The Mystery Discerning Business, Part 2

Christians and the arts: a reprise
Throughout the history of the church, there have been several different strategies taken by Christians with regard to their involvement with the arts. In Part One of this series, I first looked at those traditions which have sought to separate themselves from the wider culture. I suggested that whether choosing to boycott, “plunder,” or convert, culturally conservative Christians, despite their good intentions, have often found their actions to be largely ineffective, even as those in the wider culture have judged such expressions of Christianity manipulative and offensive. 

Given such real limitations both missionally and formationally for those who would distance themselves from the creativity of those around them, others have tried instead to reverse the strategy. Recognizing that God’s common grace is behind and in our culture, this second position has sought greater engagement with culture. It has helped the church relate to the wider culture, even if it has not fully escaped some inherent tentativeness. 

Richard Mouw, in his insightful, small book, He Shines in All that’s Fair, asks: “Is there a non-saving grace at work in the broader reaches of human cultural interaction, a grace that expedites a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, elect and non-elect alike – blessings that provide the basis for Christians to co-operate with, and learn from, non-Christians?” (p. 14) Mouw thinks there is. But he also wants to be cautious, to listen to the dissenters too, for we remain sinful people and the contest between the church and the world still rages. 

Common grace
Mouw rightly traces back this understanding of common grace to John Calvin himself, who believed that God continues to work in and through the world for two primary reasons – to preserve the world by holding back sin, by bridling evil (Institutes, II.3.3) and to promote civic righteousness, to have a basic sense of order and fairness through law (II.2.13). This understanding of common grace was rooted in Calvin’s legal studies, going back to Roman jurisprudence, especially the writings of Seneca. Calvin wrote: “There is a universal apprehension of reason and understanding (that) is by nature implanted in men.”  “Because it is bestowed indiscriminately upon pious and impious… (it) is rightly counted among natural gifts.” (II.2.14) This “peculiar grace of God” is found not only in Christian writers, but in “secular writers” as well. 

Thus Calvin can advise, “Let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.” (II.2.15) 

Such an understanding has done much to help the church engage honestly with the wider culture. Those adopting this second approach to theology and the arts more generally, and to theology and film more specifically, have been in the forefront of Christians who have sought to learn from the wider culture, even while seeking its renewal. 

Yet I have come to believe that even this second position is often too cautious and static, ultimately misunderstanding the present, dynamic role of the Holy Spirit in today’s world. I say this for several reasons.  

Beyond common grace
Calvin’s sources of common grace were largely ancient in origin; few were contemporary cultural leaders. They also were in the main “rational” and not “artistic” in their focus. That is, Calvin limited his cultural engagement mainly to the ancient philosophers and rhetoricians. Though he spoke occasionally of artists, he did not reference them as he wrote. His comments were usually of a more general nature. It is simply the case that the cultural imagination of his day, not to mention human creativity more generally, play lightly within Calvin’s theological formulations. 

The implication of Calvin’s cultural focus (historical in reference, and rational, not imaginative, in design) has had direct consequences on the continuing shape of cultural engagement by Christians today. In particular, there has been in our cultural interaction an evangelical propensity to favor the social sciences and philosophy over the arts. This has led us to shy away from first order aesthetic encounters as a source of cultural knowledge, instead rooting our cultural judgments more analytically in second order critical reflection.

Buffered from direct engagement with God within and through our larger culture, we have thus tended to see the world primarily as being in opposition to God, even if there remain the occasional expressions of divine grace. (There is, of course, both rational and theological justification for this stance. The world is greatly flawed.)

But those who begin by focusing on humankind as artist and creator, thus rooting themselves in present transcendent experiences in and through art, tend to hear in humankind’s creational endeavors “rumors of angels” (the phrase is Peter Berger’s). Rather than judging creation’s cup as “half-empty” and in need of correction (which it is), they instead recognize it to be “half-full” with divine mystery and light (which it also is). 

There is an additional factor at work here as well. Do Christians understand the Spirit as having in the past gifted the world at creation? If so, common grace is the residue, the remainder after the Fall, through which God chooses to maintain civic order and world preservation. That is, grace is viewed as resident both in creation’s order and in the creature’s fallen rationality (and imagination). Given our fallenness, it is rightful to be suspicious of any such source of knowledge today. Or alternately, is God’s continuing grace to be understood as the ongoing dynamic gift of the Spirit working afresh and anew today?

That is, is the truth, beauty, and goodness evident in the wider culture today something dependent on a past gifting of the Spirit, on what is then built into the creational fabric?  Or do these virtues depend for their continuing vitality and transformative power today on the ongoing present work of the Spirit? To use biblical language, when the Psalmist says the heavens declare the glory of God, is this to mean that the heavens reveal God’s past footprint if we would but have eyes to see; or does this mean that the Spirit of God continues to speak, to reveal God’s presence, through creation and creature? 

Can one sense the difference? Are we speaking of creation’s divine residue, or is it divine providence, or even general revelation that is still at work today? The ancient Egyptians believed that the world operated according to an overarching ma’at – a static world-order that even the gods were beholden to. Egyptian wisdom was thus an attempt to help humans line up with this past, created order.

But when Israel borrowed Egypt’s wisdom, it was not to discover that order still resident in life – that common grace resident in the structures of reason and the world. Rather, it was to try to reflect the desires of the divine “Orderer” – the Spirit of God who has continued after the Fall to work in the world and whose creativity continues to be manifest. 

By tending to emphasize “grace” as resident in creation and therefore as “natural” to humankind, this second theological tradition has consistently underemphasized human creativity, given the fact that sin compromises our “natural” endowment. This meant that for Calvin, for example, the human mind was judged to be “limping and staggering” (II.2.13); it was “choked with dense ignorance. “ (II.2.12) The canons of Dort talked of humankind as “wholly polluted.”

According to Mouw once again, although such theology seeks to hold on to the true antithesis as being between sin and grace, by having “common grace” as natural to humankind and saving grace as the unique possession of the church/ the elect, a robust understanding of the work of God in the world today has been lost sight of. General revelation is compromised, and an emphasis on the creative Spirit of God speaking through human creativity is found to be lacking, or at least weakened. 

In a 2002 chapel address at Fuller where he is president, Richard Mouw put the contrast into colorful language. There are two questions he said that you can ask about the activity of those outside the church. You can ask, “What in hell are you doing?” Or you can ask, “What in heaven’s name are you doing.” Those who have followed Calvin have usually limited their focus to the former, though both questions have strong biblical support.

By starting with the “truth” known to the elect, and by saying that the good, the true, and the beautiful are permanently corrupted within the wider society, such Christians have effectively screened out any new insight which the Holy Spirit might be offering. We fail to ask, “What in heaven’s name might be happening outside the church and without direct reference to Jesus?” We instead reduce the Spirit’s role today to confirming and proclaiming what the church already knows. But what about the Spirit’s continuing revelatory role today?