By Rev. Tobin Wilson of Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
God creates out of nothing and human beings make out of what has already been created. So even our making is grounded in God’s creating. This is the presupposition upon which I write. I am speaking about a very specific type of art–sacred Christian art. This is art that at some primal place recognizes that all that we do is grounded in God’s ultimate creation and what we endeavor in is penultimate, yet for the glory of God!
At the core sacred art points to the Trinity and creation, and ultimately to its complete restoration in the future. Sacred art is a pointer. Like John the Baptist in Matthias Grünewald’s (1475-1528) Crucifixion, (above) pointing us to Jesus Christ. A piece that was originally commissioned for the chapel altarpiece in Isenheim, a leper colony, contextualized the need of the day while pointing to Christ who offers hope and healing. The great German theologian, Karl Barth, strategically located a copy of this painting above his desk where he prayed, wrote and studied.
Art recognizes the human condition, believes that something has and has not yet taken place but that will, in fact, ultimately come to pass. Sacred art points to the reality of God in Christ breaking in with a new way to live and be human. This in-breaking is complete and yet not complete. So we live in the midst of the tension. Sacred art captures this tension through music, dance, word and image. It begins with the brokenness of humankind, points to Christ, offers a new way forward and anticipates its final restoration in and through God’s shalom.
It could be Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese abstract artist, residing in New York, who paints in the aftermath of 9/11 offering reconstruction and hope for New York in the midst of its terrific horror. He could be the most profound voice in our time inserting the sacred arts into culture.
Sacred art prepares culture to receive the gospel. It is a leavening and a pointer to something that needs our attention while setting the stage for Christ to break through with life, grace, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation and instigation. Art has the power to cultivate beauty in a world of terror and unmasked horror. These groanings are captured, admitted, spoken of rightly and well and directed to the one who can transform, bind up and heal, namely Christ, crucified, risen, ascended and returning. Art speaks of brokenness, pain, and waywardness while offering a way for wanderers to return home.
Artists are peace poets in the realm of the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Peace-keeping and cease fire is about all that modern politics can offer, but artists make peace by awakening our imagination through image to what this peaceful order actually looks like. It transcends cease-fire by restoring the cause of hatred, reconciles our bigotry, ends injustice and dreams the dream that allows a lion to sleep next to a lamb. Artist’s create categories that make peace possible. They are peacemakers as they point to the one who will enact this great restoration in our midst. The violence of the cross silently shouts to the world, “Violence is no longer necessary!” Leo Tolstoy comments rightly, “Art should cause violence to be set aside.”
At Lake Burien Presbyterian art is part of our daily spiritual diet. We incorporate the arts to prepare us to receive the word read, proclaimed, encountered in Christ and enacted in sacraments. Art tells the truth, heals and transforms, provokes our sensibilities and inspires to action, soothes our anxiety, and points us to Jesus Christ the center and circumference of faith. In this sense the minister of word and sacrament becomes a docent and a curator of the soul. Both words find their etymology in Old English as words for clergy. Maybe Teaching elders are artists, we just use words to paint pictures of the way in which Christ brings healing, hope, action and shalom. This is a life of faith lived well during the rhythm of lent.