Art and Theology

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I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation… —St. John of Damascus

And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. – St. John

Human societies, as diverse as they may be, tend to have in common at least two things: art, from a courting song on a simple stone flute to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and theology, from the crudest idol to the most abstract system. Nor have these two necessarily been strange bed-fellows, but have often offered each other their highest expression.

But art and theology do not always get along. Christianity has had its dark days, and perhaps none more visceral than the Iconoclastic controversy. While the history is rather complicated, (and purposefully compacted here for the sake of time) it involved a group of people (the Iconoclasts, which means ‘image-breakers’) who were opposed to the creation, display and veneration of icons because of what they perceived to be a latent idolatry. That is, if God is invisible and transcendent, and if Jesus is God, then any depiction of Jesus is idolatrous because the divine nature cannot be depicted materially. Thus, one would only be painting a man, and if one were to point to this image and say ‘this is Jesus, who is God in the flesh’, one would be guilty of calling an image God, which would be idolatry.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council (also known as the Second Council of Nicea) convened to settle the controversy. It was determined that the Iconoclastic position was both theologically and logically deficient, and that it was both good and right to employ icons and artistic depictions because they point beyond themselves to their prototype- that is, to that which they represent.

I mentioned this was one of the more visceral moments in Christian history. Here’s why: ultimately, the question was not simply about if one can artistically depict something theological; rather, it comes down to this most fundamental of questions: is matter good? This question essentially fueled all of the Christological questions and controversies throughout most of Christianity’s existence- is Jesus God? Is Jesus both human and God? Does Jesus have a human will? All of these questions hinge on the answer to how we are going to approach matter- is it something good, or something evil?

The Incarnation is, in a sense, an apologetic, a justification of the goodness of creation. In the hard-fought battles of the theological controversies, the goodness of creation was ultimately defended, inch by inch the space for its place in salvation history ensured through bitter struggle. The logic of the Incarnation- that Jesus is completely God, that Jesus is completely man, and that these two natures exist within one subject (person) without losing what is essential to God-ness or human-ness- opened up a new way to approach art. In Jesus, God has a human face- in Jesus God has concretely revealed himself to us through creation. A reciprocal relationship is thus established: God comes to us through a man; we therefore come to God through a man. After all, it was Jesus- the God-man- who said “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Because of this radical affirmation of the goodness of creation, art truly has something to say to theology. For the Christian, however, the inverse is also true- theology truly has something to say to art.

Art has the ability to embody, so to speak, concepts in a way that words cannot. We are ultimately not just a mind, and so words and concepts, abstractions and postulations cannot comprise the totality of the expression of reality. As embodied beings, we approach the world through our senses, and, as a consequence, unless theology is able to speak viscerally, one might wonder if it is able to speak in more than a whisper, or even at all.

The sacraments themselves, being outward, visible expressions of an inward grace, demonstrate the way in which the supernatural and the nature work together. In the sacraments, something in creation (water in baptism, for example) is the means by which grace is conveyed. In baptism the water is a symbol, in that it signifies a similarity to what is being done spiritually, but it is at the same time not merely a symbol, but is an integral component of the sacrament. Baptism (and the other sacraments) is a reminder that the dichotomy we tend to make between the spiritual and the physical, between the soul and the body can never be absolute.

But neither are we simply a body. If that were the case, art would be meaningless, for it would not have the intrinsic ability to pull you outside of yourself, beyond yourself. The most profound painting would be no more than the components of which it is comprised. Art exists because it can mediate the tension between the concrete and the abstract. This was the entire purpose of the inverse perspective of Christian iconography- it concretely depicted the scene, but its perspective invited you in, beckoned you to become a part of it, to find your place in the story.

Clearly art and theology can exist together and have much to say to each other. But how does this work itself out practically? No doubt everyone approaches theology and art differently, so I can only speak from my own experience. About 2 years ago I created a video called ‘The Word,’ which was kinetic typography piece. It was in essence a recitation of the prologue of John’s gospel, which is itself theologically rich. Since the entirety of the video- from its movement to its meaning- was designed around not simply the words but the words in relation to each other, I spent a good deal of time pondering ways to visually represent the scriptural text.

There is one line from the first verse which says ‘And the Word was with God.’ In the video I have the text ‘Word’ spin around on its axis to face the text ‘God.’ This wasn’t arbitrary, but was a theological representation. In the Greek of this text is the word ‘pros’, which in English is usually generically translated as ‘with.’ However, ‘with’ doesn’t really capture the essence of what is going on here. ‘Pros’ speaks of face-to-face communion, denoting a relational opposition (in the sense that if we are talking, you are spatially and relationally opposite to me) between two subjects. Thus, in the video I have the ‘Word’ face ‘God’ to describe what is going on here. It is subtle, and I don’t linger there, but it reinforces, from the beginning, the relation of the Word to God.

In the next phrase- ‘and the Word was God,’ I do something different, because in the text there is a theological difference. In the phrase about the Word being ‘with God,’ God (theon) is used objectively, thus creating the relational opposition (pros) to the Word. However, in this phrase ‘God’ (theo) is in the predicate and is used adjectively; that is, to describe the Word. Thus, in the video I had the text ‘Word’ slide to become the text ‘God.’

One more example: I recently created an art piece entitled Deus Caritas Est. In this case, the title was the way in which I was trying to get theology and art to speak to each other. Deus caritas est is Latin for ‘God is love.’ ‘Caritas’ is the etymological ancestor of the English word ‘charity,’ although it generally gets rendered as ‘love.’ Why is this? For English speakers, ‘charity’ has been emptied of its fullness, and usually has the connotation of giving money or items to someone in need, often with pity as the motivation. Thus, the inverse expression ‘I don’t need your charity.’ However, the Latin caritas describes a love that it motivated by self-giving and altruism, not simply pity. (It is also the equivalent of the Greek agape) In this piece I wanted to do two things- express the concreteness of God’s love for humanity, and allow that to redefine what love is understood to mean.

In our society, the height of ‘love’ is often understood to be ‘romantic love.’ And this is often debased even more to mean merely the feeling of ‘being in love.’ This kind of thought is almost entirely absent from the scriptural use of the word ‘love,’ yet that is probably the kind of image that is conjured when we hear that ‘God is love’ or ‘Jesus loves you.’ With that in mind I wanted this art piece to be subversive. I intentionally made it unmistakably about the crucified Christ, and said nothing more than ‘Deus Caritas Est.’ This is of course alluding to the biblical passage that says that ‘God demonstrated his own love (caritas) for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ However, it also harkens back to the familiar John 3:16: ‘God so loved (caritas) the world…’

Love is ultimately charity- the giving of oneself to another and for another not because of what one can receive, but merely because it is in the nature of love, in the nature of charity to give itself away. In this way, I wanted to subvert both the popular conception of love and the popular conception of charity, so that they both find their expression in the love of God expressed in the sacrificial death of Jesus. Theology and art join hands to speak to each other and to help each other find their voice. As I was making this, I had a few concepts in mind, but it wasn’t until it was near completion that I decided to title it ‘Deus Caritas Est.’ The depiction is of Jesus as crucified, my meditation on it led me to that theological conclusion, and that theological conclusion in turn led to finalization of the artwork.

Those are only a couple examples of how art and theology have helped me in my artistic endeavors. None of this is to say that you have to read Greek and Latin (I am an absolute novice in both) to engage in theology. Rather, it is a posture, a way of approaching both art and theology, understanding that both have something to say to each other. Neither is it to say that art is only valuable if it is explicitly theological or has a ‘spiritual’ meaning. Far from it. Instead, the goal of the Christian project is to fully integrate faith and love for God into every aspect of one’s life, so that everything savors of it, even if everything is not explicitly about it.

The final portion of this is practical- what ways can we make better starts at integrating art and theology together? I have a few suggestions that might be helpful:

1. Familiarize yourself with some basic theology. There are many ways to go about this, and the internet has a lot of valuable information, if you know how to sift through it and be discriminating. Sometimes, a good book is the best route. If you have the money, Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath is excellent. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall is another great introduction, with the added bonus of placing it within historical context.

2. Study some iconography. Theology and art have been intentionally integrated for centuries, and there is probably no greater instructor than the icon. Within a single scene artists were able to capture not only a literal or concrete idea, but to allow it transcend itself. The colors, the use of space, expressions- all had a theological meaning that the art was pointing to. If you want to see a few examples of how iconography can be brought to bear both theologically, artistically and pastorally, you can find them on my blog here.

3. Embrace the past. One of the great advantages that modern artists have, especially those within an explicitly religious setting, is that there is an immense volume of art that has been created over Christianity’s vast history, with most of the biblical and theological themes represented within its repertoire. This repository of creativity is waiting to be used as springboards to new creations. The study of the works of the past are not meant to be slavish; rather, they can help you to think in ways that you might not otherwise think. One of the running jokes within the church design world is how church’s tend to use visual cliches- ‘just slap a cross on it and it’s good’. Cliches occur when a powerful or meaningful symbol becomes just a symbol that you use because it has been used- you stop thinking about what it means and use it simply because it has always been used. Critical thinking stops and creativity goes on autopilot. Symbols and imagery that are cliched have not lost their power or meaning, but are merely waiting to be approached critically and expressed with freshness and intentionality.

As we in the Western world move into an increasingly post-christian world, engagement with the culture will mean a new level of engagement with our faith. All of our art needs to not just be for the Christian niche, but must flow out of a faith that is wholly integrated into the rest of our lives. The artist of the 21st century who wishes to live out his or her faith in the world as well as express it in an increasingly hostile society cannot presume to interact with a culture that shares similar presuppositions. We must strive to be believers and artists in whom faith is seeking understanding, and in whom both are seeking expression in every aspect of who we are. Art is not the silver bullet to evangelization, but it is yet another means by which the gospel can work as leaven in the world.

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The preceding is a post I wrote for a friend’s blog awhile back, and I can’t remember if I posted it here or not. I stumbled across it today and felt like putting it up for the heck of it!

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Jason Watson

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