Sunday, June 23, 2013

Art and the Christian

Creation is what God makes, and culture is what Man makes.  This is what theologian John Frame says in his article "Christianty and Culture."  A quick perusal of Christian history will show that Christian people have long enjoyed culture-making and art.  There are paintings, mosaics, sculptures, tapestries, and the elegant edifices of church buildings which serve as the hallmark of God's good kingdom come on earth.  The Byzantine period bears its own adjective.  "That's so Byzantine, ya'll." 

One question we may ask, however, is the purpose of making art, or making good things, when, as the revivalists remind us, "it's all gonna burn!"?  I remember a young, zealous teen pointing to a mountain in a beautiful ranch setting in northern Georgia, "You see that mountain?  It's gonna be destroyed, man!"   He was addressing a small crowd of us who had enjoyed a beautiful wedding the evening before.  He stumbled with his words, because he knew things didn't end with total destruction.  This is the view of the philosophical materialists like the late Carl Sagan and others who believe the universe will suffer a "heat death" and Man will be no more (some physicists hold out for an "oscillating" universe, which will crunch and re-emerge with a Big Bang ever and anon, but that's really an unfounded view).  As this young man preached to us from the top of a sunlit, green grassed hill, he fumbled to complete his thoughts, trying to give some semblance of hope.  I piped up and finished a sentence for him "A new creation?"  I asked.  Yes, a new creation.  But it's true that first order of business is a total destruction of the earth.  On this much, we can actually agree with the philosophical materialists who assert the universe will have an end.  And, true enough, it will.  2 Peter 3:7, 10-11 says,   
By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly....But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.   Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.  That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.   But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

This seems to give us an existential problem: if everything is going to be destroyed by fire, why make anything?  Why labor long hours, for example, in making a beautiful chair out of hickory wood, and hope to pass it on as a family heirloom?  After all, it's "just gonna burn."  Christian fundamentalism answers this question with an unqualified disdain for good architecture and formal beauty in worship, especially in church buildings.  This is because they hold to a cosmic dualism--a gnostic view of reality--where only the soul and "spiritual" matters of life hold value.  They sing songs like "I'll Fly Away," and so on.  We might think of storefront churches, with the flat rooftops (that's not to say that all such places are run by folks who could care less about beauty, but you get the idea.)   This is seen in many evangelical churches in America as well: instead of ornate beauty common to mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches, there is the flat, banal, lifelessness of drywall.  There is a critical lack of knowledge and appeal to church history, tradition, and formal worship, too.  But we're talking about art, and the hobby of beauty making in light of the destruction of the material world....

So, what is the point in making the beautiful hickory chair for one's children's children's children, in light of the fiery destruction of things?  Or, why rejoice in the majesty of a muscle car, all chromed-out, with a monster engine that growls and roars like a lion?  You can see the shiny black Kelly tires even now....  My take on it is this: consider a chair with its silent form, and the elegance of its stature, the dark, solid wood sits and stares in a silent reminder of something...something.  There is something about a beautiful chair, sitting in empty quiet.  What is it?

I have a Hendredon chair I picked up for $25 from a mattress salesman.  Henredon is the Bently of furniture.  It has ornate carvings and designs in the wood, and it's sturdy, hard and comfortable.  Mostly, it is a work of art and beauty.  The Greeks talked about goodness, beauty and truth, and good art and beautiful hobby-making remind us of goodness, beauty and truth.

It is this triune nature of art and good things in life that serve as reminders of the good things to come, in the eschaton when the Lord God renews all of creation, brings redemption to our bodies, and issues justice, peace, goodness and perfect love to fill all in all.  Christian people of all people should be culture-makers: they should create things that are good and beautiful and show the truth of God's good world.  And it is God's good world that, though it will one day be destroyed with fire, but that also will be recreated in perfect beauty and love.  So, good art helps us enjoy the present world, and points us to the renewal of all things.  Art won't last--this much is true.  But art will last, for the Lord God himself is a good creator who enjoys creating beautiful things, and has made us to make good things.  Art will last as a concept both now and forever, though the art we create today will be consumed under the auspices of the old order of things.  "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein," (Psalm 24:1). 

Make something beautiful today.  It can be your body, your hair, a re-built car, a walking stick, a model airplane.  Celebrate goodness, truth and beauty and rejoice in God's good creation!

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