Art and Beauty as a "Thin Place"

In a book entitled, The Spirituality of Art, Lois Huey-Heck notes that "the Cross is sometimes understood as indicating a meeting place of spirit (the vertical bar) and matter (the horizontal bar...) and so the Cross becomes an image of the divine becoming human and the human becoming divine." (p. 17) As I have noted in other essay, I see the Cross also being that symbol for the church - the connection of the holy and the human - where we nourish our intimacy with God as well as our responsibilities to sisters and brothers in community.

This symbol has no "bottom line" to it: in fact, symbols are multi layered and complex - nuanced and inviting - rather than ideological. And what strikes me is that in this age of capitalism on steroids, where so many have forgotten how to go deeper and even notice the subtleties of heart and soul, the symbolic nature of art and the lure of beauty have a role to play in our healing. Could it be that as the US tries to figure its way out of the sins of our hyper-individualistic and greedy age - to say nothing of a war that cannot be won in a traditional sense - artists have a unique calling?

As my 12 step friends keep telling me, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." And now it is not just the progressive religious world crying out that the "emperor has no clothes," but Wall Street and Main Street and every one in between sees it is true, too.

It is demoralizing, however, to listen to the current crop of political experts offer solutions that are so stupid and short sighted - they are all bright and committed - but as the Wall Street crisis continues to be exploited by fear and partisan bickering it is soul numbing because it is clear they have no deep vision. They have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, hearts that cannot discern the magnitude of suffering they have caused. Bono put it like this: "It's extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases."

Our sisters and brothers in the wider church in the 2/3rds world have recently issued "the Micah challenge" writing: "We know your works of love; these works have allowed millions of human beings for many generations in our countries in the South to receive the gospel, the Grace of Jesus Christ and the power of His Salvation. The U.S. church's untiring missionary effort planted in our lands Hope in Him who came to reconcile EVERYTHING. Nevertheless, the political, social and economic situation in the places where this hope has been announced is increasingly distressing. Millions of people in the global South are dying of hunger, violence and injustice. These situations of poverty and pain are not simply the product of the internal functions of our countries; rather they are the results of the international policies of the governments that wield global power." (For more information:

I think of that section from Isaiah 14 where God asks Jerusalem to ponder its loss - to reflect on what has happened and grieve - as a prelude to healing but they cannot because they are unable to see beyond their self-centeredness: As when a hungry man dreams he is eating and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams he is drinking and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, the prophets, and covered your heads, the seers. And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed.

When men give it to one who can read, saying, "Read this," he says, "I cannot, for it is sealed." And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, "Read this," he says, "I cannot read." And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid." Woe to those who hide deep from the LORD their counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?" You turn things upside down!

Proverbs 29: 18 is so clear: Where there is no vision, the people perish. And the vision of both the wisdom tradition and the prophets is NOT bottom line, political posturing a la Carl Rove et al. Rather, vision (chazown from the Hebrew chazah) has to do with perception and inspiration of an almost ecstatic type - think art, beauty, poetry, music and dance - rather than policy and short term political or economic fixes. Think of the visions of Israel's poetic artists:

+ Isaiah: Hey there! All who are thirsty, come to the water! Are you penniless? Come anyway—buy and eat! Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk. Buy without money—everything's free! Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy? Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest. Pay attention, come close now, listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words... I don't think the way you think. The way you work isn't the way I work." God's Decree."For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think.Just as rain and snow descend from the skies and don't go back until they've watered the earth, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry, so will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They'll do the work I sent them to do, they'll complete the assignment I gave them. "So you'll go out in joy, you'll be led into a whole and complete life. The mountains and hills will lead the parade, bursting with song. All the trees of the forest will join the procession, exuberant with applause. No more thistles, but giant sequoias, no more thornbushes, but stately pines—Monuments to me, to God, living and lasting evidence of God."

+ Ezekiel: God grabbed me. God's Spirit took me up and set me down in the middle of an open plain strewn with bones. He led me around and among them—a lot of bones! There were bones all over the plain—dry bones, bleached by the sun. He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "Master God, only you know that." So God said to me, "Prophesy over these bones: 'Dry bones, listen to the Message of God!'" I prophesied just as I'd been commanded. As I prophesied, there was a sound and, oh, rustling! The bones moved and came together, bone to bone. I kept watching. Sinews formed, then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them. But they had no breath in them. So God said to me, "Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, 'God, the Master, says, Come from the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!'" So I prophesied, just as he commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army. Then God said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Listen to what they're saying: 'Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there's nothing left of us.' "Therefore, prophesy. Tell them, 'God, the Master, says: I'll dig up your graves and bring you out alive—O my people! Then I'll take you straight to the land of Israel. When I dig up graves and bring you out as my people, you'll realize that I am God. I'll breathe my life into you and you'll live. Then I'll lead you straight back to your land and you'll realize that I am God. I've said it and I'll do it. God's Decree.'

+ Micah: God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love and don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.

Enter the contemporary artist - seeing deeply, thinking symbolically, sharing what we hold in common or else pointing to the ugly suffering that wounds some while others live off their agony - and the task is clear. Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc" comes to mind right now - full of grief and symbols and oh God, such longing - it feels to me like this moment in history: so ripe with possibility yet so trapped in blindness. His art helps us feel this time - his music and passion connect us to that thin place we all share where the holy and human embrace - if we have eyes to see and hearts to feel.


Katherine E. said…
What a beautiful post. I love the art, and your words really evoke truth for me. Thank you.
RJ said…
Thank you for taking the time to share that with me, katherine. I am grateful.

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