Can We Affirm the Good, True and Beautiful in the Art of Unbelievers?

In the amazing film Amadeus, the Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri becomes spiritually hardened because he cannot understand how God would allow the obviously pagan Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to be so incredibly talented while Salieri flounders as just a mediocre composer. There is a moment where he looks at the sheet music from Mozart and is astonished:

Was Salieri hearing the voice of God through the music of Mozart? Isn’t this impossible, since “those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8)? Is there not a clear and distinct differentiation between that which we find in the natural, pagan culture and that which we find in the spiritual, redeemed community of the church?

The starting place for answering such questions is found in rejecting the non-biblical presupposition underlying them. We must reject the notion that God is only Lord of the “sacred” spheres of “spiritual” activities and not over every aspect of human life. Rather, we must affirm that God created a good earth, and no matter how much sin has been introduced into this creation, it is still God’s good creation. God created humanity as divine image-bearers, and no matter how depraved the human heart has become or how unjust and against shalom humanity makes the world’s systems, that image of God remains in us. Redemption in Christ is just that: RE-demption, RE-storing, RE-creation of what God originally made. God is not just interested in saving souls, but in reconciling “all things”–that is, everything that he has created—back to himself:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV)
According to this passage, the shed blood of Christ on the cross is not merely an atoning sacrifice for the salvation of individual human souls, but the action of the creator God reaching into his creation and proclaiming with a loud voice, “Mine!” (as Abraham Kuyper famously insisted that Jesus proclaims).
Kuyper, in his influential essay on “Common Grace,” wrote,
“[W]e have no right to conceptualize the image of the Mediator in ways other than Scripture presents it. People fall into one-sidedness in the opposite direction if, reflecting on the Christ, they think exclusively of the blood shed in atonement and refuse to take account of the significance of Christ for the body, for the visible world, and for the outcome of world history.
Consider carefully: by taking this tack you run the danger of isolating Christ for your soul and you view life in and for the world as something that exists alongside your Christian religion, not controlled by it. Then the word ‘Christian’ seems appropriate to you only when it concerns certain matters of faith or things directly connected with the faith—your church, missions, and the like—but all the remaining spheres of life fall for you outside the Christ
This way of thinking results in your living in two distinct circles of thought: in the very circumscribed circle of your soul’s salvation on the one hand, and in the spacious, life-encompassing sphere of the world on the other. Your Christ is at home in the former but not in the latter. From that opposition and false proportionality springs all narrow-mindedness, all inner unreality, if not all sanctimoniousness and powerlessness.” (James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 172)
Is it theologically possible to believe that God is pleased by the artistic endeavors of unbelievers? Richard Mouw states that he believes that God enjoys the good, true, and beautiful actions of unbelievers for their own sakes,
“When an unbelieving poet makes use of an apt metaphor, or when a foul-mouthed major league outfielder leaps high into the air to make a stunning catch, we can think of God as enjoying the event without necessarily approving of anything in the agents involved – just as we might give high marks to a rhetorical flourish by a politician whose views on public policy we despise.” (Richard Mouw, He Shines in all that’s Fair, p. 37)
This is what theologians have called “Common Grace.” Wayne Grudem provides this definition: “Common grace is the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation. The word common here means something that is common to all people and is not restricted to believers or to the elect only.” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 657)

How many of our churches teach their congregations to embrace “Common Grace” as a wonderful gift from God for our good and for his glory?


Art in Action: Toward Shalom

Wolterstorff-Art in ActionWolterstorff’s book on Art is appropriately titled Art in Action. He states, “Works of art equip us for action. And the range of actions for which they equip us is very nearly as broad as the range of human action itself. The purposes of art are the purposes of life. To envisage human existence without art is not to envisage human existence. Art—so often though of as a way of getting gout of the world—is man’s way of acting in the world. Artistically man acts.” (p 4-5)

But to what end? What is the purpose of humanity’s action through art?

shalomThe answer is Shalom.

“Shalom—of man dwelling at peace in all relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature. Shalom is a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in nature, to enjoy living with one’s fellow, to enjoy life with oneself.” (Wolterstorff, p. 75)

Shalom is the purpose of all callings, of all vocations. It is the purpose of art as well, for art is one of the ways that God brings about a lushness of life that goes beyond vulgar utilitarianism, a sin of modern evangelical Christianity. “We have adopted a pietistic-materialistic understanding of man, viewing human needs as the need for a saved soul plus the need for food, clothes, and shelter. True shalom is vastly richer than that.” (p. 82)

As Calvin Seerveld writes, “There is nothing worse than baptizing our technocratized hecticness and poverty of aesthetic life time into a christianized utilitarianism. It is no help to understand ‘redeeming the time’ to mean ‘Are you making money at it?’ or ‘Is it useful?’” (Rainbows for the Fallen World, 63).


Earthlings Enjoying the Aesthetic Life

Seerveld-RainbowsCavin Seerveld, in his magnificent book, Rainbows for the Fallen World, makes the case that a Christian understanding of aesthetics must not succumb to the heresy of Plato's theory of “Forms.” where the non-material abstract idea of “beauty” is the higher, idealistic spiritual reality while the material world is somehow inferior.

When we talk about art, we are talking about real, physical cultural artifacts – created by and for human beings in the real world, and they are aesthetically important not because they point to some non-material idea but because they are, in fact, material. “Poets are not sorcerers; musicians are not progeny of the legendary Orpheus and his ‘divine’ song. Artistic composition and performance is simply and thoroughly human, no matter how unusual it may seem to the workaday beholder.” (p. 26)

Wolterstorff-Art in ActionAs Nicholas Wolterstorff states,
“Characteristic of many religions and philosophies, characteristic of Christianity at many points throughout history, is a devaluation of the physical side of God’s creation, a devaluation just because of its physicality.” (Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 69).
Wolterstorff itemizes several ways that the church has devalued the material creation, from those who hold that “spiritual values” are somehow superior to “material values,” to those who long for a future ideal nonphysical heavenly existence because they believe that a disembodied existence would somehow be superior to our earthly one.
“Every such form of devaluation flies in the face of God’s affirmation of His creation. The sheer physicality or materiality of something is never a legitimate ground for assigning to it a lower value in our lives.” (p. 69)
Human beings, in Wolterstorff’s words, are “earthlings among earthlings” –
“Earthly existence is one of God’s favors to us. When the Christian affirms the goodness of physical creation, he is not just praising its magnificence. He is saying that the physical creation is good for human beings. It serves human fulfillment. Earth is man’s home, the world his dwelling place.” (p. 72)
Human beings, however, are unique among the earthlings. What makes humans “uniquely unique” from the rest of God’s unique creatures is that God has given humanity a vocation and a purpose that is ours and ours alone. In Genesis, we read that God created humanity in the divine image and likeness:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:26-28, NIV)
God, the creator of all things, created humanity as one of the earthlings, but this earthling is created in the image of God – which is tied directly with the calling on them to “be fruitful and increase in number, to fill the earth, and subdue it, to rule over the rest of creation as God’s “vice-regents.”

Genesis 2:15 gives us further insight into the vocation of humanity: “The Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” (NASB)

The task of creating art, then, is yet one of many different manifestations of the human vocation of dominion and cultivation of God’s good creation. Art is one of the ways we can fulfill the creation mandate for humanity to take the raw resources of his good creation and to make something of it. Wolterstorff explains:
“It is not difficult to see how man’s vocation of master, of subduer, of humanizer of the world, of one who imposes order for the sake of benefitting mankind or honoring God, applies to the artist.” (p. 77)
Calvin Seerveld helps us understand this even further:
“Art is work, hard, bodily work that can legitimately be a man or woman’s vocation. We have to get past the idea inherited from pagan Greek society (and often compounded by pietism) that poetry takes less of a man’s energy and presence than work with the hands, or that dance is by definition more sensuous and useless than architecturally planning a barn or singing in the church choir. Art is always the act of a whole man or woman, and no matter what form it takes—colored shapes, pulsing tones, rhymed words, stylized gesture—if it be honestly done, the art embodies heart, soul, mind and strength of the artist as he or she responds knowingly to the world of God around him.” (Rainbows, p. 27)
Seerveld cautions us to not place too much emphasis on art as “beauty,” but rather to think of art as simply another type of vocational work. It is special only in that it has the ability to create metaphor, to work as parable so that we can understand things from a different vantage point. “Art calls to our attention in capital, cursive letters, as it were, what usually flits by in reality as fine print.” (p. 27)

Art is a part of experiencing God’s good life aesthetically. Seerveld identifies the aesthetic life as “the ordinary human activity to be humored and to be merry, to indulge imagining things and to be playful.” (p. 49) Art is the result of humans using their imaginations for human flourishing.

In the New Dictionary of Theology, Seerveld states in his article on “Imagination in Theology,” that “human imagination is the source of metaphorical knowledge and the playfulness so important to anyone’s style of life. Imagination is meant to be an elementary, important, residual moment in everything God’s adopted children do.” (p. 331)

Earthlings enjoying being creative in the material world – this is the calling of the aesthetic life.


“We Had Fun”: Living in the Shalom of the Aesthetic Life

In our post-modern age, it is time to re-embrace beauty as much as truth and goodness. Beauty is found in the nuance of a painting found in an art museum the unexpected transition in a musical composition, in a tearful and exhilarating moment in a film.

But not only there: beauty is also experienced in a smiles on a bunch of kids’ faces, a gentle breeze against your face, a moment of lying still in the grass.

Calvin Seerveld says,
“If the aesthetic moment is missing in daily active responses to God and neighbor in the world, then that life is shorn of a great praise potential and you are liable to a closed down kind of grim slavery.” (Rainbows for a Fallen World, p. 54)
When the true, the good and the beautiful are combined in the holistic aesthetic life, shalom is the result.
Shalom is the more than “peace.” Cornelius Plantinga helps us understand the fullness of this critical Hebrew concept:
“We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight…the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, p. 10)
At a local coffee shop, I was talking to an old, dear friend. We were discussing our experience of the Christian life. My friend’s walk has been marked by rigid rules and legalisms, by an emphasis on rational thinking and philosophical apologetics. But in the past few years, he has experienced Christ in refreshing new way: Not through a three-point sermon or a worship and praise service, not by winning the lost or winning an argument with an atheist.

His new experience with Christ is summed up with the simple phrase: “We had fun.”

The “fun” that he hears Jesus pointing him towards is not simply humanistic hedonism, but a joy of being with people and looking for the love of Christ in those relationships, of enjoying the goodness of God in the simple moments of laughs and smiles as well as earnest discussions about trials and tribulations. The “fun” that he is experiencing with Christ is the active God working in, through, and around my friend as he seeks the flourishing, wholeness, and delight of those he knows and comes in contact with (most of whom are not believers in Christ).

Shalom brings an aesthetic fulfillment to life when God declares, “Ahh, that’s the way it is supposed to be. That is what I call fun.”


Embracing the True, the Good, and the Beautiful

Cathedral-of-Valencia_Beautiful-architecture_7175The true, the good, and the beautiful: through the ages, these ideals have been at the heart of what it means to be human.

We seek truth, we need to do that which is good, and we need to experience beauty.

Christians have forever embraced these as various aspects of the glory of God. Jesus, the logos of God, is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and is the personification of truth (John 14:6), and those who follow Jesus will know this truth and be set free (John 8:33) and will then be empowered do the work of truth (John 3:21). God is good (Psalm 100:5) and what he has created is declared by him to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). All of God’s commands are good (Psalm 119:39). God did good by giving to everyone “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17), and “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9). David sings that the “one thing” that he seeks is “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” in the temple (Ps 27:4). Biblical imagery of beauty is found from start to finish – from the garden to the glorious New Jerusalem, from nature to that which man makes, from flocks to people to garments to ornaments and to cities. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty combine to create a synthesis of what it means to be human, enjoying God as a part of his glorious creation.

However, evangelical Christians in the past century have mostly embraced only the true and the good. We have championed truth and done a lot of good. As David Bebbington delineated, among what makes evangelicals distinctive is a high regard for the Bible where truth is found, and a belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in good works.

The embrace of the aesthetic aspect of life has largely been dismissed as superfluous by evangelicals in recent history. Calvin Seerveld issues a stern rebuke:
“If older Christians do not like the secular novels their young people read, cannot stand the songs and films mass-produced to capture and twist the imagination of millions around us, are nonplussed by godless contemporary art, what can they expect if no redemptive, imaginatively rich alternative has been engaged in by Christ’s body for sustained years of work; what can they expect if it hasn’t even started? We must come to understand the unwisdom of having run as far away from plastic art and gritty literature as our sanctified legs can run.” (Rainbows for the Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task, p. 35)
There is a need for evangelicals to embrace again the aesthetic life, but we are uneasy in doing so. We have so become modern, so focused narrowly on the reasonable and the scientifically observable that we no longer experience the world as the pre-moderns once did. Hans Urs von Balthasar identified our problem:
"Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word that both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No more loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face, which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” (Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume 1, Seeing the Form, p. 18)
In our post-modern age, it is time to re-embrace beauty as much as truth and goodness.
Beauty is found in the nuance of a painting found in an art museum, the unexpected transition in a musical composition, in a tearful and exhilarating moment in a film.

But not only there: beauty is also experienced in a smile on a four-year-old’s face, a gentle breeze against your face, a moment of lying still in the grass. As Seerveld writes,
“If the aesthetic moment is missing in daily active responses to God and neighbor in the world, then that life is shorn of a great praise potential and you are liable to a closed down kind of grim slavery.” (Rainbows for the Fallen World, p. 54).

More on integrating faith with art:
Earthlings Enjoying the Aesthetic Life 
Art in Action: Toward Shalom
How should Christians interact with art?
Structure and Direction: A Better Paradigm for Cultural Change.
Christian Faithful Presence in the Culture
We Need a Vertical and Horizontal Theology of Art and Culture
Art as Prophetic Subversion


A Response to Rick Perry’s “Response”

Today, Texas governor Rick Perry (a potential presidential candidate) is holding a prayer rally.

According to the website, Perry believes that

"America is in the midst of a historic crisis. We have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. The youth of America are in grave peril economically, socially, and, most of all, morally. There are threats emerging within our nation and beyond our borders beyond our power to solve.”

As the governor of his state, Perry organized this prayer rally, or what he is calling a “Solemn Assembly,” because

“As a nation, we must come together, call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy according to His grace, mercy, and kindness towards us. A historic crisis facing our nation and threatening our future demands a historic response from the church. We must, as a people, return to the faith and hope of our fathers. The ancient paths of great men were blazed in prayer – the humility of the truly great men of history was revealed in their recognition of the power and might of Jesus to save all who call on His great name.”

Perry cites the Prophet Joel as the basis for our nation to come together for this Solemn Assembly:

In Joel chapter two, an ancient Hebrew prophet speaks to a nation in crisis and gives her God’s solution: gather together, repent of their sins, and pray to God to intervene on their behalf. In that day the command was for everyone to stop what they were doing and gather for a sacred assembly to turn to God with all their hearts, "with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning" (Joel 2:12).

Why did God desire fasting, weeping, and mourning – or, to put it differently, contrition and humility – from the people? A "sacred assembly" (Joel 2:15) was a gathering that served a few purposes: first, in gathering, the people were acknowledging that their nation had drifted away from its foundations in morality and faith. Because of this moral decline, the people were not prepared to face the external threats rising up against them: economic, political, and military in nature. God wanted His people to understand that their internal threats (moral decline) were far greater than their external threats (economic crisis and military invasion)…”

What do you think?

Here are some issues to discuss:

1. Is America a “Christian Nation” equivalent to the theocratic nation of ancient Israel?

Is it proper hermeneutics to equate God’s command to the nation of Israel to a present-day command to the nation of the United States of America? Perry’s Rally website says, “We must, as a people, return to the faith and hope of our fathers,” and then cites dates in the 1700s and 1800s when the nation’s leaders would call days for national prayer. Is America the historical equivalent to the theocratic nation of Israel? Or is the current “holy nation” actually Christians who are not confined to any national border (1 Peter 2:9-10)?

2. If the Old Testament prophets are cited as legitimate proclamation of how we are to act as the United States, then should we not be consistent?

If Perry cites Joel as biblical reason for the nation to come together to repent of their sins and pray to God to intervene on our behalf, then what sins does Perry have in mind? If it is appropriate to cite the Prophet Joel as a guide for the United States as a nation, then is it not also appropriate to cite Amos?

6 This is what the LORD says:

   “For three sins of Israel,
   even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
   and the needy for a pair of sandals.
7 They trample on the heads of the poor
   as on the dust of the ground
   and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
   and so profane my holy name.  (Amos 2:6-7)

As Ron Sider writes in his book Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel,

“Most of this text denounces economic oppression. Scholars point out that the ‘righteous’ person who is sold for silver or sandals is a poor person with a good legal case, but the rich and powerful bribe the judges and win. Corrupt legal systems result in gross economic injustice. But then the last two lines condemn sexual misconduct (perhaps cult prostitution). God abhors both sexual sin and economic oppression.” (p. 149)

If America is supposed to be a Christian Nation, then what national laws and programs should our government put into place to help the crisis of the poor in our nation? Is Perry defining the “crisis” in America in the terms of the Old Testament Prophets? Is his definition of the crisis consistent with what the Prophets speak of in passages like the one cited above, or in Amos 5:10-12 (“There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes, and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”), or Isaiah 10:1-4 (“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”)? Does Rick Perry see the sin of our nation as the sin of corporate lobbyists using their wealth and power in order to “frame injustice by statute” (Psalm 94:20)?

3. Is this rally a good thing or a bad thing for our Christian witness?

When a post-Christian nation like the United States see an event like this, does it help or hurt our attempts to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43)? People are already very suspicious of this notion of Christians taking over their lives by force, so how can we proclaim to people the way of Christ that is attractive and transformative (not only individually but also societally) without coming across as seeking to coerce people to a Christian theocracy in America?


National Debt and the Money Spent on War

The bitter battle this past week over the debt ceiling and how we need to cut spending was nothing short of horrendous. Most of us agree on that.

But here’s what I’m wondering, as a Christian, as one who follows the Prince of Peace:
If we need so desperately to cut spending, then why aren’t we cutting the defense budget?

The Atlantic just published a report on the amount we spend of Defense, and it’s astounding. It’s infuriating.

It’s unchristian.

They write,
“Recent budget trends and the behavior of other countries suggests we're giving the Pentagon too much money.”
Look at this chart:

Defense trends full

The Department of Defense’s budget has more than doubled since 2000. This does not include expenses for Homeland Security or the VA. While we hear politicians bicker about spending cuts, we have been fighting two wars that have cost us not only many American lives (4,474 dead in Iraq, 1,689 dead in Afghanistan) but has also cost us an extra $2.68 trillion over the past decade.

I ask you: On what could we have better spent $2,680,000,000,000?

Not only has our military spending gone through the roof based on our previous years, but The Atlantic also reports,
“The United States could substantially cut its defense budget and still spend more money on our military than every country that even plausibly threatens us combined.”
pie chart defense

I’m sorry, but this is contrary to all the rhetoric that America is supposed to be a “Christian Nation.”


The D.C. Shore: Reality TV at its Worst

Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, The Sunday Morning Talk Shows.
They all have succumbed to making our nation’s capital the subject of the worst Reality-TV show on the air. In the age of the 24/7 cable news channels, you’d think we would get at least some good analysis of policy, at least a little bit of balanced, in-depth reporting, a platform for even the slightest bit of honest debate.
Every media outlet rarely reports on policy but rather on the personalities and on "who's winning.”
Steven Garber reminds us that Lord Bismarck, the German chancellor of an earlier day, made this wry observation about political life:
“If you want to respect sausage or law, you can’t watch either being made.”
DC SHOREThe sausage-making of creating law has become the fodder of the most ridiculous Reality-TV show on the air. Watching congress-people selfishly preen for the cameras while fabricating assertions makes the silliness of The Jersey Shore look tame by comparison.
I think that we, the American people, deserve better from both congress and our news outlets.
We are sick of watching “D.C SHORE.”