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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn1998--Volume 11:21

Grace in the Arts:





Bible Editor

Cook Communications

Elgin, IL

I. Art and the Arts

Art was for the arts. That is, Dr. Arthur Farstad, long-time editor of this journal, appreciated the arts. In fact, he was a graduate of an art school. That in itself is fairly rare among evangelical Christians. There has long been a suspicion or mistrust of the arts on the part of many conservative Christians.

Back around A.D. 200 the Latin Church father Tertullian concluded that learning non-Christian literature was permissible for a Christian, but teaching it was not permitted, since such writing praised idols. The nineteenth century American evangelist Charles Finney asserted, I cannot believe that a person who has ever known the love of God can ever relish a secular novel.[1] He proceeded to speak of Byron, Scott, [and] Shakespeare as triflers and blasphemers of God.[2] (Ironically, Sir Walter Scott was a great Bible-lover.) Robert Louis Stevenson's conservative nursemaid, affectionately nicknamed Cummy, warned her little charge of the evils of the theater attended by both of Stevenson's Calvinistic Church of Scotland parents. Reverend Charles Dodgson, whose pen name was Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, often accompanied his child friends to see adult theater. (Dodgson was probably the exception to the rule among devout Anglicans of that time.)

Part of the mistrust of the arts by conservative Christians is epitomized by the humorously flavored limerick:

There once was a sculptor named Phidias

Whose manner in art was invidious.

He carved Aphrodite

Without any nightie

And shocked the ultra-fastidious.

                                   (Author unknown)

The fact that most art schools require fledgling artists to sketch the naked body of an actual model has been a stumbling block for many sincere Christians, thereby stereotyping all the arts as being tinctured with evil.

However, poet Robert Frost (no model of Christian morality) once said, I like my potatoes, but I like them with the dirt washed off. Most of us are not anti-vegetable despite the fact that there is still dirt on our potato or rutabaga when we purchase it at the grocery store. We remove the dirt, and we ingest the vegetable.

This procedure is the principle enunciated in 1 Thess 5:21--Test all things; hold fast what is good. God calls us to test and then attest--to prove all things and approve what is excellent. Philippians 1:10 also summons us to prove things that differ and approve the things that are excellent.

The difficult duty is to know when to test all things, as 1 Thess 5:21 says--which surely includes a world containing both good and evil--versus 1 Thess 5:22 which equally mandates that we abstain from every form of evil. For my mind, I have read enough by others about the spiritual sewage inside James Joyce's Ulysses to know that I do not want to read it. However, the fact that Charles Dickens talks about a prostitute in Oliver Twist no more keeps me from re-reading that novel than it keeps me from reading the Bible which reports King David's affair with Bathsheba. Some plays are overdosed with filth. For instance, I felt unduly smudged when I saw the actor George Peppard play Ernest Hemingway in the stage play Papa. Curse words peppered the play so often that I questioned whether 1 Thess 5:22 might have been more apropos an application there than 1 Thess 5:21. Frank Gaebelein declared: No Christian is obligated to reside in the brothels of the mind in order to know the world in which he lives.[3]

Art Farstad and I both attended Emmaus Bible College (then Emmaus Bible School)--a school related to the Brethren Assemblies. We attended the same church together for several years while we were at Dallas Theological Seminary. When I transferred from Emmaus Bible School, then in Oak Park, IL, to William Jennings Bryan College in Dayton, TN, I grappled with a conceptual issue that is extremely germane to this discussion of Christianity and the arts. The first school I had attended was a Christian Bible school whereas the second was a Christian liberal arts college. By virtue of the subject matter of the curriculum, I picked up a mental milieu in the second school that was decidedly different from that of the first school. It seemed that the theme song of the Bible school might have been the chorus: This world is not my home; I'm just'a passing through. It seemed that the theme song epitomizing the flavor of the Christian liberal arts college was This is my Father's world (a hymn frequently sung by George Beverly Shea).

Obviously both Christian songs see the word world, but they contain a radically different worldview of the world (and thus toward such subjects as the arts). When I was in the Brethren Bible school, I didn't even want to take a class in church history because I thought church history was one step removed from real Bible content. Ironically, I ended up getting my Ph.D. in a field related to that subject. By contrast, while at Bryan College, my favorite class turned out to be Humanities, giving me a real love for the arts, as viewed through a Christian aperture. However, during my early days at the Christian liberal arts college, I found myself thinking through my former mental grid: What am I doing here in this zoology laboratory dissecting dead frogs while the souls of living people are perishing? I wonder if our friend Art underwent a similar mental experience? At any rate, I always found him a wonderful, balanced combination of both perspectives--one who was an authentically personable person and who cared supremely about people's eternal well-being, but also someone who valued the arts. Indeed, it was Dr. Farstad who initiated this very section called Grace in the Arts as a regular feature of the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society. I believe I'm correct in saying that I have been its most frequent contributor over the years (now with six articles). Art himself authored five articles for Grace in the Arts on Johann Sebastian Bach, Marian Anderson, Rembrandt Van Ryn, William Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson.

II. Grace and Beauty

Art, by its very nature, to quote the poet Keats, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The rather anti-Catholic Charles Dodgson wept when he viewed the architectural splendor at Cologne Cathedral. Its beauty overwhelmed him. I think anyone who has visited the Washington Cathedral can relate to Dodgson's experience. At a much lower level, aesthetically speaking, I had a similar experience to Dodgson's. A friend of ours from the Denver area was driving us for the first time through the Rocky Mountains outside of Denver. There was an immaculately blue sky that day. My friend had the top to his car down, and the Azusa Pacific College choir at that moment was singing over his car stereo system: The greatest thing in all my life is loving You. Overwhelmed with the sheer beauty impacting my eyes and ears, tears began to flow involuntarily from my eyes. C. S. Lewis spoke of having such an overwhelming experience with the sheer beauty of Northerness.

Undoubtedly most regular readers of this journal are people committed to the Free Grace position on the subject of salvation. Yet sometimes it's possible for us to miss the grace-grandeur of the ravishing forest--of God's operation--for the particular exegetical trees.

I believe there is a correlation between grace and beauty. Even linguistically a rough correlation can be forged. Grace is charis (pronounced KAHR-iss). Our English derivative charm (which certainly carries overtones of beauty) is a related term. Simply by turning to Thayer's lexicon, we find the first lexical entry under charis as follows: properly that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness÷[4] In the Apocryphal book of Sirach (21:16) we read: delight  [charis] will be found in the speech of the intelligent. Charis brings chara (joy)--as Keats said, a joy forever.

It is out of the beauty and bounty of our generous God that we have received charis. By grace you have been saved through faith is the watchword of this journal. Yet that same saving grace of Eph 2:8 produces the result of Eph 2:10: We are [God's] workmanship÷ The Greek term for workmanship is poe—ma, and it is found elsewhere in the NT only when referring to God's creative handiwork in nature (Rom 1:20). (One may think of the line in the hymn How Great Thou Art which runs: When I behold the lofty mountain's grandeur.) In the creativity and beauty of God's sculpted mountains and painted sunsets, even unbelievers are called to see His craftsmanship.

While the Greek word poe—ma in Eph 2:10 does not explicitly denote poems, obviously poetry is a derivative or ancillary form of artistic workmanship. Sir Thomas Browne, an author, called his life a piece of poetry. Famed poet Robert Browning asserted in Paracelsus:

God is the perfect Poet

Who in creation acts his own conceptions.[5]

In Ezra 7:27--Blessed be the Lord God÷who has put such a thing as this in the king's heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. If God could put it into a Persian potentate's heart to beautify something, cannot the same God of grace put into others' hearts the yearning to bring beauty to those around us--with art forms of beauty: literature [prose, poetry, plays], art [painting, drawing, sculpture, crafts], drama [via theater, movies, television, mime], architecture, and music?

When I viewed the Eugene O'Neill movie The Iceman Cometh, or Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, I could not help but think of the absence of beauty in the Christ-empty life that lacks the grace of God. When I contrast the agnostic, embittered lead character in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage with that of the chief character in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the in-breaking of divine grace into human existence becomes transparent. The reverberating strains of Handel's Messiah reveal the artistry of God by means of the artistry of the composer.

When I read Micah 1:10-16 even--or especially--through the lens of the liberal translator James Moffatt, I'm conscious of a God who inspired the imagery and artistry of the word plays there. Moffatt sought to capture the Hebrew puns in the packaging of his English equivalents, as follows:

Weep tears at Teartown (Bochim),

Grovel in the dust at Dustown (Beth-ophrah)

Fare forth stripped, O Fairtown (Saphir)!

Stirtown dare not stir--

                         (Micah 1:10-12, Moffatt's translation)

Doctor Farstad was sensitized to such artistic word plays. Even at the very end of his life I understand that he had discovered something interesting in John 14 in the Norwegian New Testament. John 14:2 speaks of My Father's house. Evidently in the Norwegian text the word for Father is far, and the word for house (or place) is sted. Art made the observation that Far-sted was very close to his own last name and that perhaps the Lord might be calling him to enter his Father's house soon. (It's the sort of thing a word-lover would observe. Art had written in a past issue of this journal about Emily Dickinson, who once remarked, Now there's a word to tip your hat to! I tip my hat to Art who loved such hat-tip words.)

For those who sing approvingly This is my Father's world (even though it's also true that we're just'a passing through), it is of interest that the Greek word for world is translated at least once in the New Testament as beauty. (The English terms cosmos and cosmetics are related.) In 1 Pet 3:3 the apostle speaks of a Christian wife's inner beauty (cosmos).

Thankfully, through the centuries there have been notable Christian spokespersons for the value of the arts. Martin Luther affirmed, along the lines of 1 Thess 5:21, that Christians must not altogether shun plays because there are sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.[6] Luther also announced that neither should we ordain young men as preachers unless they have been well exercised in music, for it is a notable gift of God next to theology.[7]

This viewpoint would appear to have held sway also in Calvin's wing of the Reformation. Abraham Kuyper, president of the Free University of Amsterdam, issued a manifesto at the school's inaugural convocation: There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ŽMine!'[8] The Reformed strain of Christianity views the universe under the Lordship of Christ, and so it seeks to understand politics, education, society, economics, the arts, etc., in that way. And, even though Dr. Arthur Farstad was a Dispensationalist, he valued a Christian perspective under which all the arts were umbrellaed.

In more recent times, perhaps the most vocal evangelical spokesperson for this position was Dr. Frank Gaebelein, who wrote of Phil 4:8,

This inspired outline is an invitation for Christian education to range over the realm of science in all its forms, over the treasures of literature, the mansions of philosophy and theology, and the beauty of music and art; according to its warrant, all the best that has been thought and said and done÷through the ages÷comes within the provenance of an education that seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.[9]

III. Christianity and Color

As theologian P. T. Forsyth compared Greek art (with its idealized but mostly emotionless sculptured busts of the human body) with the later world of painting, he made a case that Christianity had made some contribution to the world of painting with a greater emphasis on color. The artist Gauguin once advised a fellow painter that if he was impacted by the color of a meadow, he should employ the most vivid green paint possible. Some tradition has claimed that Luke was an artist as well as a doctor. Perhaps not, but have you ever noticed one of the vivid details captured only in the Gospel of Mark? Mark noted that at the feeding of over 5000 people, Jesus made the gathered group sit down in groups on the green grass (Mark 6:39, emphasis added). Some Bible commentators have felt that, through Peter's lens, Mark recalled the Jewish audience in colorful Oriental robes all arrayed and arranged against a springtime coating of verdure. (One of the few artistic depictions of Semitic people from the era of Joseph is that of the tomb painting at Beni Hasan on the Nile of more than 30 Semites who are all in multi-colored robes.)[10] Thus, the crowd that day looked like a gigantic flowerbed!

Mark's Gospel is the only one to include the minuscule fact of the green grass. I know Art Farstad must have appreciated Mark's notation here because he was a color-sensitized person. In fact, in his book The New King James Version in the Great Tradition,[11] Art included a personal memory from his childhood. He referred to himself as a crayola kid. In his Sunday school years as a primary student Art remembered being given a handout folder to color of King Solomon, sitting on a pier, watching his cargo being unloaded from his ships of Tarshish: ivory, apes, and peacocks.[12] He reported being thrilled that the peacocks offered great range for a crayola kid. Alas, later, Art said, he would unload÷Solomon's cargo once and for all, for as head editor of the New King James Version, he realized that the KJV's peacocks was an erroneous translation. So, bye-bye to colorful peacocks, but that could never stanch Art's love of the beauty of color. I can remember him expressing his appreciation for the texture of the white meat of a turkey at a Thanksgiving dinner we attended in Dallas, and (by his compliments) I know he appreciated a colorful sermon. In fact, in his book referred to above, Art included an entire section concerning translation on the subject of Beauty.

IV. Gratis and Gratitude

It should be apparent from the wording of this heading that a Latinate form of grace (as when we offer something gratis) should have as its logical corollary an attitude of gratitude. The atheist writer Katherine Mansfield sensed this once when she felt that she wanted to thank someone because of the beauty of the world around her, but, as an atheist there was no one to thank. Some theologians have said that theology is grace, and ethics is gratitude.

We sense this humble attitude in the apostle who declared himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). In that very same context where Paul observed that the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant (1:14), he employed an interesting built-in word picture apropos to our topic. In 1 Tim 1:16 Paul stated that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life (emphasis added).

In the term pattern we detect the artist-apostle. The Greek word is hypotupo—sis, which is used only here and in 2 Tim 1:13. William Hendriksen refers to our word as a sketch÷just like a master will first draw a rough pencil sketch before attempting his final work.[13] Anyone who has seen the rough sketches by Leonardo da Vinci will appreciate Hendriksen's comment. Consequently, Hendriksen went on to remark: In the gallery of grace the Artist-Savior had, as it were, drawn and put on exhibition a sketch of His masterful work in the life of the apostle.[14]

To my mind Dr. Arthur Farstad was a painter whom God had painted. He was indeed a pattern for many of us. If there really is Grace in the Arts, there was certainly God's grace in Art (Farstad). He showcased God's amazing grace in a life of gratitude. Someone has said: Thanksgiving is thanks-living, and Art lived like a graced person.

A graced person should eminently be a gracious person--and Art was that. At the conclusion of this article I include an autobiographical memory which I hope will not mar the overall effect of the article itself. It is probably the most highly personal item I have ever put into print. At the risk of the reader (who does not know me) writing me off as a case of seriously defective pride, I still feel it would be the right thing to do. My hope is that even if it reflects badly upon me, it will reflect well upon Art's great graciousness.

Art Farstad and I were friends together at Dallas Theological Seminary. Because we had attended the same Bible school (though at different times) and shared the same Brethren background, we had many grace-filled moments in common. In the Brethren tradition there is more openness in the pulpit (than in most other church traditions) to having more than one gifted person preach or teach. Consequently, Art and I often listened to each other's public ministry.

I do not know if the same tradition still continues at Dallas Theological Seminary today as when Art and I were there. However, at that time there was a week of senior student preaching at the end of the school year. I'm sure there is both good and bad to be said for this practice. Whether for better or worse, an award is given each year for the senior preacher of the year. To engage in a bit of perhaps prideful name-dropping, in my graduating class there were some sterling people who turned out to be the presidents of Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, and Ontario Theological Seminary, as well as a vice president of Denver Theological Seminary, among many other worthy students. However, it was a fairly common assumption among members of my class that I was expected to win the homiletics award that year.

I had grown up among the old Southern tradition of pulpit orators such as R. G. Lee from my hometown of Memphis, TN, and I had worked hard to be the best possible preacher for the Lord that I could be. As a result, I labored toward that senior-preaching week with the great expectation of being part of that four-person group. I worked so hard on my Bible passage for over a month that I used a homiletical analogy for the framework of the text that, according to the two video-viewing professors, clouded over the exposition of the passage itself. Therefore, they felt that they must reject my inclusion among the four senior preachers that week.

As an empathetic person might imagine, I was crushed. It was a very low point in my life. (And whether my motives were God-honoring I will leave to God to decide.) However, it was at this disappointing moment that Art Farstad graciously came to my rescue. He made me a personalized card in which he conferred his own Art Farstad Preaching Award on me and enabled me to get back on a more even emotional keel. Sometimes at a strategic down-moment someone steps in and lifts you up with an unforgettable encouragement. I still cherish that personalized award card that Art (the artist) gave me, and it is among my treasured possessions to this day. Grace has enabled Art to be gracious to others--as he assuredly was to me.

Art was a true art form of God's grace--and its resulting graciousness. He has now been placed in the heavenly gallery as one of the Lord's masterpieces of grace. I think I can hear my dear friend singing John Newton's lines:

When we've been there ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun,

We've no less days to sing God's Grace

Than when we first begun!

This final quotation seems to encapsulate something of the very essence of our friend Dr. Arthur Farstad. The Russian novelist Boris Pasternak happened to be critically ill and thought he was dying, so he wrote:

In the minute which seemed to me the last one in life, I experienced more strength than ever before, and the desire to talk to God, and to praise the visible [world around me]--My God, I whispered, I thank You that You paint life with such vivid colors and that You have created life and death. I thank You that Your language is sublimity and music, that You have made me an artist, that creativity is learnt in Your school, and that You have prepared me a whole life long for this night. And I rejoiced and wept with happiness.[15]

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[1] Os Guiness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 62.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Frank Gaebelein, A Varied Harvest (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), 116.

[4] Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), 665.

[5] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), 400.

[6] Will Durant, The Reformation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 419-20.

[7] Hugh Thompson Kerr, A Compend of Luther's Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1943), 143.

[8] Richard Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Man for this Season, Christianity Today (October 26, 1998), 86.

[9] Frank Gaebelein, Education in a Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 38-39.

[10] J. D. Douglas ed., The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1980), I, 421.

[11] Arthur L. Farstad, The New King James Version in the Great Tradition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1989).

[12] Ibid., 43.

[13] William Hendriksen, 1Ů2 Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1957), 82.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Timothy Udd, The Quiet Hour (Elgin, IL: David C. Cook Publishing Company, 1987), 25.

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