(as I speak tomorrow evening in the 4 Corners Festival event IMAGINATION TOWARDS GENEROSITY - A THEOLOGY (St. Malachy's, Alfred Street at 7pm on Feb 1st)I was drawn back to this extract from my book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey Of U2... it will no doubt get a mention in tomorrow evening's talk... the last paragraph in italics is added...)
North Belfast is a place of division and community tension. There exists the most concentrated microcosm of what has become known as the Northern Ireland Troubles. There is a “peace wall,” which is actually quite the opposite, that divides the Roman Catholic nationalists from their Protestant loyalist neighbors, literally a stone’s throw away. In such an environment, many of the area’s youth workers are involved in reconciliation programs, creating safe ways for the youth of both communities to interact, listen, learn and hopefully come to understand one another’s religion, political conditioning and culture. In one such program, a youth worker was showing a group of Roman Catholic youth around a Protestant church. As the group came through the building and into the main sanctuary, a startled Roman Catholic boy shouted, “You’ve been robbed!” Compared to a Catholic chapel, with its statues and icons and multiplicity of artistic representations, the basic, empty, dull, drab Presbyterian building was quite a culture shock.
On the other side of the cosmos, on the other side of time, God moved across the chaos and began to imagine. Colours blue and green and red and yellow. All the colours somehow mixed together. What would green look like alongside blue, with a little thin band of gold to join the two? Mountains. Oceans. Beaches. Rivers. Trees. Canyons. Valleys. Shapes and textures and smells and taste. All these things existed in God’s imagination, even before He decided to make them into a reality and create His artistic masterpieceŃthe world. God was a Creator (Gen. 1:1). The first thing we learn about Him in the Scriptures is that He was an artist. When we read that man was created in God’s image, the only thing we know about God is that He was an artist (Gen. 1:26).
That should have a deep impact on how those who claim to believe and worship and follow His ways work out their salvation and bring in His kingdom in these dawning moments of the 21st century. Yet that young man in north Belfast may have uttered more than a humorous squeal of naive surprise. Maybe he was speaking in prophetic terms. The Church has been robbed. Robbed of art. Robbed of the creative image of God. Who has robbed the Church? How did it happen? The Church has robbed itself, and many well-meaning worldviews and ideologies down through the centuries have been the tools that were used.
The Reformation robbed us of art. When Martin Luther discovered that he could be justified before a holy God by God’s grace and the work of Christ (Rom. 3:21-26), it was a crucial moment in Church history. In the ensuing division within Roman Catholicism, many decisions were made in the early days of Protestantism that were taken as being in reaction to withdrawal from Catholicism. With many good reasons at the time, the Reformers reacted to the statues of saints that sometimes replaced God as the focus of people’s prayers.
To rid churches of any art seems to have been a rather imbalanced response. The Reformers were quick to quote the second of the Ten Commandments, in which God tells His people, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exod. 20:4). The commandment, though, does not forbid art in church. Eleven chapters after the commandments, we find that the first person in the Bible to be described as being filled with the spirit of God is Bezalel, whom God has given “skill, ability and knowledge of all kinds of crafts” (Exod. 31:1-11). And he is to use these divinely given gifts to decorate the Holy Place of worship. Today most Presbyterian Churches do not evoke in people the creative heart of God. People are more likely to think churches have been robbed. The arts are peripheral.
Modernity also has taken its toll on all things artistic. In the past ten years, there has been an amazing amount said about post-modernity, and there have been evangelicals warning against it as a dangerous new worldview. Any of the lenses by which the world is assessed have to be critically studied, their weaknesses pointed out. For Christians, all worldviews taint definitions of belief and need to be stringently critiqued. Holding post-modernity up to the light of modernity as its winnowing sieve is giving an authority to modernity that is dangerous, but seemingly natural within the evangelical world. Modernity itself is a faulty worldview. It is the failure of modernity in fulfilling its great promises of a better world that has led to its demise.
Under the influence of modernity, the Church became obsessed by definitions and seamless doctrine. Modernity was based on a scientific and rational reasoning that everything could be proven by human experimentation and that this exploration of the scientific field could come up with a superior world and a greatly improved human being. In many ways, this worldview was seen as a huge threat to the mystery of faith. Modernism was driving out the mysteries and belief in a supernatural unseen world, one that was being replaced by a world that could be explained in clear scientific terms.
That Christianity should be taken captive by such a system of thought seems a little incongruous, but it led to a couple of centuries of clear systematic theology, apologetics and an overemphasis on the word spoken and written in the communication of Christian truth. Most of these things in themselves are great aids to Christianity’s case in the world, but the loss of mystery, experience and any artistic representation of the Gospel was detrimental.
The Bible uses a wide array of creative ways to communicate truth: law, history, poems, songs, literature, lament, prophesy, proverbs, dreams, angels, miracles, parables, preaching, epistles and visions. When the evangelicals of the world decided that the Word preached was God’s most efficient way of communicating, they overlooked the fact that when Jesus was born, God was saying, among other things, that those ways were not sufficient and that the Word had to become flesh (John 1:1, 14).
God’s Word is much more than words. Modernity coerced Christianity into taking the flesh and making it into words again. Art suffered. It was not a clearly defined and conclusive kind of rationalism. It left feelings hanging. Stories or songs might stress some points of theological truth and fail to cover other aspects of the Gospel. They missed the fact that Jesus left the crucial doctrine of atonement out of the Parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus, in fact, was much more an artist than a preacher, preferring stories to open the truth and in sometimes oblique ways promising the disciples that those with ears to hear would hear. It could be said that the only writer in the Scripture with any interest in theological definition is the apostle Paul, and though we thank God for him and the theological explanation of his letters, we must never lose the balance between this and art.
The Puritans also left a negative legacy on art. Though they were sincere in their attempts to lead their followers into good biblical behavioural patterns, there were side effects. There was a tendency to set up boundaries to help progress toward holiness, but that quickly slipped into a judgmental legalism. The general premise to stay safe from any dangers of “the world” led them into an almost dualist approach to the “spiritual” and the “worldly.”
Art had a tendency to fall into the worldly camp. The Protestant work ethic, which also seems to have its roots in the Puritan legacy, pushed the arts to the fringes. H.R. Rookmaker, in his influential book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, writes, “We can only conclude that the Calvinistic and Puritan movement (at least from the seventeenth century on) had virtually no appreciation for the fine arts, due to a mystic influence that held that the arts were in themselves worldly, unholy and that a Christian should not participate in them.”
This all has its impact on not only the place of art in our Churches but the potency of the people of God to being the Kingdom of God transformation that Jesus set in motion. Without the arts and the imagination muscles that art exercises it is impossible to be a people who have visions and dreams as the prophets declared we would have. We were robbed. We need to start stealing the arts back, not only for our own good but for the good of the world.