This is the first in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

© Humberto Marum. Used under a Creative Commons licence

Reflecting or shaping?

Marvin doesn’t like living in a media-dominated world. He doesn’t watch television, avoids the cinema, shuns social networking and only reads non-fiction. He’s on the sidelines of contemporary culture, but firmly believes that the world is in steep moral decline and desperately needs the gospel.

Zoë loves arts and media; her leisure time is packed with music, films, books and Facebook. She feels that traditional models of church are outdated and irrelevant, and that Christian gatherings should be creative, and unthreatening to people who don’t share our faith.

These are not wildly extreme views, but nevertheless, most of us are somewhere between the two. Perhaps we feel some sympathy with both perspectives. What Marvin and Zoë both realise is that the defining feature of our society is the media. However hard we may try, we cannot insulate ourselves from the entire culture.

The media shape our attitudes, priorities and perspectives. Media producers often claim they simply hold a mirror up to society. In some ways they do, but it’s a distorting mirror which shapes as well as reflects. We tend to assume that what we see on our screens is normal, and subconsciously we start behaving in similar ways. As Marshall McLuhan once shrewdly observed (drawing on Psalm 115:8), ‘We become what we behold.’1 If the media don’t strongly influence our behaviour, why did UK advertisers lobby so hard for the lifting of the ban on television product placement?

Quite how media and art affect us, though, can be hard to fathom. It is not simply an intellectual matter, though that is certainly a core part of it. No, their impact goes much deeper. Art — whether visual, narrative or musical — stirs our emotions with a force that statements of fact rarely achieve. We can be profoundly moved by something without being able to articulate a single thought about it. Our response to art is not irrational, but something besides rational thought is at work (the term nonrational seems too negative; perhaps pararational would be more useful). Since the Enlightenment, western culture has tended to over-emphasise reasoning and evidence, while downplaying emotions and spirituality. This infected the Church too, which has profoundly shaped our attitudes to creative expression. At a psychological level, this was a disastrous mistake, since humans are not (or shouldn’t be) divided beings.

The image of the Creator

It is also mistaken at a theological level. The opening chapters of Genesis are vital for understanding what it means to be human. The most fundamental thing they tell us is that we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). There are many aspects of what that means, but one stares us in the face from Genesis 1. Dorothy L. Sayers, in her book The Mind of the Maker, writes:

Dorothy L. Sayers (image from Wikipedia)[Had] the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote [about human beings being made in God’s image]? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the ‘image’ of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, ‘God created’. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.2

If all we knew about God came from Genesis 1, we would value creativity much more highly than we do. Of course, we do have much more revelation in the Bible, so the nature of the image of God is clearly much more complex, and it would perhaps be unwise to argue that creativity is the foundational aspect of humanity. Nevertheless, we must take seriously that this is the first aspect of God that we learn about in Scripture.

Sub-creators

This has enormous implications for understanding culture, especially the arts and media. It means that all human creative endeavours are echoes of God’s creativity. Our culture-making activities derive from our nature as bearers of God’s image. Our appreciation of good things in culture reflects God looking at creation and recognising it as ‘good’. Christians, of all people, should be celebrating culture, not condemning it. There is even a sense in which art and culture declare our glory as sub-creators who bear God’s image, in a reflection of creation declaring the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). So art that is done in the most authentically human way brings some glory to the artist who made it, but even more glory to the One who created the artist.

This is, of course, why art has always been important, even in those periods when dry rationalism has prevailed. Whatever worldview dominates a culture, its members are still human, with profound spiritual, emotional and aesthetic needs. Art is a fundamental expression of the image of God, and we ignore it at our peril. We should value it much more highly than the Protestant church has tended to in the past.

All this challenges Marvin’s negativity about the media. There are clearly bad things about it, but there are also things to celebrate, and it is a fertile area of common ground with those who don’t share our faith. Zoë, however, is good at celebrating culture, but she has an inadequate appreciation of Genesis 3, which is also vital for a robust theology of art.

Read Part Two in this series of six posts

Footnotes


  1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1st MIT Press edition (MIT, 1994), p. 19. 
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, (London: Methuen, 1941), chapter 2, ‘The Image of God‘. 

Image credits (from top)

Humberto Marum. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments from Facebook

2 thoughts on “Art’s Desire: Responding to Film and Literature

  1. I haven’t finished reading the whole article, and I will read through it all with
    keen interest, but there is one thing that was posted that caught my attention
    and it is this:

    “Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the ‘image’ of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, ‘God created’. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things…If all we knew about God came from Genesis 1, we would value creativity much more highly than we do…and it would perhaps be unwise to argue that creativity is the foundational aspect of humanity. ”

    I would argue that indeed we ought to see “creativity” as the “foundational aspect of humanity”. God is after all The Creator, and as such he is Father (as well as Son and Holy Spirit, through whom and by who God created).

    How did he do it? Well, The three members worked together at the same time to
    create.

    God willed / planned / decided = Father + God spoke = The Word / The Son + God acted / formed / shaped = The Holy Spirit ( Hebrew: ruach – breath, wind) – and thereby created. When we read the words: “Then God said, ‘Let there be…’
    or ‘let…’ or ‘let us make…'”, God was willing /planning / deciding / speaking / acting / forming / shaping in order to create that which he created.

    In fact we read Ezekiel 37:1-10 how God worked through Ezekiel’s spoken prophetic word to form / shape / restore / bring to life “an exceedingly great army”. God willed, Ezekiel spoke what God told him to say and the wind / breath (Holy Spirit) did the work. Jesus said to his disciples that the works he did, they (we) would do too by the power of the Holy Spirit. We, God’s people as his Body are to complete the work which he started until all things will be restored (Acts 3:19-21). Our work is to restore to the Earth what Adam was supposed to have done in the first place but failed to do. As he and his descendants went from the Garden of Eden into the wilderness, he / his descendants was / were to bring the atmosphere / the life of the Garden of Eden, upon the back of subduing what needed to be subdued, into the whole Earth. Adam failed to subdue the serpent however, but we, God’s people / the church won’t. We will overcome him and will enjoy the benefits thereof (Revelation 12:10-11; cf. Revelation 2:4-7).

    The outcome will be glorious. All creation will be restored:

    “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons
    of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).

    Moreover, the foundation of our societies is the family, which comes about as a consequence of a man leaving his father and mother to be joined to his wife and thereby becoming one flesh (Genesis 2:24) and creating a new life form (Genesis 4:1, 25). Without it we would not have managed to fulfil our mandate to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:26-28).

    Furthermore, the breakdown of the family is, I would argue, the root cause of our social / cultural demise. However, one day the earth will be filled with families (fathers / mothers and children) who will walk with God like Adam and Eve were accustomed to do in the Garden of Eden before the fall (Genesis 3:8) and which Enoch managed to do (Genesis 5:22). The Lord will be married to his bride the Church (Revelation 19:7), and with the atmosphere / life of the garden of Eden being restored in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10-11, 18-21; 22:1-2; cf. Genesis 2:8-10, 12, 15), the knowledge of the glory of God will fill the Earth (Habakkuk 2:14).

  2. Very interesting and helpful observations, Roberto. Many thanks for taking the time to read the article and comment.

    My reluctance to say that creativity is the foundational aspect of humanity is that we cannot deduce what it means to be made in the image of God solely from Genesis 1:1 and 1:27. But it certainly is incredibly basic to who we are, so perhaps what I really mean is that creativity is *a* foundational aspect, but not the *only* foundational aspect. What you write about families, for example, points to our relational nature as much as to our creative natures, and this must also be a foundational aspect of us being made in the image of a triune God.

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