“The heavens declare the glory of God,” the 19th psalm reads, “and the firmament declares His handiwork.”
When we look up into the night sky, we’re awestruck by the innumerable multitude of stars which shimmer with ancient luminescence. These are the very stars which shone over the Israelites in Egypt, over Pharaohs, over Greek generals, Roman Caesars, Elizabethan playwrights, inventors, astronauts, Presidents, composers and over every man, woman and child who has ever lived.
These lights of old have inspired countless artists, musicians, explorers and scientists alike. By their “twinkling,” man has navigated through the vast, uncharted darkness of sea and space both within himself and in the physical world around him.
It’s even more incredible to consider that the constellations’ fixed, steadfast brilliance we so often ignore or take for granted has likewise reigned with unchanging regularity over the countless requiems of the mightiest empires.
Perhaps one of the most well-known artistic portrayals of stars is Van Gogh’s Starry Night. In 1888, a year before he began the work, he confided to a friend in a letter, “A star-spangled sky, for instance, that’s a thing I would like to try to do … But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work … from imagination?”
How do you do a “star-spangled sky”? though? We all kind of know the feeling, don’t we? We all want to capture some aspect of the created order and launch into a purpose-filled, awe-inspiring engagement with the world, but how to do it?
In the end, it’s not really a technical question. The things which matter most to us cannot be acquired with methods or technological means. They come as gifts.
It was the gifted imagination of the troubled artist, for example, looking out the small window of his sanitarium in the south of France, which produced one of the most widely-recognized interpretations of the heavens of all time.
Maybe Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and the circumstances and times under which it was created, serve to remind us all of our relationship to God and the created order. We are all fallen, broken and in need of help. We stare out through the dark windows of our own experiences, much of which has been difficult and painful, and we sigh, we long for redemption, for grace, for something pure, wondrous and true.
We “groan” as Paul says, longing to be clothed with immortality; an immortality of which the stars so poignantly remind us does exist. And we know in the end, salvation must be an external reality, a gift.
Art is one means of expressing that which is virtually inexpressible.
Artists, though, have often been accused of distorting reality, of being mildly delusional, if not downright insane; living a life of poverty or always on the verge of fiscal ruin and destitution. One stereotypical character of the artist is that of a perpetual unsettled, nomadic existence and struggle. His dour, revolutionary disposition serves as the inspiration for his elegiac creations which are all-too-often filled with dark shades of a disturbing and sonorous melancholy that seem to make little sense at first glance. His critical broodings about superficial religious and mercantile paradigms reverberate through the depths of man’s persistent despair like the massive guttural pulsations of blue whales in the vast fathoms of the Pacific, crying out “Here I am!” The gifted artist seems to both delight and annoy the unimaginative consumer plebian who has no time for the nuanced, often ironic, equivocations of art and language.
Jesus understands. As the Artist, Creator of the heavens and the earth, He too was a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief; One whom we despised and rejected of men. And like every great artist, His renown came mostly posthumously.
But His works literally live on.
And so does He.
And so will we. We are His workmanship, after all.
But we so often forget that, don’t we?
Maybe you’ve had this happen before. You’re in a museum, standing before what looks like nothing more than spilled or drizzled paint, distorted human features, exaggerated shapes, bizarre materials, bits and pieces of scrap iron, wire, paper, Styrofoam or other stuff which seem like nothing but trash. It all just sits there on a canvas or in a sculpture and stares at you and seems to arrest your attention.
And you don’t know quite what to say or think.
Or do, really.
Isn’t this life, though? Maybe it’s not an art museum in which you stand looking at indecipherable imagery, but in the chaotic amalgam of your own life and circumstances canvassed before your eyes. Maybe it’s the horrendous traffic on the freeway, your workplace or the untidy, unanswerable situations of life which gaze back at you demanding some kind of educated response.
And when we’re confused, we too often defer to the guy in the black turtleneck for assistance in understanding the proper response to these “works of art” instead of wrestling with the Artist, as Jacob did. What’s this all mean? Why these colors? Why this pattern?
“I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob tells God. How ironic the clay demanding the Potter’s blessing, as if the clay really had a hold on the Potter to begin with!
But he did. How does a man prevail with God?
How do you do a star-spangled sky?
It’s not a technical question, is it? It’s all of grace. All a gift.
For me, when a piece of artwork, or my life in general, leaves me speechless, I have tragically and ignorantly not only criticized the work (or the situation), but have mocked it, even perhaps belittling the artist. I’ve often failed to take the time to understand and remember that what lies behind the expressions which we find adorning the halls of our art museums (or the circumstances of our lives) are men and women created in the image of God, struggling to find purpose and meaning in a world which has been sundered from its paternal moorings.
There is beauty in the ashes, purpose in the colors which run together, feelings, emotions, joys, sorrows and longings behind a work of art, whether it’s on canvas, chiseled from marble, or is a living, breathing human being – there is meaning, purpose and design behind it all.
That’s the dark enigma. Calvary’s Good Friday and the canopy of darkness which enveloped it staggers the imagination when we pause to consider it was all by design. Why such darkness? Why the crimson running down the wood? Why the twisted crown? Why the nails?
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
One brief glance into the star-filled night sky can remind us of the glory God revealed in His Son. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. The paint is splashed on the canvas and we don’t quite get it. The tears of joy and sorrow often run down our faces and we don’t quite fathom it much at all.
In short, a failure to understand the art not only in a museum, but the “art” of our very own circumstances (even ourselves) and the nature of the created order, is a failure to understand the artist. The clearest way to understand the truth of reality in any culture is to have conversations with the poets, artists, writers and musicians. For in them we find the pulse and verve of the times and most startlingly, something of ourselves as well. That’s why we like that stuff. We see ourselves in those expressions. We hear our sighing for beauty in a symphony, we come in contact with a longing deep within us when we see colors mixed together on a massive canvas or read a line of sublime poetry.
There is One who is at once a Poet (Song of Songs), an Artist (Genesis 1), a Writer (Exodus 24:12; 31:18; John 1:1-5) and a Musician (Psalm 42:8; Mark 14:26) who calls all the stars by name and who also calls you by name. You are His work of art. He knows the desires of your heart.
Sometimes scientists and theologians, in their well-meaning attempts at finding ultimate exactness and precision regarding the truth of reality, unfortunately attempt to pry the ambiguity and metaphor in language and art away from the truth in an effort to ascertain “just the facts.” But in so doing, our very humanity is effaced. In the end, we don’t really want just “facts” but stories. And art. It’s the artist and his story behind the painting which makes the painting, not just the colors. Such creative expression is intrinsically part of who we are. Man thus cannot live on facts alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. We create because God is a Creator and we reflect His image. To think that the world and everything in it is sustained solely by a massive amount of impersonal factoids wretched from the context of artistic narratives is the disease of the modern world.
This week, the Talon will be featuring stories on art and the artists behind the works. Some are students (and a teacher), some are contemporary artists and some are well-known artists from the past. Not all the works and artists are necessarily being deliberately “Christian” in their approach to art (some are), as you’ll see, but the good artist, Christian or not, does reflect man as being created in the image of God and in turn, their work reflects aspects of Christian truth.
If you’re paying attention.
We challenge you to do just that. Not just to art for art’s sake (that’s idolatry and precisely what is forbidden in the commandments – the worshipful adoration of the creation rather than the Creator), but to the artists and the works and find in them what resembles the truth of Scripture. Art, like the stars, point to something far greater than just the paint and light themselves.
In the end, we want you to pay attention to the handiwork of the Artist and the Artist Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose image you’ve been fearfully and wonderfully made and in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
The Talon Staff