Monday, August 10, 2009

Vision of artists (Sunday Reflections for August 9, 2009

Many in the church (especially clergy) aren’t happy with the growing numbers who claim interest in spirituality but little or no interest in organized religion. Regardless of the spiritual quality of contemporary Christianity, one thing the “spiritual, not religious” folks are aware of is the possibility for genuine spiritual experience outside traditional religious venues.

This is not a new or particularly radical idea. The Bible itself testifies to the fact that before our ancestors ever built a shrine or temple they experienced God and sacredness in the natural world. Forces of nature were often identified with God or the gods as were specific places, such as mountains and rivers. The most common place, of course, was the sky or “the heavens.”

Religious or not, most people have experienced wonder and awe when encountering nature in its mystery, size, power or beauty. That’s why it’s been said no one can be an atheist who’s been to the Grand Canyon. Others might say the same about seeing the birth of a baby.

Last week, in writing about my vacation, I noted that the confluence of natural beauty and artistic talent in Santa Fe was not a coincidence. It isn’t so much that the area provides lots of “pretty things” to inspire artists to draw, paint, sculpt or photograph, although there is that. Rather, I think there is something about the “purity” of the desert landscape which encourages you to focus and clarify. In addition to the special light quality of the thin, dry mountain air, the lack of distractions makes individual objects stand out. Without the blur and confusion of excess noise, movement, shapes and colors, you are more naturally inclined to concentrate on an individual plant, animal, mountain or cloud. Over time, you become more adept at really seeing the world around you.

A common element of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets is that they so often frame their criticism as people’s inability to use their senses. Israel’s leaders are repeatedly accused of being metaphorically deaf and blind. “You see but you don’t see; you hear but you don’t hear.” Many of Jesus’ healings enable “the blind to see and the deaf to hear.” Given his teaching, these stories obviously are about more than the need to repair physical impairments. Similarly, when we make a new discovery or come to some new awareness, we often give such experiences a sensory dimension. “I hear what you’re saying. I had never seen it that way before.”

Strolling through Santa Fe’s art galleries on this visit, I was struck for the first time by their spiritual and even religious qualities. You enter them feeling like you are walking into a kind of shrine or holy place. The spaces are normally very quiet. Inside, of course, the art objects take central place and you move from one to another “experiencing” them like icons. Your attitude isn’t that of worship but rather more like anticipation and sometimes awe.

The art works speak to you, open your eyes—or not. There is no guarantee. Every piece is different, every artist is different, and every viewer is different. But from time to time, there is real communication or communion even—between you and the artist, between you and the world the artist has opened up and revealed in a new way.

In Western history, the arts received a dramatic boost from the church in the Middle Ages, especially with the building of the great cathedrals. In addition to their spectacular architecture (an art form itself), these buildings were filled with stained glass, sculpture, mosaics and paintings. Most of this work, of course, represented religious figures and stories. In looking at a saint or biblical character, however, you knew you weren’t seeing a “real” person. Most of them were long dead and no one knew what they actually looked like. It was up to the artist’s imagination to create their appearance. They were “idealized.” That wasn’t John the Baptist in that picture; it was the artist’s “idea” of John the Baptist.

With the Renaissance this changed, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the world changed, also. For reasons that still aren’t fully understood, artists became interested in real people and in how those real people actually looked. That wasn’t just an idea of “woman” in that picture; that was the artist’s next-door neighbor. And that wasn’t just “Hair” on her head; that was how that particular woman’s hair really looked.

Suddenly artists were seeing things nobody had noticed before, and through their art causing everyone one else to see the world differently, as well. With these new modern eyes, many people began asking new questions about this world that was being rediscovered. Scientists soon followed artists in looking with a new and deep intensity (and sometimes they were both, as with Leonardo da Vinci).

What about those saints? Artists kept painting them but often they, too, became “real” people. Artists began using actual persons as models for their work. Now, Mary looked like the artist’s next-door neighbor—or for political reasons, the duke’s wife, or for the sake of comedy and social commentary, the archbishop’s mistress. Not coincidentally, it was at this time that the arts began separating from the church and finding a more independent existence.

Even apart from its religious patrons, art has remained a sacred endeavor. While the medieval church found holiness primarily in ideas (theology, laws, stories, God), art since the Renaissance has looked for and revealed the sacredness of real life and of this world. Medieval religion (which is still alive and well in many places) doesn’t much like that. Ultimately it sees this world as something to be escaped. Modern art, however, while certainly not denying life’s pain and ugliness, nonetheless asserts that existence here and now has genuine value.

In doing so art certainly is not without biblical support. It reminds us of God’s own verdict on his creation in Genesis 1, when “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” And one thing that stands out so strikingly about Jesus in the gospels are the repeated instances of his taking notice of individual and usually insignificant people—often to the consternation of both his opponents and his own disciples. Jesus shows the value not only of people in general but of this person and that person—of Peter and Jairus and Zaccheus and Mary Magdalene.

Artists, of course, have their own ideas about the world and they share them through their work. Those ideas, however, are based upon their experiences of the world and of the people they encounter. These things, too, the artist says, are holy, sacred and must be valued. In the silence of a gallery and in the silence of the desert, somehow that becomes easier to see.


Anonymous said...

The church is, hopefully, where we can get to be part of a community and cut through all the bull that clouds work life and even families and neighborhoods. It has its place, but as the post above shows (gay inclusion and acceptance) there's still a lot of bull to clear away there too. To be honest, I returned because my wife found a church I can feel at home with. I visit here because I feel you’re on the same good (finally) rational and loving path to something much better than I what I left years ago. It’s nice to know things have changed for the better if people search. I’m quite astounded. Yesterday the gay issue came up in Bible study. I was pretty shocked and pleased to see we saw pretty much eye to eye, that we should maybe be explicate about our willingness to accept gay singles or couples without reservation. This wasn’t a short discussion, it caused our class to go overtime by ½ hour. Unheard of. David Mc

Anonymous said...

Is this on point? Substitute non-religious, athiest, agnostic or even animals for Gentiles...

instinctively! I was told works alone can't save, but I still don't believe it.

Romans 2:14-16 (New American Standard Bible)

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

David Mc

Doug said...

Glad to hear about your Bible study experience. I am finding increasing awareness and acceptance by people in the church that the church needs to change in some pretty fundamental ways. Unfortunately, the folks in charge (mostly upper level clergy like bishops and seminary profs) aren't there yet, primarily I suspect because they would have the most to lose.

I think the only way the church will survice is through radical decentralization. Christianity must become much more people centered and practical, ala Buddhism. The task isn't to follow the rules (doctrines, dogma, commandments) but to establish a personal faith practice. I think such a Christianity can be fully in harmony with Jesus and the gospel.

Doug said...

Well David I'm not quite sure how this relates to experiencing holiness through art and in the everyday but . . .

I'll just say I think Paul is putting up a strawman here--a caricature of Jewish life. In any case, the reliance on ritual for one's spiritual status certainly became just as much a problem for Christianity (substitute the sacraments for circumcision) as it ever was within Judaism. I'm not really sure tho what point you're trying to make.

Anonymous said...

Doug, First, sorry if I’m a pain. My comments about bible class might be inappropriate/ possibly premature at any rate? I’ll say I should stress the word “seemed” and say I might be wishful thinking. We’ll see. I guess I’m asking you to trash that one. I'll let you decide or edit for me and tread with more care in the future. Thanks. David Mc

Anonymous said...


I guess tate post is okay since I explained and it’s buried pretty well. Anyway, I’m not an artist so I picked up on the nature aspect in the form of our inherent, natural morality. We are blessed through our artists though. I would say they are, but it seems like a curse to some, at least many of the successful ones.

David Mc