sculpture and painting to teach truths about God.  Indeed, some of the things we can learn about God through art may not be as readily communicated through other means, especially to some people who may respond to artistic expression in a way that they do not necessarily respond, say, to the spoken word.  No one way of teaching will reach all people, and thus God gives us a variety of means by which to help understand God better.

Abby expresses a legitimate concern on a couple of levels.  At one level, art has indeed been misused and abused.  As already noted, art has been used for idolatrous purposes in the past, and can indeed be used in this way in the present.  Also, whatever the purpose behind a work of art, if a work of art is used by the viewer in an idolatrous way, that is indeed a problem.  Another level of concern is the fact that art is sometimes used by an artist who may not only be “anti-Christian,” but who may actively be trying to articulate an “anti-Christian” message through his or her work.  We need not be afraid of such messages.  Our God is more powerful than any “anti-Christian” message a hostile artist may be trying to communicate to us.  We remain clear on who we worship.  However, God can work through even these works of art if we have eyes to see God’s truth.  Just as Paul used the pagan works of the Acropolis to convey a prophetic message to his audience, perhaps God is trying to tell us something about how the world sees the church that we need to hear.  For example, perhaps the world sees the church as “hateful” because we have failed to communicate God’s love adequately to some group of people.  If this is the case, God can use this “anti-Christian” work of art to correct our own failings, so that we learn to reach out with God’s love in ways that better convey the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know it.  God remains supreme, and as long as we remember that, we may look at art without fear of whether it might be “anti-Christian” in its origins.

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