Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


True Spirituality in the Arts - Edith Reitsema

True Spirituality in the Arts: Recapturing the Wonder!

by Edith M. Reitsema   

Does life sometimes seem like it is run by a set of static rules which miss the point, or by false expectations? Imagine viewing life "astounded with wonder upon wonder", to be amazed, astonished? To find yourself being dumbfounded, having your breath taken away, and rendered speechless because of who God is – because of the hope he is offering us? Let's have a look at what Scripture shows us, what those thinking about art and creation have to tell, and what our own vision can be.

These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men and women. Therefore once more I will astound the people with wonder upon wonder.” Isaiah 29:13-14

How can we be reawakened by such "wonder upon wonder", and be overcome by surprise because of God's glory and his holiness? 

What has caused us to lose this wonder? Could it be that we have lost the wonder of Christ working in our hearts? Many Christians live out of fear, wanting to do the right thing, in the hope of remaining pure in their faith. But they live life avoiding countless worthwhile things, lest they would become contaminated. In the process they have become afraid of engaging with the culture around them, in case it were not so-called "Christian". I think they are making a category mistake. They have become reductionistic about what it means to believe in God. 

William Dyrness, an American Theologian in his book, Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship, offers an explanation for this:

Critiquing contemporary culture has been a favourite past time for Christians since the Reformation.[1]

While I agree with Dyrness, that we shouldn't be critical for criticism's sake, being discerning of untrue statements about creation however is part of being alive. Only being critical sucks the joy, the wonder, and the mystery out of life. And it can be like beating people over the head with a list of cold truths, with which in fact we are "honouring God with our lips, but our hearts are far from him". But this does not mean flipping the coin over and getting excited about all faiths and all ideas in the name of being more loving. True spirituality means valuing the truth in love.

And God loves us, for he has clearly placed us in his creation, and calls us to cultivate it (Genesis 1:26), even though it is fallen and broken. For, the more we engage with creation and co-create in it, the more we are able to recognize the handiwork of our ultimate Creator. And the more we might be aroused to respond to our Creator relationally. I often feel I must be missing something and find myself praying, "Lord, help me to see your hand at work in my life". God longs for us to yearn for and seek out more and more glimpses of his glory amidst the ruin in life, that we might be in awe of who he is. Like the passage in Isaiah 29 continues:

This is what the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, says: When they see among them […] the work of my hands, […] they will acknowledge the holiness […] and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. Isaiah 29:23

The logical response as we view creation is to be filled with wonder, to be brought to the point of awe about the one who Created it!  And being brought to awe, should lead us to being thankful!! 

Let's turn to the New Testament and see how Paul challenges us to live in Christ with this sense of wonder.

(6) So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, (7) rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 

(8) See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

(9) For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, (10) and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.  (11) In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, (12) having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

(13) When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.  He forgave us all our sins, (14) having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.  (15) And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

(16) Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  (17) These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.  (18) Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.  Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.  (19) He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

(20) Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: (21) "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? (22) These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. (23) Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." Colossians 2:6-23

When speaking with artists I find that they struggle to integrate their Christian faith in their artwork. They find it hard to avoid being reductionistic, having a mind leap when wanting to express what they believe about life in what they are creating. In response to this difficulty, which is in no way limited to artists, I would like to structure this as a devotion around what it means that we are spiritual human beings. We will unpack this Colossians 2 text into three pointers of what it could look like for us to live in Christ. We will start by looking at the fact that living in Christ means understanding that Christ is Lord over all of life, and how living in Christ should lead us away from living with a segregated view of life, having a sacred-secular split.  For this false dichotomy in our thinking splits our hearts and brings about divided loyalties. We will look at an array of artworks to help us think about what it looks like when we fall into such a sacred-secular or sacred-profane split.  Secondly, living in Christ means engaging in the fullness of being human.  And thirdly, we will consider how living in Christ means understanding reality in the context of relationship.  I would like to close with some thoughts on how to integrate our faith in what we create – in the hope of being able to work out what it means to express being more fully human, especially with regards to art.

1. Living in Christ means understanding that Christ is Lord over all of life

As the text in Colossians 2 contemplates what it means to "live in Christ", we are warned in verse 8 against the reductionism of depending on human capabilities and philosophies: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ".   The more we "depend on the human traditions of this world", the more we depend on our own capabilities, and the more we will struggle to see that Christ is Lord over all of life.  Living in Christ discourages us from living with a sacred-secular split.  Although deceptive philosophies result in a sacred-secular split, most philosophies don't even try to acknowledge the sacred at all.

What do we hear when we hear the phrase: "to live in Christ"? This phrase can seem so out of reach for so many of us. Why is this?  We tend to think of "living in Christ" as just being spiritual, as living some sort of Christian life only to do with the saving of my soul or as hoping for some kind of religious experience. We think of spiritual as only meaning supernatural, unreal, non-material. We assume that there is a kind of separation possible between our body and soul, with our bodies as physical, and our soul as spiritual. This leaves us with a split view of ourselves, in which we think some of our life is spiritual, while for the rest we can just depend on our human capabilities and philosophies. 

We are inclined to conceptualize the world around us with this split as well.  This split can be seen in the segregated view we might hold of church life versus pub life - with life in the church perhaps being viewed as narrow, limited and safe, while pub life is seen as dodgy, full of danger, and harmful.  In accordance to this split, when we think of what it means to be spiritual as a Christian, we think of reading the Bible, worshipping God, working in ministry, contemplation, communion, confession, marriage, fasting, and the gifts of the spirit.  All these things are good in and of themselves, but this list is a bit reductionistic if it is about what it means to "live in Christ".  For we tend to leave out things such as eating, sleeping, working, exercising, sport, games, rest, recreation, shopping, friends, family, relationships, the arts, education, chores, manual work, showering… We're inclined to call the first list spiritual, and the second secular, every day. This type of outlook leads to a segregated view of life, with Sunday mornings trying to conjure up a spiritual atmosphere. But in this Colossians text it says in verse 6 "continue to live in Christ" – We are to live in Christ not just in segregated bits, but continuously throughout all of life.  By valuing some of life as more spiritual than other parts, it seems as if we think God's blessing is more readily available at some moments in our lives than others. 

Francis Schaeffer, who with his wife Edith founded L'Abri in 1955, used visual examples here by painting a picture for us in words in order to explain a theological truth. He described something of a sacred-secular split in his book The God who is There as our having divided the world into an "upper and a lower story".[2] He also talked about two chairs in his book True Spirituality, in which we are either sitting in the supernatural chair or the natural chair.[3]

In our sacred-secular split, with its reductionism, a clear form of legalism emerges, in which we "make rules taught by men and women" as to how to live, as Isaiah 29 said, and then live the rest of our lives whatever way we want. Here, to speak along with Colossians 2:18, we may get "puffed up with idle notions" and live with a "false humility". However, Christ cautioned us throughout His ministry on earth that legalism sucks the life out of everything.  As Colossians 2:21 warns us "Don't handle, don't taste, don't touch!", these rules don't give life, but perish with use. The problem with human regulations is that we play the "judge" instead of God, as we see in verse 16.  Or in verse 18, where we let the eyes of others "disqualify" us, rather than God's norms.  Or when we let people be big and God small, and let our faith be determined by "human commands", as in verse 22.

As a brief side note, you may think that our culture suffers more from rebellion these days, than it does from legalism around faith. I would like to argue that rebellion is actually just the flip side of the same coin as legalism, because both options are static.  Legalism is a misinterpretation of God's laws, while rebellion is an abuse of God's grace. Neither enhance a dynamic relationship with Christ. In it's black and white approach, legalism is a list of do's and don'ts which statically get ticked off. While rebellion, with its supposed allegiance to everything grey, is actually just another list - the list you don't have. Legalism is "I don't smoke or drink." And in contrast, the cool version of rebellion is: "I don't don't smoke or drink." Although rebellion is a commitment to seeming chaos, it is still just another form of a checklist.

So, living in Christ means understanding that Christ is Lord over all of life continually.  This should lead us away from having divided loyalties – a split heart, in which we depend on our own human capabilities.

1.1 The Misleading Philosophies of our Western Culture - unpacking the sacred-secular split

As we reflect on some of the philosophies and human traditions that mislead our Western culture, let’s have a look at some art. Since art is a way of seeing, expressing a view of the way we think about or see the world we live in. Each artwork seems to reflect a different philosophy. In thinking further about the reductionisms we practice, our human regulations, and sacred-secular split, I would like to look at these artworks around the theme of the Last Supper. 

The Last Supper is a sacrament, a symbol which points to a meal which is held to celebrate our union with Christ on the cross. This symbol highlights the fact that Christ was willing to die on the cross to pay for our sins, so that we might be able to "live in Christ". Christ dying on the cross for us has significance for all of life and should infiltrate into every area of our lives. What better way to depict this truth than by sharing a meal, by having a feast together? It is the meal at which Jesus, on the night that He was betrayed (before He was crucified), took the bread, gave thanks, broke the bread, and said: “Take this bread and eat it – it is my body which is broken for you.  Do this in remembrance of me”.  And then He took the cup of wine and said “Drink this cup, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant. It is shed for you, and for many, so that sins may be forgiven”.[4]  This sacrament shows that Jesus’ death on the cross was not a failure, but a victory. Jesus did not only die on the cross, but he rose again from the dead. He faced death and beat it. He took the worst that the world could do to him, and he came out on the top. But not only that, he took all the broken, warped, distorted things we’ve ever done – all the sin in which we’ve selfishly put ourselves above God – and He washed it away.  He did away with it, so that we might "live in him". So, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, this is what we are celebrating.[5] All of life has meaning again. We are "alive with Christ" as Colossians 2:13 says, because Christ forgave our sins. Since Jesus rose again, he can now live through his Spirit in each one of us, so that we can desire to live in a way that will please him. As we saw in Colossians 2:7 we can now "be rooted and built up in him and strengthened by him". And we can celebrate this through participating in the Lord's Supper. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus breathes the breath of life back into each one of us, redeeming all the sinful choices we make.

1.1.1 Humanism

The first painting of “The Last Supper” (1498) we will look at is by the Italian Renaissance painter, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

At the time that Leonardo da Vinci was painting, the Catholic church was the largest and richest institution in the Western world. The Catholic church was therefore the main commissioner for all architecture and art. Any artist who wanted to make a living, accepted work within the religious context – even though the life style of the artist was not necessarily Christian.  Embracing the Humanist philosophy of his day, Leonardo da Vinci studied human nature to gain knowledge. Humanism is the philosophy in which humanity stood central in life - with humanity supposedly being entitled to having control over all of life above God. Considering that Renaissance Humanism was a central focus for Leonardo, it is not surprising how he went about painting “The Last Supper”. Even though Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” is now crumbling because of the oil paint he used (not the paint to use for durability), and patchy because of restoration, you can still see that the facial expressions were most important for Leonardo. Apparently he scoured the streets of Milan for more than two years, searching for faces to show the facial expressions of the disciples. He struggled especially to find a countenance sufficiently soaked in evil to depict Judas Iscariot’s face. Which one do you think is Judas' face? He is the third figure to the left of Jesus, who has his hand in the same bowl as Jesus.[6] Humanism had a big influence on the choices da Vinci made. How can we see this? Since the Last Supper is the moment when Jesus declares that one of the disciples will betray him, it is the human consternation amongst the disciples which this caused, that da Vinci chose to concentrate on. There aren’t the usual medieval signs of a halo around Jesus to show his divinity. However, there is a certain amount of geometry, mathematics and science in the way Jesus is portrayed (true to Humanism and its emphasis on human capability), forming an equilateral triangle, with Jesus' head in the middle of a circle. In this sense this picture suits the Renaissance period. And the window that frames Jesus’ head creates a kind of halo.  Jesus forms a calm centre, surrounded by human beings with all their faults, fears and relational worries around him. If we look at other Renaissance paintings of the Last Supper we often see lots of room around the table, and many decorations on the walls (such as “The Last Supper” fresco in the Sant’Apollonia in Florence painted by Andrea del Castagno, 1421-1457). But Leonardo da Vinci simplifies things and focuses on the disciples with their intense facial expressions and their many hand gestures – because these were important to him. The way Leonardo portrays the interaction between the clusters of disciples, shows the human tension and drama, and their different emotional responses, as they try to make sense of what is going on. 

Ironically, by leaving no room behind the table, with the figures taking up so much space, it’s as if Leonardo is separating our world from the world of Christ and the disciples.  The table, with its white table cloth, forms a kind of barrier as well (with all the figures on the other side of the table), instead of having Judas on our side of the table like many other paintings did (such as “The Last Supper” of Domenico Ghirlandaio). Because of this, it is hard for the viewer to enter and be a part of the space the painting creates, or to be invited to be a disciple too.[7] In this sense, there is a kind of separation between us and the sacred space that da Vinci created. One could call it a sacred-secular split. It is inconsistent, because the emphasis on humanism draws us into the painting, but we are kept out of it somehow by the table barrier, with the so-called supernatural aspect of what is going on with Jesus.

1.1.2 Scientism

The second artwork is a conceptual one by a contemporary British artist, Damien Hirst (born in 1965).

Although Hirst does not seem to hold to the Catholic tradition anymore, he was brought up in it.  In his artworks, Damien Hirst is obsessed with our own mortality. We, in 2018, still hold many of the tenets of Modernity and its Humanism in our culture - including a belief in the fact that because of our ability to understand science, we must be able to have power and control over every aspect of life. We think we are entitled to be master over every situation.  In this beguiling fantasy of Modernity, there is no comfortable place for death. And so Damien Hirst takes it upon himself to highlight this in his art. Even with our dread of death, we cling onto Modern ways in which we think we can defy death.  We think we can do this through the science of medicine and through the manipulation of the food we eat.  In defiance of the idea that “eternity is set within our hearts” (to quote Ecclesiastes 3:11) because of what Christ did for us, in Damien Hirst’s work, “The Last Supper” (1999), we see 13 prints of pharmaceutical boxes – alluding to the twelve disciples plus Jesus. Damien Hirst is commenting on his view of the relationship between religion and medicine. The pharmaceutical labels have been altered though. Do you notice anything particular about them? They are replaced with names of common British foods. And so you see for example that “Ethambutol Hydrochloride” is now “Steak and Kidney”. Ironically, the names or logos of the manufacturers have been replaced by those of the artist – Hirst’s own brand, so to speak. Hirst’s prints show that the way people are living (with their entitlement attitude) gives us a peek into their view of what will save the world.  Hirst is asking whether pharmaceuticals (our Modern scientific answer to defying death, which has become the staple of many contemporary diets) might have become, not only our salvation in which we have come to put our faith, but our daily bread too?[8] Here again we have a shift in focus from the Last Supper pointing to redemption through what Christ did on the cross for us, to looking at how we seek salvation through our own powers of medicine and food. And again this shift indicates a kind of sacred-secular split.  In that the artwork uses a sacred sacrament to talk about what saves us. It’s as if a sacred question is asked, but a secular answer is provided.

1.1.3 Feminism

Another conceptual artwork I would briefly like to pause at is called “The Dinner Party” (1979), by the feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born 1939).

This artwork is supposed to function as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization.  There are 39 elaborate place settings arranged along an equilateral triangular table, supposedly to portray equality among the sexes. With each side of the table having 13 place settings: representing according to her: “Jesus and his twelve disciples in the Last Supper”.  Each of these 39 servings of food are in the shape of female body parts, supposedly representing well known mythical or historical women: such as the 6th-century empress Theodora of Byzantium; the 19th-century author Virginia Woolf; Susan B. Anthony, the American women’s rights activist; or Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist known for her flower paintings as the mother of American Modernism; etc. The centre of the triangle is filled with triangular shaped tiles with 999 names of women who have made a mark on history. Although this artwork is clearly a celebration of being female through feminism, for which I should show some thankfulness, for otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to study 10 years at Universities, nor might I have been able to stand here, I still wonder whether emphasizing women in this way redeems the brokenness and unfairness of life?  Do we get anywhere by elevating ourselves and proclaiming what we are entitled to at the expense of others, men included? What view of our role in the world are we portraying when we call attention to what we think we are entitled to like this? And does it not appear enormously sacrilegious to refer to the Last Supper while serving female shaped body parts for food? 

1.1.4 So-called "Peace and Affluence" … Capitalism

Our fourth artwork called “The Last Supper” (2013) is Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture. 

Born in 1962, Yinka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist who lives in London.  In his art Yinka Shonibare explores the contemporary adoration of luxury goods, food and clothes that money can buy (with the inhumanity of the celebratory excesses in the banking industry, along with the products of post-colonialism). In this work of his we see a bunch of figures dressed in wax batik fabric in tailored outfits (which used to be mass produced by the Dutch and were eventually sold to the colonies in West-Africa). They’re gathered around a table, having had a lavish feast. But what is missing?  It’s as if all of these important figures have no personality. All the wrong things are important to them – and this shows something of the worldview being depicted in the artwork.  Sitting around, having indulged in an extensive meal they felt entitled to – in contrast to what the feast of the Lord’s Supper focuses on (our sinfulness within relationship), we see the epitome of relationship suppressed, since there are no faces. Could Shonibare perhaps be asking whether we think food and expensive clothes will make us happy rather than honest relationship? Is this the "sensual indulgence" that Colossians 2:23 was on about? Notice the pound sign embossed in the fabric, emphasizing capitalism. This work hints at Leonardo da Vinci’s depiction of “The Last Supper”, in that Shonibare’s sculptures are situated in a similar arrangement of clusters of people with elaborate hand gestures.  The Last Supper may seem like a kind of metaphor of what Christ did for us on the cross (although it may not be a metaphor itself, there are metaphoric elements within it, such as the bread is being likened to Jesus’ body).  And this sculpture tries to point the focus of that metaphor to our feelings of being entitled to lavish food and expensive clothes, no matter what the cost. Peace and affluence, regardless of the price tag, exposing them for what they are.

Whatever the case may be, either consciously or unconsciously, these artists are showing us a sacred-secular split. Even if they are just holding something as sacred, while not necessarily believing in God, they are giving us a window into their worldview and showing us the worldview of our culture. For why are these artists using religious symbols in their art? Is it the shock value? Is it an echo from their childhood? Or are they processing their past hurt from church? What might it teach us as we try to express our faith in what we create? 

1.2 An attempt at thankfulness rather than entitlement - hopefully dissipating a sacred-secular split

Our last artwork in this series called “The Last Supper” (1986), which I would like us to look at, is by the American pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987).

Andy Warhol’s work explores the relationship between artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertising. Andy Warhol was a Roman Catholic who apparently attended Mass almost daily throughout his life but didn't publish the fact. While Andy Warhol’s artwork may definitely give a mysterious impression, he was not only a regular church attender, but also consistently served at soup kitchens. Although I do not know Andy Warhol nor his life style personally, I have heard many negative descriptions of it. However, I have also heard very positive evaluations of his contributions, and I do think his efforts at using such a mundane everyday symbol as “GE” in his artwork “The Last Supper”, might be pointing to the hope of more meaning.  By doing this, it would seem that he was hoping to integrate the sacred and the secular more.  With the backdrop of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “The Last Supper”, we see imposed a commercial sign, “GE” and a dove.  Andy Warhol appears to be pointing to the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (out of an advertisement for soap cosmetics), which he uses interchangeably with the symbol “GE” for General Electric.  Apparently he is hearkening back to the well known advertisement of General Electric which says: “We bring good things to life” – implying that we can be thankful for the purifying role of the Holy Spirit in us, which should point us to the work of Christ in our lives.  His reference to General Electric and their supplying light for people would also appear to point to the light of Christ – to resurrection and eternal life.[9]  Andy Warhol may have provocatively put 59c in the corner of the piece, to question whether we value the meaning of the Last Supper enough in our daily lives.  Do we realize that the Last Supper is a celebration of thankfulness?

As a quick side note again, out of some of these artworks we may very well get a sharp view of how we don’t want to proceed, but we also get a heightened perception of how difficult it is to integrate the sacred and the profane in art.  And hopefully it has become clear that using a Christian theme doesn’t necessarily make your art Christian.  For isn’t it destructive to take a Biblical theme and then bend it to say what it was never meant to say?  Just as much as taking a piece of creation and twisting it to be what it was never meant to be, can also be destructive. Taking a Christian symbol and using it in order to base an artwork around it (whether to make a deconstructionist statement, or a different statement all together), doesn’t mean you end up with Christian art. Christians who are attempting to make art should care about the worldview message they are portraying – and that may not necessarily have much to do with a Biblical scene.  Taking what is really precious to us (as meaningful as the Lord’s Supper, which the Lord gave us to partake of to remind us of him until he returns), to prove some other point, is taking the sacred and making it very secular.  We have to be careful with the sacred.  Art that shows something of creation, of what God has created in reality, is good. The way to take away the split between the sacred and the secular is not to make the sacred profane, but to show that the profane is sacred - that everyday life is sacred. Just so, artwork that tries to be sacred, and in so doing tries to divorce itself from everyday life, is not more religious for it. Also art does not need to be beautiful. We should not be afraid to show the brokenness and pain in life for what it is. To be misleading and tell a lie about reality is evil and not good. 

Already early on in Scripture, Genesis 2:9 and Genesis 3:6 show us that God is concerned with how things look, "The trees were made to be pleasing to the sight, as well as being good for food". The Hebrew word for "pleasing to the sight" means "ravishing". God's creation is ravishing to look at, and delightful to engage with.  If God made it, then it is sacred and holy – and worthy to be thankful for. Our ability to be thankful for God's gift of creation to us, with all that is sacred in it, is part of what it means for us to be spiritual human beings. As Colossians 2:7 says, "To live in Christ [… is to be] overflowing in thankfulness." The thing that should help dissipate a sacred-secular split is to recognize that it is the wrong dichotomy. The choice that matters is between being thankful for what God has given us, in contrast to choosing to be disobedient to God in the way we live. 

The "hollow and deceptive philosophies" of our Post Modern Western culture express the attitude of entitlement. It is not entitlement, but rather thankfulness that will help us dissipate a sacred-secular split, for thankfulness engages our whole heart. So we need to work out to whom we need to say "Thank you!" As Francis Schaeffer said in his book True Spirituality, "True Spirituality is having a thankful heart to the God who is there".[10] And by this he meant to emphasize that we live in a personal and supernatural universe. God longs for us to yearn for, and seek out more and more glimpses of his glory, that we might become personally thankful, and in awe of who he is, and see the privilege it is to be personally in relationship with the eternal God.

In contrast to the entitlement mentality, which evolves out of a perception that life is just made up of nature plus humanity, Hans Rookmaaker, the art historian who started Dutch L'Abri in 1970, expressed something of the type of thankfulness we are to have in his book, The Creative Gift:

When we ask for Christian activity in the arts we are not calling for a sectarian style, the art of a subculture. We ask for art that is fully art, which springs from the fullness of what we are, and which takes into account the whole reality in which we live, a reality immeasurably greater than simply the total of nature plus man. Such art will express joy and beauty, it will give honour and praise – but it will never close its eyes to sin and misery. It will be an art born of the freedom given to man by God. Art should be a form of play, rejoicing before the face of God.[11]

Being filled with wonder usually evolves into wanting to give thanks to the Giver, and rejoicing.

2. Living in Christ means engaging in the fullness of being human

In our Colossians 2 passage we see in verse 10 "And you have been given fullness in Christ." Hans Rookmaaker provocatively described some of what this means in his essay Art Needs No Justification:

Christ did not come down from heaven to convert human beings to become Christians (meaning heavenly citizens), but he came to make Christians human (meaning earth-involved images of God).[12]

Being fully human depends on our working out what it means to be earth involved images of God, with Christ's help. Every human being is made in the image of God, and uniquely reflects glimpses of God's glory. Whether we're aware of it or not, we think, act, feel, are creative, make choices, are moral, communicate, and are relational beings, because God does these things. We each reflect God's image uniquely. We might miss out on some truth about who God is if we try to avoid engaging with the world or loving those around us, because we're afraid they might not be so called "Christian". 

Part of reflecting God's image is cultivating the earth. To be human is to express culture. Rookmaaker in his book, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture says, "Culture is the result of our creative activity within God’s given structures of creation.”[13] And culture is never something separate from faith. 

If this is the case, we should rather talk about what it is to be a Christian rather than a Christian’s attitude to (or even separate from) culture. We should also shy away from talking about “Christian art”. Instead we should talk about art that discloses a Christian mentality. Since, we can all so easily slip into the mistake of making Christianity and culture (or art) two distinct entities separate from each other. A confrontation with a work of art should evoke a fully embodied response. 

But, how are we to engage with being fully human? To be fully human is to have a united heart for Christ – to not have split loyalties. As Psalm 86:11 says, "Teach me your way, O Lord […] Give me an undivided heart." And in our text in Colossians 2:13 we are told that "God made you alive with Christ". And then we are told how He does this: "He forgave us all our sins" so that we might reflect his image more, so that our hearts may be made whole again. In Colossians 2:11 Paul likens "living in Christ" with circumcision. But here he means a spiritual circumcision in which God longs to mould our hearts. All of our hearts. As Colossians 2:11 says, "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature […] but with the circumcision done by Christ." God makes us alive by making us aware of our sins, by bearing our sins, and by nailing them to the cross. The circumcision of the Old Testament is likened to a spiritual baptism in the New Testament. In Colossians 2:12 we see that to be made alive we "go under" by dying to our sinful ways and rise again, free through Christ. For Rookmaaker in his book, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, living out our Christian calling means standing for freedom:

We must show the inner freedom of those who have been made “truly free” by Jesus Christ. We must show that we are free from greed, sin, hate, the need to dominate, free to do good, free to fight the evils of the day and to protest in love. Freedom is not just negative, freedom from something. Christian freedom is positive, dynamic.[14]

Such freedom opens the door for us to be filled with wonder and be amazed.

3. Living in Christ means understanding reality in the context of relationship

Living in Christ should make us engage with the fullness of reality. The Bible is very realistic about the brokenness of life, our sorrow, pain, evil, hatred, jealousy, cruelty, unrighteousness and human misery. Considering this, it is hopeful that Colossians 2:17 says, "Reality is found in Christ." 

Rookmaaker often referred to reality as fact plus meaning.[15] And meaning comes within the context of personal relationship. Meaning arises when we are able to say thank you to the Giver of life, even amidst our sin and misery. For, it is only within redemptive relationship that ultimate meaning and joy can be found, and a sense of wonder can be recaptured. Rookmaaker said in his book The Creative Gift:

The strength of Christianity lies precisely in the fact that it offers joy in the midst of suffering, because of its certainty that justice will finally come. It knows that evil has already lost the battle and will eventually be totally defeated – not by men who may have good intentions, but by the living God through the work of Jesus Christ.  We must therefore take hold of the freedom … the freedom to love our neighbour, to perceive creation as beautiful and fascinating, and to reckon life worth living.[16]

Isn't this what the sense of "wonder upon wonder" is made of?

I would like to put forward a final artwork as a possible example showing something of the idea that all of life is spiritual, with the fullness of being human, understanding reality in the context of relationship.  Jan Steen (1626-1679) is a Dutch artist, from the Everyday Life Scene movement (which developed in contrast to all the previous paintings of Biblical scenes). This movement was influenced by the Reformation, which emphasized that Scripture is for everybody, and should have an impact on all areas of our lives. Although Jan Steen was a Catholic, his art was infused with influences from the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Steen’s painting, “The Feast of St Nicholas” (1668) shows a true understanding and respect for real human family life. The painting depicts the noise and confusion at a family event, capturing many of the intricacies of relationships within family life. It is a composition, which depicts, by means of many different lines, the network of complicated, and sometimes broken, family ties.  Notice how the many lines which can be drawn between the different figures in the painting enhances this - with the line from the head of the child, to the father, to the grandmother; or the line of the mother’s head, to the father, to the sister. But what are these lines in this painting about? And why is there a shoe in the front of the painting? The title of the painting, “The Feast of St Nicholas” points to the tradition in the Netherlands in which on the 5th of December St Nicholas arrives on a boat from Spain to deliver gifts to children, on the condition that the children have been “good” throughout the year. A few weeks before St Nicholas’s arrival, the children put one of their shoes by the woodstove at the bottom of the chimney through which St Nicholas travels to deliver his gifts. The children leave a carrot for St Nicholas’s horse, along with a wish list of the gifts they desire to receive. Naughty children only find a brush in their shoe.  If you look at Jan Steen’s painting you see how the shoe strewn across the floor in the front of the painting shows what the painting is about: “What did you get in your shoe?” And if you look further, you see the mother asking the girl what she got. The girl teasingly shows how her brother’s shoe didn't even have a brush in it, while another got a lovely doll.  In the midst of this, another younger brother tries to get a hold of his mother’s attention.  Closer to the fire place an older brother sings with another boy a “thank you St Nicholas song”, while holding his younger sibling. The father sits in the middle of all this commotion, enjoying the feast. But what is going on in the background? Here we see by the grandmother's facial expression, how she tries to soften the brush in the boy’s shoe, by possibly having put a gift aside for him. Jan Steen portrays the dynamics within a family – with the seemingly "redemptive psychology" of the grandmother, and all the different attitudes of the family members.  But it’s not only about relationships. Jan Steen also paints a pile of dishes on either side of the painting, to show some of the many different kinds of special dishes that belong to such a celebration. The influence of the Reformation, that all of life is significant even in its messiness, can be seen in this work.[17] 

4. Thoughts on how to integrate our faith in what we create

If we consider what it means to be artists ourselves, to be creators, and hope to integrate our Christian faith in what we make, thinking about the role of the Holy Spirit is crucial. Since, by the work of the Holy Spirit, through Christ, God offers us a fresh kind of relationship, in which we can understand again who He is, who we are, and what it means to be alive and be able to contribute to the renewal of this world.  The renewal of our lives through the working of the Holy Spirit in us provides the possibility for damaged and fractured relationships to be healed and restored. God wants to anticipate restored life through us. He longs for us to share a wonder and awe about the possibility of this in our daily lives, but also through our art.

We are to see the present world as a signpost to a larger reality, a glimpse of his beautiful glory amidst all the ruin, which will one day be fully restored, and which is already in the process of being reclaimed today, moment by moment. We anticipate this glory as we take seriously what it means to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together regularly. All the beauty of the present world will one day, when Christ returns, be enhanced, elevated, and set free from whatever currently corrupts and defaces it.    

The world as we currently know it, where we all fend selfishly for ourselves, is indeed a place of injustice, violence and brutality, corruption and decay, and is desperately in need of help and restoration. But, considering we were created in the image of this glorious God, there are still remnants of His glory in each one of us. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, these remnants of God’s glory can be revealed in the way we create beauty in what we do and what we make. Beauty, also in the natural order of human creation, can sometimes be so powerful that it can evoke our very deepest feelings of awe, wonder, gratitude and reverence. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we should pray that God can work through us, also in the art we create, to complete what he has begun, and to redeem his creation.

We also need to think about whether our art is resonating with the structures of God’s creation.  For example, if music is only dissonant, without any harmony or resolution, it is not attractive. If all of life is broken, without any redemption or restoration, it is only painful, and ugly. Just so, art becomes attractive when it displays some of both dissonance and resolution – resounding with some glimpse of hope.

Realizing that God made the world good, and that it belongs to him, we should participate in working towards an understanding of its concrete possibilities. This includes taking action against sin, destruction, corruption, lust for power and self-satisfaction. However, sometimes we get confused and think it is necessary to preach in art, when we may say more if we just make a true statement or reflect something of the truth of everyday reality. Our involvement in life must not be with the idea that God needs our assistance and can’t manage without our great accomplishments.  Christ says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and the rest will come.”[18]

And considering all the corruption we see in our Postmodern culture, it might be tempting to remain in a holy huddle together and avoid the Godless culture and art world around us. However, we need to be challenged by Jesus’ prayer in John 17:15.  He prays to His Father, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.” Christ is interceding on our behalf so that we may be protected from the evil one when we are in the world, not when we are trying to isolate ourselves from it.

In conclusion, we seem to have lost some of the mystery in our lives, along with the value of the wonder and awe of our world. We need to allow G.K. Chesterton to remind us of the wonder to be had in creation, as he does in his book Orthodoxy. A tree actually grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines, because there is more to life than my eye can see, or my abstract reason can fathom. We’ve somehow lost this wonder of life.  The sun doesn’t just rise because it’s a dead piece of lifeless clockwork. The sun rises regularly, because it never gets tired of rising, because the ultimate life giver, God, never tires of saying, “Do it again!”[19] We need to allow our eyes to see the wonder of God's glory once again. We need to recapture the wonder of Christ working in our hearts! As we look forward to the new earth in Revelations 21:24-27, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it […] The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it [… Although] Nothing impure will ever enter it.”


Edith Reitsema has worked at English L’Abri since 2002, holds a B.A. in Music, and an Honours Degree in Modern English Literature from Potchefstroom University in South Africa; an M.A. in Theology from Covenant Seminary; and a graduate degree in Philosophy from the Free University in the Netherlands. She was one of the translators of The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker. Edith lectures on a variety of topics that deal with the relationship between Christianity, contemporary culture and the arts.

[1] 2001:20.

[2] 1990:83.

[3] 1971:63.

[4] 1 Corinthians 11:24-25; Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20.

[5] Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us, 2014:30.

[6] Matthew 26:23


[8] "Looking Death in the Eye" by Nigel Halliday

[9] "Andy Warhol's secret" by James Romaine

[10] 1971:12.

[11] The Creative Gift, 1981:103-104

[12] 1978:24.

[13] 1994:36.

[14] 1994:247.

[15] "What is Reality?" In: The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, Vol 6, 2003:203.

[16] 1981:107

[17] Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, 1994:24.

[18] Matthew 6:33

[19] 1996:82.