Art, Worship, Creation, and Imaginative Engagement
In this chapel presentation, given at LaTourneau University in Longview, Texas, Ken Myers, founder of Mars Hill Audio, addresses the importance of art in both our worship and our understanding of creation. While some view the realms of the church and the arts as completely separate, Myers notes that both have suffered from a “diminished appreciation for the meaning of creation”. Creation is not simply a collection of materials for us to manipulate; rather it is a reflection of God’s own creativity. Creation is “an epiphany”.
While some may wonder what a discussion on art and worship has to do with science and faith, we feel Myers’ message is important for all Christians to hear, especially for its thoughts on creation and on our worship of God, the Creator.
Opening Prayer: “Will you join me in prayer as we focus our hearts and our minds on the Lord this morning? Let us pray. Take a minute and just speak to God yourself, and speak to him about your love for him and your thankfulness for his love and grace and mercy in your life—Father you are good and your love endures forever, your faithfulness to all generations. Thank-you for your faithfulness in our lives, thank-you for your grace that is sent to us, especially sent in the form of your son Jesus. Lord help us to continually appropriate that grace, to continually seek after you. Lord we ask that you would take this time to grow us, to spiritual form us. Amen”
Ken Myers: “Morning. I am in east Texas. The original invitation was to give some lectures on the subject of beauty. I am lecturing in Tyler beginning tonight and tomorrow morning, and when an opportunity came up to speak to you all here at Le Tourneau, I suggested that I might want to talk about a related topic, and so my topic this morning is going to be about the arts and worship.”
“I started working at National Public Radio just before I turned twenty-two. I went to work in the arts and performance department, and I was editing interviews with and commentaries about some of the most creative people in the world. Now, during that time I was also attending an evangelical church I had been at since 5th grade, and that meant that I was spending Monday through Friday with people who were intensely involved in the arts, but pretty much indifferent to, if not hostile to, the practice of Christian worship, and on Sunday’s I worshipped with people who often regarded the arts rather nervously, if not with hostility. It was like when worlds collide, and it was my life.
“During this period in my life on Sundays, I spent time with people who believed in creation, while during the week I worked with people who believed in creativity, and often their lives didn’t seem to overlap. My church friends were deeply committed to the first clause of the Nicene Creed: ‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.’ These people believed in a creator. They described the world as a creation, but, in general, like most Christians for most of the Church’s history, they were often more eager to defend the fact of creation than they were to explore the consequences of creation’s nature and meaning in their everyday lives.
“My colleagues at NPR, on the other hand, and the people with whom I was pursuing my vocation, were all people who did not believe there was a maker of all things—they believed in nature, but not creation, and certainly not a creator. But they did believe, and sometimes in an almost religious way, in creativity. In fact, some of them were willing to ascribe almost redemptive power to creativity as made evident in the arts. The arts made life worth living. The arts fulfilled meaning in otherwise meaningless lives. In a world that was essentially chaotic, in which everyday life was dominated by bureaucratic, mechanistic institutions, the arts were great refreshment. They were a source of hope and joy and peace and even possibly moral guidance. The arts rendered us human, many of my friends believed, and delivered us from mere bestial or mechanistic existence. Some of them may have gone so far as to say that the arts imparted a spark of divinity into our lives.”
“Now I was used to living between these two worlds—I majored in film studies as an undergraduate, and I didn’t have a lot of colleagues in my department at the University of Maryland who took religion very seriously either. And I dealt with this conflict early on by starting to read as much as I could lay my hands on about Christianity and the arts. In 1975 (when I started at NPR), there wasn’t a lot written—you all are lucky that there is a lot more great stuff to read now on subjects like that—but I was beginning what turned out to be a life time of reading and study and writing and interviewing to try to understand how we had gotten to the point: how was it that the Church had generally allowed its concern with redemption to eclipse the theme in both Old and New Testaments of the goodness and givenness of creation? Why didn’t we attend to the structure and form of creation that much? …and how was it that modern western culture outside the Church had abandoned its belief in a creator, in a creation that was ordered and given meaning by its maker even while it tried to sustain a belief in human dignity and creativity?
“And over the years, as I have studied this and read about it and thought more about it, I came to realize that both the church and the world of the arts suffered from a diminished appreciation for the meaning of creation. Modern Christians often assume that they could relate to God apart from any deliberate relation to the stuff of creation, and modern secularists assume that they can relate to creation without recognizing or honoring the creator in any way. For both sides, creation is just a lot of raw material; creation isn’t inherently meaningful. It is meaningless and awaits our creativity to achieve significance. Modern Christians, moreover, have tended to pursue an understanding of God that was more and more abstract. It focused his attributes, on invisible realities rather than history, and as theology has aspired to be more like a science, it has assumed that we can think about God apart from his relationship with creation.
“ Of course, God’s identity is not determined by creation, but it is through God’s actions in and through creation that we know him. The Psalms make this very clear. He reveals himself through creation and his supreme revelation of himself involved his entering into creation in a sensory and perceivable way. Creation is an epiphany, it is a revealing…it is a revelation. The heavens declare the glory of God, and God’s eternal power and divine nature can be perceived in the things he has made…that is a remarkable statement. Throughout the Scriptures, especially in the wisdom literature and the Psalms, creation is depicted as an active and evident witness to God’s identity, and all of creation bears witness to God in a chorus of worship. In Psalms 89 we read the very heavens shall praise thy wondrous works and thy truth in the congregation of the saints. The heavens and the earth are depicted as testifying to God’s nature and to his coming triumph over evil. In Psalm 96 we read ‘let the heavens be glad, let the earth rejoice, let the sea roar and all that fills it. Let the fields exult and everything in them, then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. Creation bears witness that those with ears to hear can hear, but to hear we have to approach creation with a well-ordered imagination.”
“There is a wonderful poem by Gerard Hopkins “God’s Grandeur,” and I mean it is wonderful in the strictness sense. It is full of wonder. He begins by insisting that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, and he goes on to suggest that modern men and women fail to perceive the grandeur of God. They fail to perceive what is revealed there because we are so preoccupied with practical things. All is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil, and all wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell. We are too preoccupied with getting things done to actually attend to the glory present in creation, and as I have suggested, where the Scriptures present creation as an epiphany, a revelation, modern culture and a lot of modern Christians see creation as a lot of raw material resources. It is inert, meaningless stuff awaiting our creativity to become meaningful.
“So, the world is commonly regarded as material to which we do something, and not a source from which we receive something. I think that this attitude toward creation is contrary to how we should pursue the Arts, but also to how we ought to proceed in worship. Our worship should recognize that God the Maker of all things reveals himself in what he has made and that he calls us toward a receptive and grateful posture toward creation, not just toward the redemption he has provided…and that is really the posture of faithful artists. Both worship and the arts serve the function of reorienting our minds, our imaginations, and our practices so that we can properly perceive what creation is and what our position in creation should be. Art is a way of admiring and marveling and wondering at, as well as engaging in, meaningful and wonderful creation. God presents us in creation with materials and forms that artists transform, but they are always tethered to some order that is implicit in creation itself.
“Theologian Peter Lighthart has observed that the artist is always transforming, but this transfiguration is an attempt to get at dimensions of what is really there. It is not an abandonment of what is really there. Even if the artist is aiming at fantasy, art attempts to highlight patterns, correspondences, and dimensions to reality that are usually missed in our everyday experience and to force us to look again at the sunflower or the pipe or the chair. As the Russian formalists say, one of the purposes of art is to de-familiarize the familiar. The reason we do that is so that we can see it for what it is. It has become too familiar for us to recognize what it is. The artist is always responding to the reality of creation in some way—even the most abstract artistic forms—and the best artists are open to receiving something from creation before they can transfigure it. An artist has to sense creation with an exceptional acuity.
“Catholic philosopher Joseph Piper has a little book of essays called “Only the Lover Sings”—art and contemplation—only if you love something do you sing about it. Only if you delight in it, do you rejoice in it, and he is talking about the kind of rejoicing that is evident in works of art. He says there that to contemplate means first of all to see, not to think, and he is advocating a contemplative approach to creation so that we can see what it is, and then express what we have seen…a kind of seeing that is receptive and open, and not just accurate. That is the kind of seeing that is practiced by artists, and it is not unlike the tradition of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition, and that gives us a link between worship and the arts.
“When I say the artist perceives creation, I don’t just mean trees and birds and colors and sunsets, but I mean all of the components of creation—shapes and sounds and textures—as well as various human activities within creation: the way our bodies inhabit space and time, the way words work with all their intriguing textures and resonances as well as the shape of our inner life—what sorrow feels like or sounds like or looks like. Memory, grief, affection—all of the aspects of nature and human nature have to be attended to lovingly and then reassembled or reconfigured or remixed in some way. Human creativity is not as God’s creativity ex nihilo—creation out of nothing—it is creation out of something, and it is a something that God, the God that we worship, has already blessed with meaning. Creation is meaningful revelation, and its revelation can be perceived as we are imaginatively involved with the stuff of creation. The God we worship, the maker of heaven and earth, has made as creatures whose lives are fulfilled when we engage creation well.”
“I have to confess that I get nervous when I hear Christian artists or other religious artists talk about the relationship between faith and art only as if art is an expression of spirituality or art is a gateway to the transcendent. It may be that, but I think they run the risk of presenting Christianity in disembodied terms. We should not be ashamed of the fact that our faith integrates spirit and body, but our faith calls us to regard the stuff of creation in all of its materiality as good, and thus offers the best starting point for the practice and pleasure of art.
“Christian worship has always been involved imaginatively with the stuff of creation. The poetry of the Psalms was recited by our Lord and his disciples so that he was engaged with the sound of words as well as the meaning of words. Music was a part of Christian worship—at least since choirs of angels greeted the nativity of the incarnate Christ and possibly earlier. Whether Mary sang her wonderful song which we call the Magnifica, a wonderful song inspired by her miraculous pregnancy or whether she simply spoke it we don’t know, but it is still sung week after week in churches around the world. Artful expressions and worship have been present in less obvious ways. It is notable that the communion table contains bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. It is not organic material in its most natural state that serves as a memorial meal that unites us with God, bread and wine are the products of human creativity. They are not simply of the natural blessing of God’s harvest, even grain and grapes require attention and care to bring them to fruition. Wine is an even more artful product and bread demands attentiveness to the details of creation. Bakers and vintners are not people we usually think of as artists, but what they do has a lot in common with what artists do: they take the stuff of creation and transform it into something newly delightful and beautiful. Bread, wine, and art all serve practical purposes, but they often go beyond necessity toward delight.
“Again, theologian Peter Lighthart has observed that art is a making that imitates the making of God, and it is most God-like when it is purely gratuitous, when it is not meeting a need—creation is gratuitous, it is not something that God needed to do, but we rejoice and give thanks both in worship and in the arts that he chose to do so. In worship, we honor the creator for the gift of creation and of salvation. In works of art we imitate God’s act of delighted and gratuitous making, and in the Lord’s Supper we receive a great feast, a table set for us not because we deserve it or even because we need it. God’s salvation could have been less extravagant, more perfunctory than a feast, just as the wine that Jesus made from water could have been merely passable rather than a really good wine. The wedding guests thought it was any way, and the inspired texts of the gospel seem to remind us of that. The gifts that God has given are given generously as well as gratuitously. Now, when we receive a great gift, we are delighted in the gift, and in the generosity of the giver, and so it is with a reception of a powerful work of art.
“When I hear the thoughtful and attentive performance of a carefully crafted piece of music or when I watch a masterfully constructed film, I often have a sense of gratitude not just to the performers and the composer or the director, but to God! I am grateful to live in a world where such joys are possible. The gratitude felt by the recipients of a gift resonates with the delight known by the giver of the gift. It is win-win, and that is a pattern built into creation since creation is the work of a dynamic three-personed God and the members of the Trinity enjoy an eternal giving and receiving of love among themselves. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us of the personality and dynamism of God…qualities suggested in the ancient term applied to the Trinity by theologians [is] perichoresis. Perichoresis refers to the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity, and by extension it refers to God’s relationship to the world whereby everything is in him and has its being in him. The ‘chor’ in perichoresis, by the way (if you have studied any Greek), may recognize that it shows up in our word choreography. Perichoresis literally means dancing around. So, the relationship among the persons of the Trinity is a dance—Father, Son and Holy Spirit dancing around each other and the Christian life which involves God in us and we in God is our entry into that dance.”
“What I am trying to do with all this theology is to make a case that artistic and imaginative and creative activity is not simply a pleasant and rewarding ornament that we might use to decorate our worship services or to increase enthusiasm to make them less boring, artistic activity is evidence to us of the kind of creatures we are, the kind of creator that God is, and the kind of world that we live in, a world that he has placed us in to love and serve him and others as we exercise our stewardship over that world. Since worship is in the words of one writer “the school of the Church,” our hearts and our minds are shaped through the experience of worship to properly perceive things as they are, and not only spiritual things, but all aspects of creation. After all, when Jesus commissioned the Church with the task of making disciples, he begins by declaring his authority over heaven and earth, not just their spiritual lives…and when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that God’s rule over all earthly things would become more and more evident on earth as it is in heaven. And so in worship we learn to perceive and name reality in a Christian way, and works of imagination can assist in those lessons.
“Since I have already mentioned the subject of music briefly, an observation from theologian and musician Jeremy Begby is appropriate here. In his book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Begby notes that in the western musical tradition guided by the Church quote “we have been placed in a world vibrant with its own God-given integrities and with the opportunity of interacting fruitfully with those integrities and that music is one means we have been given to do just that. When churches order their ministry of music with those kinds of integrities in mind, then music becomes a tool to reshape our imagination and to renew our minds.
“Art provides us with ways of perceiving reality aright. Not all art does this, or very well, and not all of us have allowed our imagination to be encouraged that kind of perception—we are in too big a hurry or it doesn’t seem practical enough; we have other things on our plate. Just as our thinking can be taken captive to worldly conclusions, so our imaginations can become preoccupied with novelty or with the merely interesting or with something that is trivializing or flattering. Just as we can surrender our bodies and the various consequences and configurations of our life in the body to patterns of disobedience, so we have the opportunity to present out bodies and all that we do in our body life in worthy and thoughtful sacrifice to God. The orienting of all aspects of our embodied life to God is the worship that we owe him.
“We learn that from Romans 12. And so, the use of our hands and our eyes and our ears and our voices in creativity activities that resonate with God’s own music in creation is a most suitable offering to bring him. In Romans 12, Paul warns about being conformed to this world and in no matter are we more in danger of worldly conformity than in our posture toward creation. All sorts of intellectual and social pressures suddenly persuade us to ignore the Biblical testimony of God’s identity as creator as well as the nature of our engagement with creation. The rationalism of the Enlightenment, which guides modern science and technology, encourages us to assume a god-like stance over the material world and at the other extreme, modern materialism suggests that we are at the mercy of something utterly different and incomprehensible.
“The Gospel picture of creation is radically different. Theologian Colin Gunton has said that we can know the world, not infallibly, not with a name of a kind of omniscience because we are both a part of it and able to transcend it through our personal powers of perception, imagination, and reason…and perception, imagination, and reason come together most intensely in artistic modes of knowledge and expression. The world is a creation intended for us to inhabit. It is not simply a meaningless, cosmic accident, and thus art can be powerful, it can resonate deeply in our lives, and even people who believe that the world is the product of a cosmic accident often cannot help when they work creatively to behave that way. Imaginative expressions in the visual arts and poetry and music have existential power because at some level, they convey to us something about the various connections and likenesses that God has placed in creation.
“This is especially evident, I think, in poetry where metaphor is involved in the recognition of likenesses, and it is an idea that came up in a conversation that I enjoyed a number of years ago—someone less famous than Johnny Cash—Richard Wilbur, who is probably our greatest living poet. Wilbur and I talked about the centrality of metaphor and poetry, how poetry works by likening one thing to another. In Psalm 1, a righteous person is compared to a tree sustained by its life and fruitfulness in life-giving water. The power of metaphor, Wilbur observed, “puts almost every poet in danger of being religious. If anything can be compared to anything else, if the world can be seen as a linkage of similes and metaphors and figures, then poetry itself comes very close to declaring that all things are co-natural, that they are of one nature and that brings you to the threshold of saying all things have had a maker.” Wilbur went on “I remember ages ago reading the final book of poems by poet Joseph Warren Beach, who claimed to be an atheist, and I took it around to him and he was in Cambridge at that time, and I said Joseph look at these two lines. Don’t you think that they amount to a religious affirmation? He read them and said ‘well, I can see that they do. I must say that I seem simply to have submitted to the spirit of poetry at that moment. It is an awesome thing to submit to the spirit of poetry even if for a moment.’”
“Worship that avoids imaginative expressions runs the risk of reducing our religious experience to mere ideas or mere therapy, when in fact our religious experience is rightly understood as cosmic. The scale of the Christian story incorporates the intensely intimate and the vast incomprehensibles of the cosmos, and we need works of imagination to convey that whole story to us, to refresh our gratitude to God, to reorient our engagement with all that he has made, and to baptize our imaginations. Art that resonates with the order in creation conveys to us a deeper character of our creator and the character of the order he has placed there.
“In Isaiah 45, there is this wonderful passage where we read of God: “For thus says Yahweh, the creator of the heavens, he is God who shaped the earth and made it, who set it firm. He did not create it to be chaos; he formed it to be lived in. I am Yahweh and there is no other. I have not spoken in secret, in some dark corner of the underworld; I did not say offspring of Jacob search for me in chaos. I am Yahweh. I proclaim saving justice; I say what is true.” In closing, I want to comment on that observation from Eugene Peterson in his recent book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. He says at the beginning of that book…and that line by the way “Christ plays in ten thousand places” is from a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins—I think it is the poem the “King Fisher,” which is about the glory evident in a bird…Peterson writes, ‘it is the task of the Christian community to give witness and guidance in the living of life in a culture that is relentless in reducing, constricting, and enervating life’ [repeated once more].
“I think that with that task in mind the Church and its ministry in discipleship and mission should proceed in three steps. First, we need to identify the ways the culture around us has misshaped or misunderstood how to live life well in God’s creation, how it has sundered what should be united. Second, the church in its teaching and discipling should encourage the convictions and practices necessary to restore a proper wholeness to life, which includes recognition of all the glories and wonders of creation. Third, motivated by the need to love our neighbors, care for widows and orphans in their misery, and having demonstrated to the world the ways in which redeemed humanity is a fulfilled humanity, the church has to find the false gods under whose captivity people are suffering. I am afraid in our time there are a lot of false ideas that penetrate the world of the arts, and part the task of the church is to recognize those false ideas so that we can, in fact, be liberated. This is a problem that should concern the church, and not just those in Christian arts—thank-you very much.”