How the arts can help in spiritual formation
Listen to our podcast
ILLUSTRATIONS: YUHAN HU
The first five words of the Bible affirm the fact God is creative: "In the beginning, God created" (Genesis 1:1). From the beginning of human history, we’ve been co-creating – painting on cave walls, beating on drums, telling stories – in an irrepressible expression of our identity as the Creator’s image bearers.
Given the arts are such an organic part of human flourishing, it makes sense they might be important in our spiritual formation. Here are four specific ways – among many – the arts can help train any disciple of Jesus for greater receptivity to the God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
First, a word about training
Let’s say I decide I want to run a marathon. I summon all the willpower I possess and commit mentally to my goal. I gather a collection of inspirational quotes. I ask my friends and family to pray for me and cheer me on.
However, the one thing I overlook is any sort of training regimen. I don’t run a single step in the months leading up to the race. Will it matter that I haven’t trained, as long as I’m willing to try my hardest on race day?
Yes. It will matter. I can’t run a marathon for which I have not trained.
Many of us spend a good deal of our lives as disciples of Jesus trying rather than training. We all have our spiritual marathons, and most of us sputter out in the first few kilometres.
For some of us it’s the challenge of curbing a loose tongue. No matter our best efforts, we always seem to say more than we should when temptation comes. But what if we trained instead of tried? If we spent 30 minutes with God "off the spot" every morning in the discipline of silence, might we develop the muscle we need to resist temptation "on the spot?"
Similarly, a marathon of overcoming anxiety might be met with the exercise of committing the 23rd Psalm to heart. The strength needed to resist pride could be developed through a regular routine of secret service to others. The self-denial needed to silence the clamour of an addiction might be gradually cultivated in a rhythm of once-a-week fasting from food.
Those of us who have surrendered our lives to Jesus have also committed our characters to His transformation. Only He can change us. But there are ways we can co-operate, ways we can open ourselves up to His spirit, ways – like the Apostle Paul – we can go into "strict training" and "run in such a way as to win the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:24–25).
Second, a word about disciplines
Christians who have taken seriously the invitation to train for Christlikeness over the past two millennia commend to us a regimen of spiritual disciplines. Nearly four decades ago Richard Foster gathered up a list of 12 historic practices (prayer, meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration) in his now classic Celebration of Discipline (Harper Collins, 2002 ).
To Foster’s list we might add any other exercise that helps us deepen our friendship with God and open us up to His transforming power. Yours could include mountain biking, journalling, gardening, playing with your kids, or anything else that helps you practise God’s presence.
The possibilities are as limitless as the God who draws us into relationship with Him.
Think about a few ways you might train instead of try in your walk with God. As you hone your personal list of potential spiritual disciplines, let me challenge you to consider how the arts can help us co-operate with God in His desire to transform us.
Four ways (of many) the arts are important in our training to follow Jesus
1. The arts help us train to pay attention
"Whoever has ears, let them hear." – Matthew 11:5
We live in a world of relentless stimuli and input. Even before the advent of Wi-Fi, Henri Nouwen diagnosed our problem in Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life (HarperOne, 2009 ). He noted how we live with so much noise – both in our environments and our own heads – that we struggle to hear God. In the ensuing chaos our lives become "absurd" – a word we get from the Latin word surdus meaning "deaf."
When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means "listening." A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow His guidance.
As a follower of Jesus, I want to develop eyes and ears that detect His presence and movement in the world around me. But simply trying harder to see and hear Him will not do. The arts (in concert with classic disciplines like silence and solitude) can be important allies in training to pay attention.
Carefully listening to a great piece of music – especially an initially challenging or foreign one – is a powerful way of disciplining our hearing, much the way engaging with a work of visual art trains our sight. Might the scent of incense or lilacs discipline our sense of smell? Could rough wood or cool marble rehabilitate our sense of touch? Might the culinary arts retrain our taste buds to savour food which will both nourish and delight?
Only God can release us from spiritual deafness and blindness. But apprenticing ourselves to great art is one of the spiritual disciplines we can use to co-operate with Him in the healing of our senses. Receptivity to art teaches us to focus, to press beyond surface impressions, and to look, listen, smell, touch and taste with care, thought and patience.
2. The arts help us train in longing
"As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God."– Psalm 42:10
In his letter to the Romans, Paul reveals the "whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." Not only that, he tells us, "but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:22–23).
We live in a world that bombards us with the message that we are entitled to comfort and must do everything in our power to avoid discomfort. For many of us, the holy longing for God’s Kingdom that should characterize our existence has been anesthetized into a chronically distracted complacence.
The arts can be an important ally in recovering some of God’s vision for the world – and in helping us experience the gap between what the world is now and what it can and will be.
Why do truly breathtaking things bring tears to our eyes? Why does intense beauty actually hurt a little? Exquisite art reacquaints us with our incompleteness and awakens the hunger for more.
Sometimes for there to be genuine hope we must despair of "business as usual." In Pursuing Christ, Creating Art: Exploring Life at the Intersection of Faith and Creativity (WestBow Press, 2011), Gary Molander makes just this sort of case.
Art not only communicates truth. It also creates emotional uprisings. In this way, art opens, then resolves nothing. It gives people the chance to sit, to contemplate, and to experience a wider variety of emotions.
I mean, rather than causing us to leave church with a smile, what if God’s will is for us to sit in our own personal pond of holy agitation the whole morning and actually experience the ache of seeing no way out?
Paintings displayed at the right location.
Sculptures that people are forced to walk past, even to touch.
A beautifully designed table during the Eucharist.
Images on the screen, with an underscore of silence.
Stories told beautifully.
Smells of smoke, or roses, or bread.
Music that drops dead with dynamic, and never rises again.
Lighting that helps people focus on the beauty found in the moment.
So what if art can provide an opening, not only a closing? What if, every week your church had the ability to drop a beautiful piece of art into the worship experience, and to just let it sit there? Using art like this isn’t the opposite of using art to communicate truth.
It’s actually the beautiful sister many of us have never met.
Only God can awaken our hunger for Him and for His Kingdom. But apprenticing ourselves to great art is one of the spiritual disciplines we can use to co-operate with Him in the stirring of our spirits.
3. The arts help us train for the renewing of our minds
"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." – Romans 12:2
Musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie argues in Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic, 2007) that a defining characteristic of all art is that it is metaphorical – whatever the medium, art always pulls together at least two elements that are normally apart.
This metaphorical nature of art matters in our spiritual formation because metaphors are the lenses through which we view the world, and they shape the way we understand it. If you always look at the night sky through a piece of glass with straight lines streaked on it, you’re going to mistakenly think the stars all line up in neatly gapped rows.
Throughout His earthly ministry Jesus was constantly trying to give people new, healthier metaphors for God – loving Father, shepherd of the lost sheep, extravagant host, keeper of the sparrows. Today our metaphors continue to need remediation. Once again, the arts can help.
For example, ever since Newton gave us the metaphor of the world as machine, we’ve tended to see the universe increasingly mechanistically. But art can give us new vistas for understanding. The world is in some ways like a machine, yes. But it can also be like a Baryshnikov leap, a Van Gogh sunflower, a Bach fugue or a U2 anthem.
Furthermore, the fact art works metaphorically means it always generates a surplus of meaning – which helps us train for the renewing of our minds in 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 "usefulness"
"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 narcissism 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 professional or social standings.
We need our minds and imaginations to be renewed – disciplined – because of our tendency to reduce the world into more manageable dimensions.
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).
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.