As a part of Arts Week 2013, Ken Myers, president and executive producer of Mars Hill Audio Journal, says that a Christian understanding of art and imagination begins with a confidence in the meaningful order of Creation.
Welcome to our Inaugural DTS Arts Week. It’s my privilege to introduce a gentleman that I have known at a distance for quite a while. His name is Ken Myers, president of Mars Hill Audio. As soon as you hear his voice, you will think you have heard him before, and if you haven’t heard him on Mars Hill, he just sounds like an MPR guy, which he was. He was Arts and Humanities editor for morning edition a while back. In 1992, he started the Mars Hill Audio Journal and he has been president of that organization ever since. You would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate gift than a subscription to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. It is my favorite interview program and it’s his CD stay in my CD player and I play them over and over again until I get the next addition.
Ken has written for numerous publications over the years as you would expect, he’s regular contributor to Touchstone. He has a recent book out in 2012, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Christians in Popular Culture, Crossway, I believe… right Ken? And so, there’s a book for you and he lives in the rolling countryside of Central Virginia with his dear wife Kate and their daughter Suzanna, he has a son Jonathan and you will notice a particular glow about him that I share because Ken is a relatively new grandpa… Katherine… is that right? Katherine was born about a year ago and we both—my grandson was just born just a few months ago and so we share that joy. You are in for a treat. Please join me in a rousing Dallas welcome to Mr. Ken Myers.
Thanks Reg. Reg and I have been talking about getting me to come and speak for, I don’t know… two decades or [Laughter] and it’s great to be here. This is my Texas years, it turns out. This is my third trip to Texas this year. I was in San Antonio, I was in Fort Worth, I’ll be in Huston next month. I don’t know how many visits to get Honorary Citizenship? How many? I don’t know how many I have to do. I want to begin… when I filled out the forms for the Trapple folks, they asked for texts so I—even though this is not a sermon, it’s a lecture. I do want to read part of a text to establish a point of reference for what I’ll be saying.
I’m going to be talking about creation today but I want to use a New Testament text instead of Genesis and I had suggested that we read Colossians 1:11 through 23. I will read the central verses from that text and ask you responsively to look at the contexts. Dallas students always look for the whole textual context I’m sure. I want to begin in verse 16, Saint Paul is speaking of the preeminent of Christ. “By Him, all things are created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him and He is before all things and in Him, all things hold together.” The title for this series is, In Light of the Logos and I had this verse in mind that all of creation has its coherent, its ability, its meaningfulness in a crystal centric way.
Did I mention, Reg and I have talked about this for a long time? Talked about his work in championing interest in the arts here at Dallas, and I’m very encouraged by the fact that Dallas is committing greater attention to the place of art and imagination, in the lives of the people of God, and what I hope to do in these talks and in less formal conversation with you throughout the week is to make some connections between some central theological themes that address our earthly human experience and that address the actual, Lived, Shaped of Human Life in Culture, especially that aspect of cultural life that involves imagination and I hope to make it clear particularly tomorrow and Thursday. That imagination turns out to be a much bigger part of our life than we often recognize. It’s not just something restricted to that sphere we call the arts.
The three themes I’ll be looking at, three theological themes to creation, incarnation and resurrection. And what I hope to do is encourage you all, both faculty and students to think about the use of artistic expression and worship as a subset of the place of imagination in human life as such. When churches and Christian groups start getting interested in the Arts, they run the risk of getting interested in the Arts as a kind of marketing gimmick to advance their preaching period and I’m very interested in the role of the arts in worship. I’m actually a music director at my church but I’m much more interested in the role of Arts and imagination in everyday life and if the church only attends to the arts and worship, if the church doesn’t assume a position of discipleship of the imagination of believers, and I hope to peace out what that might look like. Then I think it’s failing and it will run the risk of using the arts just again, as a kind or as a way to cajole people or charm them in to liking your preaching, that’s probably not a good thing… although I got to understand the temptations.
Now, evangelicals and fundamentalists in the twentieth century were not known as great enthusiasts for the arts, to put it mildly.In fact they typically treated cultural life in general as something in need of suspicion and quarantine. Theologian David Schindler has warned of a dualism that characterizes much of American Christianity. He writes, “Christians have been careful watch dogs of morality and inner churchly piety even as they have largely given away the orders of space, time, matter and motion. And indeed the entire realm of the body and bodiliness and of the artifacts and institutions in and through which space, time, matter and motion become human culture.” That’s a complicated sentence that rivals some of Saint Paul’s sentences.
We have given away the realm of embodied experience. American churches have been pastors of spiritual and moral matters of invisible things but chandlers are giving, we’ve largely given away the life of the body including most of cultural life to secular and often antichristian forces. American Christians are shocked to realize anew every morning that they live in such a faithless culture as they tsk tsk over the paper in the morning or over the online version of it. And yet American Christians have for decades if not centuries, practice of cultureless faith. We live in a faithless culture because Christians have practiced a cultureless faith… or to adjust the terms a bit, modern Christians have often affirmed a world less faith, that is a faith that has nothing much to say that would reflect on our life in the world. Even if they’ve allowed a faithless world to take shape, modern Christians gave permission to the world to be faithless by accepting the notion that the gospel is essentially a private and personal matter and not a public and a cosmic message.
Shortly after I finished college and just before my 22nd birthday, I went to work in the arts and Performance department of National Public Radio. I was editing interviews with, and commentaries about some of the most creative people in the world. And during that time, I was also very active in the church that I attended with my family since the 5th grade. I grew up in a very conservative Christian home; my parents were from the Christian Missionary Alliance Denomination, I had three uncles who were missionaries, I grew up assuming you have to be a missionary if you were a serious Christian. And we had to be called not to be a missionary, which I, having seen all those slides kind of desperately hoped I had the avocation. I had uncles in Vietnam, India and the Ivory Coast.
So I was very active in that church while I was working in NPR and what this meant for me was, Monday through Friday, I was working with people who were intensely involved in the arts but generally in different to, if not actively suspicious of the beliefs and practices of Christians. And sometimes say, I as the token Christian at NPR. Not quite, right? And on Sundays, I worship within fellowship with people who regarded the arts and artists nervously and sometimes with hostility. And sometimes I used to think of the famous novel, When Worlds Collide,” just the title of it, it was kind of what my life was. Now another way of this experience for me, I spent time on Sunday with people who believed in creation while during the week, I work with people who believed in creativity. My church friends were deeply committed to the first clause of the Nicene Creed. “I believe in one God, the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” These people believed in a creator and they describe the world as a creation, but in general like most Christians for much of the church’s history, they were more eager to defend the fact of creation than they were to explore the consequences and ramifications of creations nature and meaning in their everyday lives.
When I talk about the consequences of creation… let me give an example. In the songs this morning, we heard that God is the one who provides food, particularly for those who fear Him. If you read the whole sultry, you’ll find that God doesn’t just provide food for those who fear Him, He provides food for everybody, He provides food for animals. In fact, throughout the songs, the provision of food is the single most emphasized aspect of God’s providence, He provides food.
Now, I went to a seminary, I want to thank you for inviting a graduate of Westminster Seminary to speak at Dallas. I noted that Reg didn’t mention that as he introduced me. This is very tactically wise of him but I’ll confess to it here so, the spirit of penitence too. In my time at seminary, I don’t think I ever heard any professor reflect or any of the readings that we were reading reflect on the fact that it’s significant that God made us as creatures who need to eat in order to live.
Throughout the scriptures, food place is an amazing role from the garden to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. And there are lots and lots of instances where food has a rich significance. What do we learn about our nature and location, about our past or to the rest of creation from the fact that we are made to eat? God has presumably could have done otherwise. We could have photosynthetic skin that absorbs energy from the sun or something. Probably science fiction writers have done something like that. If it’s significant, if it’s meaningful and not just a fact of that’s interpreted materialistically, then how might we live in order to honor the meaning that’s embedded in the fact the we’re creatures who need to eat in order to live? What about our practices of fast food and convenience food? Are they faithful? Are they fitting to ways to underscore the reality that’s present in the fact that we’re creatures who need to eat in order to live?
Again, Christians are good, particularly modern Christians, really good at defending the fact of creation and not so good at exploring the ramifications of the significance of creations. I think pre-modern Christians were better at this, and part of this is the story of maternity. I’ll talk a little bit more about this in the rest of the week but we basically decided that science would explain physical life to us. Science will explain nature and the church gets to talk about spirituality, internal things and increasingly, God and creation became more and more separate so that becomes much easier to not believe in a creator today, to not believe in an order or within creation. And so my colleagues at NPR, the day after I had recited the Creed and affirmed God’s existence as creator, I go to work and my colleagues at NPR not only didn’t believe—they didn’t believe that that there was a maker of all things. They believed in nature, not creation, they certainly, most of them didn’t believe in a creator or at least wouldn’t confess it. But they did believe in an almost religious way, they believed in creativity.
In fact, many of them would probably have been willing to ascribe something like a redemptive power to human creativity in the arts. I remember a slogan, it might have been on a public radio station. “The arts make life worth living,” “The arts redeem us from our sheer materialism… our sheer materiality.” The arts were what made life worth living in a world that was essentially chaotic and meaningless in which everyday life was dominated by bureaucratic and mechanistic institutions. The arts were a source of hope and joy and peace and sometimes even more of guidance of some kind. The arts, many of my friends assumed, rendered us human, they delivered us from merely beasty or mechanistic existence. Some of them may have gone so far as a state of the art, imparted something like a spark of divinity into our lives. These are themes that begin to emerge in the late 18th or early 19th century. And throughout the 19th century, the idea of the artist as prophet and priest, if not king becomes very prominent.
Now I majored in film studies while in college, and so I was used to hanging around people in the arts, I was used to living in these two worlds of belief. And I dealt with it in college by trying to read as much as I could about Christianity and the arts. And in the sense, I kind of launched the career I ended up having. Out of sheer desperation, trying to figure out how to make sense of these two different worlds that I was living in. I couldn’t just dismiss the world of the arts because I knew there were some real, some kind of connection with reality that was present there. But it wasn’t one that that the church I was attending had much of a vocabulary to explain. By the way, in the early 70’s, there wasn’t much to read on this kind of topic. The four, five books, I think I can remember… maybe two books by Christians on film which was my major.
And I remember being so excited when the intervarsity chapter at the University of Maryland invited, ask the Guinness to come and speak on the films of Ingmar Bergman a Maryland on the campus, an event that had actually more non-Christians attending than Christians. And I begin this lifetime of reading and study to try to understand how do we get here. How was it that the church had generally allowed its concern with redemption to eclipse, the theme and both Old and New Testaments, of the goodness and the givenness of creation?
We’ve allowed Theology to be swallowed up just by Soteriology and not much else, everything else is a kind of footnote to Soteriology, which is not how the pre-modern church constructed its Theological agenda. How was it that modern western culture outside the church had abandoned a belief in the creation that was ordered and given meaning by its maker even as it try to sustain the belief in human dignity and creativity? I think if I had to itemize one aspect of modern culture that we should attend to most diligently, it’s the fact that modern people typically don’t believe that there’s any kind of order or meaning in creation. And sadly, I’m not entirely confident that that most Christians are themselves confident in the idea of order and meaning and creation.
I want to read briefly Christian Smith, sociologist that know their name– I don’t know how many of you have read his books on The Spiritual and Moral Lives of Teenagers and the Merging Adults. Souls and Transition was the more recent book that—I think Soul-searching was the one about teenagers. And Emerging Adults, if you don’t know the term, we used to have children and adults, and then we had children and adolescence and adults, now we have children and adolescence and emerging adults. So thirty is the new twenty or, yeah. [Laughter] And Chris Smith has done a great job in trying to understand the world view, particularly the religious worldview of people in age co word between say, 18 and thirty. And one of the most amazing things and disturbing things is he says the majority of emerging adults have great difficulty grasping the idea that a reality that is objective may exist that could have a significant bearing on their lives.
They seem to presuppose that they’re simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their bias interpretations of their own sense of perception, unable to know the real truth of anything beyond themselves. They are the facto doubtful that unidentifiable objective shared reality might exist but can service a reliable reference point for rational deliberation and argument. It’s not that they deny truth, they deny reality… and that’s something, you know, friends are shaper was known for defending true truth. We also need to defend real reality. There’s a reality there about which truth informs us and the reality is embedded in creation. They had difficulty seeing the possible distinction between objective moral truth and relative human invention. This is not because they are dumb, he assures us, it seems to be because they cannot, for whatever reason believe in or sometimes even conceive of a given objective, truth, fact, reality or nature of the world that is independent of their subjective self experience n relation to which they and others might learn or be persuaded to change.
When I interview him about this book, he said the interviewers tried—they asked questions about reality, about objective reality, about objective meaning. No matter how the phrase the questions, the people just kind of scratched their heads and looked at them. They couldn’t even imagine what they were talking about. It’s not that they understood what they’re talking about and denied it. They couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. That’s how deep the subjectivization of has sunk and I don’t think that’s just restricted to non-believers. In fact, the evidence and that our Christmas gathers suggest that no, that’s a lot of people who profess belief in Christ. Equally believe that far from being an ordered and meaningful creation, they live in something that’s without form and void. How do we get here? I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to figure that out. How do we get here where there’s hostility towards the arts, typically although that’s improved in my lifetime. In Christian circles and hostility toward transcendent meaning typically outside the church. And I discovered a curious fact, I discovered that even though my church life and my involvement with the arts seem to be animated by a posing assumptions, I gradually came to realize that they both suffered from a very diminishing atrophied appreciation for the meaning of creation.
Modern Christians have often assumed that they could relate to God apart from any kind of deliberate relation to creation. And modern seculars assume that they can relate to nature without recognizing or honoring the creator in any way. For both sides, creation tends to be raw material, meaningless stuff awaiting human creativity to achieve its significance. Modern Christians have tended to pursue an understanding of God that was more and more abstract, and God became more and more transcendent. Believe it a transcendent God but I also believe in an imminent God, a God who is engaged with creation, a God who provides food for all of His creatures, not just because in some way, He set up mechanisms for food distribution. You know, on day one, and then walks away and watched from a distance.
I have to tell a little story here, and it relates to the arts in worship, I read an article of a pastor who had a young woman from her church. This was ten years ago, maybe more… who wanted to participate in one of the advent services at the church by singing a song, it was very popular at that time, From a Distance. Now if you know the text of that, here we have advent which is “Oh come, oh come Emmanuel.” “God with us.” And she wants to sing a song, “That God is watching us from a distance,” and this pastor very gently said, “I’m not sure it would be the right thing to do, it just doesn’t fit,” add that. Well, the girl was so upset, she and her family left the church over that. So this is what happens when you involved the arts and church. But the idea that, actually it would be improper to use a text about is to God essentially, during advent somehow but didn’t register.
Okay, that wasn’t on my paper but I couldn’t resist. Now again, introducing the idea of God’s imminent, God’s engagement with creation, God is in no way determined by creation but it is true God’s actions in and through creation that we know Him and the songs make clear and He reveals Himself through creation and His supreme revelation of Himself involves His entering into creation which is astonishing to me. The incarnation that I’ll talk more about tomorrow… that the incarnation is just an astonishing reality. The fact that it doesn’t end is particularly astonishing. That God still has human form and rules all of creations as the god ma, that is an astonishing thing and it shows a kind of engagement with creation that the from a distance God doesn’t have. The creation itself were told in scripture is an epiphany, creation reveals, the heavens declare the glory of God, God’s eternal power and divine nature can be perceived in the things He has made.
Throughout the scriptures, especially in the wisdom literature and the songs, creation is the depicted as an active and evident witness to God’s identity and creations itself bears witness in a course of worship. Psalm 89 reads, “The very heavens shall praise thy wondrous works and thy truth in the congregation of the saints.” The heavens and the earth are depicted as testifying to God’s nature, to His works and history and to His coming triumph over evil. Psalm 96, “Let the heavens be glad, let the earth rejoice, let the sea roar and all that fills it. Let the field exalt and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord for He comes, for He comes to judge the world.” He will judge the world in righteousness and people in His faithfulness. Creation bears witness to those who have ears to hear. But to hear, they must approach creation with a well ordered imagination.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ wonderful poem “God’s Grandeur,” and I say it’s wonderful in its strict sense, it’s a poem full of wonder and it’s a poem about wonder. Again, add that to your reading list along with Colossians 1. Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” begins: The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It’s charged, it’s like static electricity flowing off because the grandeur is so powerful. And he goes on to suggest that modern men and women fail to perceive that authoritative revelation offered in the nature because we’re so preoccupied with practical matter. “All is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” We don’t see or hear the testimony of creation because we’re preoccupied with practical matters. Where the scriptures present creation as an epiphany, modern culture sees creation as a pile of raw materials, natural resources, inert meaningless stuff. The world is commonly regarded as material to which we do something, not a source from which we receive something.
And I would suggest that this attitude towards creation is contrary to how we should pursue both worship and the arts. Our worship should recognize that God, the maker of all things reveals Himself in all that He’s made, and that He calls us toward a receptive and grateful posture toward creation. And that is also the posture of artists, or should be. Both worship and the arts serve the function of reorienting our minds, imaginations and practices so that we can properly perceive what creation is and what our place in creation is. But we will not perceive the revelatory power of creation unless we approach creation with imaginations properly tuned.
Canadian philosopher George Parker Grant once noted that North Americans tend to lack the recognition that are response to the world, should not most deeply be that of doing something with it but of wondering or marveling at it, of being amazed or astonished at it, of admiring it. That’s the posture that we see regularly in the Psalms. And Art is a way of admiring and engaging a meaningful and wonderful creation, that is good art is. God presents us in creation with materials and forms that artists transform but artists that are pursuing their craft faithfully are always tattered to some order that’s implicit in creation.
Theologian Peter Leithart has observed that the artist is always transforming but this transfiguration is an attempt to get the dimensions of what’s really there, not an abandonment of what’s really there. Even if the artists is aiming at fantasy, art attempts to highlight patterns, correspondences, dimensions to reality that are usually missed in our everyday experience and to force us to look again at the sunflower or the pie or the chair. And then he quotes a phrase from the Russian Formalles, the early 20 century movement. One of the purposes of Art is to defamiliarize the familiar so that we can see what’s really there. The artists are always responding to the reality of creation in some way even in the most abstract artistic forms. The best artists are open to receiving something from creation before they can transfigure it. an artist has to sense creation with an exceptional acuity.
Philosopher Yousef Peiper has a little book of essays called, Only the Lover Sings Art and Contemplation, in which he observes that to contemplate means first to see, not to think. To perceive, it’s a kind of seeing what’s receptive and open to the reality that’s present there. And when I say that artists perceive creation, I don’t just mean trees and birds and sunsets, but what we might call the components of creation. Colors and shapes and sounds and textures and the way they interact as well as all of the various human activities within creation. The ways our bodies inhabits space and time, the way words work with all of their intriguing textures and resonances, and also the shape of our inner lives; sorrow, memory, grief, affection.
I’m thinking here of a philosopher, Susan Langer who once said that music sounds like emotions feel, that there’s a resonance in good artistic expression between the form of the perceivable reality, that we perceive with the senses and internal realities. So human creativity is not creation, it’s not creation out of nothing, it’s creation out of something. And it’s a something that God has already blessed with meaning. Creation is meaningful revelation and its meaning can be perceived best as we’re imaginatively involved with the stuff of creation. The God that we worship, the maker of heaven and earth has made us as creatures whose lives are fulfilled as we engage creation well. I have to confess I get a little nervous when I read or hear Christian artists who talk about the relationship between faith and art only in terms of art as an expression of spirituality, or art is a gateway to transcendent, now I think it can be those things.
But I think that these ways of framing it run the risk of presenting Christianity in Gnostic and disembodied terms. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the fact that our faith integrates spirit and body, and that our faith calls us to regard the stuff of creation in its materiality and in its particular shape as good and offers the best starting point for the practice and the pleasures of art. While our thinking as Christians may be suspicious about the goodness of creation, it’s interesting to note that Christian worship has always inescapably been involved imaginatively with the stuff of creation.
The poetry of the Psalms which again is involved with how language works through various resonances and structure, formal structures. The poetry the Psalms was recited by our Lord and His disciples in what we might call the earliest Christian worship. Music was a part of Christian worship at least since the choirs of angels created the nativity of our Lord, and possibly earlier we’re not sure whether Mary sang her remarkable song which was inspired by this miraculous pregnancy or she simply spoke it, even though it still sung week after week in churches around the world. And artful expressions of worship have been have been present in less obvious ways. It’s notable that the communion table contains bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. Just imagine bringing sheaves of wheat and passing them around. Grapes, alike. and for those of you who use grapes, we’ll use wine in quotation marks. Just insert those on your own. It’s interesting that it’s not organic material in its most natural state that serves as the memorial meal uniting us with God.
Bread and wine are the product of human creativity and not simply of God’s blessing of a harvest. Even grain and grapes require attentive care to bring them to fruition. Wine is an artful product and bread demands attentiveness to the details of creation. Bakers and vintners aren’t people we usually think of when we think of people involved in the arts, but the work that they do has a lot in common with the work artists do. Especially those really cool breads you buy at whole foods. They take the stuff of creation and they transform it into something delightful and beautiful. Bread and wine and art can serve practical purposes but they often go beyond necessity toward the light. Again, Peter Leithart has observed that art is a making, the imitates that making of God and it is most Godlike when it is purely gratuitous. When it is not meeting a need… creation doesn’t meet any need that God had. The creation is gratuitous, it’s not something God needed to do but we rejoice and give thanks both in worship and the arts that He chose to do so. In worship, we honor the creator for the gift, the sheer gift of creation as well as our gift of salvation.
In works of art, we imitate God’s act of delighted and gratuitous making. And then the Lord ’s Supper, we receive a great feast. It’s a table set for as not because we deserve it or even just because we need it. God’s salvation could have been less extravagant, more perfunctory than a feast, just as the wine that Jesus made from water could’ve been merely possible rather than notably fine as those wedding guest judge it to be. The gifts that God gives are given generously as well as gratuitously. We’re very accustomed to speaking of God’s redemptive work and Christ as a gift of salvation and I don’t know that we’re as accustomed of thinking of the gift creation. I think as modern people, we sometimes have the sense that our existence itself is given in a kind of neutral sense. It’s almost a right, we deserve to exist. Of course the universe exist and of course I exist, how could there be otherwise? But the God before whom we come in adoration and praise is to be honored first for our very existence.
I’m going to close with the reading from the devotional writer Francois Fenelon, 17th century writer who was eager to instill the proper gratitude for the fact the we have nothing, that we have nothing that we’ve not been freely given and including our very being and will pick up where I’m leaving off, I’ve got to but I’ll have my try. I will pick up one tomorrow. I’ll pick up the face just way to relaxed… what happens when your grandfather…
Fenelon rights, there was nothing in me that preceded all His gifts, nothing able to receive them. The first of His gifts on which all the others rest is what I call myself. He gave me that self, I owe Him not only all that I gave but also all that I am. Incomprehensible gift which are poor language expresses in a moment but which the human mind will never arrive at understanding it and all its depth. This God, who has made me, has given me myself to myself. The self I love so much is simply a present of His goodness, without Him I would not be myself. Without Him, I should have neither the self to love nor the love. Where would I love that self? Nor the will that loves it, nor the mind that knows it. All is a gift. He who receives the gifts is himself to first gift he receives. I’m bringing this idea in here because I think the gratuitousness of creation itself, in forms how we understand the best of human creativity. People get nervous when they ask what utility of art is, when you can ask it has the same utility that creation itself has. Absolutely not, well not absolutely not. Okay, we’ll pick up with that and I think—are we invited to gather?