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Thinking Christianly About the Arts

Christian portraiture artist Mike Mahon joins the panel to discuss a Christian view of the arts. Mike is a southwest artist and elder in the Rio Rancho Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Mike shares his many years of thought reflecting on how Christian’s should approach the arts.

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Nate Shannon

10 years ago

At one point Mike expressed his idea that art should “have a story,” and he used Picasso as an example of an artist who was a great innovator in terms of form, but who maintained the “story” or narrative aspect, with the result that his art is appreciable or something like that, rather than empty. I appreciate what Mike says here a lot, but this comment also brought to my mind the fact that many people – not just Christians I suppose – are easily put off by art which is difficult to understand, or which appears that way anyway. I suppose that’s just fine, but then so often trepidation sets in, and even resentment. “I don’t get it” becomes accusation. But it shouldn’t. Two ideas I had on this count, which point to a kind of entrenched rationalism behind this reaction. First, its easy to approach a work of art – visual, performance, music, whatev – not only with expectations (we should have these, no one is a vegetable) but also with demands. A work of art has to be allowed to speak its own language. Only then can be really be enriched, or moved by a work of art in new ways. A painting or whatever is what it is with or without us; it would be a shame to walk by it and say “that doesn’t speak my language” and coolly dismiss it. It’s our loss when we do that. So we have a habit of dismissing what is not readily intelligible – here’s the entrenched rationalism – instead of letting the art be what it is. Secondly, have a seat I’m about to get Van Tillian… just beyond the boundaries of finite knowledge is what? God’s knowledge – that’s the Christian answer. Or, a vast unknowable desert, the non-Christian answer. So from the Christian point of view, if we don’t understand a piece of music or a visual work, that doesn’t have to be an indictment. We can still enjoy it. Its more likely that from the unbelieving point of view, the prospect of the great unknown should occasion an existential crisis. God is mysterious and unknowable, but we know some things truly about him. On those grounds we are encouraged to say that God is beautiful, among other things, and we can do so quite happily. Even the mystery or mysteriousness of God is beautiful, no doubt. So if I hear a piece of music which is really quite weird, or see a painting which is just a totally new kind of thing for me, that should be as much, maybe more, but certainly not less, an occasion for worship and worshipful appreciation, than when I enjoy something more familiar or intelligible. “I don’t get it” is nothing to fear, I guess I mean to say. On this count too it seems like there is a habit to hunker down in a defensive rationalistic position, and what seems to me more common in Christian circles than in the secular context is to moralize that position, and to respond moralistically to an encounter with mystery in art.

Thanks

Tim H.

10 years ago

Thanks Nate. I’ve never been one to appreciate poetry (or much art, really), but since being influenced by T. David Gordon, Ken Myers, and the Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis), I’ve been trying to teach myself to appreciate what is good, starting with poetry.

Ken Myers did a great interview with poet and professor Jeanne Murray Walker (http://www.marshillaudio.org/resources/volume_contents.asp?segmentVolumeID=098) in which she explained how students frequently come to poetry as if the poem is a secretly encoded message and his task is to decode the poem for it’s underlying message. That struck me as I realized it’s how I’ve always come to poetry. Walker went on to suggest that if a poem could be distilled down to several lines of terse prose, we wouldn’t have needed the poem in the first place! The form itself carries much weight.

I’m still struggling with poetry. But that insight is a burden lifted.

Nate Shannon

10 years ago

Hi Tim,

Thanks for your comments. Let me assure you that time spent learning to appreciate poetry or any art form is time well spent, you will reap in spades. It does take time though, and I think it takes more time and patience than it does work, which may be something close to what you are getting at above. What comes too easily or too quickly isn’t as valuable, right?

Thanks

Mike Mahon

10 years ago

I finally was able to listen to some of the interview and realized that I miss quoted C.S. Lewis. The quote should have been:

“Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
I’m afraid that I got a little tongue tied. I guess I should have painted a picture instead of trusting my memory.

Jonathan

10 years ago

Great comments guys! Maybe we should do a RMR on poetry. I am a huge fan of Longfellow and Dune, but I am not an expert by any means.

Mike Mahon

10 years ago

Longfellow is my favorite, too. I know some of his poems by heart, since high school.

Tim H.

10 years ago

I’m sure T. David Gordon would be happy to come back on to discuss poetry from a Reformed perspective.

Steve

10 years ago

I enjoyed the discussion on the arts. At one point the matter of bibleography came up. I have found the following books on the arts generally, helpful from an evangelical point of view.

Art and The Bible – Schaeffer
Art For Gods Sake – P.G. Ryken
State of The Arts – Veith
The Christian The Arts and Truth – Gaebelein
Modern Art and The Death of Culture – Rookmaaker
The Christian Imagination – L. Ryken
Rainbows For The Fallen World – Seerveld
Art In Action – Wolterstorff

There are many fine books on diffrent areas of the arts but the above make a good starting point.

Best Regards In Christ

Steve

Steve in Toronto

10 years ago

I am glad to see that someone has mentioned Rookmaaker, Seerveld and Wolterstorff To this esteemed list I would like to add Lambert Zidelvart, Calvin Seerveld successor at The Institute for Christian Studies http://www.icscanada.edu/faculty/lzuidervaart/ . As an aside I am curious as to why we don’t hear more from the Neo-Calvinist/ Dooyeweerdean (sp?) perspective on the Reformed Forum. Both this show and your series on Christ and Culture would have benefited from input from a tradition that puts these issues front and center. I was first introduced to the reformed tradition at Toronto’s ICS and their esteem for the arts was one of their most attractive elements features.

Nate Shannon

10 years ago

I also enjoyed a collection of essays edited by Ned Bustard entitled It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. I benefited a great deal from Dr.Edgar’s contribution there.

Thanks

Mike Mahon

10 years ago

Nate,
It was Good-Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard and State of the Arts by Veith are the books I was trying to remember in my interview.

Mike Mahon

10 years ago

One other book I would like to recommend is by Paul Johnson entitled, ART: A New History. I don’t know Johnson’s religious views, but he is a remarkable historian who has written such books as, A History of the American People, The Quest for God, The Birth of the Modern, A History of the Jews, A History of Christianity, and more. I have also read his History of Christianity and found it very enlightening.

Tim H.

10 years ago

Ken Myers’s All God’s Children and Blue Suede shoes should be mentioned as well.

Steve

10 years ago

Keep a look out also for “Art and Soul” from Brand and Chaplin.

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