A Creational Framing of the Arts

cropped-saint-john-iconPhilosopher James K.A. Smith at Calvin College provides a set of tremendously beneficial comments over at Comment Mag regarding the poetry of Charles Wright. It is a poignant retractor to the working assumption that Christians ought to quietly avoid the arts because of their tainted worldview. I do not doubt that there is a tragic, often evangelistic immorality in the broken inner-space of unconverted artists. But to me, the rejoinder Smith offers to this retreatist attitude is beautifully clarifying:

“We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power.”

“[Having] a creational framing of the arts grants license for art to be quite “useless” —to (almost) be art for its own sake, for the sake of delight and play, for the sheer wonder and mystery of creating. Some of our best artists show us corners of creation we wouldn’t have seen otherwise—and often because they’ve just given birth to a possibility hitherto only latent in the womb of creation.

Unhooking the arts from a “theological” instrumentalism also grants space for the arts to reveal the brokenness of creation without being supervised by a banal moralism. A painting or a poem reveals the world with a harrowing attention that will sometimes bring us face-to-face with what we’ve managed to willfully ignore up to that point.

In sum, the arts can be a means of what we might call “horizontal” revelation without necessarily being connected to “vertical” revelation. …This is why I have become a devotee of the poetry of Charles Wright—not because I “find God” in his poetry…but because through his poetry I see the world again, the world that’s been in front of me this whole time.

A worldview is an interpretational grid of the world. It is a means through which we experience metanarrative in a personalized form. Each one us not only has a story, but is a story, and is contained within a constellation of stories that, once distilled, are simply threads within the fabric of the one story—the metanarrative. In art, we are not only dealing with broken people, but broken worldviews. Art is idea at war. But this does not demand defensiveness from us. The Christian Theist can benefit enormously from the profundity of an artist whose worldview is dead in sin because the moral inability of man has not jeopardized the existence of creative beauty, it has only stained it.

There is truth and untruth. But there is not gracious beauty and ungracious beauty. The Christian artist is called to embody a new (and very old) vision of human flourishing in their craft by joining God in its renewal through service, excellence, and thanksgiving. The grace of God has preserved creative beauty as a painful echo of Eden. And since we have tasted the power of superior pleasure, Christian artists ought to engage in gospel-centered interaction with the gracious beauty in fallen art by reimagining their vocation around the Lordship of Christ.

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