Festal Muchness & Cleansing Simplicity

I find that many Christians do not know what to do with excess. The image of "apes defecating coins" mingling with "hybrid beings handling money" in the 14th-century tale, Piers Plowman, captures well the popular sentiment: there's something inherently dangerous about it. Or take, for example, the miracle at the wedding of Cana. The event is read by commentators, rightly so, as an attestation of Jesus’ divine nature.

Yet while the abundant wine may be ascribed to God’s grace, that grace is often interpreted in
terms of “un-merited favor.” The juridical language outweighs the ontological. The factor of abundance is viewed as a husk to the kernel of divine witness, as an adjective to the noun of the σημεῖον or "sign." But the obvious question remains neglected: Why so exceedingly much?

Rarely, I suggest, is that abundance viewed as theologically important in itself, with implications for the way in which we are formed into the image of Christ and how we live out that image in the world.

Yes, excess can be dangerous. History bears that out, ah, rather excessively well. Indulgences, carnal and otherwise, abound. But we must still reckon with the excesses for which God is directly responsible: God's creation, Jesus' miracles, the Spirit's gifts. They exceed all presumed notions of need (cf. Matt. 26:6-13).

They also, granted, must be kept in dynamic tension with practices which the New Testament commends to us: practices of asceticism, purgation, simplicity and a healthy rhythm of life.

It's in light of this promising tension that I include here an excerpt from my chapter (on the dangers of art) in For the Beauty of the Church. Two chapters did not get excerpted by the time the book came out, mine and John Witvliet's. I'll save John's for last. In the meanwhile, here are a few things to chew on. I welcome your feedback, whether you're Quaker or Russian Orthodox.


You and I are creatures of the earth made by a God who established rhythms for the
preservation of life. Evening and morning. Summer and winter. Cross and resurrection. These are rhythms in nature and in history, rhythms both physical and spiritual, of plenty and of scarcity. I submit, in light of these rhythms, that God has created us, also, to experience the artistic rhythms of festal muchness and cleansing simplicity. Like so much in our life, our artistic health is a movement across a spectrum, from the maximal to the minimal, back and forth, each playing an important role in our maturation as disciples.

Consider Scripture’s witness to festal muchness. In I Kings 8:22-53 Solomon prays a dedicatory prayer for the newly built temple. He then throws a party at which he barbecues “so many sheep and cattle that they could not be counted or recorded!” Could not be counted? Surely that adds up to an exercise in bovine extravagance. At the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) Jesus makes 600+ liters of wine, far surpassing any notion of need. In God’s creation of the universe there are vast surpluses which we cannot reduce to human utility. Creation generates a seemingly limitless combinations of tasty flavors, from the fiercely pungent Durian fruit to the Toasted Marshmallow Jelly Belly candy.

But the Scriptures also commend the practice of cleansing simplicity. “When you fast…” Jesus tells his disciple, reminding them that fasting is not an “if” but a “when” (Matt. 6:16). “Deny yourself and take up your cross,” he says in Mark 8:35. “I have learned to be content with little,” Paul tells the believers at Philippi and encourages them to learn likewise (Phil. 4:12). All throughout, the Scriptures commend to us a habit of giving ourselves to intentional acts of self-denial for the sake of re-orienting our lives. We regularly need our systems cleaned of clutter: noise, busyness, stuff, media, addictive attachments. The practice of cleansing simplicity, to paraphrase Richard Foster, not only cleans us out, it can bring to light the things that control us.

What might this dual rhythm look like in the artistic life of our church?

In one season you might choose to display an abundance of visual art—photography, prints, drawings, paintings, textile arts, banners—a bonanza of images giving witness to the graphic splendor of God’s creation. In another season you decide to exhibit only one work. You place one excellently crafted sculpture, say, at the center of congregational life—maybe at the entrance to the property or in the sanctuary itself. You allow your people to feast on this lone thing for three months, or even an entire year. You let it be long enough for them to feel both the absence of abundance and the tastiness of that one, ever-resonating work of beauty.

Or for one very, very long season you build a cathedral. A cathedral! Yes, like the kinds you find scattered throughout Europe. As outrageous as that may sound to our evangelical ears, it is no more outrageous than God’s creation of the teeming oceans. Is it worth the time, energy and expense? That depends on a lot of factors. But we may also ask, are the flora and fish of the Seven Seas worth the time, energy and expense? Is the nard that Mary poured over Jesus, valued at a year’s labor, worth the time, energy and expense? Is it worth the waste?

Jesus’ answer to his disciples overturns their assumed notions of worth. Extravagant beauty, whether in creation or in artistic acts, is not the problem. Selfish excess is. So if it seems good to you and to the Holy Spirit (and to the city council), then build a cathedral and let it give glory to God and real love to your neighbors. While you’re building your cathedral, commit to give generously to the poor and needy. Make your cathedral a welcoming place for all in the surrounding neighborhoods. Make it a gift of great beauty to the city that God so loves.

A last example of this rhythm can take place in our musical worship. Many of us use multiple instruments to give sound to our worship of God: orchestras, choirs, guitars, drums, pianos, stringed and percussion instruments, pipe and B-Hammond organs. At our best we celebrate the praise of God with sonic muchness. But what if twice a year we simplified the experience? What if we chose to sing with only one instrument or, dare we propose, none at all? How might that awaken our hearts afresh to God? How might that rescue us from confusing the heart of worship with the instruments of worship? Might it make us notice more the persons alongside whom we lift our praise heavenward? At the very least, giving ourselves to the practice of cleansing simplicity would go a long way to countering the negative effects of media super-saturation.

In the end, if we only have either festal muchness or cleansing simplicity we will tire out, with too much or too little. While I recognize a relativity to church cultures, where some will manifest one to a degree more than the other (the gregarious Brazilians vs the reserved Scandinavians), I believe that entering actively into these God-ordained rhythms will lead to the kind of ecclesial well-being that God has ordained for His people.


Gwen said…
This is excellent. Not something I had thought to apply to a corporate setting. My family does this with entertaining. We had a family in from Nova Scotia and we celebrated all that was FW. They asked if we "ate out like this all the time." No, we had not been out to eat in over six months, but when company arrived, it was time to celebrate. I am afraid my kids don't quite get it. My 14 year old wants to "eat out" all the time and for him there is no sense of celebration associated with it. Maybe it is time to work a little extra simplicity into our lives so we can more thoroughly enjoy the muchness. Thank you for the reminder.
That's great, Gwen, thanks for your comment. Growing up in Guatemala, we went out to eat every few months. My dad would often ask, on our drive home from church, who wanted to go "Mama Yvonne's Ristorante." I don't know why we fell for it so many times, but we did. That was another way for him to ask who wanted to eat my mother's home cooking. Yes, the experience of simplicity can make you appreciate the festal muchness even more sharply, and gladly.
Ancient Mariner said…
David O.

I saw your profile in the May 2010 edition of CT and it brought a wide smile to my face. Much has happened since our days in Vancouver...

George Sweetman
nattles said…
"Creation generates a seemingly limitless combinations of tasty flavors, from the fiercely pungent Durian fruit to the Toasted Marshmallow Jelly Belly candy."

we miss your witty teaching style:)!
George, so kind of you. Thank you. It's hard to believe that we met a solid fifteen years ago. I hope our paths cross at some point, before we're 90.

Boudreau family: a warm shout-out from North Carolina. I'll be at Hope Chapel in June, so hopefully we'll see you then.
Unknown said…
Ha! Cool. Muchness and Simplicity...

It's a concept that integrates God's creatorship and our fallenness at the same time. Celebrate! (But remember humility) Fast and pray! (But remember grace).

I thought you might enjoy my explorations of faith and painting at http://dnelsonart.wordpress.com
David, thanks for stopping by. I think the concept behind your artwork is quite brilliant. I'm certainly intrigued. Well done. And nice artist statement too.

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