Physical God.2 | Why Art?

I’m still poking around this idea of God’s intrusion into all things human, all things physical. Hope you don’t mind.

How deep does God’s incarnational* impulse run? Does God care about Elvis and Mona Lisa? Do the arts really matter? Really?

When the Church engages the arts, is it (at best) simply allowing space for people to express their enjoyable (but ultimately temporal) passions? Or is it (at worst) acquiescing to the demands of a fickle, image-saturated generation? I think we ought to be cautious where we go from here. The answer touches on the very nature and character of our God.

If we say that art lacks intrinsic importance, we are saying that there is no true value in breathtaking sunsets or the thousand varying scents of spring. A devaluation of art implies there is nothing divinely profound about the reality that our world possesses both zebras and clownfish, both bananas and pomegranates.

While our human senses properly respond to and enjoy art done well, art matters because God rules over the earth. Art matters because the kingdom of God is not only powerful; it is also beautiful. And as Amos Lee sings, “Nothing is more powerful than beauty in a wicked world.”

To speak of God as Creator is to say not only much about his sovereignty but also much about how he intends for his image-bearers to function: engaging the world around us, breathing fresh life into dirt and clay, splashing vivid colors in surprising places, and allowing our imagination to take us places where our heart runs free and our body bows in worship.

We must remember that in Eden God did not make trees that were merely functional, bearing fruit that was bland but nutritious. God crafted trees that were “pleasing to the eye and good for food.”(Gen 2.9) We experience bits of God’s heart when our eyes are captured by beauty and when our taste buds erupt with wonder and delight. George MacDonald prayed this refrain, “Gloriously wasteful, O my Lord, art thou! Sunset faints after sunset into the night.”

There is something extravagant about God’s artisan heart. This extravagance does not allow us to settle for a faith that is true yet sterile. God invites our faith to be ravishingly alive and stunningly beautiful. So, art in any of its forms can never be merely a means to an end or only a conduit to spread a message. Good art tells a story about God, a God who smiles wide at Mona Lisa.

Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. Madeleine L’Engle

peace / Winn

*I know I didn’t dream up this word. I’m not that smart. However, my spellchecker always gives me the little red squiggly line telling me the word doesn’t exist — and if I keep it, I’m on my own. If any of you have connections with the folks @ the Oxford Dictionary, could you put in a good word for my little friend, “incarnational”? He wants his day to roam free on the page, unencumbered by the squiggly red ball-and-chain.

Physical God

I have two sons, Wyatt (5) and Seth (3.5). Seth is the cuddly one. Last Saturday, I lay at the end of Seth’s bed, trying to help him go to sleep. He didn’t like the separation and wiggled his way down next to me. He draped his short arm over my back, put his face right up next to mine and said, “I want to be by you, daddy. I like you.” Hearing that, I could have stayed there all weekend.

Seth knew instinctively that he didn’t want me so far away that he couldn’t touch me. He wanted, needed, his dad to be in his space, not offering comfort from a distance.

We humans are physical beings, and we need a physical God. We need God right in the middle of our space. Scriptural principles and doctrinal formulations, good as they are, are incapable of communicating to us all we need. We discover truth and experience God and receive grace, not just via our mental capacities, but also via our corporeal senses. We need to touch beauty and to catch a glimpse of peace. God knows, we need to taste mercy.

Our tangible need is met by the Incarnation. Jesus, the Hebrews writer tells us, is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb 1.3) Jesus is God’s definitive intersection with flesh and matter. God came to us in Jesus. In Jesus, God touched us. God ate with us. God’s tears dripped on our dirt. In our midst, God died and rose again.

Unfortunately, however, we are tempted to view even the incarnation from a distance, as if it were a once-and-finished moment restricted to the Palestinian landscape of the first century. To the contrary, the incarnation awakens our spiritual experience now. Pulsing from Jesus’ intrusion into human existence, God continues to meet us in physical encounters.

In baptism, we shiver as the cold water pours over us, submerged in a watery grave. Are we drowning? In communion, we savor the bread’s sweet aroma and feel the wine burn as it trickles down our throat. In Christian community, we hear Jesus’ words and feel Jesus’ touch. Every taste of bread, every word of hope, every drop of water – with each, God is moving toward us.

God does not stay distant from our misery or our panic. He does not leave us alone to muck our way through our sin and foolishness. God has already moved into our space. The question is not so much whether or not we have a God who appears in our physical world. The question is whether or not we will “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps 34.8)

peace / Winn

Disoriented Beginnings

Today, I take a fresh swipe at the blogosphere. We’ll see how this goes.

Interacting with Scripture requires alot of humility, I think. We’ll probably understand a good bit, but we’ll probably be befuddled just as often. As much as we might come to the Bible to find answers, Scripture often leads us to a whole new slew of questions.

Yesterday, in church, another pastor and I were teaching via a shared conversation and opened the discussion up to everyone. One guy stood and said that he has been reading the Old Testament and is disturbed by what he has found. ”I’m having to ask myself: Do I like God?”

Good question. If we are honest with ourselves and with the God of Scripture, most of us will have to face this same question some time or another.

So, what I hope to do in the space I’m given here is to help us ponder a few good questions. Sometimes, we might find an answer. Sometimes, we won’t. Hopefully, we will always find more of Jesus.

Inevitably, though, Jesus will disorient us. I think my friend who expressed his bewilderment on Sunday is in a healthy place. If we always uncover the God we expect to find, we ought to be concerned: self-delusion is almost certain.

“By the end of a poem,” says poet Billy Collins, ”the reader should be in a different place from where he started. I would like him to be slightly disoriented at the end, like I drove him outside of town at night and dropped him in a cornfield.”

That’s what I hope for this space, to carve out a (perhaps at times) disorienting space that will offer us the strange grace of moving us to a different spot than we where when we started. Isn’t that a good description of spiritual formation, anyway? Taking us where we are, moving us beyond ourselves, flipping us upside down, and planting us smack in the middle of grace?

I hope to post every week or so, usually on Mondays, we’ll see how it goes. I might piece together some kind of schedule; but the usual fare will be short reflections, a few book reviews, certainly some random thoughts.

But have grace. I’m just beginning, and I’m quite sure to be disoriented.

peace,

Winn