Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Arts and the Glory of the Lord

Three months ago I was interviewed by a postgraduate student who is currently researching for King’s College London on the relationship between the arts and Christianity in Singapore. Seated beside me were an award-winning poet and two producers of stage drama. I was not in any way as active in the art scene as them. My only contribution in the 3-hours long interview was a theological reflection on pop culture, especially the movies. 

Throughout the interview, we were shown 10 different art pieces such as T. S. Elliot's despairing poem The Hollow Men, Andres Serrano's controversial photograph Piss Christ, Rembrandt's sketch of Abraham dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, and John Lennon's atheistic utopian song Imagine. After the interview, I wonder what is the place for arts in a church?

Some of us relate the arts to high cultures of classical music, renaissance paintings, ballet, and perhaps also to exquisite cigars and vintage wine. Others think that arts are related only to beauty or aesthetic contemplation. 

To Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Reformed philosopher and theologian, the arts are much more than these. They are first and foremost "instruments" which are "inextricably embedded in the fabric of human intention" that equip "us for action" with respect to the world, to other people, and to God. (See his Art in Action [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980], 3-4.) Wolterstorff is saying that arts are something we intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context.

For instance, how food is presented on our plate affects how we act; in this case, it either encourages or discourages our anticipation to eat and savour the food. That’s why a nice photograph of food is so important in restaurant’s menu, on hawker stall’s signboard, and on food blogs. Can you recall the last time when you felt disappointed, if not cheated, when the actual serving was not as tasty as portrayed in the photograph? That‘s how art affects how we re-act.

Talking about food, I remember someone I met over lunch last year. That man seemed to be very familiar with food. While we were waiting for our order, the waiters at the restaurant would occasionally exchange foodie jargon with him. And when the food arrived, that man would describe the uniqueness of each dish to us. He would advise us to begin with certain dish first so that (to paraphrase him) “our palate is not confused.” As one who grew up eating at hawker stalls, I thought that was new. It is common to hear that our mind gets confused; but tongue? Anyway, that noon I had a glimpse into to the art of eating. Certain skillsets or instruments are needed to enjoy food, to help us to act in the context of food appreciation. Only after the lunch that I found out that the man was a Senior Vice President of Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (Shatec Institutes). His job was to perfect the art of eating, the act of savouring food.

The arts are instruments humans intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context. They serve human life. Wherever there are humans, there is art. As Wolterstorff wrote, 
"We know of no people which has done without music and fiction and poetry and role-playing and sculpture and visual depiction. Possibly some have done without one or the other of these; none to our knowledge has done without one or the other of these." (Ibid., 4)  
Art is part of the clothes we wear, food we eat, shopping complexes we patronize, films we watch, games we play, novels we read, songs we listen, hymns we sing, and the myriad of other things we intentionally make. This reminds us of what apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthian 10:31, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

This verse tells us that all that Christians do, including our creation and appreciation of the arts, is done for God’s glory. 

Christians create arts for a different context from non-Christians. "The ultimate distinction," wrote Daniel Siebell, "is not between Christian art and autonomous modern art but between art that…. can bring forth or testify to an embodied transcendence…. and art that denies such transcendence." (God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art [USA: Baker Academic, 2008], 164.) Christians create arts in the context of the sublime glory of the Lord. As the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach is believed to have said, "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."

Whether the world can see or hear or taste the glory of God through the arts is another matter altogether. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear. Whoever has eyes, let them see. Whoever has tongue, let them taste. However, there will always be those who see yet not perceive, those who hear but not understand, and those who taste but not feel—Like those who heard Jesus’ parables but did not comprehend (Luke 8:8-10). But to the Christians, "The whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3).

This reflection is just a sketch. The arts are too huge a subject to be addressed here. Nonetheless, I hope this reflection able to provide some pointers of where to go and what to look for, especially for those whose vocation are in the arts. So the next time you take a photo of your food with a phone, try to find how it can be God-glorifying. Then post it on Facebook or Instagram. Whether or not people will see God’s glory through it is another matter. What is important is that you have created an art for His glory. You have acted accordingly to the context. I think the same principle applies to everyone in other creative act be it in design, dance, fashion, musical, cooking, eating, filming, etc.

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