Words and Glory

Arts and literature reviews in most evangelical Christian publications generally approach their subjects in terms of ideology. We are told whether or not the film or book is acceptable in terms of morals, sexual graphicness, and theological accuracy.

While there is definitely a place for such reviews, I fear that all too often such an approach simply reinforces the idea that the arts exist only as a surrogate form of communication. We turn the art “object” into words, and then analyze it as information.

While all art is related to words, artistry as such actually exists in another realm, the realm of glory. God Himself is surrounded by glory, which appears often in the Bible as a Chariot-Throne or Glory-Cloud around Him. Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4-5 give us the most detailed pictures of this, but when we realize that the Tabernacle and Temple are architectural representations of this Glory-Throne environment, we can also see in them revelations of God’s visual, audible, and tangible glory.

When God’s glory appears to people in the Bible, we hear the sound of billions of angels singing, a sound like rushing waters or mighty winds. When this glory appears, we see a rainbow of colors, and the appearance of precious stones and metals. We smell the delightful scents of roast meat and incense. We touch precious cloths. We taste excellent bread and wine. These artistic features enhance the environment around the Godhead, and are not designed simply to communicate ideas.

Along these same lines, notice that the garments of Aaron are called “garments of glory and beauty,” not “garments of symbolism and typology” (Exodus 28:2). They are “holy garments,” and that is their “word-aspect,” but they are also beautiful garments, and that is their “spirit-aspect.”

Theologically we should say that as the Spirit glorifies the Son (the Word of God), so art glorifies words; but as each of us is a little word created in the image of the Divine Word, so art glorifies us as persons, and glorifies human life. Or we could put it this way, to the same effect: The Spirit glorifies the Person of the Father, and the Word of the Son. Thus, the arts are related to words and communication, but they are also more generally related to environment and human life. The arts enhance both our persons and our words, both our environments and our communications. But as the Spirit never exists for Himself alone, so there can never be “art for art’s sake.”

We can press this Trinitarian foundation of the arts one step further. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and also from the Word, and never from only one. In human life, glory is produced by a person and by his thoughts. Thus every artistic object made by the image of God has a human dimension of glory and a “word dimension” of content. In the artist’s labor, these are conjoined, but as we experience the artist’s work, we can separate them. We can separate Mapplethorpe’s brilliant photographic techniques from his sometimes-disgusting subject matter and filthy intentions. We can separate the decent ideas sung about in Christian pop music from its tawdry and inferior musical style. For a true analysis, we must take both aspects into consideration.

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This piece originally appeared at Biblical Horizons