Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and a Theology of Engagement

The following summary is from the fourth week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Given the centrality of art of some sort to most religious traditions, how can shared artistic practices and/or aesthetic experience furnish a worthwhile focal point for meaningful discussion, exchange, and mutual learning between different religious faith traditions?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

I have undertaken extensive collateral studies in Islam as a comparison to Christianity to best understand this second largest and fastest growing monotheistic religion. I also enjoy studying the history of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the Middle East. I hope to publish on these topics in the future. I would love to be well-equipped to lecture or participate in debates on Christianity vs. Islam. The more we understand about our own theology and how others think about God, the better prepared we are to engage in apologetics and evangelism.

Islamic religious art is somewhat different than what we have seen in Christianity. Primarily, the Qur’an forbids depiction of the human form in any work of art, including God/Allah. Some Islamic scholars object to including any “worldly” elements in Islamic art. Islam is “younger” than Judaism and Christianity, with an art history of about 1,400 years. Calligraphy, mosaic, and architecture are its most frequently used art forms. Christian art is nearly antithetical to Islamic art. There is no shyness with Christian artists; they generously provide their interpretation of God, Jesus, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Great Flood, the Last Supper, and images regarding the Revelation to John on the Isle of Patmos.

I believe it is proper to express the doctrines of Christianity in works of art. Trevor Hart writes, “Where God and humanity finally dwell at-one, in other words, there will be culture as well as nature to be reckoned with and thus a fully human contribution offered from below as well as a decisive and determinative divine initiative from above” (1). The divine initiative is, at least in part, God’s bestowing gifts and ministries on His people, which include a multitude of art forms from paintings to frescos; from poetry to song. These works of art serve to memorialize God’s communication to us, and our understanding of the message. There is a caveat. How can we be sure to engage the arts “accurately” as part of a theological study or discussion about God? Hart is sensitive to this issue: “I am aware that this could easily be the point of departure for an entire systematic theology” (2) (italics mine). Grudem writes, “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question. ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic?” (3). This is why it is appropriate to apply hermeneutics to artwork that depicts church history, doctrine, the gospel, or the origin (the theory) of everything (4).

I believe art is an appropriate medium for unpacking the meaning of Scripture and how it applies to people’s lives. It is also an effective form of worship and adoration. I have used poetry and flash fiction to share many of my life’s lessons and how my faith provided a way out. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is rich in detail, including a beautiful ray of sunshine illuminating the Lord’s face. The accuracy of this painting lends a “hermeneutic” value. I prefer da Vinci’s painting over Michelangelo’s for this reason. Works of Christian art such as these are quite moving and can foster wonderful theological discussions. Islamic art can also provide the basis for meaningful dialog. For example, the Mihrab (prayer niche) (c. 1466) is a remarkably intricate mosaic illustration that could prompt unique conversation with a Muslim believer. This discussion could center on what the piece means, but it would also be informative to ask about Islam’s proscription of human figures in works of art. I would consider bringing up a possible correlation between Islam’s prohibition of artwork illustrating Allah with Jehovah’s warning to Moses: “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exo. 33:20, NRSV); also, to Judaism’s fear of using vowels to spell Yahweh in case they “get it wrong,” using “YHWH” instead.

Hart says, “I believe the language of ‘creativity’ and creation is not only appropriate but actually rather important to lay claim to and deploy in theological talk about the arts and other relevant spheres of human action” (5). Viladesau believes religious art, especially the pictorial, can serve as theological texts in themselves (6). Such works of art can be a locus of traditions and embodiment of actual practice. In this manner, Christian artwork fills a correlational text for Christian theology as defined by Paul Tillich. This allows a glimpse of the history of Christian theology, but it can also provide opportunity for reflection on Christian values and ideals.

I love John Ruskin’s remark that great nations tell their “autobiographies” through their deeds, the written word, and in their art. Viladesau believes this is also true of religion. Viladesau explains that “logocentrism” had dominated the study of Christian theology for centuries, which Viladesau identifies as “preoccupation with the verbal and especially the written word” (7). Of course, we must remember that logos is the “Word” of God. In fact, the universe was “painted” by the Word (see Gen. 1:3-18; John 1:1-3). Sadly, as noted by Viladesau, we have entered a more contemporary era (some call it a post-Christian society) where the study of religion is deemed cultural or anthropological in nature (8). Examination of Christian art throughout the history of the church reveals the ideals, attitudes, practices, and emotions of believers in situ.

It is my opinion that religious art provides a unique glimpse into any given religious faith, and, as such, is appropriate for evaluation and for prompting dialog among believers in and between the various religions. It is critical that we always maintain proper hermeneutic valuation in determining the extent to which a work of art presents an accurate portrayal.

Responses from Fellow Classmates

Steven,

To undertake a responsible “hermeneutic” of a piece of art, what fundamental questions might you purpose be asked that might be applied to any artistic work?

Tiffany

My Response to Tiffany

Tiffany,

Thanks for your kind remark and for your follow-up questions. Professor Buchanan has a similar question regarding my suggestion that hermeneutics can be used to interpret works other than written (text, poetry, lyrics). First, I regarded part of our study over the last two weeks to include seeing “visual” art as “text.” This sounded strange to me at first. But after some collateral reading, I came to see this as a possible and worthwhile exercise. A. Vidu writes, “As a theory [hermeneutics] concern[s] itself with establishing principles for correct interpretation. Since the nineteenth century the scope of the discipline expanded beyond the interpretation of texts. Currently, hermeneutics analyzes the process of the creation and understanding of meaningful communication” (9). Subjectivity is such a vital part of interpretation that I believe some method of hermeneutics is indicated in evaluating the biblical accuracy of an illustration, including the reaction a work of art (esp. of a religious nature) triggers. In other words, interpretation is not limited to an author’s (or painter’s) intent. It’s not just about aesthetics; it is important that truth be communicated. If hermeneutics as it applies to the written word has an ontological function, can this investigation apply to an artist’s “artful” interpretation of Scripture?

Biblical hermeneutics is the essential form of hermeneutics as it applies to Christianity. It is concerned with canon and exegesis, for certain. It attempts to address preconception, bias, prejudice, individual personality, history as part of its analysis. The same can be said for how someone interprets paintings in the Sistine Chapel on Creation, the Life of Christ, the Life of Moses, Adam and Eve, and the like. I also believe Tillich’s correlation theology allows room for art and what the character of a spiritual situation or depiction is (see Viladesau, 1989, 154). Viladesau warns of limitations for “art as text and as revelatory word” (157). These limitations include, for example, the medium or materials, whether it is 2D or 3D, the sociological ramifications, era, culture, personal theological worldview, and so on.

I look forward to feedback from you, Prof. Buchanan, and anyone else regarding this interesting element of art as illustrated text, and how hermeneutics may (or may not) aid in accurate analysis of such works of art. Of course (not to muddy the conversation) maybe we’re speaking of a proper “exegetical” analysis of religious artwork instead? I look forward to both of these upcoming courses.

Blessings,

Steven Barto


(1) Trevor Hart, Making Good: Creation, Creativity, and Artistry (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), 313.
(2) Hart, 313.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 21.
(4) You may recall “The Theory of Everything” was Stephen Hawking’s doctoral thesis.
(5) Hart, 314.
(6) Richard Viladesau, Theology of the Arts (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989), 123.
(7) Viladeeau, 125.
(8) Ibid., 126.
(9) A. Vidu, “Hermeneutics,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 378.

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