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Art & Apologetics

J.A.A. Purves

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I just finished watching Andrei Rublev. I just finished reading Beauty. I'm currently working on a write-up for Amadeus. And I'm finding myself going deeper into a discussion about whether there are absolutes in art.

If you look up or research the terms "Art" AND "Apologetics", good luck finding anything that isn't just called "the Art of Apologetics." But I've been thinking, where has the subject of using art for Christian apologetics been discussed? This is admittedly dangerous territory, because if you start creating art to be used for apologetics, then it usually ceases to be art (re: Christian movie industry). Using "art" as a tool in order to promote something other than art is an endeavor easily abused. But, a few of the most passionate discussions of Christianity, that I have seen lead to both the Gospel and to Christianity with those who were not Christians, have arisen out of sharing works of art with others (in my case for example, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and G.K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross both led to hours of discussing Christianity with nonbelievers). And the Church, at least in Medieval and Renaissance times, strongly believed in using art to advance Christianity in the eyes of the outside world.

Also, as far as I can tell, C.S. Lewis was converted to Christianity by God's use of [a] reason, and the music of Richard Wagner, the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, and the fairy tales of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton.

So, first of all, what does everyone think about this? Do you have any experiences that stand out where a work of art was suddenly useful in order to discuss Christianity with others?

Second, what books, music, paintings, or other works of art would you categorize as works to collect because sharing them with others can often be the same thing as sharing Christianity.

(Hugues, if you read this, I'm using this thread to try and think of works of art that explain or convey the truths of Christianity. So, while this is looking at the same subject from another angle, it really is a separate topic. Watching a film like The Exorcism of Emily Rose conveys particular ideas, and then asks the viewer what he or she is going to do with them.)

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So, first of all, what does everyone think about this? Do you have any experiences that stand out where a work of art was suddenly useful in order to discuss Christianity with others?

Second, what books, music, paintings, or other works of art would you categorize as works to collect because sharing them with others can often be the same thing as sharing Christianity.

I don't think I can answer either of these questions. The notion that a work of art should be collected and shared because it makes some thought about Christianity portable is one I would probably want to nuance carefully. There are some issues with the commodification of mass produced artwork that may send some mixed messages here.

However, I can think of a lot of works of art that I share with others because they are somehow connected to the person I am as a Christian. When I experience them I am experiencing what it means to be human, what it means to be engaged by the presence of God, or what it means to be an audience to composition or texture or all of these things that resound with the particularity of creation. So, as learned from Sister Wendy, I tell people about them.

There was a point in my life before I became a Christian where my thinking start tilting towards some unexpectedly deep thoughts about God and time. I credit several works of art with this shift in my thought world, but I often talk about my experience of one in particular with other people. It is an Anselm Kiefer installation in the St. Louis Art Museum called Breaking of the Vessels. It is a representation of a fundamental Kabbalah myth about a moment in sacred time in which six of the ten vessels that contained God's light shattered under the pressure of that glory. Our world is constructed of the shards of these shattered vessels, which is why we experience it as something fallen and disordered.

I spent many years looking at this sculpture, even skipping high school classes to sit there and space out on it for a while. I didn't get it. I couldn't make my thinking about it and my feelings about it connect. Over time, I came to understand the mythos a bit better. At first I thought this sculpture was the moment of the shattering, an immediately post-pregnant moment (which fits given the maternal dimension of the Kabbalah myth). But I realized that is incorrect. This is a representation of that moment right after the shards have settled into the form of this world. These shards on the floor and the haywire state of their origin have not yet even realized what has happened. And as one sits and interacts with the piece, one is reenacting the period of time in which the world became aware of its own fallenness. The sculpture is about that terrible, unrelenting cosmic self-awareness.

And in the process of coming to understand this sculpture, I came to know something very important about God. It is something very difficult to put into words, but it was a perception of God's presence in time amidst these scattered and broken pieces of raw past. This presence is here among these shattered vessels because something about who He is could not be contained by any sort of cosmic fabric. He is and always will be breaking out, emerging, exploding in an incomprehensible blaze of light. All this fallenness we experience is not something to be feared - it is actually a time and space expression of His endless uncontainable... Something. But here I am sitting in the time that exists after the mythical instant of God's light exploding. I didn't want to be here amidst the shards, I wanted to be back where the shards were pointing me, back in that one nano-second in which God's light and the world were totally indistiguishable.

When I later became a Christian, my theological understanding of God and time became more nuanced. And in part, more correct. But those were the thoughts that this installation revealed to me over time. This installation provided my mind the necessary structure for glory-perception it would later need when I was confronted more concretely with the gospel.

So to answer your first question, yes. But I don't think these kinds of revelatory experiences of art that have abiding spiritual significance can really be contained and reproduced. They become meaningful ways to communicate with others about thoughts we may have a hard time putting into words. Sharing these experiences is not the same thing as sharing Christianity, as if they are portkeys to the gospel. They are more like spaces in which we have the opportunity to think a bit apocalyptically.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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To your first question, yes. I still find the comparison of the two sequences with the undertaker in The Godfather to be very moving and insightful. In fact, when I was struggling mightily with my faith and with God's authority, I took solace in those two scenes as testimony to the possibility of a loving and considerate God, as opposed to the remote and capricious One that I thought I knew.

A deal is a deal and the Don has the right to expect payment for his favor. Don Vito sincerely and emotionally demands the one thing that, presumably, that poor honest man can actually perform with great skill, let alone without compromising a lifetime of clean living and integrity. I was given a glimpse of God's grace and wisdom in that film when I was blind to it almost anywhere else.

To actually answer the question, I have expounded on those two sequences often to almost anyone who will listen including those not of faith.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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