Art For God’s Sake

From “Simply Christian:
Why Christianity Makes Sense”
by N. T. Wright, b.1948

The church should reawaken its hunger for beauty at every level. This is essential and urgent. It is central to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. Art, music, literature, dance, theatre and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom, can all be explored in new ways.

The point is this. The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the centre of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions. But the present world is also designed for something which has not yet happened. It is like a violin waiting to be played: beautiful to look at, graceful to hold and yet if you'd never heard one in the hands of a musician, you wouldn't believe the new dimensions of beauty yet to be revealed. Perhaps art can show something of that, can glimpse the future possibilities pregnant within the present time. It is like a chalice: again, beautiful to look at, pleasing to hold, but waiting to be filled with the wine which, itself full of sacramental possibilities, gives the chalice its fullest meaning. Perhaps art can help us to look beyond the immediate beauty with all its puzzles, and to glimpse that new creation which makes sense not only of beauty but of the world as a whole, and ourselves within it. Perhaps.

The artist can then join forces with those who work for justice and those who struggle for redemptive relationships, and together encourage and sustain those who are reaching out for a genuine, redemptive spirituality. The way to make sense of it all is to look ahead. Look to the coming time when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge and glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea; and then live in the present in the light of that promise, sure that it will come fully true because it was already fulfilled when God did for Jesus at Easter what he is going to do for the whole of creation. Gradually we are glimpsing a truth which cannot be overemphasised: that the tasks which await us as Christians, the paths we must walk and the lessons we must learn, are part of the great vocation which reaches us in God’s word, the word of the gospel, the word of Jesus and the Spirit. We are called to be part of God’s new creation, called to be agents of that new creation here and now. We are called to model and display that new creation in symphonies and family life, in restorative justice and poetry, in holiness and service to the poor, in politics and painting.

When you see the dawn breaking, you think back to the darkness in a new way. “Sin" is not simply the breaking of a law. It is the missing of an opportunity. Having heard the echoes of a voice, we are called to come and meet the Speaker. We are invited to be transformed by the voice itself, the word of the gospel, the word which declares that evil has been judged, that the world has been put to rights, that earth and heaven are joined forever, and that new creation has begun. We are called to become people who can speak and live and paint and sing that word so that those who have heard its echoes can come and lend a hand in the larger project. That is the opportunity that stands before us, as gift and possibility. Christian holiness is not (as people often imagine) a matter of denying something good. It is about growing up and grasping something even better.

Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamour for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.

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