art and incarnation

Tuesday night was a great discussion. A couple folks asked me to post some of the notes and create space for further dialogue.

The discussion began with an over view of :Trevor Hart's “Through the Arts: Hearing, seeing, and Touching the Truth” from Begbie, Jeremy ed. "Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts" (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000) pp1-26.

The direction of the discussion went toward how art helps us rethink the platonic dualism's affect on modern western Christianity's theologies of incarnation.

Platonic philosophy is suspicious of the particular, natural world because in his presuppositions was that this bodily world existed below the universal, divine, spiritual world and the work of transfiguration was like Prometheus' fire, stolen from the divine realm.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Galatians 4.4-7

Pauline theology suggests that art is not an act of transgression against the divine creative work but an act of faithfulness because of the new reality in Jesus Christ. The poetry at the begining of John's gospel claims that the locus of the meaning of words and word itself (the logos) has become part of the created world. The counsel of Nicea insisted that all of broken creation has been assumed in Christ. God stepped into creation and “earthed his own way of being” within creation and doing so has “drawn us into” the same possible participation in the “matrix of divine meaningfulness” without leaving behind our humanness (Hart,22).

Hart proposes that the Arts serve as a parable of the incarnation
1. So art is a faithful response to belief in the Incarnation (Hart, 15)
2. Art is useful to cast light on (though not circumscribe) the incarnation


1. “How is the transfigurative dimension of art (the way in which art hands back more than nature initially grants it) to be understood in relation to the theme of the redemption or transformation of our broken and fallen humanity and world in Jesus? (Hart, 21)

2. Is there any sense in which art itself, through its capacity to transform our vision of and response to the world, shares in or corresponds to that redemptive activity of God? (Hart, 21).

3. How is art a creative interaction to transform the culture of the church? Is this worth the time and energy?

4. What could this mean for the church’s western modern theologies of salvation and the traditional ideas of atonement and the arithmetic of sin management?

5 Responses to “art and incarnation”

  1. # Blogger Thomas Muse

    Good summary. Thanx. I enjoyed the cohort Tuesday. It's encouraging to engage God, his word, and each other over subjects such as incarnation and art. Good discussion and exciting to see.

    I do need some clarity on a few phrases. I can post my questions here or - maybe email is best. Either way, drop me a note and let me know.

    My questions are mostly about sorting out the semantics of what you mean by "the church’s western modern theologies of salvation", "traditional ideas of atonement", and "the arithmetic of sin management".

    I assume you define these ideas in contrast to historical scriptural norms that precede culturally - specifically modern - reduced or limited definitions. Nonetheless, I want to make certain that I'm tracking with you in what you're asking.

    I could use a little help to make certain that I read-out of your word choice what you mean to say rather than read-into to your question what I imagine you want to say.

    I've been pretty attentive to minimizing christian jargon in my everyday conversations; so, maybe this is "a new kind of christian" jargon - but I'm a bit puzzled - or maybe just a little thick :) Either way, it's difficult to ponder question 4 when the meaning seems a bit veiled via vocabulary.  

  2. # Blogger Melvin Bray

    I'd like to tackle the easiest question, you know, the "What do you think?" one.

    One of the things I've been mulling over since Tuesday is this idea of restoring meaning to the word "art". Hart points out that in a work of art "if we do not see or hear or feel more than is ordinarily presented to us, then our artistic imagination is failing us, and we are missing out on poetic presence." Not everything often called art is art. Could it be that the mislabeling of that which evinces little artistic merit—calling it "art"—has not only served to call into question for church-goers art's redemptive capability, but on the other hand for everyone else the same mislabeling has cast a dubious light on church-goers' ability even to discern artistic merit? Maybe those not beholding to typical Christian definitions of art would appreciate a restored view of art as much as Christians should.

    Art by its very nature is generative. Some might say, who are you, Melvin, to assert the "very nature" of art. To which I would answer, "No one; I assert nothing." I hold this truth to be self-evident. Art, as I understand it, is primarily a creative product. To create is to give life—not death, not destruction, not degradation, depreciation or defecation. Even though decay—the natural decomposition of something dead—can in the end promote life (as in composting), the intention in the end is generative (besides we don't go sticking our forks into compost heaps and having at it just because it all use to be food; good sense allows us to make useful distinction between what use to be fit for consumption and what no longer is). Which leads me back to the humble observation that art—not true art or real art—art is by nature generative, and as such should not be a term used to absolve that which is degenerative of its nature.

    In this regard art is quite like nutrition. Both promote life. Both belong to broader categories: art to media and nutrition to food. Both have counterfeits. However, few make the mistake of calling a potato chip "nutritious". Most would consider any nutrient to be found therein a mere serendipity. I would also venture that most would not consciously aim to live exclusively off of potato chips or other junk foods. Should one happen to gain any benefit from junk food, I imagine she would attribute the benefit not to the active degenerative properties of the junk but rather to whatever latent nutrients remain after processing or maybe to the nutrient potential added to it through culinary artistry. Which leads me to wonder, why aren't we (seekers of divine inspiration) just as careful what we christen "art"? Furthermore, why aren't we more prone to create, promote, patronize or acknowledge (whenever/wherever/however it is found) that which is art (not in an elitist way, but simply to promote life)?

    What strikes me is that whether obese and malnourished or thin and malnourished what one is in need of is nourishment. Art is nourishment for the imagination. It gives us tongues to taste and noses to smell that which is wiser and truer and richer and nobler and higher and better than what we currently imagine as even possible for the world. But if we had a steadier diet of it—this taste of the kingdom—I believe art would of its own accord prove redemptive (Rom 12:2, KJV). For images move the hearts of humanity.  

  3. # Blogger Troy Bronsink

    Muse: you wrote:
    My questions are mostly about sorting out the semantics of what you mean by "the church’s western modern theologies of salvation", "traditional ideas of atonement", and "the arithmetic of sin management".

    I mean to ask questions about a church after the erosions of the inheritance of Constantine. one that no longer enjoys the priviledge of social power. In this loss of power, we might begin to ask how the platonic dichotomy has created us-them scenarios. Dallas Willard points this out in his "Divine Conspiracy." He suggests (my summary) that the gospel in modern America has been reduced to mean a transaction between God's Grace and God's rules in which Jesus is reduced to meaning (and only means) redemption for those who believe. In turn, the kingdom of God is misunderstood as an inheritance in the after-life for those who chose correctly in this life.

    If we can think more integrativelly about the redemptive activity of God and the meaning for the church's message and commissioning (the gosple) then we might think with wider imaginations about atonement. (granted the arithmetic line is pejorative, meant to point to the problem of a reductionistic 'substitutionary- atonement- alone' theology of salvation)

    The reason I asked question 4 was to see if any of you had some ideas you wanted to throw out there. How might a church transforming culture in the way of the incarnation think about salvation/atonement/sin?

    Muse: what would you do with Hart's proposal that we take art as a parable for incarnation? Would you have anything to say about reimagining atonement and salvation theology in light of this?  

  4. # Blogger Caroline

    I had an experience that illustrates this tension of art and church (#3). A few weeks ago, we were teaching on worship being fueled by the Holy Spirit. A canvas sat to the right of the room, and several artists were prepared for painting. Each of us walked to the canvas (one after another; each painting about 15 minutes) to illustrate fire, symbolizing the Spirit as God describes throughout Scripture. All sharing the same brushes and paints, our art wove into itself. At the end of the time, we invited everyone to join us in worship on the canvas with us when they came to take communion. Beautiful! Open communion table, open altar, open canvas.

    With mixed ages and experiences, I wasn't shocked to see the children come first. However, everyone painted. It was a moving experience for me.  

  5. # Anonymous joel

    I write and talk a lot about dreams, primarily because I know we serve an awesome and amazing god, who gave us dreams for an awesome and amazing reason.
    Link to this site: inspiration picture

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