This coming Sunday I preach my last sermon in Austin before heading off to North Carolina. Cliff asked if I would give Christ Church my best, most awesomest sermon on the arts. I told him that was too much pressure. Instead I'll give them my best shot. And it'll connect to some of my recent reading.
I just finished Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' excellent book, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. In it he explores the aesthetic ideas of French philosopher Jacques Maritain. This he does in chapter 1. In chapters 2 and 3 he considers the impact of Maritain's ideas on two 20th-century artists: David Jones, a poet and painter, and Flannery O'Connor, a novelist. In Williams' final chapter he teases out some of the implications of Maritain's basic presumption, namely that faith or, more boldly, Christian doctrine, far from suppressing creativity, makes "more and deeper things possible for the artist."
I love that. Amen and amen.
I usually read in a chair that sits at the front corner of our dining area. It looks out onto our front yard. I watch people walk by with their dogs. The garbage man picks up our buckets of trash with his superman mechanical arm. Squirrels scamper up the pecan tree that stands to the left of our entrance. I drink my tea. I eat my granola. I keep a small ruler, a pencil and a yellow highlighter on my lamp table, which help me keep track of things that catch my attention.
A few days ago I asked myself for the "eleventy billionth" time why we humans make art. The question per se doesn't trouble me. What troubles me is when I add the word "should." Why should humans be making art?
For a brief moment the answers became very clear. There are three reasons why I believe we as humans, and moreso Christians, should make art.
1. God is creative, therefore we as bearers of God's image are creative. We are creative in many divers ways: as industrial engineers and food scientists, as humanitarian lawyers and figure skaters. One way we express our creativity is through artistic works. God makes the Andes mountains, Frank Gehry makes architectural wonders like the Dancing House. God makes the viper fish, Flannery O'Connor makes The Violent Bear it Away. God makes squirrels who play tag half of the day in our back yard, we make A Mid-Summer's Night Dream and big band music and Texas Hold'Em.
God commissions poetry (in the form of a Psalter) to communicate essential theological features of his way of being, we commission T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Eminem's The Marshall Mathers to communicate essential features of our way of being, confused as it may be. This last example ties in to our second reason.
2. We as humans make art as one way to make sense of things. Art specifically enables a process of discovery for us that "ordinary rational naming and analysing fail to represent." Let me allow the Archbishop to speak for himself:
"By engaging us in an unforeseen pattern of coherence or integrity, art uncovers relations and resonances in the field of perception that 'ordinary' seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny. Thus art in one sense 'dispossesses' us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.
So, finally, it opens up the dimension in which 'things are more than they are', 'give more than they have'."
For example, Steinbeck writes Of Mice and Men to make sense of the effects of natural disaster on human community. Sondheim, along with Laurents and Bernstein, creates The West Side Story to make sense of ethnic tensions in mid-1950s New York.
And speaking of musicals, the Disney channel creates High School Musical 3 because it totally rocks to break out into song whenever you feel like it. You can be a jock and a dancer. Oh yea!
3. At the center of the life of the Godhead, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is grace. Grace always offers itself as an excess of divine life. In the being of God we find a super-abundance of love, joy, goodness, creativity and so on. Grace is excess.
Human beings, as image-bearers, will always manifest a life that is X+1. To be human, in my little formula, is to be X+1, where X satisfies all our most basic needs for human subsistence--such as water, food, shelter, work, relationship--and 1 represents the realm of excesses and superfluities, such as, well, everything that makes human life full and rich and, to put the point sharply, true. God gives us not mere water but artesian springs water. He also gives us the imaginative and technical capacity to create Dom Perrier water and Lemonade water and and thirst-quenching Gatorade Tiger water, the official drink of Tiger Woods.
God does not provide us with minimalist food. He creates a world with a capacity to produce over 7,500 varieties of apple. 7,500! From this myriad variety we can make apple juice and apple wine. We can make apple pie, apple crumble, apple cake, apple crisp. We can bake them or stew them. We can dry or puree them. The Brits make a toffee apple. Isaac Newton gets hit on the head by a falling apple and discovers a theory of universal gravitation.
Do we need jazz music? That depends on how we use the term "need." If we equate need with our most basic requirements for human subsistence, then no. But that reduces human life to a minimalist notion, which contradicts the whole ethos of Genesis 1 and 2. Look at God's own behavioral pattern. He does not make minimalist trees. He makes endlessly variegated trees. Why? Grace. Indeed creation reflects the same kind of grace that represents the inner life of the Godhead.
So when we make jazz music, we do so as a way to enter into the very life of God, a life marked by the excesses of grace.
I can't pretend to have described these three reasons for art-making with the highest precision. But I hope I've given us a good enough reason not to dismiss art hastily. Is evangelism important? Yes. Is feeding the poor important? Yes. Are they needful? Yes. The one participates in God's work to mend the human heart through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The other participates in God's work to provide for our most basic needs as humans.
Is art-making important? Yes. In making it we bear out the image of God as creative beings. We deepen our knowledge of ourselves. And beyond that we participate in the always-more-than grace of our triune God who ever pulls us into the Life that is truly Life.