Call of the Artist

What follows is an excerpt from Part 2 of a paper I wrote in graduate school relating body theology to art and the Church. (Part 1 was an exploration of my personal journey in developing a body theology.)

There is profound beauty in the Incarnation of God in human form, a good human form that was just like every other image of God.[1]We have lost, I think, the ancients’ sense of beauty as that which is supremely Good,[2] as that which possesses a unique expression of truth in a way that draws us to look through it to that ultimate Beauty—the beauty of God.The Hebrew Bible draws a nuanced connection between beauty and holiness, preferring God’s glory as an expression of the beauty of holiness[3] rather than beauty for its own sake; yet its language and imagery is masterfully, powerfully creative—worthy of being deemed both good and beautiful for its ability to point beyond itself to the Goodness and Beauty of God.

Even our Newer Testament scriptures contain creativity in narrative and imagery, especially in the gospels and the Revelation of John.But as evangelicals we tend to narrow our focus to Paul’s letters which, though worthy of literary merit, were not designed or intended as artistic expressions of God’s truth.We focus on the divine and humiliated Jesus of the Philippians 2 hymn, on creedal statements, and on Paul’s contextual lists of do’s and don’ts for his churches.We have lost our emphasis on aesthetics for proper worship, as though God is better glorified by whining in a white-and-brown room than with the Sistine Chapel and Handel’s Messiah.We forget that our God is creative[4] and that God pronounced God’s creation good not because it is capable of standing alone but because it contains that element of truth[5] that points beyond itself to the goodness, beauty, truth, glory, holiness of our creative God.We forget, in our fear and shame, what we have been created for.

What I have discovered in particular, in my delving into the lies the Church perpetuated in my life concerning my own body and how to relate to other bodies is the connection, or perhaps more aptly the disconnection, between beauty expressed in art and the holiness of God expressed through Christian piety.We the-evangelical-community don’t know how to deal with our bodies.We don’t know what they’re for.We don’t understand physical beauty or its relation to any other kind of beauty.[6]We don’t know how to deal with our physicality, so we just label it sin to be safe.And anything in art that reminds us of our humanity or—dare I say it—Jesus’ humanity, is labeled just as sinful.[7]Consider the controversy in the Church when Caravaggio began depicting Jesus as ordinary and fleshly and real.We prefer the Gnostic or even Docetic Jesus,[8] the one who doesn’t disrupt our body-soul division or challenge us to live bodily into our role as the imago Dei

(to be continued in the next post)


[1] Richard Harries argues that “spiritual beauty can also shine in a special way through human beauty and artistic creation.In the traditional Christmas story spiritual beauty and artistic beauty coalesce” (13). Likewise, “the glory of God shines out in the Cross and Resurrection” (55). Similarly, Lillian Barger notes that “the cross with its debasement and bloodiness is an unlikely location to find beauty”(172), yet it is the cross that “restores our imagination, destroyed by culture’s images” (173). Even James Alfred Martin agrees, for “the highest beauty is the unmerited redemptive work of God in history…beauty is something that happened” (10).

[2] Martin explains the Platonic belief that one ascends to the Good through an experience of Beauty” (15).

[3] “Biblical Israel,” Martin writes, “celebrated holiness over beauty—but not religion over aesthetics” (11).

[4] “Human beings” says Harries, “made in the image of God, share in divine creativity” (102).

[5] “Beauty,” Harries writes, “is the persuasive power of God’s truth and goodness” (11).

[6] But Harries argues that “the physical world, including our bodies, is created fundamentally good and beautiful” (37).

[7] Yet, as Barger argues, it is “the incarnation of God in Jesus [that] gives us a basis for including our bodies in the spiritual search” (161).

[8] James Nelson discusses the reentrance of Docetism in the contemporary church (51).

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About Laura K. Cavanaugh

I'm a writer, spiritual director, and advocate of holistic body theology.

Posted on December 9, 2011, in Body Image, Identity, Image of God, Incarnation of Christ, Physicality. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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