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Philip S. Powell
 

Scripture and sculpture

Throughout the history of the church, the relationship between our faith and art has often been tense, ambivalent and confusing.

JUBILEE CENTRE AUTHOR Philip S. Powell 21 AUGUST 2019 11:45 h GMT+1
The Book that Reads You sculpture, by Liviu Mocan. / Jubilee Centre.

During a holiday in Sicily, I had the opportunity to visit several historic sites, including churches built by the Normans.



The mosaic artwork I saw was just breath-taking. I stood in awed silence before the Christ Pantocrator at the Cefalù Cathedral. How can works of art from almost a thousand years ago still have such power over the hearts and minds of people? 



During my holiday I also spent time reading my Bible. The Bible, an ancient text written more than twenty centuries ago, also has its own kind of power to challenge and illuminate.



I have been thinking about why human beings are art-making creatures and how this connects to religion and the spiritual aspects of life. I am not an artist and my academic background is in International Relations.



I write this blog as an outsider to the world of art and I specifically want to reflect on sculptures.



Throughout the history of the church, the relationship between our faith and art has often been tense, ambivalent and confusing.



On the one hand the Christian faith has inspired some of the greatest works of art the world has ever known, from beautiful church buildings, to the paintings of Michelangelo and Handel’s Messiah.



On the other hand, when the story of art is narrated, the Protestant Reformation and its impact are described as a ‘cultural calamity’ blamed for destroying priceless works of art across Europe.



The following words from Scripture were used to justify iconoclasm:



‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ (Exodus 20:4)



In Exodus 32 we read that the Israelites, during the time that Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, made a golden calf as a cultic idol they could worship and receive blessings from.



In Acts 19, we read that in Ephesus new Christian converts publicly burned expensive works of literature that were about magic arts. This was a sign of their turning away from darkness into the light.  



What this makes clear is that the Bible gives us ‘warning signs’ in bold letters about the dangers of idolatry because there is an inherent deviancy in the human heart to give worship to objects and things made with human hands to meet human needs.



But surely knowing what the Bible condemns cannot be the final word on the matter. How do we also properly understand what the Bible affirms about works of art? The answer is far from straightforward.



Today Christians still struggle to know what to affirm and what to denounce in the world of art. We seem to lack a coherent narrative to explain the relationship between God and beauty.



When it comes to Scripture and sculpture, the challenge that lies before us is knowing how to understand and explain the relationship between text and image/objects. Not all written text is good and not all images (either two or three dimensional) are bad.



The world of sculpture is new to me so let me use a quote to explain it better:




‘Sculpture, of all objects and things that human beings deem necessary to make their lives more liveable, belongs for several reasons in a rare and extraordinary class of its own. Rare, because even just looked at quantitatively, very few kilograms of sculpture are made on an average day, while many billions of tons of materials are made into other more useful things. Extraordinary, because although sculpture remains for the greater part useless, unlike designed objects, it is an attempt to make dumb material express human thoughts and emotions. It is not just to project intelligence into material but also to use material to think with.’ [1]




So when a Christian makes a sculpture, which may or may not be explicitly Christian, something significant is being achieved. It can be argued that in an indirect way we can understand the message of Scripture through the medium of sculpture.



We can learn to think with sculptures about what is written in Scripture. Sculptures, therefore, though they are material objects, give testimony to something ‘beyond’ which may or may not obvious.



It is about learning to ‘read’ and ‘hear’ the testimony of matter – the revelation it offers us is about matters that go beyond matter. This is the power of sculpture, it gives us a window into the divine mystery of the universe and its maker. The visible image/object can do what written text can never succeed at doing.



This leaves me with a puzzling question. Is the beauty and meaning in art purely subjective? Is there an objective basis from which to make aesthetic judgements? For the Christian the answer has to be yes.



Christians believe there is an objective moral order to the universe that is absolutely consistent with who God is. Human actions are considered ethical or unethical to the extent they conform or diverge from God’s moral order.



Similarly, when it comes to aesthetics, there are objective standards of beauty that are consistent with who God is. Human works of art are good and beautiful to the extent they reflect and embody the reality of God’s beauty and lead us toward enjoying God and his world more fully. In a strict sense, beauty is not amoral.



This does not mean aesthetic judgements are simple binaries of either good or bad, Christian or non-Christian. There is complexity to how we make aesthetic judgements.



And complexity can sometimes be a good thing. When it comes to beauty and meaning in works of art, because they are products of diverse evolving human cultures, and ‘meaning’ is culturally circumscribed and socially constructed, we must allow a wide latitude to interpret, appreciate, enjoy, be indifferent to, and even reject and condemn different works of art.



Works of art are not self-explanatory, they have to be interpreted using some cultural framework.



The beauty and wisdom of Scripture is that it provides us with a positive framework for making aesthetic judgements, without actually making the judgements for us about works of art.



It is up to us as Christians to both wholeheartedly affirm Scripture and affirm all that is good, beautiful and true in the world of sculpture.



Philip S. Powell manages the Learning Community of the Jubilee Centre.



This article first appeared on the Jubilee Centre website and was republished with permission.



 



[1] Joachim Peter Kastner ‘The Articulated Column’ in Jeremy Beggie (ed.) Beholding the Glory (2000), pg. 103 – 104.


 

 


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