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.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and Spirituality

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

Assess the claim that art relates us to realities of a “spiritual” sort. Include in your answer particular reference to John Ruskin’s notion of Theoria (1903).

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

ART SPEAKS TO ME on a level that reaches far deeper than tenets or doctrines. Although such underlying (especially “systematic”) precepts provide a degree of universality to religious practice, my valuation and interpretation of art (for art’s sake) must not be rooted in preconception, bias, “proper” or “theological” interpretation, or value—it’s not theological, but spiritual. Theoria is, after all, contemplative and rational by nature. Here is the fascinating part. In Neoplatonism, theoria (contemplation) is the creative power of the cosmos. This makes me think a painter could present the “unadulterated truth” of a subject, yet the beholder could see a completely different “truth.” Moreover, relative to whose “unadulterated truth?” Ask that question of the wrong person and you will get an earful about absolute truth being a myth. What, therefore, is causing the “creation?” The act of doing art, or the act of interpreting it? (Why does this question sound hauntingly like the proverbial “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)

It seems Ruskin understands how psychology also plays a role in interpretation of art. Even experimental psychology looks for “visual truth.” That is not to say all art is a therapeutic Rorschach, but how one views an object of art says something about the beholder that can be distinct from the intention of the artist. Does not theoretic faculty involve analyzing the “value and meaning” of mental impressions? Further, Ruskin does not believe imagination can be taught or explained. And even if in arguendo such skills could be taught, I would think the paradigm of the teacher and/or the technique being used to teach could (to a certain degree) impact or “mentor” the student regarding what is imagination and how to practice it. Moreover, interpretation can be impacted by one’s community of believers through suggesting (from a group think or group feel perspective) what one sees or should see. I think this communal context often causes geniuses and the gifted to fear misunderstanding, ridicule, or rejection, which can ultimately stifle expression. This begs the question Can something created but never publicly shared be called art?

I feel more confident now than at the beginning of this exercise to state that art must have a spiritual component. Creativity is gifted to us by the Creator. We are commanded to be creative; to procreate, use, subdue, name, categorize, and build upon what is. In this manner, creation (or if you prefer, art) is not “just art.” It is not only mechanical action. To a degree, art is “functional.” It is the “creative” use of that which is in order to make something which is not. This is precisely how God “created” Creation. He had a concept, intention, or desire (indeed, the “will” to make something) and He “expressed it” by essentially painting with His words! To me, this same process (albeit to a much lesser or universally dramatic degree) is utilized by artists (i.e., other “creators”) to express their vision in a manner that is an honest and accurate expression of what they were thinking or feeling. Creating a painting on canvas does not have the same “function” as a 1957 Corvette Stingray, but both are (at least to some) works of art. Of course, I cannot drive the painting to work!

I look forward to your feedback.

“Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961/2000), 18–19.

Responses from Classmates
From Meredith:

Hi Steven!

When reading through Ruskin, I found it very interesting how he related beauty to morality. You mention the idea of absolute truth, and I am curious if you think there is an absolute truth to what is beautiful–an absolute truth to what should inspire theoria? Ruskin also mentioned that humans can misuse pleasures and the senses, and that the Christian goal is not a hedonistic lifestyle. Do you think that art, when misused, can lead to lust, greed, or idolization that would not align with what Christianity teaches?

My response to Meredith:

The question of “absolute truth” is something I’ve been studying and writing about for over a year. I find it quite fun to compare and contrast the various isms (pluralism, moral relativism, secularism) with the Truth of the gospel. I wet my whistle (so to speak) in an undergraduate class at CCU regarding the history and philosophy of psychology. I’ll begin with deontological ethics. This school of thought is a principles-based system in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values. This differs from moral relativism in that the latter takes its cue (indeed, its definition) from culture or the situation. It is “relative” to the circumstances. Moral relativists believe morals are malleable. As a Christian, I believe moral truth is found in the Scriptures.

One of the greatest influences on my worldview (and my “apologetic” focus) is Ravi Zacharias. Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” It touts the “freedom” of not being held to “someone else’s moral compass.” Ravi says, “Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules” (1). He adds that Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It allows us to respond to any situation in a uniform manner, freeing us from trying to “figure out” right and wrong in an ad hoc manner regarding each given scenario. We live in a society that increasingly does not value truth on the biggest questions of life. I believe man’s fear stifles the truth about what we’re doing here, how we got here, how we should “behave,” and where we’re going when we die. Man bends the truth, stretches the truth, manipulates the truth to fit a particular worldview, culture, time period, or situation.

I do not believe there is a definition of “absolute beauty” as it applies to any give piece of art or to an observer’s response to that work of art. This is kind of tricky, because I do believe in an absolute underlying truth and morality that applies no matter the person or situation. This universal truth actually reveals the character and attributes of God. I see the ministry of Jesus as a pure revelation of truth and of the will of the Father. Given the fact that theoria essentially means “comprehension,” and can be impacted by linguistics and knowledge, it is not a foolproof means for determining the absolute meaning or “truth” behind a work of art. However, theoria is supposed to focus on direct experiential knowledge of the divine. Indeed, this can be implicated in interpreting art that has a philosophical or theological theme. What might muddy the waters a bit is that Neoplatonists not only see theoria as contemplation, they believe it is the creative power of the cosmos. This likely refers to Creation being spoken into existence. God created the universe and all its elements and creatures by “saying” what He wanted and it came to pass. His words were his “paint brush.”

Yes, I do believe art can be misused, but that seems to be limited to misuse of a work of art in a heretical or cult-like situation. It would be virtually impossible for the observer of a work of art to make an ontological determination of the intent or truthfulness of the artist by merely looking at the art. If the artwork seems wildly off base, however, then it seems a conversation with the artist would clarify his or her meaning. However, I don’t know where I stand regarding art as idolatry. I recommend looking at Professor Buchanan’s feedback to my initial discussion post. 

_________________________________________________________________________

(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York: Faith Words, 2019), 28.

The Roof

Up here
on the roof,
I am tall,
taller than all,
at the apex:
not of height,
nor of stature;

just here
at the edge
where anything
is possible:
creativity,
destruction,
enlightenment,
apostasy;
whatever I choose
begins up here
at the edge
of heaven and hell

where God waits,
and angels watch;
where birds soar
without awareness
of my struggle,
or my questions,
or my potential,
good or bad;

below, a community
ekes out its
existence,
parading
up and down
the streets
and avenues,
with no inkling
of what comes
next;

life in
pieces, its
very blood spilled
on the macadam
of tomorrow
by the handguns
of a thousand
angry, disenfranchised men,

rudderless,
willing to take
everyone
with them
into the
crevasse where
not even light
can escape.

©2017 Steven Barto

Writing is an Act of Courage

I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage. It’s almost a matter of physical courage. The second you have a brilliant idea, you make a point to remember it. Those of us who write know that never works. Ideas are fleeting. So we rush around looking for a pen and pad. Maybe we’re in the car, so we try to pull over and grab our notebook from the glove box. If you’re lucky enough to get in front of a note pad or laptop almost always what was brilliant before is somehow not so brilliant as you go to write. It’s as if you had a certain piece of music playing in your head that simply will not translate onto paper. And so you fail. You never really get that perfect work of art out of your brain.

What we cannot do as artists is consider the entire process a complete failure. First, do not call this phenomenon writer’s block, which means “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” Although writer’s block happens to every writer, it is not the end of your creative life. It can be simply a matter of timing. Some ideas need to percolate longer than others. It’s just not time to write yet. It can be a matter of fear. Truly, writers are often fearful of rejection, and for a myriad of reasons. It’s not just a matter of  fearing you’ll never get published. Writing is a very personal undertaking. Even when we don’t realize it, we’re bearing our soul. We all have “back story,” and we’re all prone to leaking information about our lives, our loved ones, our deep, dark secrets. Being genuine is risky. I’ve heard it said most writers don’t have a writing problem; they have a telling problem.

So what is writer’s block?

Jerry Jenkins lists the four main causes of writer’s block in this order:

  1. FEAR. What if I fail? Solution? Keep publishing. Don’t stop. Embrace the fear, because it is legitmate. Humble yourself. Writing is hard work. It’s a lonely profession. Fear can be a great motivator.
  2. PROCRASTINATION. This is a big problem for me, as it is for most writers. Procrastination is inevitable, so find ways to fight through it. Jenkins embraces procrastination as an asset. As long as you develop a writing habit, those times you’re away from your writing desk your subconscious is working through the story.
  3. PERFECTIONISM. Many writers struggle with perfectionism. Stephen King suggests you never show your first draft to anyone. A writer friend of mine refuses to discuss a project during the first draft, saying it spoils the process. Your first draft is for an audience of one: you. Many writers, including Jenkins, insist you need to write your first draft and edit later.
  4. DISTRACTIONS. Without fail, every time you sit down to write, even if it’s your “scheduled” time to write, something intrudes on your concentration. It can be a person, a pet, a phone call, social media. So ask yourself how important your writing dream is to you and take a stand. Select a specific writing time. Turn off all other media. This is not the time to use social media or do research. This is your freestyle writing time. Period.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work”—Stephen King.

I Wrote a Poem Once While Sleeping

I wrote a poem once while sleeping,
Each line flowing into the next, flawlessly fitting,
As easy as knitting (remembering Grandma).
It was as if I could not stop, I could not fail.
Although the words were like building blocks,
As if I were erecting the world’s greatest skyscraper,
It was not about architecture.
It was not even about substance.
It was, dare I say it?
Poetic.
Truly rhythmical, imaginative and melodious.
Not epic. Not really. But not the least bit commonplace.
I was soaring. Becoming one with the atmosphere.
Unstoppable. Insatiably gluttonous for words.
Dining on the abstract. Gobbling up the abstruse.
It seemed as though I could write forever.
And then the alarm clock went off.

©2015 Steven Barto

Directions to My Muse

Undo the four screws
on the plastic back

of the transistor radio.
Lift off the square with care.

Let the tiny people blossom
in the cup of your palm.

Hold the music, its weight—
write what you see,

It isn’t about writing—
it’s about opening, knowing.

©2018 Sarah Dickenson Snyder

About the Poet. Sarah Dickenson Snyder has two poetry collections: The Human Contract and Notes from a Nomad. Recent work will appear or has been in The Comstock Review, Damfino Press, The Main Street Rag, Chautauqua Literary Magazine, RHINO, The Sewanee Review, Front Porch, and Whale Road Review.   https://sarahdickensonsnyder.com/

Life’s Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Below you will find a poem by Tosha Michelle. I discovered the wonderful, brilliant, persuasive poetry of Tosha when she first commented on one of my poems. I started following her blog immediately. I am sure you will be swept up by the imagery of “Life’s Poetry.”

I sit. Heart in hand. I
create. Some of you
may turn away from
the blood. The red
spilling over. It’s OK
if you do.

Sometimes it scares
me too, but still I
hold it. Palms out.
I’m giving you what
frightens me. This
is me saying, yes, I’m
still here.

I give you my less than
moments, my insecurities,
my madness, my ideas
about life and love, my
shrine of longing.

My heart slipping from
my hands, falling past
my knees to the floor.

Falling toward your
shadow I hope you
will pick it up.
Feel the hopeful
beat that wars
with my still
soul and chaotic
mind. I give you
my wounds.

We connect through
our pain, my friend,
my reader. Through
the hornets in our
coffee cups. Our
syllables of what
we can’t forget.

As we suffer together,
fear becomes less.
Our hearts beat stronger.
Place them on the
dashboard like a
plastic Jesus.

It’s doesn’t matter if
they leak on the
floorboard. It only
matters that we travel on,
even if we’ve misplaced
the map, even if our sanity
becomes displaced, even if
we drive down a reckless road
on a moonless night.

Understand, if we want
heaven and angels,
sometimes we have
to ride around with
our demons.

Understand, sometimes,
darkness is the heart of
life, of beauty, of art.

-Tosha Michelle

Please click on the following link for more of Tosha Michelle’s engaging poetry: https://laliterati.com/category/poems/