Discovering God in the arts that have been commissioned by the church with the goal of conveying spiritual things or illustrate events or concepts in the Bible seems like a given. But can we discover the Christian God in the arts that have been made to reflect a belief system outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition? Can we discover God in, for example, songs that are, to put it mildly, worldly?
Yes, a majority of the greatest works of art in the Christian tradition were originally created as commissions for churches, religious leaders, or private Christian donors. This donor system provided a good living for talented painters, sculptors, composers, and writers. But this work, as great as much of it is, doesn’t account for all the art that is spiritually rich, which was sometimes created by unbelievers or at least those who weren’t involved in the institutional church. And their work is also a rich source of delight and insight for anyone and everyone. Sometimes one glimpses a different worldview in such art, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still have something to say to believers. Since we all share a common humanity, with common experiences, we can benefit and be enriched by art from those who believe very differently than we do about some of the “big questions.” Is caution and discernment necessary? Certainly. But we shouldn’t be so cautious and careful that we limit our cultural intake to only those who see things the way we do. How will we ever grow or be challenged by new perspectives if we do that? I’ve often learned more and felt more from a “secular” work of art than a “Christian” work if such work is predictable or of inferior quality. Theologians like Augustine and Calvin, among others, have suggested that anything that speaks truly belongs to us all. God’s voice can sometimes be heard coming from very unexpected sources.
When we think of the arts and the Christian faith, our minds tend to zero in on old European fine arts—the cathedrals throughout Europe, the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, sculptures like the Pietà, paintings, et cetera. This is because Europe has been the center of Christianity since the 4th century, but the faith grew out of the Middle East, and some of the earliest Christian communities actually lived in North Africa. Why is it important for us to develop art appreciation away from the Western ideals? How do we train our minds to recognize things that are of God in the kinds of arts that are “foreign” to us?
This is such a great question. It is absolutely the case that we should explore artistic work outside of western Christianity. This is an area where I am still learning and exploring. Someday I’d love to write a book that highlights the artistic genius of Christians from Africa, South America, Asia, India, and other places. I’ve been personally moved, for example, by the work of painters from Asian traditions, such as He Qi and Sadao Watanabe, and am continuing to explore artists from around the world. My book is mostly focused on western artists, but there is a world of art to be discovered outside of our own heritage. But you’ve got to start somewhere, so I chose to focus on those whose work would be easier for most readers to access—hence the western emphasis.
What is it about art that creates emotional responses in us to a level that reality rarely does? In Discovering God Through the Arts, you say that art makes us more empathetic, citing the example of The Old Peasant Woman, a painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker, and noting how it makes us wonder what the woman is feeling, what her backstory is, and what has made her look so sad. But do we need an early 1900s painting to help us develop empathy? Can empathy of the same depth be developed through interactions with real people in real life? Do paintings evoke a deeper emotional response than, say, a stock photo on Google depicting the same thing? Songs tend to do that too. Why is that?
One of the great things that art does is to teach us to look more closely and carefully at the things that surround us. As I say in the book, art puts a frame around a moment to indicate its significance. A painting can do this. A good photograph can do this. And, of course, seeing someone in person could do this. But we tend to sleepwalk through our lives without paying much attention to the wonders that surround us, so we sometimes need a painting or a photo or a film to make us stop and really look closely enough that our heart and emotions engage. Art moves us because art causes us to stop, look, and listen. A song moves us because it causes us to think about our own experiences, or maybe just the changes of key within an instrumental piece will cause our heart to soar. If art moves us to genuine deep feelings—not just cliched responses—it has the power to change us.
If art moves us to genuine deep feelings—not just cliched responses—it has the power to change us.
Tell us about your favorite painting in the whole world—a painting you could stare at for days. Why do you love it?
This is a hard question. A bit like asking which of my children is my favorite! I can think of so many paintings that move me by some of my favorites—Rembrandt, van Gogh, Chagall, Frederic Church, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the list could go on and on. But maybe my single favorite painting—if forced to choose one—would be Rene Magritte’s, Homesickness. It isn’t in my book because of copyright issues, but I have a large poster of it hanging in my living room. In it, there is an angelic figure dressed in formal black attire who is gazing over the edge of a bridge, looking out into the dense fog that surrounds the scene. One can see a lamppost nearby and a regal lion resting nearby. It is a mysterious image that I find haunting and beautiful, and it somehow speaks to me of the realities that exist just outside of our sight. I never tire of gazing at it and, well, feeling a little homesick for eternity.