How mysterious is the incarnation of God in man in the person of Jesus Christ! God, who is spirit, makes Himself known in the body of Jesus. Making the word flesh is, of course, the aim of every poet. The goal of art is to turn what is spirit into a poem, a painting, a dance, or a song. It is the same impulse, to turn what is ineffable into something concrete. To turn the abstract into something that can be lived within the body. The Greek word, Logos, which means the Word and the Deed, is an attempt to explain the mystery of metaphor and the nature of incarnation. The symbol and that which it represents somehow one. The word, love, and the experience of love married in meaning.
To put this simply, all artists attempt to convey intangibles by turning them into tangibles. We feel love. How to describe it? God gives us the Bible and the life of Jesus to illustrate what love is. Of course our artistic attempts to represent what love is fall short, but the impulse is the same, to help the audience experience with the poet or the painter, the human emotion of love anew.
If our love is a red, red rose, do we not understand love as fragrant, beautiful, and thorny?
This is a mystery that man has struggled with over the millennia; that is how to convey one man’s experience to another? How does one build a bridge from one heart to another, one spirit to another? I am reminded of the bewildering experience on Mount Sinai. The Hebrews want to see God for themselves. So God commands them to line up, and He instructs Moses to build barricades around the mountain. The people purify themselves in preparation. Touching the mountain is an instant death sentence. They gather and suddenly lightning and thunder, trumpets and clouds descend on the mountain and everyone is duly terrified. God is not yet approachable; He is not yet available to be touched. Jesus is not yet come.
So instead, because no mediator yet exists between God and man, Moses brings down the Ten Commandments written in stone. The Ten Commandments receive a bad rap today. At least it seems so by the accounts on the news of monuments of the Ten Commandments being torn down or vandalized. But it in metaphor, the rock of the law is important. If God is love, the Ten Commandments show us what love looks like in community. He is the rock upon which we stand, the rock upon which men fall.
Metaphor bridges the gap between human experience and human relationship. Jesus bridges the gap between humanity and God, and art seeks to create unity between people.
The artists say to us, “Here is what sadness sounds like. Here is what joy looks like. Do you have ears to hear and eyes to see?”
The first five books of the Bible are written in verse, handed down to Moses word for word. God’s first words to us are in poetry. “Experience Me,” He is saying. “Feel My rhythm; sing My songs,” He invites.
The other work of the artist is the work of redemption, the resurrection of the dead. Our attempts at resurrection serve as important markers of the human experience. We turn our losses into music and our sorrows into novels. Jesus resurrects from the dead and makes all things new. Our art is weak compared to the Lord of the Dance, and yet it is part of our calling as humans to create, to make memories, to seek out the beautiful in the wretched. For some of us, this is how we make disciples of all nations. This is how we incarnate the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We are made in the image of God, who from the beginning shows Himself creative.
And if the Word of God is an extended metaphor for the person of Jesus Christ, we must learn to partake in the Bible on art’s terms.
Arguments about Jonah and the whale and the specifics of species or how many animals were in Noah’s ark fall into a category of logical fallacy, specifically ad ignorantum. If something is not known to be true, it is assumed to be false. Likewise if a thing is not known to be false, it is assumed to be true. It is ok to not know how the Red Sea parted. It is ok to not understand why Samson’s hair made him strong.
I do not know what kind of fish Jonah encountered. I don’t care. I am too busy trying to understand how to escape from my own damp prison, a consequence of running from God in this or that area of my life. Metaphor helps me understand and enter into Jonah’s experience. I receive manna from heaven. I cross the Red Sea. I am headed towards the Promised Land.
Understanding how art works helps me understand on a deep level the experiences of my brothers and sisters in the Bible.
Art in history served as a proclamation of the Gospel. Stained glass windows told stories to illiterate penitents. Icons preserved the stories that had to be told for few owned books and fewer could read.
I tell my students that every piece of art is an argument for or against the existence of God. Is there beauty? Is there truth? Or is there chaos and descent into human hells of our own making? Today, it seems Christians are afraid of art because they are afraid of the battles involved. To make art as a Christian is to encounter resistance. So Christian writers write for Christians. Christian artists sing for Christians. I am not criticizing. I like Christian books and music.
But to participate in art is to seek out the sacred. The world and the flesh and the devil oppose this. To create is to war. God spoke order and light into the cosmos, the chaotic swirling darkness.
If, as Christians, we begin to participate in the artistic process, as our brothers and sisters have throughout the last two thousand years and more, we begin to bring in the Kingdom.
That Kingdom is best expressed through metaphor; the pearl, the treasure, the wedding feast. That is the Kingdom which we must manifest from within, a kingdom of spirit made flesh, God incarnated through Jesus in our very souls and through our bodies. Let there be light! Let us make art!