Tag Archives: arts

What can sacramentalism do for you? A modern application of medieval attitudes to Creation


EarthIn posts from the evolving “creation chapter” from my forthcoming Getting Medeival with C. S. Lewis, we’ve had a look at how medieval folks’ love for the universe that God made manifested itself in their pursuit of scientific knowledge, and in the “symbol code” they used in their lavish and beautiful works of art. We’ve delved into the sacramental perspective that guided how they interacted with Creation. And we’ve asked why evangelical Protestants separate the material from the spiritual in such harmful ways. Now it’s time for the wrap-up–and hopefully, the payoff for modern readers. First, in this post, we ask what the sacramental principle could mean for us today if we took it seriously. Then we’ll look at the question through C. S. Lewis’s eyes.

What lessons, then, can we carry away from this survey of medieval attitudes to creation? First, that their sacramentalism valued creation neither less nor more highly than it should be valued—a salutary lesson for our simultaneously Gnostic and materialist age. Second, that their theological reading of Creation allowed them to be attuned to God in all of life: work, play, relationships, arts, culture—a blessing to our age of compartmentalization between the spiritual and the material. Third, that this sacramental attention to a creation that everywhere bespeaks its Creator underwrote a medieval cultural mandate, birthing a lavish growth of universities, sciences, and arts—a desperately needed correction to evangelical otherworldliness.

On this last point, I am reminded that the Reformed evangelical historian who pointed out the vacuity of evangelical culture in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll, subsequently found Catholic Notre Dame a much more congenial place to do his cultural work of history-writing than the evangelical Wheaton College. As Hans Boersma concluded in his study of medieval sacramentalism, “only a heavenly minded Christian faith will do us any earthly good.” Continue reading

What medieval artistry tell us about that era’s attitudes toward creation: nature as conduit of divine meaning


LionContinuing with text from the “creation chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewisthis is the section on the arts:

We’ve seen the creation-focus in the sciences; now the arts. No one saw more clearly how the medieval openness to Creation impacted the arts than the early twentieth-century French medievalist Emile Male. Readers of C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image will be familiar with the themes Male unearths in his charming book The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Third Century: the medieval passion for sorting and ordering information; the absolute subjection to the authority of tradition, especially written tradition; the importance of scripture in forming the medieval imagination. All of these, says Male, deeply influenced medieval artists.

Medieval liturgical arts, like scholastic theology, show us again that medieval predilection for “sorting out and tidying up” that Lewis noted in his Discarded Image. Their carefully worked-out systems of conventional details amounted to a meticulous science of representing the divine through the natural. “Little figures of nude and sexless children, ranged side by side in the folds of Abraham’s mantle, signified the eternal rest of the life to come.” “It is not as rivers that the four rivers of Paradise—the Gihon, Phison, Tigris, and Euphrates—are represented pouring water from their urns towards the four points of the compass, but as symbols of the evangelists who flooded the world with their teaching like four beneficent streams.”[1]

On the theme of what I think can fairly be called medievals’ “Creation spirituality,” Male portrays medieval artists and art as saturated in that sense of the sacramentality of all created things that Gregory the Great passed on to the Middle Ages—the understanding that God is continually communicating to us in everything he makes. Continue reading

Where have all the artists gone? Protestant suspicion – and Catholic celebration – of the arts


English: Madonna and child, thought to have be...

English: Madonna and child, thought to have been damaged during the English Civil War, at St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, Brewood, Staffordshire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the “creation chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis, after a brief reflection on the opposite-but-the-same Western tendencies that have crept into our Protestant churches – Gnosticism and materialism – I turn to the arts to see how these tendencies have manifested themselves there.

Evangelicalism and the arts

Let’s put a finer point on the issue by looking briefly at the evangelical Protestant churches and the arts. Where are the arts in modern orthodox Protestantism? One author looks at the century from 1860 to 1960 and finds only C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot practicing the creative art of literature to a high degree from an orthodox Protestant stance. During the same period, the Catholics produced an embarrassment of literary riches, from Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Evelyn Waugh. All these, and many other Catholics, were “world-class writers,” and all orthodox Christians. The same seems to be true – perhaps even more so – in other fine arts. Similarly, few evangelicals have excelled in the worlds of television and movies. Indeed, “evangelical Protestants, especially, have not only not shone in the fine arts, they have often opposed such arts or valued them only as vehicles for evangelism, objecting to much of their subject matter.”[1] The author concludes that the problem for Protestants (and the superiority of Roman Catholics) in the arts stems from a difference in approach to Creation. Whereas Protestants often emphasize how fallen Creation and human society are, the theology of the Roman Catholic Church has proved more Creation-positive, and thus more likely to affirm and create images of the world, whether literary or in the visual arts. Continue reading

How the Incarnation and God’s sacramental presence in all creation put our everyday work in a new light


English: Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What follows are two short theological-historical reflections on our daily work that ended up on the cutting-room floor when I handed in 6,000 words for a 3,500 feature on Christian thought about vocation that will appear in next month’s Leadership Journal. Since I still like these, I’m posting them here. The first is on what the Incarnation means to our work, with special reference to vocations in the arts. The second is on how God is present and communicating to us in every part of the created world in a way analagous to, though not the same as, his real presence in the sacraments.

Resources on work in early and medieval Christian thought

The Incarnation

Luther and other Reformers certainly did advance Christian reflection on work and calling. But if we turn again to the early and medieval church and look beyond the clerical and monastic usurpation of the term “vocation,” we will find some important theological resources for thinking about ordinary work—resources that Protestants today are in danger of losing entirely.

The appearance of Christ on the scene as a human being, with all the physical needs, skills, and temptations we all share, inserts a crucial principle into our thinking about work. The Incarnation meant that the church could not fall into the error of the Gnostics, calling the material world evil and thus leaving God out of consideration when we interact with the material world. In the second century such pastor-teachers as Irenaeus led the charge against this error, leading the church to reject Gnosticism as heresy.

Today we are in danger, not of viewing the material world as evil (most Western folk are little tempted to that error!), but of marginalizing our time-bound material existence as “non-spiritual.” Continue reading

The Twin Cities: One of the world’s very coolest places to live


Some days I get up and I’m just glad I live in the Twin Cities. Check out this tiny sampling of the sorts of arts & culture stuff available to us Twin-City-ites!

For a cool experience shopping ingredients for Hmong cuisine, check out the Hmong farmer’s market! http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/0bd6455f7d7e66d9c688c895de37edfc&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

This “punk grass” music group has the world’s best band name: http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/f65e3d12e0fa64a2a17ab3f739c5a319&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

Did you know Neil Gaiman lives near here? http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/a5950f5f6dcd17dc4ffe4911f85a92dd&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

Weird Al at the fair this summer! http://m.mprnewsq.org/11138/show/03f7c79ef615c544a6e775eac5736ccb&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

This guy made something cool every day of the year, and now there’s an art show that lets us see all of it: http://m.mprnewsq.org/14206/show/8a1e0e9a2c817b965abdfc990dd8e4ae&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

I really want to go to this street art show featuring miles of giant photos of people: http://m.mprnewsq.org/14206/show/18d79447fab21d3cf0bc3a1b872a5586&t=731263a91d06b6b9f477bd75c75958e6

Doing Christian pop culture right (follow up to Nov. 2 “Tavern tunes” post)


I posted recently (Nov. 2) on “Tavern tunes in church music and ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?'” The piece, posted a while back on www.christianhistory.net, used a Canadian Anglican clergyman who calls himself “Elvis Priestly” as a jumping-off point for a consideration of “Christian pop culture.” This is a follow-up, thinking a bit more about how pop-culture presentations of gospel themes can help or hurt the cause of Christ. One of my favorite writers, Dorothy L. Sayers, shows up here with a few words of wisdom:

Caveat Gyrator (Elvis Priestly, Part II)
So you’ve got an evangelistic pop-culture act ready for prime time. Here’s a historical pause for reflection.
Chris Armstrong

Last week we looked behind the recent headlines about “Elvis Priestly,” a Canadian Anglican minister who has integrated a jump-suited impersonation routine into his sacred services. We surveyed a few of the many points at which Christians have co-opted popular artistic forms in order to get their evangelistic message across (Part I: From Oratorios to Elvis).

This week, we ask the questions: how have Christians historically reacted to such forays into popular forms? And how successful have the resulting products been in themselves—that is, as songs, plays, novels, and so forth, quite apart from their message? Of course, we can only touch the surface of these issues. But with Elvis now in the (church) building, this seems a worthwhile use of a few minutes. Continue reading