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: Hermeneutic Function of Music in Religion

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

What does it mean to suggest that music serves a “hermeneutic function” with respect to texts (Viladesau 2000, 48)? Might something similar be argued with respect to images?

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

Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things” (1). Whitehead believes religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness, which might include expression of one’s devotion to God through song. But he added, “Thus religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious” (2). To me, this flies in the face of the need for corporate worship, fellowship, Sunday school and other study groups, and observance of the Lord’s Supper as a congregation. As Whitehead shared, Earth (indeed, the universe) is sustained by creative energy. Whitehead uniquely says, “…actual fact is a fact of aesthetic experience” (3). He adds, “Expression is the one fundamental sacrament” (4). An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

We are to answer the question whether music has any hermeneutic value. In other words, can music mirror God and His Word? Maeve Louise Heaney did a theological-hermeneutical analysis of this question through exploring Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (for cello and piano). As I closed my eyes and listened to this amazing piece of music, I was pulled into contemplation. The cello invited introspection while the piano notes seemed to tick off time—suggesting an “inventory” of behaviors or thoughts. This is a great example of how music can take us to a place of transformation.

Christian music, contemporary or traditional, tends to create in me a sense of spirituality that prepares me for whatever comes next in my day. It especially prepares me for hearing the sermon that follows our worship service. We have a full-time Worship Pastor (Holly) who has an M.A. Our worship segment is quite beautiful. Holly has a way of getting everyone involved in worship, as it should be. I believe Christian music that is based on sound Christian doctrine cannot help but mirror God and instruct or motive us to action. Heaney says, “Music is a powerful symbolic form which I believe can and does enrich human living and mediate the Christian faith experience” (5).

Hermeneutics involves explaining, interpreting, or translating Scripture. Much of the same pitfalls that accompany biblical studies—presupposition, bias, personal taste or conviction, attitudes toward the subject matter, and the like— can befall us during interpretation of music (liturgical or other). This should not invalidate the hermeneutic value of music. Viladesau noted that liturgical music is not simply a parallel experience; it is a metaexperience. It can prepare hearts and minds for the “spoken” message delivered by the pastor. The sermon can be “co-experienced” with worship music. Viladesau says music can lead our minds to the sacred by being the “bearer” of the message; by eliciting appropriate emotional reactions; and by the manifestation of a beauty that transcends the human spirit. Music can also carry doctrinal truth. I agree with Viladesau that music serves a hermeneutical function because it helps us interpret the Word of God, moving it from interlocutory to emotive. Music “…does not merely ‘charm the sense,’ but also ‘captivates the mind’ and ‘strikes the heart’” (6).

Response from Fellow Classmates

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your contribution to this conversation. I agree with Viladesau’s statements, as well, regarding the hermeneutic function of music with respect to text. I would also have to agree with Alfred Whitehead’s position as you quoted. I don’t necessarily agree with your assertions, that Whitehead’s statement regarding religion and solitude “flies in the face of the need for corporate worship”, but please do clarify your point if I’m missing something. I don’t see it as a “either/or” position, but rather a “both/add”. He doesn’t say “only of you are solitary”, he says, “if you are never solitary”. Solitary has it place as does corporate worship, I think Whitehead would agree. It could be easy to get caught up in the emotion of corporate worship, without ever contemplating the meaning of a song. Lord knows I have, even while playing in the church band, or singing in the choir. Both “solitariness” and corporate worship, in my mind have an a distinct, but in same respects separate, roles to play in the development of our faith. Anyway, loved reading your thoughts, now excuse me while I click on the link you shared.

My Response to David

David,

Thanks for your comments regarding my initial discussion post. I looked back at Whitehead’s statement. I initially took issue with his remark concerning the “practice” of religion because it sounded too emphatic in stating that religion is solitariness. He further states if you are never solitary, you are never religious. I want to thank you as I think you helped me see my part in limiting Whitehead’s meaning; in fact, it is possibly me who read the statements too narrowly. I thought he was saying we are only religious (or practicing religion) when we’re “solitary.” I now believe Whitehead meant we are only religious if part of our daily worship is solitary: alone with God. This can even include singing privately unto Him. I also agree with (and really like) your assertion that if our worship is limited to times spent with the community of believers, then we might lack true (solitary) worship. Agreed. The corporate worship experience has (by default) a tendency to stifle personal contact and solitary experience.

Thanks for the challenge. It allowed me to correct my viewpoint before it became “ingrained.”

Blessings,

Steven Barto


(1) Alfred North Whitehead, “Religion in the Making” Lecture 1 notes (March 13, 1926).
(2) Ibid.
(3) Whitehead, “Religion in the Making” Lecture 3 notes.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Maeve Louise Heaney, “Can Music Mirror God? A Theological-Hermeneutical Exploration of Music,” (April 1, 2014. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel5020361
(6) Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 38.

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. 

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