Art and fundamentalist legacies (II)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

(…continued from part I)

Attending the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) conference (June 2009) helped to remind me of how our—OK, about how my—priorities so easily slide off kilter. CIVA forced me back to square one to reset them, which is always a good exercise. Busyness slips up on me even when I don’t want it. So I have to be intentional about scheduling unhurried time in art galleries and museums. Unhurried time to look, reflect, to look some more, and then process it all with a few safe friends who care about the things that shape the deepest issues of life. I guess it’s the visual equivalent of the slow-food movement. It won’t appeal to anyone who hasn’t discovered that creativity matters in the cosmic scheme of things.

The array of artwork on display over the days of the CIVA conference nurtured my imagination and soul. Beauty reveals something of God that cannot be adequately reduced to words. Or as I heard Francis Schaeffer say more than once, there is much more to human knowing than human knowing can ever know.

The walk-in gallery at the conference and the CIVA Late Late Show reminded me how sad it is that in a time of economic recession it is often the arts that get axed first. Music programs are cut in schools, art shows are postponed or curtailed, public murals in urban renewal programs go unfunded, and small galleries are forced to close their doors. I understand the economic realities involved, but that only convinces me that somehow the entire system needs a major overhaul. Though educated people should know better, American Christians tend to see the arts as either expendable niceties or commodities best left to the supply and demand of the market. In reality, of course, the arts are essential to human flourishing, an expression of our identity as creatures made in God’s image.

The art, conversations, and biblical study I was enjoyed at the CIVA conference also sparked unbidden reflections on my fundamentalist background. So much of what the CIVA conference celebrated had been condemned as worldly in the fundamentalist circles of my youth. As unnecessary as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, a proof that one’s allegiance was far too centered on temporal things that soon would be swept away in the fire of God’s wrath when Christ returns.

Rod Wilson, Bev’s husband put it this way in the Summer 2009 issue of The Regent World: “My early Christian life was characterized by the kind of anti-sensual sensibility that is all to common in Christian circles. Truth was content, word and abstraction; and the realization that God created us as human was muted at best and, at worst, negated. Theology was in. Art was out.”

Firmly entrenched in the various circles of North American fundamentalism, and found in many evangelical circles as well is a common but insidiously unbiblical teaching. Life is seen as divided explicitly or implicitly into physical and spiritual, a secular and a sacred realm. And only the spiritual and the sacred are seen as having eternal value. In this view, being a missionary is intrinsically better than being a sculptor. The missionary is a “full time Christian worker,” while the artist is not. Art is thus not of much value, unless it is somehow made more spiritual, perhaps by being designed for use in missions. Doing your job well is considered important, but not because it is spiritual service to God, but in order to be a “good testimony.” It’s true that doing carpentry or sculpture is necessarily “sinful.” But it’s not as equally spiritual, equally pleasing to God as something like witnessing.

It is here that both Bev and I growing up in Canada (her) and the US (me) felt the tension of our fundamentalist upbringing. We were drawn to beauty, stunned by human creativity, and yet taught that such things were indications of a worldliness infesting—and endangering—our souls. The issue wasn’t really all that complicated for those who are spiritually minded. (“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Colossians 3:1-2.) Even ignoring the nudes, art may seem very beautiful but that can be a trap. Lot’s of things are attractive here on earth, but one must have an eternal perspective. (“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”)

…to be continued

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