Art and Revelation
By Colin Harbinson
The issue is passionately debated by many Christians involved in the arts. There are strong feelings on both sides. The question in point is whether the arts are for “expression” or “communication?” Those who are intentional about communicating truth through the arts are considered by some to be “using” art to produce a religious tract. They are accused of prostituting art in order to moralize or evangelize. On the other hand, the Christian who does not use his or her artistic gift overtly in the cause of the Gospel is often perceived as having little commitment to Christ and certainly no heart for the “lost.” Creative expression that does not contain crucifixions, overt references to the Trinity, or portray the whole Gospel is often seen as being of little value, or at worst, symptomatic of a serious spiritual malaise in the life of the artist.
As human beings we have a tendency to move toward extremes. Truth, however, is always held in tension. When it comes to this question of whether the arts should be viewed primarily as a form of expression or communication, it is not “either or” but “both.” Artistic expression will always communicate something of the artist’s perception of reality, whether intentional or not. When executed with knowledge, understanding, and skill, each will find a legitimate place. If we fail to recognize that fact, we will not only be impoverished artistically and spiritually, but will end up misunderstanding and rejecting each other.
The purpose of this article is not an in-depth examination of the merits or problems of either stances outlined above. I do, however, want to briefly explore how the arts communicate, for the reason that a growing number of Christians are involved in creative expression within the sphere of proclamation. Many of these overt gospel-bearing expressions demonstrate little understanding of the arts or the ways in which they “speak.”
God communicates by way of revelation. Christianity is a revealed faith. The scriptural understanding of revelation is “an uncovering” or “a showing.” The content of revelation includes the uncovering or showing of “truth.” For the artist this should come as both an encouragement and a challenge. Art works best when it shows rather than tells. Art is at its best when it uncovers what familiarity has concealed, and opens us up to a fresh perspective on truth–the truth about any subject. This would strongly suggest that artistic expression, at its best, is compatible with God’s way of revealing truth to man. Both show, and both seek to show truth.
The nineteenth chapter of Psalms (verses 1 & 2) declares that “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” God’s creative expression is proclamative; it tells, declares and pours forth speech. However, it does this by way of revelation; it “reveals knowledge.”
Jesus was the ultimate revelation; “the word made flesh.” He alone could say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Incarnational reality is essential understanding for the artist. Art has the ability to “flesh out” or embody unseen or intangible ideas, thoughts, concepts, and worldviews.
When Jesus communicated, it was out of the deeply rooted understanding that if man was to be truly changed, it would be as a result of receiving and acting on revelation granted by the Father. The thirteenth chapter of Matthew records an enlightening response that Jesus gave when His disciples asked Him why He spoke in parables. He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted… Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
On the surface, this would appear to be a strange theory of communication. Those who asked Jesus the way to eternal life were told stories! If that wasn’t enough, His stories often left them more confused! Why did the Great Communicator not make things crystal clear? His response to their questions seemed to provoke more questions. Jesus often ended His stories with the phrase, “He who has ears, let him hear.” He was obviously concerned with something much more important than the simple passing of information. He desired transformation through revelation. Transformation was possible when people heard with spiritual ears. In his book, The Unfolding Kingdom, Lawson writes, “The parables are not made deliberately difficult. But for those who do not wish to commit themselves to their inner message, all they will hear are stories, pure and simple.”
Jesus wanted people to search for the pearl of great price, so that when they found it, they would sell everything they had in order to obtain it. Our creative communication should be of such a nature that it requires something of its audience–asking questions–and allowing God to grant revelation to those who have ears to hear. The temptation to over-communicate in order that everyone will understand everything is a misguided notion. We must resist the tendency to give neatly packaged answers; it is not the Jesus style.
An example of powerful and effective revelational communication is recorded in the second book of Samuel, when King David is confronted by the Prophet Nathan. David was a man after God’s own heart, yet we find him on an escalating pathway of deliberate and wrong moral choices. He sent for Bathsheba, knowing that she was Uriah’s wife, and slept with her. He unsuccessfully tried to cover her resulting pregnancy. David finally sent a message that ensured Uriah’s death. After Bathsheba’s husband was killed, David took her to be his wife.
Nathan the prophet had a formidable challenge before him when he went to confront David. He was facing a king who had taken every precaution to cover up his sin, and for all intents and purposes, save God’s, had succeeded. How could Nathan persuade this man who had shown so little compassion, of the gravity of his sin in the sight of God? He told David a story and asked him to judge it!
Simply put, Nathan told of two men. One rich, the other poor. The rich man had plenty of sheep, but the poor man had only one little lamb. When a traveler came to the home of the rich man, no animal was taken from among his flocks, rather he went down to the poor mans house and took his one lamb, killed it, and served it up for the stranger to eat.
David was enraged at this story and immediately pronounced judgment. He said, “That man had no compassion, he ought to die!” You can almost feel the power of the dramatic moment, when Nathan looked King David in the face and declared, “You are that man!” It was a moment of profound revelation that caused the deep repentance of David found in the fifty-first Psalm.
Nathan’s communication was effective. By isolating four of the elements in this incident, we will discover principles relevant to our present discussion.
Firstly, the communicator was not isolated. Nathan lived in the middle of the action. He knew what was going on. As artists we must not retreat to a cozy safe Christian subculture, and expect to create works that relate to the culture at large. Jesus told stories in response to what people were doing and saying. His parables were never in a vacuum. We are called to walk in the middle of our culture, asking God for grace and cleansing.
Secondly, the communication was relevant. It was not a coincidence that Nathan used a lamb in his story. David, the shepherd boy turned king, found a deep resonating note within himself and became instantly involved. Nathan, using the power of story, drew deep emotional responses from David. Our art must explore universal truths that are commonly shared, in the language of our cultural context and expression.
Thirdly, the communication was not preachy. The story Nathan told uncovered truth that David had concealed. David had no idea the story was about him. His barriers were down, and the Holy Spirit was able to show him his sinful heart in a moment of revelation. The story did not preach or moralize, but gave David an opportunity to “look in” and make an objective judgment.
Lastly, the communication was creative. Nathan did not tell the same story . . .”Once upon a time a king walked on the roof of his palace and saw a beautiful. . . . ” Art is not a photocopy of reality. Art by definition is indirect and allusive. Picasso observed, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” It is a lens through which reality can be perceived, and revelation received.
In conclusion, art is at its best when it uncovers what familiarity has concealed. It makes the familiar appear unfamiliar, so that it can be revisited with fresh eyes. It is a shared experience as artist and audience meet. No room here for preaching or moralizing, but rather a powerful place of potential revelation as truth is uncovered and shown.
Originally published in ARTRAGEOUS, Cornerstone Press, 1992.