Imagine this. God’s people are camped in a wilderness, led out of the land of their slavery by the same God who now manifests his presence in a great cloud which descends to the entrance to a special tent. There, at the “tent of meeting,” the Almighty communicates with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The scene is enough to take your breath away, if you think about it deeply enough. So, Moses makes a request. “Please,” he says to God, “show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
Is that what you would have requested had you been given the chance?
What Moses was requesting was to be allowed a deeper revelation into reality and life. To experience some tiny, non-lethal glimpse of God’s infinite weightiness, splendor, goodness, and ineffable beauty. Asaph, the ancient Hebrew poet, never had Moses’ experience as far as we know, but he celebrated the reality:
The Mighty One, God, the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes and will not be silent.
The infinite personal God of Scripture is the final reality behind all of existence. This is why all truth is his truth, as all beauty is a fractured shimmer of his glory. One of the grave dangers we face in our busy lives in a fallen world is missing God’s reality in life. His glory can be glimpsed, but most of the glimpses we are granted can be missed if we fail to ask and wait, look, and look again.
Creation is one window into which we can look, and Scripture is another. Another is art, because creatures who bear the image of God tend to reflect something of the glory of the Creator when they create. Creativity partakes of truth and issues in beauty—even if its theme at the moment happens to be the ugly brokenness of this bent world.
Creation, Scripture, the arts. I may be mistaken, but I think that the arts are by and large poorly understood by most of the church. Which wouldn’t matter if the arts were value-neutral and unessential, but they aren’t. Glory is at stake.
In 2000, Square Halo Press published It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. In 2006 a revised and expanded (from 286 to 355 pages, 13 chapters to 19) version was released. I reviewed it positively when it first appeared, and I am even more enthusiastic about the new version. Illustrated throughout, with many of the illustrations in color, It Was Good is a chance to look more deeply into the richness that God has built into the fabric of his glorious but now ruined world. Since each chapter stands on its own (and is by a different author), the book can be absorbed over time, with chances to pause between chapters to reflect and think and look.
“Wrought from years of reflection and practice,” my dear friend Steve Garber says, “this is a wonderful book whose pages are graced with an ancient wisdom. We are invited in to ponder the deepest and richest truths from a remarkably gifted faculty of visionaries who vocations range across the divers arts, each one offering a window into what the arts mean and why they matter. For anyone anywhere who cares about beauty and truth and goodness, but who also feels the aches and sorrows and pains in contemporary culture, It Was Good is very good.”
I am not an artist but I covet every glimpse of glory afforded me. Thus, reading It Was Good is for me similar to being helped to see, so that my sight, still through a glass darkly, is able to better see past the surface of life into the deeper reality that stands behind it. Here for example, is graphic designer Kimberly Garza reflecting on color and the creation narrative in a way that deepens my appreciation of both:
Light is paradoxically both particle and wave. Light is life-giving energy. And of particular interest to artists, light contains all colors. Sir Isaac Newton first made this observation in 1666: sunlight, when refracted through a prism, displays all of the colors of the spectrum; the colors, when refracted through a second prism, merge back into white light. With four simple words [“let there be light”], God uttered the brilliant potential of color into being.
The creation story in Genesis can read like a daily roll call of created matter collected into physical categories. But why not meditate on creation with a different system of classification? Imagine that God created with the expression of color as a purpose:
Day 1: white, black (heavens, earth; light, dark)
Day 2: blues; transparency (expanses of water, sky)
Day 3: earthtones, greens, violets; iridescence (seas, land, vegetation)
Day 4: yellows, oranges; luminousity (sun, moon, stars)
Day 5: florescents, reds, yellows, oranges, greens, blues, violets (fishes, birds)
Day 6: neutrals (animals, humans)
Day 7: all of the colors mingle together (rest)
The Creator of the universe could have made any kind of universe, but He chose this universe, one full of the diversity of color. After creating the physical fact of light, God set about exploring the infinite combinations and uses of colors in nature. Over 28,900 species of fish sport different color markings, color combinations, or color nuances. From the simple palette of the red-winged blackbird to the extravagant color combinations of the parrot, nature inspires artists with harmonious and exciting color choices. God also considered practical things like survival: think about the shifting color of the chameleon that makes it invisible to predators or the ultraviolet markings of flowers that draw bees to pollinate them. And if it were not enough that the sun’s energy, nature’s beauty, and practicality were part of light, God threw color into the very chemistry of nature. The green chloroplast plant cell takes energy from sunlight and turns carbon dioxide into oxygen in photosynthesis; the energy transfer makes sugars and carbohydrates that provide food for our bodies and, over time, fossil fuels for our machines. Then when the chloroplast cells die, leaves turn from green to the blazing colors of autumn. [p. 188]
And here is William Edgar, apologetics professor at Westminster Seminary and jazz pianist in his conclusion in a chapter on how music can depict evil and darkness to God’s glory. He challenges us as to whether we see deeply enough into life and what it might mean if we don’t.
Perhaps because there is so much confusion and hostility in the surrounding culture, followers of Christ have been tempted either to retreat into tribal safety, or, worse, to lash-out in a winner-takes-all fundamentalist assault on the enemy. The reason for this is simple. We don’t quite dare walk between the flames trusting that God can guide us and deliver us. We refuse to admit of tension and ambiguity. Because of that we can’t honestly ask with the Psalmist, “Why, O Lord?” Our artistic production is not surprisingly one-dimensional. Being real in art is only possible when we can be real with God. Brahms was. The slaves in the antebellum South were. Arvo Pärt is. They are among the many in “misery” to whom the light has been given. And so they have asked, why? When we have recovered their candor we may be able to say it in our artworks. [p. 238]
And one last excerpt, out of many I wish I could print here in the hope that I could whet your appetite for reading It Was Good. This is by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, from his chapter on “Why We Need Artists”:
Think about the significance of a funeral. Animals don’t have funerals. If we consider a funeral as an objective event, it involves the disposal of a decomposing organism. It would be wise to avoid the decomposing body to prevent the spread of disease. But that is not how we behave. People gather around the body. They sometimes hug or kiss the dead person. A funeral has more meaning than the disposal of a body. A funeral is art in and of itself and it is filled with art. Why? Because we deny that when a person dies it is no more important than a stone falling to the bottom of a pool. In an artificially objective way a funeral would be something we do to handle a particular type of inanimate matter. In reality, a funeral is a ceremony filled with meaning, so we must have art.
What this shows us is that art is always involved in events and circumstances that have significance and meaning. Arthur C. Danto, from Columbia University (by no means either a conservative or a Christian) said, “Art is getting across indefinable, but inescapable meaning.” This is a helpful definition, because he is saying that if in your art you are getting your meaning across in a way that is too definable, it is really preaching rather than art. Of course preaching itself can be an art form, but it is an art form that is and should remain distinct from the other arts. Art has to have a place for the observer to explore and wrestle with the message. If the meaning of a work is apparent, allowing the audience with little effort to say, “of course, that is what it means” and if the message can be simply stated in one sentence, the work is not art. You may have heard the famous statement by a dancer who was asked, “What did the dance mean?” She responded, “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” According to Danto, if an artist can enunciate the message in his work, perhaps saying, “Oh, that is Mary rocking the baby and putting him in the manger,” then the work is not good art. Art has to be, in some sense, indefinable—but in another sense absolutely inescapable. What we say and do means something. We are not just chemicals. That is why we must have artists. Artists are people who know that, in spite of what we are told by our culture, everything is part of some bigger reality. [p. 118]
It Was Good is like having a chance to hang with a group of thoughtful Christians who care deeply about both art and faith. Who are willing to help us grow so that we are better able to see something of the richness of life and reality, all the way past the surface to the glimpses of God’s glory that are there, if only we have eyes to see.