(This is the second in a sermon series on Epiphanies.)
Art seems to be a neglected topic in the churches. Sure our churches are filled with all manner of art – stained glass windows, music, sculpture, murals, paintings, poetic liturgy and even some liturgical dance. But, have you ever heard a sermon preached on the in-breaking of God through art, or the potential art has for facilitating epiphanies in our spiritual lives? I’d bet a month’s salary you haven’t (not that I’m a betting person). To be fair, I haven’t preached it either, until now.
(For the full video version, click here.)
I think this neglect has at least something to do with the lack of scripture on the topic. In addition, I think it also has to do with the fact that art and the connection it gives us to the Divine and to others takes us into the realm of the mystical. Frankly, the church doesn’t deal with that realm very well. It’s too personal, too experiential, it opens the door to different interpretations, and deep feelings, and a one-on-one connection to God. The institution is far safer and more in control when people rely only upon worship and priests/pastors for that connection.
So, let’s talk about art. Here are some of the big questions around art and religion: Can art be a way to God? Is art in the life of faith a luxury … or a necessity?
Now, I’m not an artist, though I must admit I’m envious of those who have that gift… upon whom the Holy Spirit has breathed creativity, imagination and skill. And, yet, even artists have struggled with the question of whether their commitment to the world is simply superfluous. It’s not feeding the poor, advocating for justice or visiting the prisoner. Is art important? Is it a way to experience God? Does it matter for spiritual growth or society, for that matter? Seems when our schools are forced to make budget cuts and they immediately choose to cut art and music that, sadly, the message is that these things are unimportant or unnecessary.
And yet, art is not simply visual beauty and enjoyment or creative expression… it is universal communication. The language of art is symbol and image; it is the language of the Spirit and of dreams. It is wordless and so transcends words and language barriers to the sensual and the experiential. It is perhaps a better means for conveying the sacred as it is less limited than our spoken words. As N.T. Wright stated in Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense,
“The point is this. The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are the highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way.”
Art has a great capacity to help us transcend this world to touch that Something More that we all yearn for, because art is an act of the soul. And creating art is an act of vulnerability and risk because it enables us a glimpse into another’s soul… that is sacred in and of itself.
But more than that, art points beyond itself. It leads us into the emotional, experiential world where we are drawn into sadness, joy, despair, hope and so much more. Art has the capacity to connect us with our hearts, which is where we find our connection to the Divine. Marcus Borg, in his book “The God We Never Knew” explains,
“Spirituality is thus for the hatching of the heart. Whatever helps to open our hearts to the reality of the sacred is what we should be engaged in.”
Spirituality is far beyond the judgmental, finger-pointing God that many people grew up with. Spirituality is even beyond the prayers, hymns, and liturgy of the church. Spirituality is about opening the heart to God. It is about epiphanies, the aha moments when we recognize the presence of the Divine here and now.
The Yale Divinity School magazine, Reflections, published an issue in 2015 focusing on questions of art and religion. They invited some of their graduate students, who also had, or were working on, degrees in the arts to contribute their thoughts. There were three that struck a chord for me.
Megan Mitchell, a master’s student in religion and the arts spent time helping to create public murals not only in the U.S., but also in Africa and Haiti. What she discovered is that art opens a space for listening and attention. She comments, “That’s what the world needs now: space to take notice of each other, our own souls, and the still small voice of [God]…”
Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold, a master’s student in religion and the visual arts and material culture, spoke of watching people who came to visit the art Gallery at Yale where he worked. Religious and non-religious groups alike “venerate their favorite artists and works. They uplift the art museum space as “sacred,” comporting themselves with religious-like postures. They hush and clasp their hands before dimly lit images. The works seem to elicit awe and reverence.”
And Meredith Jane Day, a Master’s of Divinity student and a member of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music related a story of preparing for Advent that year. She and a small group of 20 people all gathered for eight hours in a library in New York City to spend time in silence, wonder and discussion about the season. To facilitate the day, the group was shown photos of famous paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meredith commented that, “The room was full of brilliant seminarians, clergy, and academics, but it was the art that gave us something we could not have offered on our own. It provided a spiritual avenue for confronting our humanity, at the same time assuring us of a mysterious glory within.”
To bring us full circle and answer some of the questions we started with…
Clearly, yes, art can be a way to experience the Divine. It can provide the potential for epiphanies … unexpected, potent moments where the Spirit breaks in. Art can facilitate a deeper listening and attention to God, but also to one another, and oneself. Art draws us into a space of reverence, awe and a sense of the holy. And, art helps us to delve into aspects of our shared humanity, while drawing us deeper into the ineffable presence of God within.
Church and life without the arts would be significantly lessened, and our ways to the Divine curtailed, were we to omit art as too secular, or too sensuous, or too frivolous.
Perhaps in the strictest sense, art in the life of faith is a luxury (certainly we can exist without it… unlike food, water and shelter). But who would want to? Truly we are so blessed by the artists in our midst – the painters, writers, sculptors, dancers, photographers, and so many others – how can their gifts not be of God? So, if the gift of art, done with heart, is a gift of the soul and a gift of the Divine, if it helps us transcend this plane of existence and experience Something More, then perhaps, by design, it is necessary.