The Art of Religion

In the Weekend Australian of July 19-20 2008, John Armstrong has the article Designs for Living. The occasion for this article is the Art Deco: 1910-1939 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria which runs until early October. He notes critic Clive Bell’s question  “What do you need to take into an art gallery with you?” Bell answered that one needed only a “sense of shape and rhythm.”

Armstrong said that one of today’s common answers to that same question would be that one needed “a great deal of historical information.  And if you can’t supply that yourself, don’t worry, the catalogue has plenty to spare.”  He implicitly criticises that answer, or at least draws some boundaries around its limitations.  “What I’m suggesting is that you need to bring your own desires for happiness.  You need to bring your search for the meaning of life and sensitivity to the way in which objects can give rise to visions of a way of life.”

This same approach applies to biblical interpretation.  Many Christians are uncomfortable with academic criticism of the bible. I’m not talking about the fundamentalist who is frightened that if we accept there is truth in geological and biological sciences then, we must accept the creation stories in Genesis can’t be historical. That kind of discomfort is about a fear of losing God... a fear that God will disappear if we don’t accept everything literally true. This is because for the fundamentalist the bible itself, or at least one interpretation of it, is God. Fundamentalism is idolatry.

I’m interested in those of us who are well aware that Genesis is something other than literal history. In fact we know that all history is subjective. The problem as one digests this insight, is to know what one can do with the bible.  If we subject it to academic criticism, what authority can it hold for us?  If we accept, for example,  that there are “three Isaiahs” spread over a period of many years, what can Isaiah say still to us? How can we be informed by Isaiah, or any other of the multitude of biblical authors when there is so much to learn, and when opinions on origins, authorship and meaning are often contradictory? How can we ever know enough to read and understand these books properly? How will we get them right, when even the specialists change their opinions?

As a lonely young student come to Adelaide from the country , I discovered the Art Gallery of South Australia. I’ve wandered through many times over the years.  My appreciation has grown under the tutelage of my wife, who has a fine sense of colour and shape.  And yes, the catalogues of exhibitions have helped.   A little of my daughter’s Fine Arts degree has rubbed off from  tea time dissertations. And so I have seen different things each time I visit the gallery. It does help to know something of the background of a work. But what has worked the magic in the gallery, and what has been inspiring, if I dare use that word, is not what I have brought to the paintings. It is what, by happy accident, I have had them do to me. When I have brought my “search for the meaning of life” into the gallery, the paintings and installations have spoken to me.  They colour my reflections. They disturb me. I can’t look at that self righteous husband in “Forgiven” without feeling my own harshness and unforgiving nature.  “Caprice” tells me of own preciousness and narcissism.

It is so with the bible.  Bring whatever knowledge I may, the key task is to let the stories speak to me. The task is to go beyond the short lectionary excerpts, beyond the white intellectual male question of “What does it mean?” and let the broad sweep of the stories talk to me. Background knowledge helps.  But the book must be allowed to speak. Someone once said to me about sermons that they would begin to listen, and then hearing something interesting , begin to think about that and stop listening to the sermon. I thought that was the point.

Armstrong spoke of some short film sequences at the exhibition. “But the big thing is to make your own inner film, your own private vision of how you would live with these objects.  It can seem trivial in comparison with scholarship. But in the end what is scholarship for, except to enhance (in a remarkably indirect way) the pleasure we take in existence.” That private film is a kind of story telling. It’s a playing with the object, and letting it speak to our own life.  Biblical texts are an artistic object in the same way. They have depth and quality that makes them classical, exactly as we say that Shakespeare is a classical author, as opposed to more ephemeral literature.  The church takes some  artistic objects as its primary documents, as canonical and foundational.  But if we do not play with them, making that inner film, and do not let them play with us, they remain the driest of dry dead letters. The art of religion is to let the stories speak to our existence.

Andrew Prior
Almost all the posts in this section were written for Scots Church Adelaide.



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