A Reformed Vision of the Visual Arts - part 2 - page 2

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From the Summer 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Reformed Vision of the Visual Arts: A Conversation with Abraham Kuyper, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and the Word of God
Part 2 of a Two-Part Series on the Arts and Theology

by Connally Gilliam
C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow

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 Being Human

  Beyond opening up a new freedom for the subject matter of an artistic vision, different Reformed thinkers have, particularly in the past fifty years, begun to sketch out what might be called a “Christian Aesthetic.”8 One such established thinker is Nicholas Wolterstorff. In his book Art in Action, he picks up the question of what it means to be a human being with a vocation and applies a Reformed answer to the world of the arts. Like Calvin, whose first Book in his Institutes is titled “The Knowledge of God the Creator,” Wolterstorff starts at the very beginning, turning to Genesis. There he sees a picture of the ultimate Creator in whose image we are made, but, more significantly, because art is the byproduct of human endeavor, he looks to Genesis as our starting place of understanding what it means to be human. “If we are to describe how the Christian sees the arts,” we must begin with “Man’s embeddedness in the physical creation and his creaturely vocation and creaturely end with that creation.”9
  Humanity, asserts Wolterstorff, is an integral and wonderful part of the creation. We are dusty, muddy creatures. “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). God called his dusty, muddy creature “very good.” This fundamental fact of the starting goodness of the creation is crucial, contends Wolterstorff, for understanding the arts. Though humanity fell, and has pulled the rest of creation into bondage with us, we are not allowed to devalue all that is sensory or material. The physical realm has been given God’s blessing. Matter matters! This does not mean that we can hedonistically indulge every sensory stimulation possible or consume every material thing we can touch. Calvin warns against this, as does Paul.10 But—and this is a big but—as Paul emphasizes, the body and soul are unified. Referring to I Corinthians, Wolterstorff says: “Invariably in Pauline thought, and normally in biblical thought in general, soul is associated with physical life, not with some immortal center of consciousness.”11
  Thus an artist does not simply have new freedom in subject matter but also the freedom to excitedly create with tangible, earthy materials; he or she has the joy of realizing the potential of God’s creation. Likewise, the audience, instead of being scared that they are becoming too earthly minded at the expense of their souls, should be free—even excited—to enter into the creation of the artist. We, as receptive onlookers, become, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, those who sit down before the picture “to have something done to us.”12

Responsibly Loving

  It is precisely because art can “do something to us” that Wolterstorff goes further in developing this “Christian Aesthetic.” Beyond addressing the validity of all of life as subject matter—be it nature, children at play, human drama, or a still life—or the value of matter itself—think pigment, pens, clay, or canvases—Wolterstorff seeks to answer the question about how a person goes about being a creative creature of God’s. What is and what shapes the vocation of the artist?

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