When was the last time you attended an art museum? Do you find paintings, theater, and symphonies to be a type of excess of culture, for the elite, accessible only to certain types of people? Or is it possible for Christians to meaningfully appreciate artwork like Picasso or Pollock? My argument in this post is a firm yes. Christians can appreciate such artwork, but perhaps more importantly Christians ought to be at the forefront and cutting edge of cultural artistic endeavors! And here’s why. As usual, I’ll meander a bit before coming around to my final point.
I was talking to my family the other day, and I asked them a simple question, “What is one particular piece of art, whether music, poetry, painting, or other that has greatly impacted you?” We talked for a while on the subject, and my mom brought up a peculiar story. She mentioned how a church service once put Christian music over certain scenes of The Shawshank Redemption, and she went on to say how impactful that particular combination of music and film was for her and the congregation. I proceeded to ask her if she remembered the sermon, or really any of the sermons from that church. What do you think her answer was?
As modern-minded people, I think we have tricked ourselves into a type of mentality that provides a one-way, shallow picture of humanity, that is to say, as people living now in 2018 we often wrongly think that all we have to do to change our lives is to change the way we think. Get the mind right, and the belief will follow, as will the actions. After reading a book by James K.A. Smith called “Desiring the Kingdom,” I disagree with such a portrayal of humans. I believe, as Smith so persuasively demonstrated, that humans are fundamentally desiring-beings, not thinking-things (Thanks a lot, Descartes), or in Timothy Keller’s words, “What the heart most wants, the mind finds reasonable, the will finds doable, and the emotions find desirable.” Please note the phrase “what the heart most wants…” as the heart represents, what I would argue Keller is saying, the core of humanity
What do I mean, and what does Smith mean by desiring beings? Essentially, humans behave in such a way that we all pursue a vision of the “good life” where the “good life” means a particular image and picture of human flourishing. Maybe that good life for you is reclining on a beach somewhere with a light refreshing Mexican beer (think Corona commercial), or maybe the good life includes a well-groomed lawn, a well-stocked 401(k), and an endearing, always helpful spouse with two well-behaved children. But you see, these are all images, pictures, stories of human flourishing, which is why humans connect to a greater extent with sights and sounds than with words and lectures, or blog posts for that matter.
That’s also why my mom remembered the Shawshank Redemption over and above any sermon/lecture she heard while at that church. Such a view of humanity explains why stories, plays, and the arts are often more powerful than lectures, discussion panels, and sermons. After all, stories have been around a great deal longer than dissertations.
Put simply, humans are affected by what we do, see, touch, taste, hear and feel more than we are aware of those things affecting us. We are captivated more by our imagination than our intellection.
Transition to works of art. Arts of all kind, at their core, present stories that affects us before we have time to think or process what we are seeing or hearing. Before you recognize that a symphony is in a minor key, you hear it. Before you understand Picasso is painting a still life of fruit, you see it. There’s a gap between experiencing and formal recognition, and in that gap, art does this little magical thing, that is, it works on us (often without our knowing) and forms us and shapes our desires, especially if the experience is meaningful.
In other words, forms of art have an ability to “get into us” before we are able to “know” it, before we process it. Art affects (think of the word affect in the context of affection, or desire) us first and foremost, and then we proceed to realize just how it has affected us. As Christians, this information should lead us to recognize two things about the power of art forms.
1. Art affects us pre-cognitively (before thinking).
Beware of the kinds of art forms you allow yourself to dwell on. The beauty of art is it’s immanence, that is to say, it is everywhere, all around us. It is in the rich taste of good coffee, in the lines and curves of a beautiful building, in the story of a film, or even in a short 30-second commercial. Remember art can get to us before we are cognitively aware of it, so surround yourself with art that points to the right kingdom, and root out art forms that lead to other worldly kingdoms, which too often includes the movies we watch, the commercials we see, and the TV series we binge.
2. Art is evangelism
Return to my very first point made in this blog, namely, that Christians ought to be on the forefront of creating quality art of all kinds. As Christians trying to engage a modern-minded world that rejects all forms of intellectual christianity, maybe it’s time to return to the drawing boards, literally, and produce such captivating pieces of art that “fly under the radar” of modern minded men and women, grab them by the gut (the heart), and present such a wonderful image of the kingdom of God that non-believers find Jesus before their cognitive faculties can throw up walls.
To finish the blog and to help articulate my point, watch the video below. It’s a series of video clips from 90’s Disney movies, set to the song “Step Outside” by Jose Gonzalez. If you grew up ever at all during the 90’s, which I think most of my readers will have, then you will most likely “feel” something powerful in the brief three minute video. That “feeling” is the art working in you and on you as a combination of images and sounds to shape your particular vision of the good life, maybe in a tiny way, maybe in a big way. In fact, I might argue that as I grew up, Disney’s movies did more to shape my vision of the good life than going to Sunday School ever did (Probably not true, but it sounds provocative, so I’m keeping it). I wonder what vision of the good life Disney worked into its films. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
Also, if you’ve been tracking my blog, you know I went to Europe for 3 months, where I discovered I absolutely love art. Below are some of my favorite paintings that I came across.
The Transfiguration by Raphael – This painting actually “read” me. Art has this uncanny ability, almost like a Rorschach test (the inkblot test thing), to bring out of someone beliefs and desires they themselves did not know were there. I may end up posting a paper I wrote on this particular piece, so be looking for that soon. There’s a lot going on in this one…
The Capturing of Samson by Anthonis Van Dyck – This particular painting resonated with me, because as I began to reflect on it, and to see the utter betrayal in Samson’s eyes, I realized his situation and saw his story in a new light. He certainly was a bumbling oaf who let his desire for intimacy and affection of women come between him and God, something I just really get.
Christ And the Samaritan Woman At the Well by Annibale Carracci – Ooh, I love this one. This story in John 4 has always deeply affected me because of Jesus’ claim to become within humans a well of living water gushing to eternal life. AND, the woman is so desperately searching for this all-quenching satisfaction, and there it is right under her nose the whole time. Wow, such a good story.
Comment below on either WordPress or Facebook with a piece of art or song or film or poem, whatever really, that has particularly had an effect on you. I’m always looking for new material! Or you can email/text me your thoughts using the info below!
I would like to formally recognize Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, as the inspiration for this blog. Like, 90% of the ideas and key terms found in this blog come from his work, and I guarantee his work does a better job of explaining all this stuff than I could. In other words, if I said anything that sounded really smart, it probably came from him first. He also has a more compact, more accessible book of his thoughts called You Are What You Love.