The Canvas Conference, a joint effort between Humble Beast and Western Seminary, took place August 12-13, 2016, in Portland, Oregon, and was hosted by Imago Dei Community. This event, which sought to address the intersection of Christianity and creativity through a robust gospel-oriented and gospel-driven lens, included talks given by a number of Western Seminary faculty members. This was my talk.
When you think of the Christian life what do you think of? What practices come to your mind? What is the essence of Christianity? I would guess that the popular view of Christianity concerns the internal, the spiritual, the disembodied. We think of Christianity as something in our heads, something in our hearts. We grow by reading our Bible, by praying, by meditating on our own, by learning more information about the Bible.
And these are actually good things. But I would suggest that we need to return to the Scriptures and recover the main images of Christian practice and see what they teach us about redemption. And I think we need to return to these central images because there is this tension, a dualism, a separation between the material and spiritual, between the earthly and the heavenly that has seeped into our culture.
I myself felt that tension when I was growing up. I felt that I occupied two worlds. In one world I was with my friends going to concerts, jumping on the trampoline, going to the lake, playing sports, building things with my friends, or trying to push my brother down the stairs.
However, there was another world that I occupied. I was urged to read the Scriptures, to pray, to go to church. For the most part, I thought of this second world as the world in my head for I could not see God, I could not touch him, I had to live by faith. Faith was acknowledging something immaterial, something beyond me and my physicalness. The world of the physical and the world of the spiritual were locked in their respective rooms never to come out and play.
And maybe this is why the church in the modern period has had a complicated relationship with artists and creatives. I am afraid that we have relegated Christianity to something in our mind and lost the sense of how holistic redemption is, how God communicates what Christianity is through the images that he has given to his church. There is a felt flatness to some versions of Christianity, not an embodied invitation to a historic sacramental Christianity. The historic images that God has given to his church are not the practices that usually come to our mind when we think of what it means to be a Christian.
The practices, the images that Christ gave to his people most explicitly are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we need to ask ourselves why did Christ give these? He could have given us anything? Why not something else? And what do these specific images teach us about us, about God, about how he communicates, with us, and about what God is doing in this world? We could say many things, but I have identified at least four things that these images teach us both about redemption and the nature of art.
FIRST, THEY TEACH US THAT CHRISTIANITY IS BOTH COMMUNAL AND PERSONAL.
It was C.S. Lewis who said that the devil always brings errors in pairs – pairs of opposites. He relies on your extra dislike of one to draw you gradually into the other. It is popular to pit the communal and personal against one another, but in the sacraments they come together. These practices are individual in one sense, but in the very same respect they communal. These practices by definition are to be done with other people.
Baptism is to be witnessed by a congregation as an initiation rite into the church. The Lord’s Supper is a meal we partake of with others who are also submitted to the king of this banquet. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper teach us that Christianity is personal, but it is more than personal, it is also a body ethic. These images teach us that there is no such thing as communityless Christianity, no such thing as churchless Christianity, no such thing as loving the bridegroom but shunning the bride.
The form of these main Christian practices informs us that the best art is both personal and communal. God has woven in our being the fact that we are both individuals and that we exist in community; not either-or, but both-and. The best art brings people together, gives them something to talk about, something to think about, something to wonder at.
SECOND, BOTH BAPTISM AND THE LORD’S SUPPER TEACH US THAT CHRISTIANITY IS COMPREHENSIVE.
Have you ever thought about what we are actually doing in these acts? They are actions that include the body, the mind, and the senses. The water rushes over our head, through our hair, and into our ears in Baptism. We place the bread and wine on our lips and in our mouths and chew and swallow in the Lord’s Supper. As James K. A. Smith notes, one of the first things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is: “To engage in worship requires a body – with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell and. tongues to taste.”
The main images that Christ bestowed upon his church scream to us that Christianity is a religion for the whole person. Art, in a similar way, is meant to impact a person at different levels. Some art is for the eye, some for the ear, some for the heart, and some for the mind. But the best art brings coherency to these and recognizes that we are not beings to be cut up into pieces, but that our whole being in involved in every act. Art teaches us that God has made us whole.
THIRD, THESE IMAGES DECLARE TO THE WORLD THAT THERE WILL BE A NEW CREATION BUT THAT THIS ONLY COMES THROUGH SUFFERING AND DEATH.
In Baptism we go under the water to declare that the chaotic world has come over us in death. In the Lord’s Supper we eat of Jesus’ body and drink of his blood. When you think about it, in one sense the two sacraments that Christ gave us are gory and off-putting. And we need to ask ourselves what this means for art? Maybe it is not only the beautiful, but the painful, the distasteful, the gory, and the macabre that actually more plainly disclose the healing power of God (see Eph. 2). We not only need a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross for the arts. Maybe that is why the apocalyptic and dark shows are such a hit right now.
This is huge, because Christian artists in the past have been prone to present this pretty picture of life that whitewashes the pain, the suffering, the hardships of life. The fact is, we have a bloody, side-pierced savior at the center of our faith. We need to carve out spaces for art that makes us turn away in disgust, we need a theology of ugliness. But in case we forget, this dying, this suffering, in the sacraments always end with life, with oceans of hope. We are brought OUT of the water. We eat of Jesus to live! Life by death, and death by living. We need art that showcases the horrors of death and the beauty of life.
FOURTH, THESE IMAGES OF BAPTISM AND THE LORD’S SUPPER POINT BOTH TO HEAVEN AND BACK TO EARTH.
They point to Jesus’s life here on the earth in the flesh and his death and resurrection. But they also point to heaven where he is exalted now and sitting at the right hand of the Father. In Baptism we look forward to the final resurrection and in the Lord’s Supper we look forward to the messianic banquet. So Baptism and the Lord’s Supper declare that there are not two worlds but one. Heaven and earth are united in these images. In these rituals the people of earth enact a heavenly order.
Art in the same way is to showcase that the sky is not a closed dome of brass but there is movement between heaven and earth. The heavens are open. We live in an enchanted world, a world of spiritual forces, of devils and demons, of angels and archangels. Art needs to point to this earth, but also to heaven and show how these realms are united.
So what are the implications of these images, these practices for Christianity? These images teach us that Christianity cannot be relegated to merely a personal, internal, or disembodied thing. And we need more and more people who are interested in showing us the far reaches of Christianity:
We need more artists who display the glory of God in the visual.
We need more movie directors who tell stories that touch the recesses of the human heart.
We need more composers who make music like Howard Shore.
We need more singers, woodworkers, architects, interior designers, advertisers, project managers, and marketing experts because each of these things touches us in unique ways.
We need them to show us again how Christianity is a religion for the whole person, because in the images of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper God has already shown this to be true.
As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Some people come to the church saying, “I want to be more spiritual.” The church responds, “Have some bread; take some wine.” This is the response one might expect from a faith that sees the Holy Spirit as resting on the body.” The images, the practices of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper teach us that Christianity is a complete worldview. They declare we don’t occupy two worlds, but that God is making them one.