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Attention… the Beauty of Art & the Focus of Beauty

A few years ago when we were serving in Paris, I took a mission trip to St. Petersburg (BTW, that’s France & Russia, not Texas & Florida!). One morning we took time to go to the famous Museum called the Hermitage. I stood for a while in front of Rembrandt’s Prodigal son. It’s an amazing painting, a very striking portrait of one of Jesus’ most significant stories. While standing in amazement of the master’s work, a couple of university age American’s walked up. I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation… they weren’t speaking Russian for one thing. One of the students started to tell the other the story of the prodigal son. The listener gave no indication he had ever heard the story before. I was amazed that an American could have grown up never hearing the story, but I was pleased that through the picture on the wall, he would encounter a beautiful expression of the welcoming arms of God.

How do you define art?  My guess is you are like me and that you probably are tempted to define it incorrectly – as in paint on a canvass, placed on a wall. That’s art.  Maybe it’s a picture of Elvis in velvet, but if it’s square and on the wall its art. Well… “art” is related to artifact – something “man – factured” – something created by a person. It might be on canvas, it might be in music, it might be made of metal. It is made, but is a car art? (66 Mustang…)   I can splash paint on cotton canvas, is that art?  No, art is like religion. It is hard to define, but you know it when you see it – or hear it – and like religion, not everyone agrees what is true art.

But about this, almost everyone agrees: good art is a slice of reality; a distilled piece of existence, which one person has framed so as to draw attention to this reality – possibly an aspect that you would never have noticed without the artist’s perspective. True art is “reflected life” which is placed on film, put upon canvas, written in a novel, or sung in a song. As Fredrick Buechner says:  the artist is “putting a frame around the moment, and what the frame does is enable us to see not just something about the moment but the moment itself in all its ineffable ordinariness and particularity.”

What was it that Jesus said?  (Matt 6) “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life ? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

The painter is saying:  Look!  Look at this person the way I have him portrayed, look at this animal they way I have him laid, and know something new, even if familiar. Capture something unknown, even if recognizable.

Think of that wry smile of Mona Lisa’s. People are always asking “why it is so great?”  Let me tell you.  It portrays the most fearful reality that men have to face. What are silent – smiling women are up to?  Women love it because it manifests their secret weapon. Men love it because they like to think that this is just another one of the millions of young women that smile at them.

The painter paints, and as the looker looks, he sees something both known and unknown, something of God’s wonderful universe. Take a glimpse at these two pictures of one event.

The event 2000 years ago, one painting done 500 years ago, on done 5 years ago (c.a.). We not only are forced to think about what the baptism of Christ means, but looking at it through the artist’s eyes we see something we’ve never seen before.

And while painter works in space, musicians work with time. Note follows note as second follows second. The great composers say listen!  Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between the sounds and to the silences themselves.  Listen to the scrape of the bow against the gut, the rap of stick against the drumhead, the rush of breath through reed and wood. Listen to the brass tones as they pierce the air and slice up this bit of reality, and set your mind to dreaming dreams never dreamed.

Literature, painting, music – art – teaches us to stop, look, and listen to life in this universe, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of us ever realize, as we bump along in auto-pilot.

That is certainly my testimony. I may not be a better person for having learned to pay attention to reality in art, but I am certainly a richer person. I have encountered the ineffable and mysterious sublime God in ways that mere words don’t convey.

I grew up, maybe like many of you, in a very word heavy world, where images are stripped. I’m grateful for hymns and music, and very grateful that I would grow to appreciate visual art.

I am a follower of Jesus, and what did Jesus talk about?  The same things the artists paint about. Farmers, merchants, tax folks, priests, animals, flowers, seeds, fruit,  – things of everyday experience.

He says: learn from the raven, look at the flowers.

Some books lift the spirit, and sharpen the mind, some books deaden the spirit, and dull the mind. And so with music, and so with tableaus. Now of course a book may be about a Christian subject, and some books may not be about a Christian subject at all. God’s world is not so easily divided. Look at the life of Christ. There was no where he would not go, no one to whom he would not speak. His whole life was a rebuke to those who want to divide all reality into the sacred and the profane.

Holiness is not achieved by compartmentalization, but by submission.

If you’ve ever spent time looking into the night’s sky. If you’ve ever been arrested by the inexplicable beauty of a real piece of art. If you’ve ever stood on top of a Swiss Mountain and looked across the boarder at Mont Blanc. If you’ve ever heard a piece of music that stirred your soul.  Then you know. Then you know that there is something more, Someone more. It is this sense of the ineffable that causes us awe and reverence.

Abraham Heschel: “We praise before we prove. While in regard to other issues we doubt before we decide, in regard to God we sing before we say.” This I’ve learned. Sometimes the best book is the one Jesus recommends when he instructs us to study the lilies, to look at the birds of the field. If you want to encourage faith, don’t just quote Bible verses, but point people to the ineffable mystery of being. When we allow that reverence to lead to praise, faith is on the way.

Pastor Scott Stearman