This entry is written in response to an article by James Beal entitled, “What is Christian Art.” You can read it on Jacob Heiss’ blog here.
James begins his discussion by pointing out that there is some obvious difference between Bach’s cello suites and his St. Matthew’s Passion. Is only the overtly religious art “Christian art”? He asserts that goodness is God’s wherever it is found and that the “fundamental basis of the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ [is displayed by] sacrifice and fealty” and that these attributes can be found in many places. He enlists works of Dickens and Bronte to illustrate how characters can be truly selfless and therefore image Christ although his name is never spoken.
He then introduces a comparison between Eden and Babel: “In contrast, purely or simply beautiful art like Bach’s cello suites may be understood as ‘primitive’ in the philosophical sense of the term. When Rousseau idolized infancy and simple-ness in works like Emile or On Education he expressly longed for the primitive. But if one accepts that humanity has left the Garden and tried to erect for ourselves some firm and steadfast structure reaching beyond the primitive with profoundly deleterious results—a process the Bible discusses in the story of the Tower of Babel—then the strictly simple, primitive nature of humanity is presently lost to us.”
It is this comparison that seems to be more drawn from Rousseau than from the intriguing imagery of contrast that the Bible actually offers. Eden was never portrayed in the biblical narrative as a place of innocence in the way that Rousseau imagined it – still, primitive, simple and peaceful. Eden itself is described in the Biblical narrative as a place where there is a source of a river, perhaps a mountain, and in the East there is a garden where the river becomes four rivers going out into the world. It is topographically dynamic. When God puts Adam and Eve in the garden of the land of Eden he puts them there to do work. He tells them to name things, to “be fruitful and multiply” and “to have dominion.” (Genesis 2:10) Pre-Fall they were meant to be busy investigating, expanding, translating and exploring. This was a bold and adventuresome innocence.
This dynamic Eden portrayed in the Genesis account is purposely contrasted in the narrative of Babel. The people say, “let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11) The purpose of Babel was, as Beal explains, to establish a structure according to “man’s or a group’s imagined sense of right, virtue, or glory.” Beal explains how this is a symbol for our own day of “something that is ‘happening’ yet never finished.” He compares a permanent Eden with a chaotic and busy Babel. The Babel of the Biblical narrative, however, was an attempt to establish permanence. Of course as Beal reminds us this permanence is never possible post-Eden, but the Biblical narrative seems to suggest that permanence is in not even desirable.
Adam and Eve were allowed to leave the garden that was only a tiny part of Eden. They were even commanded to do so when God told them to “fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) This command stuck with them when they and their descendents were forbidden from reentering the garden and when men in Babel ignored this command. God frustrated their speech at Babel to force them to spread out and go exploring.
Beal ties this contrast between Eden and Babel to the contrast between art that tries to establish a virtue apart from God (Babel) and art that reminds us of Eden. However, Beal also warns that we can never know Eden, so how do we even know what we should be pointing to? He suggests we look to fealty and love but where do these come from?
This is where it may be helpful to go back to his original contrast of Bach’s cello suites with St. Matthew’s Passion. Beal suggests that, “Bach’s cello suites are like experiencing nature.” Perhaps art like the cello suites that is not overtly religious could be compared to creation itself. Theologians call all of creation “general revelation” because it has all been shaped by God to express his truth, beauty and goodness. As Paul declared in Romans, “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20) In other words, a leaf says something about God or shares an experience of God as does a picture or a song or a poem about a leaf. The St. Matthew’s Passion on the other hand imitates what is called “special revelation” or the direct words of God as spoken by the prophets and accessible today in the Bible.
Sometimes we think of Christian art as art with an overtly Christian message – this idea Beal rightly pushes against. There is indeed a place for such art to illustrate and explain the Bible, much as a sermon does. However, most of our life is spent outside of the church. We spend more time in “general revelation” than in “special revelation.” So what does this mean for us as Christians? After the fall we naturally have the same tendency as the folks at Babel – we want to find a peace and security apart from God. This is impossible. True peace isn’t something that we can find apart from God and it isn’t something that happens when we just stay still or quiet or meek. The image of Eden is one where we are meant to be continually exploring and expanding. We can trust that as we do art in God’s world, if we are in submission to Him, we are making “Christian art.” It might be art that is in imitation of nature or art that is in imitation of the Bible but if we begin to hear Christ in everything even those distinctions begin to blur. Nancy Pearcy in her book Saving Leonardo explains how Bach’s “non-religious” music is provoking a Christian revival in Japan. The image of John’s Revelation is of a river flowing from the throne of God and filling the earth, a better Eden. Truth, beauty and goodness that comes out of the Bible makes sense and full experience of the rest of the world because both were written by the same author.