another way. Begbie argues a great story or painting or
dance can challenge our assumptions that the world is
something we can master because it confronts us with
the reality that the universe – and the God who made
it – is inexhaustible.
Begbie makes his case by analyzing Shakespeare’s
straightforward figure of speech – “Juliet is the sun.”
If we wanted to translate that metaphor into propositional language, we’d have to flatten it into a singular
meaning – Juliet seems to glow or Juliet makes me warm
or Juliet gives me life. But if we leave the metaphor intact, we enjoy a richness of meaning that is irreducible.
It contains very specific meaning, but that meaning
can’t be exhausted.
We need our minds and imaginations to be renewed
– disciplined – because of our tendency to reduce the
world into more manageable dimensions. Author
Ronald Rolheiser suggests in The Shattered Lantern:
Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God (Crossroad Publishing, 2005) that when we attempt to flatten out reality
in this way, we suffer from a “low symbolic hedge” that
drains the meaning out of experience. He asks us to
imagine a middle-aged man beset by chronic back pain.
What does this pain mean? It can mean that he
has arthritis, a medical symbol; or it can mean he
is undergoing some midlife crisis, a psychological symbol; or it can mean that he is undergoing
the paschal mystery, that this is his cross, a religious symbol. Or it might mean all three. The
symbols with which we enter and interpret our
experience can be low (suffering arthritis) or high
(being part of the paschal mystery!).
Art – religious or otherwise – can contribute powerfully to the life of the spirit by inviting us to make explicit the multiplicity of meaning implicit in ordinary
life. Only God can transform us through the renewing
of our minds. But apprenticing ourselves to great art
is one of the spiritual disciplines we can use to co-operate with Him in the sanctifying of our imaginations.
4. Finally, the arts help us train to appreciate
things (and especially people) for more than their
“One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I
may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in His
temple.” – Psalm 27: 4
Many pieces of art have a practical purpose (think of a
crystal water jug or a richly elegant pen), but usually
what helps us identify art as art is the fact we appreciate
it for more than its usefulness. We value it purely for its
aesthetic qualities. In this sense art is extra-utilitarian.
The stubborn streaks of both pragmatism and nar-
cissism in our culture push us toward utilitarianism.
They make us highly prone to see other things – and
especially other people – only in terms of how they
map onto us and our perceived needs. We tend to
pursue relationships that can fill particular roles in
our lives, teach us something or improve our profes-
sional or social standings.
We can try of course to pay attention to others for
who they really are, but the arts can help us train to
appreciate things and people on their own terms.
Only the God who takes note of every sparrow and
knows the hairs on our heads can give us eyes to see
every creature the way He does. But the arts can and
should be means of grace, given to us by the Master
Artist, that help us learn to attend to His image in every
single one of His image bearers.
It is us, after all, whom God considers His work of art
(Ephesians 2: 10). /FT
Carolyn Arends is a Vancouver-based recording artist, author and
director of education for Renovaré
Simple ways to nourish your spirit with the arts
Listen with careful attention to a type of music you might not
otherwise hear. What is happening in the bass? Is there more than
one instrumental melody playing at once? If there are words, ask
yourself whether the music is “saying” the same thing as the lyrics.
Visit an art gallery. Wander through slowly. Find a painting you are
drawn to and look at it for two full minutes. Do you see anything
you didn’t see at the beginning? Now do the same thing with a
painting you find baffling.
Make a meal as artfully as you possibly can, using fresh whole
ingredients and spices. Invite friends and family over to eat it, and
serve it on your very best china.
Read the poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley
Hopkins every day for one week. After day three, feel free to
google the poem to learn more about its meaning.
Do you know an artist? See if you can buy her a coffee. Ask what
inspires her, and ask her to teach you one thing about her craft you
probably don’t know.
If possible, ask your church worship leaders to consider the idea
of including one art form (maybe a sculpture or a dance or even a
scent) they’ve never used before in an upcoming service.
We need our