Christianity and the Arts

Methodist Church, Hurstpierpoint
Festival of the Arts
Song of Solomon 2:11-17
Nehemiah 8:10-12

Although art has a great deal to say about The Bible, The Bible has virtually nothing to say about art; although it has inspired more Western Art than any other corpus, only rivalled by the Greek myths and their Roman derivatives, The Bible is not in the least self referential about itself as art. These two opening observations should immediately alert us to an important distinction between art inspired by The Bible and the Christian attitude to art. To deal with the first point, Christianity resembled Islam for the first 1000 years of its existence, exemplified in the two major outbreaks of iconoclasm in Byzantium in the 8th and 9th Centuries; but in the next 500 years the two dimensional icon, the stained glass window and memorial sculpture gave way to the art of the Renaissance which represented one of the most remarkable combinations of human endeavour ever recorded, whose achievements included: the development of perspective; the use of multi layer image construction; a mastery of the details of muscle and fabric; and, perhaps above all, a form of representation which resembled poetry in its ability to spark a widely divergent and deep set of responses.

These advances were almost immediately condemned in England as idolatrous, as zealous neo-Puritan reformers took their hammers to statues, whitewashed wall painting, and removed stained glass and paintings both in the middle of the 16th Century and again after the brief triumph of the Parliamentarians in the 1650s. One might remark in passing that the English sensibility has never recovered from these 'puritanical' assaults; in a way which would cause puzzlement on the European Continent, we regard art, opera and literature as elitist. In parallel with our domestic iconoclasm, however, we developed a literary tradition in our Christian observance through the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version which led to an extremely difficult problem because taking the Bible liberally and considering it as literature are fundamentally opposite approaches. But that, you might be relieved to hear, is for another day. In spite of this paradox, Christianity has largely got over its problems with the use of representational techniques for depicting the Godhead, angels and saints, in painting, sculpture, literature and, in a less direct way, in music.

Faced with a scarcity of relevant passages, therefore, it is hardly surprising that I chose the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon which is the most obviously artistic work in The Bible (although we are apt to deprive ourselves of the emerging art of narrative by overlooking the Apocrypha) which gave rise to one of the most astonishing pieces of Biblical commentary in the history of Christianity in the Sermons of Saint Bernard of Clairveaux, the most famous of which was on the passage we have just heard. The second passage, from the Book of Nehemiah, possibly the most under-rated book in the Old Testament, is a much simpler text concerned with festivity and I will return to both of these in a moment.

The role of art in the Christian world view largely depends upon our view of the relationship between the divine and the human. Those who are most suspicious of art tend to think of worldly people and things as corrupt, as deeply flawed, botched images of the divine; whereas those who are most open to the persuasions of art are likely to emphasise that people and things are the result of the divine, benevolent creation; the God who is love creating out of love so that we might, through his grace, give him pleasure by freely choosing to love him, not just in our own tentative direct relationship but also through loving our fellow human beings; in the words of Saint Theresa of Avilla: "Christ has no body now but yours."

The ideas of imperfection, of the "fall" and original sin, were in part the driving force behind the iconoclastic hammers in 8th and 9th Century Byzantium and 16th and 17th Century England but there was the added impetus in the latter case of a deep suspicion of any intermediary between ourselves and God other than Jesus; the angels and saints were deeply suspect, and none more so than the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

This suspicion of the concrete, the fleshly, the humanly emotional, is fully comprehensible in the context of Islam and all the major religions which make an absolute divide between God and humanity but it strikes a deeply jarring note in a religion whose central event is the incarnation, the bridge which God built between the divine and the human, between history and timelessness, between the inarticulate and expression. From one standpoint we might say that nothing we paint, sculpt or write can in any way represent God but from the opposite perspective we are exercising our God given creative power, not as hopeless imitators of God but in recognition of our human capacity. To think that we are simply horribly deformed inferiors of God is to make a category mistake for it is, in essence, to compare us with God which is a form of idolatry. To consider us, on the other hand, as creatures reaching towards God as plants reach towards the sunlight, is a quite different proposition and it is from this creative will that art emerges.

The two most important themes in art are love and death which, again, explains why I chose a passage from The Song of Solomon dealing with love. Except at weddings when it is just about permissible, you will not hear this book read much in church. You might say when considering the kind of love described by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 that there is too little of it; but when considering the kind of love in this poem there is too much of it; far too much of it! Nonetheless, as creatures created to choose, there is no area of human existence where our choice is so subject to the temptation to compromise or even to subvert the potential for love by exercising power. We are as close to the divine as we can ever get when we choose to love in such a way that we create space in which the beloved can live to the fullest possible degree, spared from human judgment which usurps the divine. No wonder, then, that the combination of sexual pleasure and aspirations to reach beyond ourselves have generated so much artistic electricity. In a quite different way we might say the same about death which Christianity approaches with profound ambivalence; we all aspire to be enfolded back into the unlimited love of the Creator; but not yet; please, Lord, not yet.

Yet between the two supreme moments of love and death, there are a huge variety of states of the human condition which arouse the sympathy of the artist; and, sadly, the most prominent of these are cruelty and suffering. Part of our imperfection is that we make wrong choices, individually and collectively or, more often, we make no choice at all and let the wicked get on with it, our consciences occasionally stirred by the artist or, in modern times, the journalist. We are so overwhelmed by images and accounts of suffering that we have coined the sad phrase: "Compassion fatigue"; and because I am so moved by the permanent despondency in which we are engulfed, I chose the reading from Nehemiah which tells us to celebrate, to make merry,, to eat food and drink wine (if I dare mention this in a Methodist Church!).

In their different but related ways, then, art and festivity represent aspects of our humanity which affirm the wonder of creation and our incarnational part in it, for just as God sent his son to share our humanity, he made us to share his divinity; and although part of our human condition is to recognise our imperfection and the harm that it has done, it is also our duty and our joy to thank God, in art and celebration, for the world he made for us.

Which leads me finally to our recently concluded arts Festival where we not only enjoyed the esoteric pleasures of the drama, music and painting, but also the more visceral delights of food and wine. Elitism in art has tended artificially to separate those who produce art and those who consume it, a trend which 'reads across' into cooking and viticulture; but we should all find ways of expressing ourselves as thankful creatures of God, individually and collectively; and, in doing so, we should be just a little careful of a tendency to make the divine, expressed in our Christian faith, detached from the untidy joys of the world. If I am suspicious of any form of art in particular it is the attempt to reach an understanding of the sacred without going through the human medium; not only does this imply a negativity about what we were made to be, it also makes communication more difficult than it needs to be.

We might, then, as Christians wish to go further than Keats when he said that Truth is beauty and beauty is truth; but that is a useful starting point, as long as the beauty we are thinking about is not the rarefied production of the other. We were made to love, we were made to create, we were even made to rejoice. Let us thank The Lord. Amen.


Can: Heavenly Father
Res: We thank you.

Lord, we thank you for creating the earth with all its wonders, for sending your Son to be our brother in flesh, and the Spirit who is with us now:

1. We thank you for our sense of sight: for the joys of nature and the joys of humanity; for arresting art and perceptive photography; for the insight of collage and magnification; for reflections in water and reflections on water; for the rising of the sun and the trick of the light; for the language of the eyes and the vocabulary of gesture.

Can: Heavenly Father
Res: We thank you

2. We thank you for our sense of touch: for the roughness of bark and the smoothness of a pebble; for the pattern of a shell and the kaleidoscope of the seashore; for stone made flesh and wood made to shine; for the skill of the carver and the potter; for the discipline of the hand and the joy of the dance; for the perseverance of the sportsman and the player of the games console.

Can: Heavenly Father
Res: We thank you

3. We thank you for the sense of taste: for fruit from the bough and vegetables from the earth; for the skill of the farmer and the dedication of the gardener; for the stab of the chilli and the tang of the pickle; for the art of the chef and the indulgence of the confectioner; for the miracle of yeast in bread and beer; for the oil that gladdens the heart and the wine of good cheer.

Can: Heavenly Father
Res: We thank you

4. We thank you for the sense of smell: for the invitation of fresh baked bread and fresh ground coffee; for the perfume of the flowers and the perfume of the fashion house; for the pungency of incense and the mellowness of burning applewood; for the liveliness of fresh cut grass and the peace of lavender; for the promise of a new book and the must of the antique book.

Can: Heavenly Father
Res: We thank you

5. We thank you for the sense of hearing: for the melody and its infinite variations; for the urging of the drum and the pleading of the violin; for the meaning we find in the symphony and in rap; for the singing of the birds and the bleating of the lambs; for the ping of the email and the summons of the ring-tone; and, above all, Lord, for that peace which is the inner hearing where you speak to us.

Can: Heavenly Father
Res: We thank you

We thank you for all the materials you have given to us and the skills and insight to use them in your praise as our creator and in celebration of our creatureliness; we thank you for the art of persuasion and the skill of organisation which have made this Festival possible; and we thank you for the great joy which we have all experienced through the hundreds of artists and entertainers who have given their best for us; may we grow in the joy of your earth and in thanks to you for our being. Amen.