Saturday, March 07, 2009



I would like to conclude this discussion about what God calls, gifts, and inspires us to do by talking briefly about a particular profession that Christians need to think better of--- the vocation of artist or artisan. Here is not the place to present a theology of art and its value and place in the Christian tradition, but rather I want to present a brief case for being an artist as a proper way to glorify God and edify others.

But perhaps a word is in order first about God as an artist. We can see this just by looking at the stunning beauty of creation, but as it turns out God is not just a ‘visual’ artist, God is both an inspirer of, but also a composer, of music, as Robert Banks points out. So for instance God tells the Israelite leaders in Deut. 31.19 “write down this song and teach it to the Israelites, and have them sing it.” In fact there is a direct connection made between God giving verbal wisdom to someone and God inspiring song in 1 Kngs. 4. 32—“God gave Solomon wisdom…he spoke 3,000 proverbs and his songs numbered 1,005.” The precise number of the latter suggests someone took a specific count of the number of times the King was inspired and given lyrics this way.

God however is not just heavenly source of inspiration. God is a blues singer. Thus in Jeremiah we hear ‘Therefore I wail over Moab…my heart laments for Moab like a flute…” (Jerm. 48.31-36), but he also sings joyful anthems and ballads “The Lord your God is with you…he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’ (Zephan.3.14,17). God doesn’t just sing morning music however, he also sings night music—“By the day the Lord directs his love, and at night his song is with me…” (Ps. 42.8). No wonder the natural response to God, is music of all sorts, for God is not merely the inspirer of all sorts of music, God embodies and shares all sorts of music.

Robert Banks puts it this way:

Just as love is not only directed to or expressed by God, since God, as the apostle John says, is love, so is God not only the one who inspires and enjoys music, but also is music and song. This makes God the supreme exemplar, as well as the supreme author and audience, of music. This makes God music’s chief patron, which is why making music ‘to the glory of God’ is so fitting. It is only giving back to what God has given in the first place. It is only recognizing that the musical dimension of life, like the orderly character of the universe, ultimately stems from the musical character of God. In the end we make music not simply because God gives us the capacity to do so or appreciates our making it, but because God is inherently musical.

The problem is America is a very pragmatic culture. Many Americans believe that if something doesn’t serve some obvious utilitarian purpose, or is practical, then it should be seen as superfluous at a minimum, and certainly optional. That sort of practical bent can be seen in some of our famous American quotations. Thomas Edison is credited with once saying that ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’. Or consider the words of Colleen C. Barrett who argues ‘when it comes to getting things done, we need fewer architects and more bricklayers.’ Without disparaging either of these persons, or the profession of bricklaying, I would suggest that some of the most important work anyone could do is work that moves one to be a better person, inspires one to think about the relationship of truth and beauty and goodness, motivates one to do a better job of glorifying God. And art fills the bill in all of those categories.

It is an old Latin aphorism--- ‘art is long, life short’ ('ars longa, vita brevis'). Rembrandt may be long since gathering dust in his grave, but his enormous painting of the Prodigal Son is alive and well on a gigantic wall in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I know because I have spent some hours sitting in front of this gigantic painting contemplating its meaning, point of view, nuances. Rembrandt’s art lives on and continues to speak for him and to us. Great art, like great architecture, continues to inspire and motivate us to be creative, which, after all, was part of the prime mandate God gave Adam in the first place.

Unfortunately in a workaholic culture that places an inordinate stress on math and the sciences to the considerable neglect of the arts, art is seen as an added extra, it is seen as not having a practical function. Painting for example is not seen as a real profession, unless one is painting the walls of one’s house! Colleen Barrett in the quote above expresses something of this attitude, as does Thomas Edison. They fail to notice that without vision the people perish, their souls shrivel up.

Human beings created in the image of God were called to be creators, makers, artisans, not merely doers of just any task that someone is prepared to remunerate. I would remind you that the so-called oldest paid profession on earth which has always made lots of money is prostitution! It does not follow from that, that in the pursuit of the Almighty dollar it would be a wise thing to prostitute ourselves, or sell our birthrights for a bowl of soup. We are created in the image of God the ultimately creative one. The question is--- what should we do about it?
It was not always the case in America that arts and languages (the vehicles to other cultures) were treated as non-essential when it comes to basic education. I began playing in an orchestra in the third grade, took Spanish in elementary school and Latin in junior high, and we all learned the arts along the way. Not so much any more. We now have schools called math and science high schools, as if other subjects were so clearly of less importance! And indeed the whole attitude of the culture has been changed from our being truth seekers to being job seekers. In interview after interview college freshman explain that they are taking this or that course, this or that major so “I can get a good paying job when I get out”. The cost of such pragmatism is that one is in danger of gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul in the process.

I love to go to the Lands of the Bible and look at some of the magnificent creations wrought in earlier ages. Some of the immaculately wrought sculptures of Praxiteles for example always move me. I ask myself—how have we lost so many of these incredible skills in the arts over the ages? Who could produce Michelangelo’s Pietas today?

Sometimes when I worry about the lose of artisan skills and artistic contributions to our world, I take comfort when I read the story of Bezalel and Oholiab If you’ve never heard these names before it is perhaps because no one has pointed out to you that being an artist or artisan is a Biblical calling or vocation. Consider then Exodus 31.1-5:

1 Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 "See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts- 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. 6 Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you: 7 the Tent of Meeting, the ark of the Testimony with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent- 8 the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, 9 the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand- 10 and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you."

Bezalel was called to the vocation of being an artist and an artisan, and notice how God equipped him. He filled him with his spirit, which gave him not just ability but intelligence and not just intelligence but the knowledge he needed, and not just knowledge but “all craftsmanship”. His vocation is described as follows--- “to device artistic designs, working in gold, silver, and bronze as well as in precious stones, and in carving wood, and if that were not enough, “to work in every craft”. This is one multi-talented artist and artisan, a Michelangelo of his day. But Bezalel was not called to use his craft and knowledge for just any task, he was assigned to make the tent of meeting, the ark of Testimony including the mercy seat or atonement cover, and all other furnishing of the tent of meeting—the gold lampstand, the incense altar, the basin, all the utensils, not to mention the woven garments to be worn by the priests, including Aaron and his sons. Oh yes, he was also to produce the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the tent as well. After this last work order I am imagining Bezalel saying “holy smokes!”. His was the honor of constructing and furnishing the dwelling place of God, and notice that he was not encouraged to use cheap materials, or to go out and buy a trailer made out of pressboard and use it as a tabernacle. No, he was called to use the most precious metals and materials, in order to honor God.

It is interesting, as Gene Veith points out that Bezalel is the very first person in the Bible to be said to be filled with God’s Spirit. We are being told that he is inspired, enlightened, enabled to be an artist! This brings up an important point. Sometimes Christians, especially frugal ones, think that the creating of elaborate, beautiful works of art, worth lots of money, is itself either a waste of money, or at least not good stewardship, if it is not simply sinful altogether. What this story suggests is just the opposite. The believer should give their very best to God, and indeed it is not a sin to construct beautiful art objects or a beautiful building to the glory of God, which is precisely what is going on in this story. The story of work begins with a gardener named Adam, but the first ‘inspired’ worker in the Bible is an artist and artisan, and we would do well to ponder the implications of that fact. Perhaps creativity, including the arts is the quintessential way the image of God can mirror the Creator God himself?

Friedrich Schiller, the great German poet, once said that the path to freedom lies through beauty. It must be said that there is some connection between beauty and freedom. I was in the Norman Rockwell museum recently in Rutland Vermont and one of his most famous paintings was hanging on the left hand wall. It is a painting of the entrance way of a large Gothic cathedral in some major American city, perhaps Rockwell’s home town, New York. One of the workers in the cathedral is standing on a ladder and changing the sign that hovers over the entrance way doors, announcing this week’s sermon. The sermon title is “Lift up your Eyes”. But on the street below, are the commuters, all heads down, scurrying towards their morning jobs.
What a great parable of a workaholic culture, without the time or sense to look up, and see the beauty of things that God and his creatures have made. I cannot speak for others, but good art does raise my vision of what the world is and can be. It gives me hope that human beings can live by the better angels of their natures, and not by the demons that drive them, if they will but be transformed by grace.

Perhaps by catching a glimpse in art of something better, something bigger than they had yet contemplated aesthetics can have an ethical effect on us. And in at least one sense Schiller was right--- by being transfixed by the beauty of Christ, we are transfigured, and set free. Paul puts it this way--- “And we all, who with unveiled face contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with every increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3.18). When we lift up our eyes, and behold true beauty, then in some sense we become what we admire, we become works of the great artisan, the great sculptor of human personality—Christ. And if the Son has set you free to be a work of art, to be your best self, you are free indeed.


Farley said...

..."without vision the people perish, their souls shrivel up. "

Maybe this explains the epidemic of depression throughout our churches and society.

Great work, as usual, Dr. Witherington.

Mich said...

Nice post, but Im not sure I agree about the privileging of math/science. Currently we are falling farther and farther behind in math and science education compared to the rest of the world. I would agree about your other point--that college and even high school are now 'specializing' instead of offering a well rounded education. Again, I'm not saying everyone must take calculus and read Milton and Keats, but companies used to hire well educated individuals and then teach them on the job what they needed to know--college teaches you how to think, work taught you what you needed to know for your job. Now, as you point out, students must take certain courses in college if they have any hope of being hired for specific professions. This also produces cookie cutter minds--students aren't really taught how to think, but rather how to think in a particular way.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty....