Heather Walker Peterson
When I directed this question at my artist friend Rick Love, he laughed. “You know what [artists] call that? We call it Illustration.” Simply put, illustration often explains a text visually. The image informs the viewer of something, in this case, the Gospel. When Christians ask this question, they limit not only art, but also the Gospel, to mere information. By emphasizing information, Christians lose the understanding that both art and the Gospel are formational.
The most likely origin of this question returns me to the Reformers in the sixteenth century, particularly the “Lutheran polemicists” as artist and critic, Daniel A. Siedell, calls them. Early in my reading of his bookGod in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art, I came across this statement: “Art has tended to be viewed as a form of communication that serves specific educational needs.” He sees the Reformers as narrowing the scope of art to sharing specific information.
Flashing forward to evangelical Christianity, I once communicated about ten minutes of information about the Gospel (the good news of Jesus the Messiah) to evangelize people I barely knew. Theologian Scot McKnight writes in The King Jesus Gospel that by focusing on others’ personal decisions of salvation, I reduced the Gospel to information, instead of formation. I still rejoice at an individual response to Jesus. The issue is emphasis, such as when a church reports an annual number of personal decisions. Outcomes regarding discipleship are much trickier to put on paper. When decision is emphasized, formation can be lost.
Some time ago, I sat in a Sunday school class on the stewardship of financial resources. A couple explained that the husband went out for lunch only if he could witness to a non-Christian colleague. I grew uncomfortable. I couldn’t enjoy food at a restaurant without sharing what McKnight terms “the plan of salvation?” I asked about attending an art exhibit by myself. “That’s entertainment,” I was told by the teacher. I protested that I can experience God when I view art. I did not want to label that experience as simply entertainment.
I can experience God even when I’m not engaging in information derived from scripture. Many Christians claim to sense God’s presence when immersed in natural creation. The oft-quoted verse for general or natural revelation other than scriptural revelation is Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (ESV). If God’s creation reveals his glory, then humans, made in his image, reveal his glory too, sometimes unknowingly, in their work.
When Christians fail to understand that hints of the Gospel may be in the art they gaze upon (or listen to), they may have unintendedly assumed a simplistic version of Gnosticism, the separation of the material as bad and the spiritual as good. There is a suggestion of utilitarianism too—what matters is the usefulness of art, despite that God himself is extravagant in his glory.
Siedell opens and closes God in the Gallery with references to Acts 17. In it, Paul is featured at Areopagus on Mars Hill, mentioning an altar to “the unknown god.” He tells his listeners that he will share with them about the God who can be known. The altar and subsequent local poetry that Paul quotes “point” to God even if they do not “name” him, “but point they do, and they should be examined and celebrated as such.”
Similar discussions as the one raised by this question have pervaded history.
Arguing from Exodus 20, Luther believed that “no other images are forbidden than an image of God that is worshipped” (translated by Hans J. Hillebrand, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, in The Annotated Luther, edited by Stjerna, Kirsi I.). He affirmed the creation of images that are reminiscent of the memorial stones created in Joshua 24:26 and I Samuel 7:12 (crucifixes could be an example). He addressed images not deemed Christian art when he claimed it would be better to paint images from Bible stories on walls rather than “shameless worldly things.”
Earlier at the end of the sixth century, Gregory the Great wrote to the Bishop Serenus in Marseilles. He requested him not to destroy churches’ images because those who were illiterate needed the images for understanding. His statement focused on the educational value of the images, which apparently would have been unnecessary if all could read.
Siedell, however, maintains that art should be treated more like icons, whose existence in the church was affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea towards the end of the eighth century. Its conveners recognized them not as educational but a way to encounter the spiritual. Art needs to be approached with “contemplation,” rather than as an instrument of “communication.” Their focus is formational rather than informational.
My artist friend Rick https://www.ricklove.com/Tape creates art with brightly colored tape. With a two-dimensional material, he challenges the viewer’s perception, particularly of depth. As a viewer, I find myself surprised by the depth of a flat surface and then disappointed that my new perception will be fleeting due to the lack of the tape’s durability. I recognize that my perception of reality is also rich with input but just as fleeting. I need someone greater than myself who has the ultimate view of reality. By desiring something with permanence, I’m hungering for the Gospel: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
How do churches support art that isn’t informing others about the plan of salvation? In Siedell’s words, the church is to examine and celebrate it. The way I do this is to get myself to art shows. On the university campus where I work, I’m fortunate to be a stone’s throw from the building that hosts the student art gallery. I have a new attitude toward the pieces that are untitled, giving me no communication toward their possible meaning. Instead of feeling frustrated, as I view each piece, I prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to help me to experience it as I would an icon.
Heather Walker Peterson is the chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern–Saint Paul, Minnesota, and a member of the Anselm Society in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She’s also on a core team to birth a new artists’ collective for Christians in the Twin Cities of Minnesota: Cities Arts Collective.