Theology of Art (Piper)
John Piper offers a wonderful theology of art, in which he defines art as that which is done not merely for utilitarian purposes, but to move or affect.
Strengths of this definition:
What we could add to this brief definition:
Urbanization & You
The world spins madly on, and as it spins, our population continues to increase.
Over and over again, artists have questioned our tendency to clump together in urban centers and destroy the natural world around us. At the same time, philosophers and theologians contemplate how historical truths apply in an ever-changing landscape.
We often take our surroundings for granted, but that can be dangerous. Rather than accepting the status quo, we should follow the lead of artists like Yang Yongliang and consider where our trajectory will take us. For those of us who believe in God, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our time, our energy, our people, and our world.
Explicit & Implicit Theology
When leading congregations, Christian leaders must be aware of both explicit and implicit theologies. What people believe determines how they act, and because of that, church members will continue to act according to the theologies that they hold. Without an awareness of both explicit and implicit theologies, church leaders can waste time, “spinning their wheels” on technical fixes to problems, while ignoring the deeper issues that are involved. Though it can take years, but church leaders need to address the explicit and implicit theologies of their congregants.
To begin with, explicit theology is what a church expressly believes. Explicit theology is usually easier to determine because of its public nature. What a church explicitly believes can be gathered from mission and value statements, doctrinal position papers, sermons, liturgy (including the hymnody), and various other items that express belief. While explicit theology is often accurate, it can sometimes be more of an expression of intent, meaning that not everyone may hold to the same ideal. Even still, explicit theology is usually the starting point for understanding what a congregation believes.
Implicit theology, on the other hand, is underneath the surface per se, and for that reason, it is much more difficult to determine. The term “implicit theology” refers to those beliefs that are held, but may not be fully expressed. Peter Cha, for example, illustrated how difficult it is to interpret implicit theology from merely what is visibly seen (i.e., artifacts), and that church leaders must take time to question what is unseen. In fact, congregants themselves may not even be aware of their underlying beliefs until they are explicitly pointed out. Implicit theology can include anything from “the pastor is the most spiritual man in our congregation” to “real worship means the raising of hands.” In most contexts, neither of the statements would be verbalized, but they can become part of the working assumptions of a congregation.
As Kevin Ford points out in Transforming Church, churches function best when their explicit theology matches their implicit theology and vice versa. If there is any discontinuity between the two, there will be underlying conflict. Such conflict should not be overlooked, but used as an opportunity to change either explicit or implicit theology, so that it better aligns with Scripture. To help encourage spiritual transformation, therefore, church leaders should be aware of both explicit theology and implicit theology, so that churches can be healthier and more apt to grow.
As church leaders help to develop local churches, they must look beyond mere technical fixes and focus on deeper adaptive change. In this effort, however, church leaders must take time to delve into the basic assumptions of a congregation, compare those assumptions with Scripture, and invest time in changing unbiblical assumptions. Simply changing the explicit theology (such as a doctrinal statement) will not change people’s hearts. Ministry needs to go deeper than what is espoused, so that heart issues, including what is assumed, can be sanctified for God’s glory.
What Makes “Christian” Art?
What makes “Christian” art? This debate has gone on for many years, but at least in my circles, the discussion has not progressed very far. In some ways, this question can be misleading because there is not necessarily a single answer. There are at least 3 ways to define Christian art:
1. In terms of source: art made by a Christian individual or a group of Christians.
2. In terms of motive: art intended to minister to others or to glorify God in a general way.
3. In terms of message: art that communicates a message about the Christian God or is somehow influenced by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Considering the Oxford dictionary as an example, there are various alternatives when defining a word. A single definition is not more “correct” than another, so we would be better off describing what kind of Christian art we are talking about. As a result, the conversation can advance further when we avoid semantics and focus our discussion on a specific kind of Christian art.
Why Read Commentaries?
Regarding biblical study and the use of commentaries, Eugene H. Peterson uses a captivating illustration to demonstrate the reason why Christians should read commentaries. It is our way of entering into the vibrant conversation, of hearing many other voices and eventually expressing our own. I read this years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. Since he says it better than I could, I’ll simply share his own words:
“…biblical commentaries have for too long been overlooked as common reading for common Christians… Among those for whom Scripture is a passion, reading commentaries has always seemed to me analogous to the gathering of football fans in the local bar after the game, replaying in endless detail the game they have just watched, arguing (maybe even fighting) over obersvations and opinion, and lacing the discourse with gossip about the players. The level of knowledge evident in these boozy colloquies is impressive. These fans have watched the game for years; the players are household names to them; they know the fine print in the rulebook and pick up every nuance on the field. And they care care immensely about what happens in the game. Their seemingly endless commentary is evidence of how much they care. Like them, I relish in a commentary not bare information but conversation with knowledgeable and experienced friends, probing, observing, questioning, the biblical text…. there is so much to notice, so much to talk over.” (Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book, 54)
Hymns that Inspire
For those of us who write worship songs, it is easy to fall into the same patterns. By reading lyrics of other songs, especially well written hymns and songs from other cultures, we can be moved to think in new ways and to expand beyond our normal categories. For a sample, check out this hymn shared by Thabiti Anyabwile.
How Sweet and Awful Is the Place
How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.
While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast
Each of us cry with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?”
“Why was I made to hear thy voice
and enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?”
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
that sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste
and perished in our sin
Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad
and bring the strangers home.
We long to see thy churches full,
that all the chosen race
may with one voice and heart and soul
sing thy redeeming grace.
Technology & The Church
I am a huge proponent of incorporating technology into the local church. It deserves to be said, however, that when it comes to technology in the local church, we need to think through our options. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should.
On a practical level, one instance of this is the recent increase of multiple video screens (usually in larger churches) and the rise of satellite churches (which incorporate sermons via a video feed). After nearly 2000 years of church ministry, only in the past decade or two has this technology been an option. In response to this growing phenomenon, much could be said about the importance of personal contact, proximity, and lifestyle as they relate to preaching. A quick illustration, however, will suffice to show why we need to think through these issues:
At the most recent Presidential inauguration, there were roughly 2 million people in attendance. Some of these people were near President Obama or within eyesight, while others were 2 miles away at the Lincoln Memorial. Those who were far away, of course, depended on video screens in order to see what was happening on stage. They were present in person, but in in a different sense.
That actual event reveals a very simple truth: people within eyesight had a greater sensory experience, while those far away (though enjoying their time) had a much different experience. For those watching a video screen (2 miles away), there was a personal disconnect that could not be fully resolved by technology. At least to a degree, they were removed from the action. They were participating, for sure, but in a more distant sense.
Of course, this directly relates to preaching because a preacher appeals on behalf of God and calls people towards a response. We should want as much “proximity” as possible and not allow technology to get in the way. On the other hand, some may argue that technology increases proximity more often than decreasing it. Maybe the question we ask is, “How does this particular technology change ministry (compared to New Testament times), and how do we overcome any potential weaknesses?”
While technology certainly has a place and can be very helpful — obviously, without technology there would be no internet or printing presses — we also need to be aware of the drawbacks. The point here is that simply adding more technology does not automatically ensure real, inner life change. Rather than simply accepting whatever technology is available to us, we need to be careful and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating technology in the local church. The solution is not a boycott of technology, but a greater effort to think through how we use technology.
How can we honor God in our worship?
Although Exodus 20:22-26 is not frequently quoted in the context of worship, it provides some direction for us. In speaking to Moses, God gives the Israelites four instructions. They are simple and helpful, even for us today:
1. Do not worship anyone else beside me. (v.23)
2. It is absolutely necessary to worship me. (v.24)
3. Where I am worshiped, I will bless. (v.24b)
4. I deserve to be worshiped reverently. (v.26)
These instructions may seem familiar, but they serve as a helpful corrective for us. Does the worship in our lives meet those standards? If not, we should reconsider how we are worshiping God.
Taking this further, this passage also contains another kernel of truth that can set us free from egocentric worship. In these words to Moses, God expresses that He is the one who causes His name to be honored. As He says, “Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.” (v.24b) Incredible!
What is so striking is that this is the opposite attitude of many of us today. We often think that we are the cause of worship — whether it be a talented worship leader, a great hymn that was written, a moving instrumental song, or a passionately singing congregation. Speaking on behalf of worship leaders, it is fair to say that we often feel a burden to “help” worship along. Even if we meet the 4 instructions listed above, this is one area where we often miss the mark — ironically, in the process of worshiping, taking credit for ourselves.
While there is truth in the fact that leaders need to lead, it would be wrong to overlook the powerful truth of this passage. Ultimately, it is not us who cause worship. Rather, it is God who causes His name to be honored. He is the first cause.
In other words, God is glorified for who He is, not because of what we bring. He is the one who inspires worship, and in that sense, our responsibility pales in comparison. Instead of causing, we should think of our responsibility as responding to His glory.
When we worship in a God honoring way, God will come near and bless us. Ultimately, because He is the one who inspires worship, He ends up blessing us because of who He is. What an amazing promise!
Work With All Your Heart
Colossians 3:23 was intended for all aspects of life. In that verse, Paul reminds us that “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not men.” Our work should be defined by maximum effort and the right motives.
Unfortunately, most of miss the mark in one way or the other. Some people become accustomed to what is common and slow down in their efforts. They may have good reasons, such as fatigue or a low salary, but they forget the ultimate purpose of their work. Other people work hard, not wanting to fail, but they work for the wrong reasons. They work to please men instead of the Lord, and in so doing, get distracted from the ultimate goal.
A.W. Tozer’s insights in Of God and Men are helpful. Tozer rightly pointed out that people often act out of fear. We often choose the easy route (fearing hard labor) or the popular route (fearing human opposition). Of course, in reality, the best choices in life are usually difficult and unpopular.
Two stories are inspiring in this regard. First, think of Moses. When Moses was called to the incredible task of returning to Egypt, he was full of fear. He did not know what to do, what to say, or how to respond to criticism. (Does that ever sound like you?)
God’s response is wonderfully encouraging. In speaking to Moses, God asked, ““Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” God reminded Moses that fear is irrational. God is in control, and He is always present to help his servants.
Even more significant is Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus, we have the perfect illustration of Colossians 3:23. He gave everything and never lost sight of His father. He is the perfect example of working for God with all effort.
The key to living a productive and courageous life is to remember Jesus. After all, if Jesus physically suffered, even unto to death on a cross, then we can certainly try harder in our daily efforts. In Jesus, we also find courage to face opposition. Fear has no power over us. Even death itself cannot conquer us.
Now my brothers and sisters, whatever you do, work with all your heart.
Theology of the Arts
Recently I was asked about my view of the arts in local church. I thought I’d post my brief response, in case it is helpful to anyone.
When it comes to the creative arts, I believe that art is a wonderful part of the Christian life. Various passages of Scripture reveal that God loves creativity, He enjoys various expressions of art, and He desires to be glorified through the arts.
In the local church, creativity’s primary purpose is to glorify God. A theme verse of mine has been Psalm 115:1, though there are many to support this. In no particular order, secondary purposes of the creative arts include: (1) delighting in creation, (2) expressing ourselves to God, (3) soothing/reviving our spirit, (4) edifying the church with sound doctrine, and (5) testifying to non-believers.
Worship is important to God and to His people. Although the creative arts should be enjoyable — very enjoyable — it is far more than being a form of entertainment. As I see it, the arts serve as the intersection between theology and expression. In biblical terms, this means worshiping in “spirit and truth.” We get into trouble when we neglect one or the other.
Finally, worship extends far beyond music and the other arts. It includes all of our actions. 1 Corinthians 10:31 makes it clear that we can even glorify God in our common, everyday activities, which extends far beyond a few hours on Sunday. (And based upon Amos, it is fair to say that this “daily worship” is much more important than the music on Sunday morning.) In a sense, creative arts are not an end in themselves, but a means towards greater service, sacrifice, love, etc. Worship beyond Sunday morning is the real test for the Church, and which ultimately determines the validity of its corporate worship.
WorshipGod Worship Conference (Sovereign Grace, 2008)
Very rarely do I post links to other websites, but this one is so beneficial, I couldn’t resist.
If you are interested in worship or lead worship at your church, Sovereign Grace has graciously posted 37 audio sessions on their website at:
Worship conferences usually cost several hundred dollars, so this is a blessing for those of us without such resources. Although I did not attend the conference, these audio sessions are the next best thing.
The Spirit As Our Interpreter
Language has never been a science. It is mysterious, beautiful, and often confusing.
All of us are dependent upon language for communication — whether it be verbal or non-verbal. As language becomes both more diverse (due to globalization) and more unified (due to mass media), we are caught between understanding and misunderstanding.
Historically, Christians have recognized that God primarily speaks to us through His word. He spoke the world into existence, He spoke to the Israelites throughout the centuries, He sent His son into the world to fulfill the Word, and He continues to speak to his people today.
We do need to look far before we realize how “slippery” language can be. When people use language, there is always a degree of uncertainty when it comes to meaning. It is no wonder that there are so many cases of misunderstanding between people. The nature of language itself, because it is not scientific, often leads to such misunderstandings.
Left on our own, we are often misled or confused. We define words differently, speak them differently, use them differently, and so on. In order to truly understand language, of course, we need someone to guide us as we interact with language and interpret it for ourselves. We need to ask questions, seek clarification, and truly interact with the speaker.
Thankfully, we can be assured that God’s Spirit does just that. In speaking of the Spirit of God, Jesus calls Him a “helper” and assures that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is a teacher that can clarify our confusion, unveil what is veiled, and satisfy our need for knowledge.
In our day, many scholars want to deconstruct language, both religious and non-religious, and question whether we can truly determine a meaning from a text. For example, some point to textual criticism and the many variants used in Christian scripture. How can we truly know anything if language is so slippery?
In response, we must first admit that language is mostly effective. Otherwise, we would not use language at all. The argument that language cannot communicate meaning is self-contradictory, so we cannot hold on to that argument for very long.
Secondly, we do not need to deny these difficulties, but we can embrace them. If language were purely scientific and self-evident, we would have no misunderstandings, we would lose some of the beauty of language, and the Spirit would have no role in helping us understand what has been spoken.
As we come to God’s Word, it is essential, then, that we ask for the Spirit’s help. Interpreting the text is not simply an intellectual puzzle to be figured out. It is an exercise of listening to God’s voice as He speaks to us through His word.
As any married couple knows, true listening involves the heart, even more so than the mind. Communication is not simply the deciphering of language, but the heart-felt interaction with what is being said. Only then do we truly listen.
May this be true of us as we listen to God speak to us.
Life: Beginnings, Ends, & Everything Else
My wife and I are anticipating the birth of our first daughter, EGJ. (Her full name is top secret for now!) Her arrival could be anytime from now until May 11th, and I am thrilled to the point of tears. Our baby is just about to begin her journey, while I am continuing on mine. What a crazy, miraculous world we live in.
Significant events, such as a birth or a death, force us to revisit the topic of life. Most days we slide on by, carrying on our regular activities, but once in a while we have a chance to slow down and ask once again, “What is life really about?” Thankfully, from a Christian perspective, we can narrow it down quite succinctly:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation — that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We beg you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
With only a few words, Paul words summarizes the meaning of the cosmos: (1) God was, and is, reconciling the world to Himself; (2) God does not count our sins against us; (3) and we have been given the message of reconciliation. Everything else should be influenced by those truths.
On a given day, we tend to forget about one or more of those aspects. We forget about God’s global perspective and the breadth of His salvation. We forget about the problem of sin and how God extends His mercy to us. Or we forget to beg others to be reconciled. On some days, maybe we forget all three.
Life is a jumble of activities, but let us never lose sight of what life is about. Whether you are breathing your first breath, driving to work, kissing your spouse, or saying your farewells, it all begins and end with God. The joy of life is that we can all be reconciled.
“Tom Beaudoin reveals four themes that shape the theology of many Postmoderns: (1) all institutions are suspect; (2) personal experience is everything; (3) suffering is spiritual; and (4) ambiguity is a central element of faith.” (source)
To respond to each of these, it would seem that the Church should: (1) embrace people more than programs; (2) focus on interactive, communal worship; (3) provide more opportunities for service; and (4) explore more gray areas in our teachings and discussions.
What do you think?
The Artist’s Role in Theology
When it comes to truth, creativity can be disastrous.
My son, for example, used to think that he could leap off a balcony and fly. He really believed he was a superhero, so thankfully, we had a chance to correct him before he tried! Although it was a creative idea, without a doubt, my son had no say when it came to the truth of gravity.
Contrary to popular opinion, truth is not “wiki” or open source, where everyone has an input; nor is it democratic, where the majority rules. Some truths remain the same, no matter what, such as 2+2=4. And our opinions, no matter how brilliant, do not change everlasting truth.
For that reason, when it comes to creativity & theology, it is not our place to create our own truth about God. That is not our responsibility, nor do we have the ability to do so. God remains the same, no matter what we think about Him.
Therefore, creativity & theology do not construct, but uncover truth — as an artist chisels away stone to reveal something previously unseen. For the Christian artist, the content of truth remains constant, but the presentation of that truth that may change. In the case of the sculptor, the rock has always been there, but the shaping of the rock expresses truth in a different way (e.g., visual representation rather than philosophical argument).
As David Fitch and others are pointing out, truth can be communicated in many different ways. Many of us are caught in a modernist mindset and are hesitant to consider other expressions of truth. However, although we are comfortable with scientific facts and logical propositions, we need not limit ourselves to those. We can be creative and discover God in more ways than through our intellect.
Theology is different from other “ologies” in the sense that if we only engage our subject intellectually, we miss the mark. We may understand hundreds of propositions about God, but if our imaginations are not involved in the process, I would say that we have failed. (By imagination I mean “envisioning what we do not rationally know.”)
Over at Signs of Emergence, Nick Hughes was quoted as saying, “I wish that someone, some group, something, somewhere would develop a theological project that captured the imagination. All the good ideas are elsewhere.” He is a graphic designer, not a theologian, but he expresses why many feel disenchanted and disconnected from theology.
Think about it: Shouldn’t studying theology make us more imaginative? If we truly and intently focus on God and His beauty, we will be inspired to overcome our ignorance. We will want to explore what we do not rationally know.
Songwriters can testify to this. When you write a song about a person, you intently focus on that person and you are inspired. The same goes for a glorious sunset. All you need to do is look intently, and the words and melodies naturally spring forth. In this way, something “other” or mysterious becomes personal.
Studying God, then, should inspire us — not only intellectually, but holistically. When we look at God and converse with Him, we should be enraptured with words, melodies, images, ideas, designs, and so on. After all, the source of creativity is God Himself.