Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Art and the Revelation of God

To commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible next year, Crossway has commissioned artist Makoto Fujimura to illustrate The Four Holy Gospels, what they call an “illuminated book of the four Gospels.” The video below is a good introduction to this.

Fujimura - 4 Holy Gospels from Crossway on Vimeo.

I’m an artist. I’m not a prolific painter although I can do that, but my medium is music. I love to paint the air with textures of tones and colors of harmony and rhythm. This is beyond the pale of simple melody and orchestration, but a bit on the abstract: imagine the sort of improvisation you might find in jazz applied to the Romantic music of Mussorgsky or Dvorak with some Vangelis thrown in.

Everyone loves to express themselves. Most people express themselves best verbally. Some people express themselves best in nonverbal ways. I can speak well if I’m somewhat scripted, but go off-script and I have trouble saying what needs to be said. Many artists are like this.

Traditional art uses images and symbols that exist already in social discourse in order to convey meaning. It’s not unlike verbal idioms. More contemporary art uses common images to establish new symbols. A view from the inside of a crashing wave can be like a tunnel that gives a sense of confinement and anticipation. An overgrown flower in a pot conveys the absurdity of pretense.

Modern art that has no sociological foundation is almost pointless except that it might convey some raw emotion. Reds might indicate fiery things. Greens might indicate serene things. Generally, modern art combines raw aesthetics with communication on this level. The interesting thing about Makoto Fujimura’s art is that it is rooted in a traditional Japanese style. If you aren’t familiar with Japanese art, then you might miss the traditional aspects of his symbolism that lend greater meaning to the blobs and lines of various colors that seem to comprise his art.

I had a discussion with a man last week, I’ll call him Ned, who was upset with a knowledgeable Bible teacher, who I’ll call Jonas. There was some aspect of theology that Ned didn’t get and asked Jonas about it. He said that the Jonas, as good a Bible teacher as he was, danced around the issue claiming to understand it. I asked what the answer was precisely that the Bible teacher gave. Ned obviously couldn’t repeat word for word what was said, but he was able to convey the general gist of Jonas’ comments. Then he asked me why Jonas just couldn’t admit that he didn’t understand.

From what Ned told me I was able to deduce that Jonas actually gave a good answer and truly understood the issue. What Jonas didn’t understand is that Ned was unable to understand the theological concept at all. And what Ned didn’t understand is that Jonas actually understood and knew what he was talking about.

Human beings in general have a problem with thinking that other people should be able to understand what we understand. Many of us even think that others should know what we know even though they haven’t particularly been exposed to the information. My fellow students at the Bible College I attended were aghast that I had never heard of Steve Green, the well-known contemporary Christian musician before.

Different people understand different things better than other people. One person may understand how to manages workers better than someone who understands resource management better than the first person. So they might function well as a team where the second person plans the work and the first person motivates everyone to do the work. They have a problem, however, if one of them thinks that their area of expertise gives them the edge in dismissing the work of the other. Someone who is good at motivating people to do things, for example, might think that they don’t need to heed the warnings of the other who might suggest applying the workload in a more efficient manner. Or the one who is good at planning resources might balk when the other guy tries to tell him that the people just can’t work a certain way.

But for some reason most people too often get upset when others apprehend the world differently than they do. People get angry when others don’t have the wherewithal to accommodate their sensibilities. I pulled up to a stop sign at an intersection in town once where I needed to turn left. The view to observe oncoming traffic from both directions was obscured by the landscape so I inched forward until I could see. Another man turning left onto the road I was coming from was upset at my position because he had to turn more sharply than he otherwise would have to in order to turn onto the road. He stopped in the middle of the intersection blocking my way, got out of his car, and proceeded to cuss me out for being too far forward. He didn’t understand that that was the only position where the traffic could be safely viewed.

So we too often get upset when others don’t understand what we understand. We also get upset when we think others pretend to understand things that we don’t understand where they actually do understand. We like to think that if we don’t understand something, it can’t be understood. So Ned asked me angrily, “Why can’t Jonas just admit that there are just some things we can’t understand?” So I was left to explain to Ned what I explained just now so that he wouldn’t despise his brother over it.

There are some things that are difficult to convey because very few people can understand them. Sometimes art becomes the means for expressing what would otherwise be inexpressible. A few times in the video, the transcendent nature of art is mentioned. As for having any particular meaning, this is artsy gobbledygook. But it speaks of a general sense of this matter of attempting to express the inexpressible. But this is in some way troubling in the description of Crossway’s The Four Holy Gospels as being “illuminated”. Art usually conveys a general sense of some idea but rarely, if ever, conveys any particular concept. If anything, the words of scripture illuminate the art, rather than the art illuminating scripture.

But the biggest danger of art is the focus on self. Look at the video from about the 5:00 mark. The lady narrating expresses what is most troubling about the art community by about 5:11. The purpose for all that Fujimura does, as she lists it, is to reveal himself; to say, “this is who I am.” The problem that most Christians have with art in this sense is that if the Bible reveals anything about us, even as individuals, it’s that we are not worthy to be revealed except as sinners in need of God. As such, the Bible is here to reveal God in His beauty and glory, not man.

Of all artists, the greatest is God. Even in it’s fallen state, this world as created by God is intensely beautiful. For those who have the Holy Spirit all of creation reveals the Creator. The great literary work that He created is upheld by His creation and formed of the history of his people. While all of creation reveals the Creator, it is the words of scripture that illumine Him to us that we might know to Whom all this creation of His points. Therefore, art that glorifies God never illumines, it points.

We worship God with the artistry of music. But music is merely an art. Music never illumines, it points. I’ve never been in a worship service or known a piece of music that fully reveals God. There are some words of worship, encouragement, or instruction in the lyrics, where there are lyrics, but never a complete revelation. I know songs and hymns with the nuts and bolts of the gospel, but that is the closest I have seen to a complete revelation.

So it is that we can worship with art, but only if we seek to point to the revelation of God. One man talked about artists feeling restricted by Christianity. Look at the video again starting at about 2:45. The man talks about a sense of spirituality among artists, but that they felt confined by Christianity. If the goal of the artist is to use art to draw people away from God, then they will feel confined by Christianity. If their goal is to point the way to God, then they will not feel confined; in fact they will feel freer than they would otherwise.

And it is not art that transcends, but God who transcends. Only when art is fixed on the Great Artist, and our minds are fixed on He who is all-knowing and all-wise, can we truly communicate through the many means given to us.

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