Jesus and the Pharisees

The Pharisees were known for standing on the street corner in sack cloth and ashes crying aloud to God so all who pass them by thought of them as righteous and devout.

Old Theology Book Spines

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

THEN SAID JESUS to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries (1) broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men” (Matt. 23:1-7, NRSV).

What is a Pharisee?

Pharisee PointingThe root meaning of the word “Pharisee is related to the Hebrew word perisayya, which means “separated.” They held themselves to be separate from and above priests and clerics. The office of Pharisee flourished during the latter part of the Second Temple period (BC 515-AD 70), and occupied the chair of Moses in the synagogue. Unfortunately, the standard rabbinic traditions have been shaped by polemics.

The Pharisaic movement’s origin is shrouded in mystery. According to Josephus (Ant. 13.288-300), the Pharisees first became a significant force in Jewish affairs during the reign of Hyrcanus I.  Essentially, they were a society of scholars who believed in resurrection, and in following legalistic traditions. But they often enforced regulations  outside the scope of Scripture, preferring instead to apply “the traditions of their fathers.” They believed Mosaic Law and the Torah established authority for the interpretation of Jewish Laws, which they enforced with a heavy hand. They used the Torah to enforce their own theology. The result was a total of 613 commandments, or “rules,” governing every aspect of Jewish life—how to dress properly, dietary laws, practices governing Temple procedures, rules for blood sacrifice, and more. The Pharisees were strongly committed to daily observance of the Law. Further, they believed in spirits and angels, the resurrection, and the Messiah’s coming.

Jesus in the Eyes of the Pharisees

Pharisaic opposition to Jesus is recorded in all four Gospel accounts. In Mark’s eyes, Jesus’ main adversaries in Galilee were the scribes, but, according to Matthew, they were the Pharisees. Luke said, “…the Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say” (Luke 11:53-54). Many  reacted to Jesus with hostility, chiefly the scribes and Pharisees. Luke 20:20 says, “So [the Pharisees] watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.”

John tells us of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees took issue with Jesus telling the man, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” on the Sabbath. Jesus defended his actions to the Pharisees by saying, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17). This remark infuriated the Pharisees even more. Jesus had intimated that He was the Son of God! “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” ( John 5:18).

Everywhere Jesus went, Jesus attracted huge crowds pressing in to listen to His every word and watch His every move. He was profoundly popular among the people. They loved Him. The Pharisees were jealous of Jesus insofar; they were far from popular given the heavy burdens they placed on the Jews. Jesus said His burden was light (see Matt. 11:28-30). The only thing the Jews felt from the Pharisees was judgment. Rather than lead the people, they looked only at their sins and faults. The Pharisees also hated Jesus because He exposed their hypocrisy. These church leaders had set a moral standard for the community that they did not necessarily adhere to, especially “to the letter.” These men sat in the highest places in the synagogue,  ornately dressed, expected nothing but honor and admiration.

The Pharisees feared Jesus, but would never admit it in public. Of main concern was the chance that Israel’s worship of Jesus as the Christ would bring the wrath of Yahweh down on their nation once again. They were quite concerned that authority over the Jews would be eliminated. Perhaps these new believers in Christ would ban together and revolt against the church. This would likely cause the Roman Empire to step in, using whatever means to bring the people back in line. Accordingly, the Pharisees plotted to arrest Jesus and remove Him from the community before He stirred up trouble.

The Pharisees in the Eyes of Jesus

Throughout His ministry, Jesus confronted the Pharisees in public, denouncing their hypocrisy, spiritual blindness, and oppressive ways. These “separate” men had been entrusted with the guardianship of the Torah, which was to be applied to everyday life. Instead, the Pharisees used the Torah to control and manipulate the people. Disregarding ethical considerations, and being devoid of mercy, they imposed an intolerable burden of legal observance upon the common people. Legal precepts invented by the Pharisees were proscribed to add excessive and oppressive laws and regulations to enslave the Jews. To this end, the Pharisees were always on alert for violations of even the simplest regulations.

The Woes of the Pharisees is a list of criticisms by Jesus against scribes and Pharisees recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Here is what Jesus said,

“Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you… you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others… you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places… you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it… you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers… you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Matt. 11:39-44, 46, 52).

Luke ends chapter twenty of his gospel with accusing the Pharisees of lying in wait to ensnare Jesus; they looked for statements made by Jesus that contradicted the Mosaic Law. Ironically, Jesus was sent to fulfill the Law, and He referred to Scripture in virtually every lesson He taught during His ministry. Jesus compared the Pharisees to tenants of a vineyard who wanted to kill the owner’s son in order to steal his inheritance (Matthew 21:38). Finally, knowing what the consequences would be, He declared that He was the Son of God. This was too much for the Pharisees to bear. How could this man be the Son of God, a man who broke their Sabbath laws and ate with sinners? To their minds it was inconceivable. “This is blasphemy!”

A shout out to Nicodemus who, although a Pharisee, earnestly sought out Christ during His earthly ministry, ultimately shared with Joseph of Arimathea the responsibility of burying Jesus’s body. (see John 3:1-21).

Jesus indeed had much to say about pretense of virtue by pious people, and how they wrongly condemn others for transgressing rules which they themselves did not follow. The message Jesus brought forth focused on faith in God and humility. He emphatically stated that religious rules and regulations cannot save man from the wages of sin. He taught that “rules” can be set aside to meet human need when necessary (Matt. 12:1-14). In essence, He said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6). It has been said that the nearly-endless Jewish rules of conduct were extremely detailed. Rules about the Sabbath “…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many” (Tractate Hagiga: Synopsis of Subjects) (2).

Just after Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil [sic] them” (John 5:17), He added, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Matthew Henry writes, “No sinner partakes of Christ’s justifying righteousness till he repents of his evil deeds” (3). Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us by faith alone in Christ alone, is needed by every one that enters the kingdom of grace and glory.  Regeneration produces a thorough change in a man’s temper and conduct. Righteousness provides us with “right standing,” which wraps us in Christ and prepares us for sanctification and restoration.

Concluding Remarks

The Pharisees failed to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, the very foundation of our salvation. As a result, they could not accept the concept of putting on the righteousness of Jesus. Most Pharisees were likely “religious,” or even devout, in the Judaic beliefs. However, many were “in it” for power, recognition, privilege, and money. Jesus began attacking their hypocrisy at the start of His ministry, telling the Jewish people, “…observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). Given the disconnect between the Pharisees outward appearance and religious works and what was in their hearts, “Pharisee” took on a pejorative meaning that is synonymous with hypocrite.

These men of God were adamant that the spiritual life of the people should be centered in the Torah and the Synagogue. They claimed  authority over the Mosaic Law, and established an aristocracy of learning. Pharisaic influence was  went so far as to say that he who transgressed their words deserved death (Ber. 4a). There are some biblical scholars who believe the Pharisees saw their stronghold over Israel as one of protection; building a fence around the Law. Through this oppression that the foundation was laid for rabbinic law which piled statute upon statute until often the real purpose of the Law was lost.

When Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, His authority outweighed any authority wielded by the Pharisees. Initially, the Pharisees assumed that the belief of some of the crowd was due to ignorance. But the attention lavished upon Jesus tended to increase the hatred and jealousy of the church leaders. These emotions were at the root of their plot to kill the Messiah. Remarkably, the Pharisees knew nothing of their role in creating the perfect, spotless Lamb who would be sacrificed to satisfy the debt of mankind.

 

 

 

(1) A small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law.

(2) One of the tractates comprising the Moed, one of six orders of the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions included in the Talmud.

(3) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Matthew Henry, 1997), 865.

 

 

Different

Fall leaves are dropping,
autumn arriving in typical
colors and smells.
A cool breeze hints
at winter. But not just yet. 

A lady sits on a front porch,
smiling, as she watches
a brilliant-red cardinal
clinging, calling out from
his perch. 

His persistence pays off
and a young female
swoops in, shy but determined.
The lady on the porch rocks
slowly, smiling.

She calls out to the
cardinals—Hello mom, hi Chaz,
and goes back to
waiting for her
expected guest. 

Memories prance
through her head,
retelling days of
swings and sleepovers, of the
sand and the ocean. 

Her guest arrives,
reaching for the
wooden rail.
The first step creaks.
The guest steps into view. 

He is old—well, getting old.
Older than before the
trouble started. Older but
born anew. Better
Different.

She looks in his direction
and their eyes meet. She
stays in her rocking chair
evaluating, determining, hopeful
that it’s truly different this time.

Hi mom, he says.
Hi son, she replies.

©2020 Steven Barto

Recovering

I’m all alone and feel I’m smothering.
It’s because of the addiction I’ve been covering.
Why does the chaos never cease?
All I need is just a little peace!
I feel so beaten down and weak-
Yet all day long it’s drugs I seek.

Today I’ll try a brand new scene.
It’s to my Heavenly Father I’ll lean.
I prayed so hard with all my heart.
I heard Him say, “You’ll have a fresh start.”
For now I’m held in His hand.
Life is a lot easier to understand.
I’m not alone and no longer smothering.
I’m just an addict truly recovering.

Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020)

We have a right to believe whatever we want, but not everything we believe is right” (Ravi Zacharias).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Ravi_Zacharias_250_291

I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER THE first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak. Unfortunately, it was not “in person,” but that did not matter. His words were so captivating it was as if I were sitting in the front row. Learning of his organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (“RZIM”), I hoped to one day interview for a position on staff. I was leaning toward a ministry of apologetics before I began listening to Ravi, but I was so impressed by the clarity and passion with which he “defended the faith” that I decided to move headlong into that mission.

I was first introduced to apologetics in an undergraduate class at Colorado Christian University (“CCU”) in 2018. It was called World Views. I have been studying philosophy, psychology, comparative religion, and Christian theology for a number of years, but CCU is preparing me for a purposeful examination of these fascinating and vital disciplines. I learned that “worldview” means the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions (1). James Sire issued a caveat: “A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world” (2).

I am totally convinced the Christian faith is the most coherent worldview around. Everyone, pantheist, atheist, skeptic, polytheist has to answer these questions: Where did I come from? What is life’s meaning? How do I define right from wrong? What happens to me when I die?—Ravi Zacharias.

Ravi suggested one role of apologetics is “seeing things God’s way.” The apologist must take what he or she has learned about the Christian faith (through a God’s eye view), then present it in a manner conducive to the intended audience. Paul said, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NRSV). If there is an intellectual (theoretical) barrier, start there. If there is a sensory (aesthetic) barrier, start there.

When sharing the gospel, I find it useful to start where there is common ground: In the beginning. It is better to open your Bible to Genesis 1 than John 3:16. One’s understanding of God must be rooted in origin, sovereignty, immanence, and aseity (“from self”) before the concept of “God in the flesh” and the crucifixion of Christ can be grasped.

A Christian Worldview

Amy Orr-Ewing said, “By its very nature the the postmodern worldview is difficult to define, and some would resist calling it such. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. It rejects the certainties of modernism and approaches art, science, literature, and philosophy with a pessimistic, disillusioned outlook.” (3). Postmodernists reject any clear meaning of truth, citing discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. This pervasive worldview makes it hard to engage in evangelism and apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture. However, it is not necessary to understand and evaluate other worldviews in order to have a personal faith in the gospel.

According to data published by George Barna in 2002 “…just 9% of all born again adults and just 7% of Protestants possess a biblical worldview” (4). This study notes that only half of Protestant Pastors in America possess a biblical worldview. Ronald Nash defines biblical worldview as believing “…human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of God who has revealed himself in Scripture” (5).

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man… If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.”—C.S. Lewis

A biblical worldview rests solely on the revelation of God to His creation, which is activated by the Holy Spirit to those who adopt it. A theistic worldview and a biblical worldview are not synonymous. Here’s the difference: the biblical view begins where the basic acceptance of God leaves off, compelling the Christian to seek God (“Yahweh”) through His written Word, and apply to everyday life what Scripture teaches.

Ravi’s Profession

Ravi Zacharias was indifferent to “all things religious” early in his life, and as a result had no “good options” for his misery and existential angst. He was born in southern India and raised in Delhi. He played a variety of sports growing up, including cricket and tennis. He focused too intently on sports and began failing his courses, leading to complete shame and despair. He attempted suicide by ingesting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, but was found by someone who immediately sought medical attention. Lying in his hospital bed, he saw how empty his life was at seventeen years of age; essentially, he was at a loss regarding the purpose and meaning of his life. Someone brought a Bible to him and he began reading. He came upon John 14:19: “Because I live you will live also.” At that moment Ravi’s life became defined, and Jesus Christ transformed his life.

“You see, there is an intellectual side to life but also a side to life where deep needs are experienced. We falsely think that one side deals with truth and the other with fantasy. Both need the truth, and the elimination of one by the other is not the world in which God intends for us to live.”—Ravi Zacharias

Ravi’s biblical worldview was simple and elegant. He began with “what is truth?” His evangelism and apologetics were rooted in “helping the thinker believe and the believer think.” We tend to doubt what we cannot see. Ravi said, “Truth is generally measured in three ways: logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and and experiential relevance” (see above video). Also, “Truth that is not under-girded by love makes the truth obnoxious and the possessor of it repulsive.” Jesus plainly stated who He was with these critical remarks: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Ravi spoke many times on the impact of secularism and relativism in Western civilization, stating that the world’s religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance. Pluralism by design features a competing number of worldviews to choose from with no one viewpoint being dominant, let alone “correct.” Moral relativism completely discounts universal and ontological points of reference for right and wrong. Instead, morality is seen as contingent upon any number of variables: cultural, historical, situational. Of paramount importance is that none of these worldviews is able to solve the sin problem. Ravi said, “The points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic. Indeed, they are foundational” (6).

“The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world.”—Charles Malik

With Gratitude

I close my eyes and remember. I can hear a voice from my early teens, someone I’d come to admire: confident and moving. This voice was particularly compelling one a Sunday morning in 1972 when I got up from my seat in the pew and answered the call to come down front and accept Jesus Christ as my Messiah, my Lord and Master. I was thirteen. I can also remember sitting in my room on occasion listening to Billy Graham. Reverend Graham’s voice was compelling, bold. It rose above everyone in that auditorium, above every earthly concern. He asked the audience, “What’s wrong with the world?” 

There is only one other man of God who has moved me like Billy Graham has: That man is Ravi Zacharias. Ravi opened the door to a deeper walk with Jesus. To a compassionate “living” theology. He took on the many isms of this world, graciously explaining where they miss the mark. He compared the “secular gods” (pluralism, naturalism, secularism, and moral relativism) to Christianity: the Way,  the Truth, and the Life. Ravi’s distinctive voice and emphatic apologetic pierced my heart. He confirmed God’s call on my life—evangelism and apologetics. 

I could not be more grateful to Ravi Zacharias and Billy Graham, mighty men of God, who came into my life. Each of these men impacted me at major crossroads. I must thank the living God for men such as these.

Suggested Additional Reading

The Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version)
Beyond Opinion: Living the Truth We Believe, Ravi Zacharias
The End of Reason, Ravi Zacharias
Jesus Among Secular Gods, Ravi Zacharias
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman L. Geisler & Frank Turek
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, Nancy Pearcey
There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorius Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew
The Universe Next Door, James Sire

Footnotes

(1) Phillips, Brown, and Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2008), 8.
(2) James Sire, The World Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),20.
(3) Amy Orr-Ewing, “Postmodern Challenges to the Bible,” in  Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 3.
(4) George Barna, “Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have a Biblical Worldview,” (Jan. 12, 2004), Barna Research. https://www.barna.com/research/only-half-of-protestant-pastors-have-a-biblical-worldview/
(5) Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 47.
(6) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2017), 6.

Morning Breaks (Reprise)

Morning breaks, tugging at me,
seeking me out, inviting me
into the light.
Groggy but aware,
I sit up and run my hand through my hair.
The sun is dazzling,
Slicing through the curtains and
Warming a patch of carpet
Next to the bed.

I look at the clock on the nightstand and grin.
I see I’ve beaten the alarm again;
Five minutes to spare. Good deal!
No squawking buzzer; instead a
Slow gentle return to awareness,
The last dreamy thoughts receding into
Their hiding place,
Content to wait patiently for me
Until I come back for them again,
Later tonight.
Every day should begin this way.

©2016 Steven Barto

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Creativity, Sub-Creation, Redemption, and Culture

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

Can the arts be understood as having any positive place in God’s continuing engagement with nature and history? How do you respond to the suggestion that they might make a “redemptive” contribution?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Art can reinforce our engagement with God, His creation, and church history. Religious art is useful for paying homage and for memorializing. Moreover, religious works of art can preserve and it can present. Thousands of works of art have been used over the centuries to depict events and doctrine, and have developed into a rich and long-lasting tradition in Christianity. Jacques Maritian said, art is “…where the maker of works especially becomes an imitator of God, where the virtue of art approaches the nobility of things absolute and self-sufficient, is in that family of arts which by itself alone constitutes a whole spiritual world, namely the fine arts” (1). Thomas Aquinas embraced beauty as a transcendent property of being.

Most of his life C.S. Lewis believed that aesthetic and intellectual endeavors were “very good for [their] own sake… good for the man” (2). Lewis says man has frequently shown an inordinate esteem (obsession, perhaps?) with culture. One benefit of preoccupation with aesthetics is that works of art are a “ready-made” outlet for promoting biblical truths. Certainly, illustrations must present doctrine accurately to serve as appropriate “visual text.” According to Michael Peterson, C.S. Lewis “…largely agreed with Platonic aesthetics in holding that higher truths must be conveyed symbolically in myths as because they cannot be conveyed literally” (3).

Wolterstorff says there is an inherent similarity worth noting between aesthetic and mystical contemplation. This is possible because the artist (like the mystic) turns away from the common everyday and gets caught in a rapture of contemplation (4). Max Weber warned “[when]…art becomes a cosmos of more and more consciously grasped independent values that exist in their own right [then] art takes over the function of a this-worldly salvation” (5). Art serves primarily, in this scenario, as salvation from the routine of everyday life. The artist must not achieve status of maker of the gods. Society must never become worshipers of the artist. If we fall into this trap, we tend to supplant the creation of art with the use of art, which often gives it purpose the artist did not intend.

Christoforo Landino was among the first to compare the artist (the creature as creator) to God the Creator. A work of art has no creative properties: it cannot bring into existence that which it depicts. At risk here is “artist as creator” becoming impious. Taken literally, the image of God as Creator can unwittingly become limited in our minds to only being able to create using preexisting space and material. Plato held the mistaken opinion that God was thusly limited, based on The Forms noted in Greek philosophy. We know God creates ex nihilo, i.e., “out of nothing. He created matter and time simultaneously and without limitation. We expect nothing less considering His aseity (i.e., “from self”), sovereignty, and immanence. He is the self-existing Creator of all that exists. There are no other gods (except what might “exist” in man’s mind through erroneous thinking). Everything created was created by God through the Word who became flesh.

We long to capture  God’s truth and beauty through art—painting, sculpture, crafts, drawings, visual arts, and architecture. These aspects of aesthetics are a proper discipline for such expression. We are made in God’s image. Our innate ability and desire to create is part of that image. Christian art holds an intrinsic redemptive quality in that it participates with the Creator to express His redemptive plan. Further, art serves as a means of illustrating God’s ongoing restoration? Religious works of art can contribute to bringing God’s creation back into harmony.

We are reconciled to the Father through the Son.  We have been delivered from darkness and grafted into the Kingdom of God (see Col. 1:13). We move into the light with God. As Matt Chandler puts it, “We stand as part of God’s restoring of all things, and we are brought into the missional witness to God’s restorative gospel, the body of Christ” (6). Chandler adds, “Thinking about gospel reconciliation in concentric circles, we are reconciled first to God in Christ, then to one another in covenant community, and third to what God is doing in the renewal of all creation” (7). Because art has the specific function of “bribing” us to pay attention, ensnaring us to “look, listen, and contemplate,” I believe we are reoriented by religious works of art toward something other than our empirical surroundings. Moreover, we are commanded to tame the world; subdue it, eliminate chaos, bring order and meaning to it, and place our mark on it. One way we can accomplish this is through aesthetics.

How does this relate to art making a redemptive contribution? First, we are to be responsible stewards of God’s creation. Second, we are to showcase what Christ has done to redeem and restore us. Third, we must promote redemption and restoration through our writings, drawings, paintings, sculpture, mosaics, collages, and ceramics. Nearly any artistic medium can be used to communicate our restoration. It is paramount that our illustrations (even our lifestyle) mirror God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, wrath, judgment, peace, sovereignty, and almighty power. Further, we must promulgate the delight, joy, exaltation, rejoicing, and celebration we experience when we walk in the Spirit and are able to enter the presence of God.

As Wolterstorff states, “Our sensory delight can be a threat to one’s obedience to God. It can function as a distraction… worse, it can function as a surrogate God.” For a work of art to have a redemptive or restorative function, I believe it should show “the real real” behind the work (8). Christian art should express the convictions and concerns belonging to the world behind the art in a manner that accounts for the artist’s making the work. To function effectively as a Christian work of art it must adhere to established doctrine. 


(1) Jacques Maritian, “An Essay on Art,” In Art and Scholasticism (London: Sheed and Ward, 1934), 123-39.

(2) C.S. Lewis, in Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories (London: HarperCollins, 1939/2000), 168.

(3) Michael L. Peterson, C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 11.

(4) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1980), 49.

(5) Ibid., 49.

(6) Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 143.

(7) Ibid., 144.

(8) Wolterstorff, 88.

 

Hatred

Anger Is Right. Rioting Is Wrong. - BNN BloombergOur country is reeling from systematic police violence against Black Americans. The recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer— who put a knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes— has ignited a fire of protest. This is a new version of a poem I wrote several years ago.

That hatred you have for everyone,
that global anger,
it doesn’t matter how justified you are,
or how wrong the other person is.

You can fume and cuss and scream,
complain and blame,
but it’s just going to eat you alive.

You can get upset with me
for speaking this way,
give me the cold stare,
and refuse to talk to me,
but it won’t change a thing.

Hatred kills.

©1998 Steven Barto

Ballad of Birmingham

Written by Dudley Randall

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No baby, no, you may not go
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

©1963 Dudley Randall

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.

A Renegade Cloud

Leaves of gold and yellow,
An evening sky of red;
A whisper of silver,
A renegade cloud overhead. 

Giggles from youngsters
playing down the alley are
Almost loud enough to
Extinguish my dread. 

My head is crowded
With voices fluttering
Like a gaggle of geese
Seeming to go nowhere.

Alone. That’s me.
Just a renegade cloud,
A wisp of nothing that
Never becomes something. 

© 2020 Steven Barto