Posted by: Philip Rushton | October 21, 2012

Confessions of a Wordy Protestant

I have never been good at drawing or painting. The only thing I know how to draw is a 2 dimensional bird. It is at about a second grade level. Julie was an art student in college and kind of thinks my lack of drawing ability is humorous. Every once and a while she asks me to draw her “The Bird”

To my horror, I realized in tenth grade that I was required to take a visual art class. I decided on photography because it meant I didn’t have to draw. I dabbled in photography a little bit and this is one photo I took that I want to use as a starting point for my confession

This photo was taken in Geneva, Switzerland. It is taken in front of the Reformation Wall, dedicated to the legacy of John Calvin. I titled the piece “Dialogues with History.” The idea behind this photo is that our conversations, and our ideas are deeply shaped by the traditions we come from.

I am very grateful for the Protestant tradition that I have been shaped by. Calvin left us an important legacy. He emphasized the importance of knowing scripture, and he taught the church that our faith should influence all spheres of culture. Our faith is not something we just do on Sunday. It is something that impacts how we engage with education, business, politics and so on.

However, all influential figures have their blind spots. One of the areas that the reformers did not emphasize very much was the importance of the arts.

While backpacking through Geneva I stumbled upon an old church called St. Pierre’s. This old cathedral has switched hands over the years. It used to be a catholic church until John Calvin’s and his reformers took over the place.

St. Pierre’s is very different the most catholic cathedrals in Europe. The difference lies in the fact that there is almost no art work.

You see, the reformers kind of over-reacted a bit. They thought that the use of visual arts in the Catholic Church had become a form of idolatry. They believed that people were starting to worship graven images in the church. So when the reformers took over St Pierre’s, they tried to wipe out all the art work.

This is a picture of an old mural that had been white washed over by some of theses zealous reformers.

In place of the arts, Calvin wanted to restore the written word. As a result you notice another important visuals when you walk into St. Pierre’s. There is a huge pulpit right in the center of everything. This is highly symbolic. It emphasizes that the center of worship for Calvin was the spoken word – it was the preaching.

Because of this over-reaction against the arts, we have inherited a very wordy faith. The tradition that we stand in has not always shown us the fullness of how art can impact us spiritually. When you look at our discipleship programs and our worship services they are usually very wordy. We have discussion groups, and we center our service around the sermon. Heck, I couldn’t even put on an arts night without doing a talk about why we shouldn’t talk so much. Irony noted!

This is not to say that preaching and bible study are bad. They are not! I’m just saying that maybe we need to create more space for the arts in our spiritual life!

The reason why I think our forefathers overreacted to the visual arts is that the bible itself celebrates the arts. The very book that Calvin wanted to bring back to the center of our spiritual life is full of art.

When you open the pages of our holy book you do not encounter a simple list of facts about God; instead, you encounter well-crafted narratives, passionate poems, hymns and songs. God did not reduce himself to four spiritual laws, as our tradition often tries to do – God told us a grand love story and invited us to be a part of this story.

Along with stories and poems, we also see that the visual arts were an important part of biblical spirituality. In the middle of Exodus, things get really boring. Moses is talking about all the detailed measurements of the temple. If your like me, this is where you start skimming or simply skipping pages. But in midst of all the details and measurements we encounter an interesting side note about two men named Bezalel and Oholiab. Concerning these two men, the Lord says to Moses, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.” (Exodus 31:3-5)

The question this leaves us with is why? Why does God engage us with story, poetry, song, and visual art? Why does he do this instead of just giving us a bunch of facts?

I think one of the reasons why this is important, is because the arts draw us into a relationship. They engage our emotions, not just our thoughts. They help us encounter a person not just and idea.

When I fell in love with Julie, I did not write her an essay about why it was rationale for us to get married. I wrote her a song. I used music and poetry because that is the language of the heart. It is relational language!

That, I think, is why the Psalms have always been such an important model for us as Christians. David’s poems and songs show us a man who is encountering a real and living God. These songs are full of emotion – both the highs and the lows of life. They capture the full extent of our relationship with God.

That is really the gift of the arts – they move us into the realm of relationship. They push the confines of propositional truth and help us encounter the spontaneity and the passion of following God.

So our evening of the arts was really a tribute to this tradition that David has given us. It is a celebration of the language of the heart.

So here are some questions for reflection:

What is your favorite art form? Music, drama, visual art, narrative, poetry, dance? And why?

Do the arts help you connect with God? Do you have any specific examples of when this was the case?

Most of the time the Bible does not give us a set of abstract facts or points to consider. The Bible uses art forms like stories, as well as poetry and song. Why do you think God chose to communicate his truth to us in this way?

How could we promote the arts better at our church?

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