Connecting our faith with art and beauty

 

Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.
Gregory Wolfe, publisher and editor. Mary Kenagy, managing editor.

 

I felt embarrassed about the barebones sanctuary as I attended a service in a Mennonite church far from my home. Meeting that day was an ecumenical group of editors from across Canada: Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and all shades of Mennonite. Surely some would miss their stained glass windows, paintings, and beautifully constructed buildings.

The program centred on a group of students from a Mennonite high school in matching T-shirts, singing a cappella. While the music was excellent, I was irritated seeing the bare communion table haphazardly pushed aside to make room for the singers.

Right after the “Amen,” I cornered two editors of Catholic papers. “How did you enjoy the service?” I asked. Without waiting for an answer, I babbled on, “Nothing to feed the soul, eh? No beauty, no ornamentation….”

They stared at me bewildered. Finally one of the men answered quietly, “I would have to say that was the most meaningful service I’ve ever attended.” The other nodded in agreement.
I was stumped. Beautiful choir music and good congregational singing were things I took for granted. What I missed was visual beauty. Now that would feed my soul!

Mennonite faith and beauty

How do art and visual beauty tie into our faith? What does a healthy theology tell us about art? These are not new issues. Christians were debating the place of art in the church even before the construction of the first large Christian church in 313 AD. Through the ages they’ve debated the elaborateness of church décor, as well as the use of images and icons. Then in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation, the new religious groups spoke out strongly against images, icons, and ornate church ornamentation.

Our Anabaptist predecessors went to the extreme of insisting that plain and bare gathering places provided the best venue for sincere worship since they eliminated all distractions. Also, because Anabaptists were hounded and hunted down, they became a transient group forced to gather in barns or simple shelters. The plainest meetinghouses best fit the bill.
Today some of us raised in plain surroundings look to recover a biblical theology of art and beauty. What should such a theology look like?

Forum in Image

Since 1989, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, published in Seattle, has offered a forum for contemporary visual arts, poetry, stories, and essays, all from a faith perspective. Editor Gregory Wolfe says its mission is to present contemporary art and literature that engage and grapple with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Each issue showcases an artist’s sculptures or paintings along with an in-depth critique.  Who can judge a work of art, you may wonder? Or, how do we evaluate a work’s holiness? These are the kinds of questions the writers of Image tackle, rejecting all clichéd Sunday school answers.

Not for the faint-hearted, the essays and stories shake my pious sensibilities. A line in a recent book review in the journal describes the kind of writing Image prints: “Poem after poem gently pulls the rug out from under our assumptions…”

Image is definitely highbrow; its writers’ bylines are studded with PhDs and lists of awards won. It publishes only “the best writing and artwork” that deal with faith and religion.

Subscribing to Image (www.imagejournal.org) will put you back $50 for the year. But, as the editors assure, you’ll be investing in a journal that aims to change the world by restoring the mystery linking religion with true art.

The historical debate continues

Image carries on a debate related to one that has historically engaged Christian thinkers: the debate over “natural theology,” finding God in beauty and nature. Famous leaders of earlier times such as Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin pleaded for Christians to give beauty a place of greater importance. More recently, the mystic Thomas Merton taught that a secret law of gravitation works through art and beauty, drawing all people towards God.

Natural theology can scare evangelicals, though, who wonder why Christ had to die if people can be drawn to God through his creation or through art. It’s dangerous, said the German theologian Karl Barth, to find God in beauty and nature because that misses the point of the gospel.

But let’s not go too far down that path though, because at the extreme end we find the atheist Nietzsche raging against the belief that “the universe resembles the beloved, infinite, and infinitely creative God.” He calls that an “old, religious mode of thought.” So it’s helpful to recall the words of Romans 1:19–20 reminding us all people can see in creation the character of God himself.

The ancient Hebrews had no problem holding two opposing views at the same time. They did not consider it mistaken logic or a contradiction. It’s just a problem for us Western thinkers. They found it fostered a healthy wisdom. It may be good for us, too, to hold these two views together: embracing beauty, art, and nature while at the same time seeing them not as ends in themselves but paths towards Jesus Christ, Artist and Creator of all things.

—Dorothy Siebert

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