Friday, March 2, 2012

Imago Dei, Beauty, Art, and Christianity

Christopher Morley, American novelist and poet, declared that "In every man's heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibrations of beauty." This semester I am taking an art appreciation class, which has led me to think extensively about the nature of art, beauty, form, etc...and consequently, the intersection of all of those things with my faith. Generally when I think of old Gothic cathedrals, stained glass, church art, etc...I think excess; I think of those that could have used the food, clothes, and shelter all of that money could have provided. Do not misunderstand me, I still think of those things and they still bother me. However, I have also begun to realize the importance of beauty and imagery in the Christian life. Although still qualifying and re-considering, I have tentatively concluded that contemporary Christian culture(specifically evangelical, considering that is my background) could benefit from a renewed sense of the importance of beauty, aesthetics, and imagery...

The concept of "beauty" is something many have discussed and attempted to define since the beginning of recorded history. However, there is something in beauty that simply defies any kind of categorical definition. Interestingly, there is still a surprising amount of consensus concerning what is "beautiful." As a follower of Christ, I think beauty could be very generally thought of as "a manifestation, whether in creation or conceptualization, of some aspect related to the goodness and perfection of the person and character of God." There is something transcendent in beauty, something that takes us outside of ourselves.Whether it is a beautiful spring sunrise, someone sacrificing something for another, or the smile of someone you love, beauty affects our lives and pushes us to consider things outside of our own sphere of self.

One specific quotation from C.S. Lewis related to this topic has been on my mind. He concluded at the end of one of his sermon's by telling the audience, "You have never met a mere mortal." Every human is made in the image of God, Imago Dei. That image is a beautiful thing. God is a God of beauty(as generally defined above). One of the portions of scripture I really appreciate in the Old Testament is Exodus 25-31. The artfulness, care, creativity, and beauty with which the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle are crafted is astounding. Moses received those plans, down to the minutest detail, from the very mouth of God. Not only that, but God had already gifted several individuals(Oholiab and Bezalel) to complete His creation.

Yet, just like everything else, art, beauty, and image can be abused. A chapter later, the Israelites are using those same abilities to construct a golden calf,  an idols that mocks the true beauty of God as opposed to extolling and exemplifying it. I think the possibility of this abuse is what has so distanced contemporary Christian culture from  art, and the creative community in general(although this is slowly beginning to change). In addition, associations with high church and icon worship have made many evangelicals wary of incorporating art and imagery into church architecture,decoration, and even their own personal lifestyles(although some of this is certainly related to the cost and necessity also). This distance is understandable and I think in some ways justified.

However, what if we Christians started incorporating beauty(in the holistic sense), art(as an idea of representing God's character and creation), and imagery(appropriately of course)back into our lifestyle and vocabulary? See, even now I am qualifying...Oh well...What if some of our Christian artists donated some of their works to their church bodies? What if paintings of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection once again adorned our churches? What if our houses had frescoes on the walls? Would that be so bad? Would it be  at all helpful to serve as a reminder of the beauty of our Creator in its many forms, or would it simply be costly, time consuming and routine? Were the soaring arches, flying buttresses, and intricate artwork of Gothic cathedrals ridiculous excess, or was there something in them that captures the transcendence and glory of God in a way our churches fail to do?

I certainly do not claim to have answers and I am not advocating spending millions of dollars to build a gothic cathedral. But, I do feel that after having interacted with these questions, my life must include more creativity, beauty, and art. What might this look like on a practical level? For one, I want to paint a wall in my future home with blackboard paint, so that the whole family can write down prayer requests, quotations, verses, funny sayings of the day, etc...I mean come on, what kid doesn't like the idea of writing on a wall(not to mention adults)? Also, what about a pottery wheel? Couldn't you make some of your own plates, bowls, etc(might try this with one of my art buddies here shortly at school)?Being a plasterer, I also love the idea of doing something with Frescoes in various rooms. This would obviously be more complicated because it is more permanent and has implications for guests, hospitality, permanence etc...not to mention the fact it is a fairly laborious process. But, if nothing else, the idea fascinates me. There are so many possibilities... But anyway, I've rambled on long enough, what are your thoughts/ideas???

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