“We are accustomed to understand ‘art’ to be only what we hear and see in theaters, concerts, and exhibitions, together with buildings, statues, poems, novels. . . . But all this is but the smallest part of the art by which we communicate with each other in life. All human life is filled with works of art of every kind – from cradlesong, jest, mimicry, the ornamentation of houses, dress, and utensils, up to church services, buildings, monuments, and triumphal processions. It is all artistic activity.” – Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?
We have all had moments when art—a story, an image, a movie—connected with us, and we felt the emotions of an experience we have never had; even cried at something that never really happened. Tolstoy says artists are people who can share feelings in this way. Such moments they offer can strengthen and shape our imaginations in one way or another.
But as he hints in the quotation above, artists aren’t only sharing feelings. They are building meaning. The best artists can be recognized by their ability to awaken feelings of greater depth, richness, beauty, transcendence, and so on—by their ability to share and spread what we might call redeemed emotions; rightly oriented joy and longing and anger and comfort and pain, refined by the fires of the ages because they are steeped in mankind’s ongoing pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty.
Churches today honor the pastors and teachers who formally instruct us in the Scriptures, and the evangelists and missionaries who invite lost souls into the Church, and rightly so. But a Church characterized by a Christian imagination might also recognize and honor people who can play this vital role in teaching us what it feels like to live like we are fully human, not by telling, but by showing.
These people are not simply illustrators; people who put in visual form the things the pastor is saying this week or that we all learned in Sunday School. They are (or can be) co-laborers in a complex project, spiritual formation, the shaping of God’s people, that cannot be done properly without them.
The goal of this project is not to find the average person in the pew writing dissertations on Michelangelo. It is to find the “ordinary” Christian, the one who today might even think he has no imagination, becoming infused with something that forms him anew, allowing him to be an agent of heaven’s work on earth.
By the end of The Return of the King, Pippin and Merry have been taken on a journey in which they’ve experienced kings and castles and magic, things far beyond what they could previously comprehend. Pippin remarks that simple hobbits like them aren’t suited for such things. Merry replies, in good hobbit fashion:
“At least we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soul of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”
To borrow from Merry, the question in spiritual formation is whether we want the Christian to be categorically different from those around him—a sweeping breeze of gloriously compelling truth because he has seen beyond the veil of his mortal limitations—or simply slightly better behaved.
Too often, we slip into acting in our own lives as if it’s the latter. We are not aware of the cultural resources we have as the Church to draw on to achieve the former; things that could be at our fingertips if we’d experienced spiritual formation differently.
I’m privileged to work as the director of the Anselm Society, a Colorado-based organization dedicated to a renaissance of the Christian imagination. We believe the Church needs to reintegrate beauty with goodness and truth if it is to be the soul-shaping force it is meant to be. So we work with pastors and churches to help them better minister to and through artists; with artists of faith to help them thrive in community; and with the laity—their audience—to prepare the way for the next generation of great God-inspired sub-creation.
Our vision, as I’ve said here, is not simply a better painting or two. It is a sweeping movement of Christians who have mustered the resources to open their eyes to wildness and beauty beyond their dreams; who can weep on Good Friday and party with abandon on Easter. Who have invested in the lives of artists, those with a particular gift for seeing; and challenged them with love and understanding to the highest standards of artistic and spiritual excellence, so that they can open our eyes—wrapping our lives and the lives of our children in an all-encloaking tapestry of light and darkness, heroes and villains, pain and joy, so that in the midst of the ordinary, we see no such thing as ordinary—so that our deepest souls know who we are, and Whose we are, and what story we are really in.
The featured image above was made in the Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford.
It is owned and copyrighted by Lancia E. Smith.
Brian Brown is the founder and director of the Anselm Society, whose mission is a renaissance of the Christian imagination. He also serves as Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Brian lives with his wife Christina and their two children in Colorado, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for scintillating conversation.