Back to Worldview
"True beauty lives on high. Ours is but a flame borrowed thence" . - George Herbert
Art and beauty, or rather the study and pursuit of them, occupy quite a bit of my thought life. My undergraduate degree was in studio art with a concentration in sculpture. I have worked in the arts for twenty five years and have been an active exhibitor of my own work. I am also the composer of over one thousand psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
My interest in the arts is more essential than just being involved in their preservation and exhibition or creation, however. I see art and beauty as essential to life. As H. R. Rookmaaker said, "Art needs no justification." As creations and image bearers of a creative God, I believe it is our duty to more fully appreciate the gift of creativity, and to exercise responsibility in the promotion and appreciation of the arts. The following is a distillation of threads of thought that have developed over the past several years.
The thesis of the following essay is this: With the demise of modernism, we have entered a new era that is is the throes of deconstructing the effects of modernism. While the Enlightenment cast off the chains of ultimate authority, its stepchild, modernism, committed suicide by holding out a needy world the promise of salvation while denying the possibility of ultimate truth. This denial of the possibility of propositional, authoritative truth drives the postmodern milieu. I will attempt to define these issues a little more clearly, focusing on the downward spiral that has manifested itself in all walks of life, with particular attention to the effects on art and beauty. I will then set about pointing to responses that can help shape a worldview that seeks the reclaimation of the arts for the service of beauty.
The Deconstruction of Meaning
"Meaning makes a great many things endurable- perhaps everything".- Carl Jung
A sense of meaning is a basic need of the human organism and is vital to our well being. When a human does not experience a sense of meaning even his biological functions are not fulfilled. Yet meaning itself has been declared by the intelligentsia of our day to be null and void. The breakpoint of modernism is a distant echo of the past, with the avant garde having exhausted itself after World War II and having taken on the very nature of what Hegel called the "bad infinite": a false complexity covering up a lack of meaning.Richard Rorty once said with unconcealed glee, that "it is getting more and more difficult to find a real live metaphysical prig" who believes in such outmoded ideas as reality and truth. It is crucial for Christians to understand that there is a great distinction between modernists and postmodernists, between relativistic relativists and the postmodern absolutistic relativists. While modernists, aware of the obstacles in the way of objectivity, took this difficulty as a challenge and made an all out effort to attain as much objectivity as possible, postmodernists reject absolute truth and take their own rejection as a deliverance from all claims of truth, a release from the obligation to maintain any degree of objectivity or aspire to any kind of truth.
Deconstruction is being offered to the world as a new state of Grace- redemption by the abrogation of any framework of meaning. It is now obsolete to attempt to see any relationship between signifier and signified. Baudrillard asserted the emancipation of the sign and released it from any responsibility to "designate" anything. To suppose such an obligation is to be "archaic". Part of the act of presuming to be postmodern includes embracing a philosophy that claims to have the authority to post such edicts on the consciousness of the world.
Derrida asserted that every quotation breaks with every given context. This creates illimitable contexts. Signified and signifiers continually break apart and reunite in new combinations in this morass. In Derrida's thought, the nature of language is violated when meaning is inferred to any such sign. With postmodernism, language and meaning are games without rules. Texts have no context so they become pretexts. We must disagree with this, and assert with opposing fervor, that every text certainly does have a context that is discernible and therefore has meaning. The advance guard (we can no longer refer to an avant garde) of poststructuralist criticism propounds theories that at their root deny the legitimacy of meaning. Rhizomatics, hermeneutics, grammatology, semiotics, and diegesis have taken on a gnostic quality and now all seem to share the goal of undermining the legitimacy of specific meaning. Our belief structure is so riddled with doubt that skepticism for the sheer sake of skepticism defines our culture.
Postmodernism entices us with the call of liberation and creativity. It is in reality an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide. Foucault has hailed the death of humanist man. But in every form and in every discipline it impacts, postmodernism does not herald a new or higher form of that discipline- it is a negation of disciplines.In the realm of art, postmodernist theory has steadily leached meaning from objects and images, leaving the viewer with an enervating uncertainty. No patterns of meaning or insights are being brought to light. We must understand an object to value it and know how to react to it. A disinterested aesthetic has developed which anesthetizes us- our hearts can no longer respond to the maze of false clues we are offered. Unless the idea of choice carries with it the possibility of making a difference, it negates the freedom we seek. Disinterested aestheticism disallows looking at things critically, seeing reality, and responding in a responsible fashion. The basic symptom is the impaired capacity to feel and to give inner order to experience in general.
There is a necessary correlation between art's loss of meaning and relevance and the quest for autonomy. Any search for autonomy is in the end a search for release from the sovereignty of God. The failure of modernism stems from the fact that it neglected to require art to be accountable, not just another self justifying enterprise divorced from all other values. Meaning emerges from context- without this nothing makes sense. So the deconstruction of meaning in our day presents us with new challenges that require rethinking how we must relate to such a culture. The answer to this question will define for us our concept of art. In my own search for answers, I have found it necessary to come to a redefinition of my own role as an artist, poet, composer and designer- a role that now spiritual and experiential, not stylistic and aesthetic.
Where in the world are we now?
Over the past twenty years I have been involved in an art scene that has seen great changes. The economics of art have come under attack and with it the dismantling and reconstruction of the corporate art world. About five years after I left university I was engaged by a gallery in Memphis that allowed me to have both an audience and a steady income from my work. As my career developed I began designing exhibitions for other artists. This led to my working with an international clientele of artists, mostly from the continent, with New York representation, and for major institutions ranging from MOMA, the Met, and the Prado to commercial New York galleries such as the Ariadne and the Marlborough. I was able to glimpse first hand the disjointed nature of the international art scene. I was especially made aware of the predicament that most self respecting artists found themselves in during the days of the death of modernism.
At the beginning of the eighties, when I was finishing up that degree in sculpture, French and German critical theory became virtually synonymous with Postmodernism. To engage in the so-called "deconstruction" of cultural signs had become a fundamental issue in art. Experiencing a work of art was no longer about any degree of heightened emotional or intellectual awareness. Art was no longer about transcendence or transformation. Art was negated- it was about a lack, a deficiency of the human psyche. Initially, critical theory was important as a method in coming to terms with the absent "aesthetics" of Neo-Expressionist painting.Gradually, it evolved into something elsean anti-canon to offset the canon of Modernism and the "elitist" conventions of a patriarchal culture. Advocates of Postmodernism, spurred by the writings of Baudrillard, Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Lyotard, began to declare intellectual warfare on "Eurocentric" art. They suggested that the latter was merely a representation of a much broader, yet concealed conspiratorial history of western colonialism and imperialist expansion. In such a climate, the term "aesthetics" was no longer useful. A form of applied theory generally appropriated from philosophy, sociology, and psychoanalysis now replaced aestheticsand, to some extent, criticism.
The power of art lies in its ability to illuminate and comment on the accepted cultural norm. Artists define themselves as artists both in terms of their attraction to and repulsion by this norm. A large part of being an artist in today's world is to offer a purposeful resistance to the cultural programming that otherwise appears so inevitable and so inescapable. To be an artist has always been a matter of intelligence, passion, constraint, shrewdness, and will. This implies a position of resistance to culture, but not one of denial. Some would argue that Postmodern culture exists, and that Postmodern art does not. The mistaken idea of a Postmodern style has contributed, in large part, to an over-informed and under-educated art audience. I would say that the more accurate use of the term "Postmodernism" has more to do today with a condition of culture that effects the way we live in the world and less to do with a genre or style of art. In contrast to the emphasis on theory, it would seem more appropriate to let go of the rhetoric in order to claim a more practical application of the termas a form of acknowledgment in relation to the general condition of culture, involving such variables as fragmentation of belief, psychological separation, and suspended oppositionality.
How did we get here?
Modernism engendered great expectations from the quantitative advance of art. However, the advance was driven by man's search for release from reason and so therefore led to chaos. With no fixed goals or ideals to believe in, modernism became associated with a sense of fraudulence. I find hope in the fact that modernism was exposed for what it was. This left critics to renew the age old debate over the justification of art. Rookmaakers's essay "Art Needs No Justification" is set within a context of a Christian world view which imposes constraints and a framework of a propositional, presuppositional apologetic. While art needs no justification for the artist who finds his source of being in the Creator of Beauty, in the world the wars still rage over this question.
So much of the discussion in Christian circles involves going back to plumb the meaning of modernism so as to provide a framework for defining postmodernism. I hope I shall not have to linger long on this here in applying this to my premise. Let us attempt to discern the progression of events that led to this situation. It is immoral for the Christian mind to be unaware of the fundamental forces that shape our lives and society.
In many ways the father of modern aesthetics was Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, aesthetic pleasure comes about when two mental faculties, the imagination and the understanding, engage in `free play'. When we encounter an object that incorporates the quality that Kant called `purposiveness without purpose' we experience an aesthetic response. Nothing in the object itself is signified. We see the same idea in Hegel in that he focuses on art as the expression of individualistic emotion. This was still very much the reigning idea through modernism. The next characteristic of modernity that flowed directly from Kant was the notion of the artist as imposer rather than the discoverer of value and meaning. While no one discovers anything purely without input from his own frame of reference, Kant stressed the mind's imposition of a fixed order on an essentially unknown reality. This is a construct that formed a key part of the foundations of modernism.
Another aspect of Kant's influence is the divorcement of art from action. As a result of transferring a Cartesian model of knowledge (the self impassively surveying its object), to the aesthetic realm, art was no longer to be considered a means to an end. Virtually every statement one reads today from the hands of aestheticians, art theorists and critics tends to make the assumption that perceptual contemplation is the highest way in which one may approach art- but no further.
Another doctrine that flows directly from Kant is that of the "autonomy " of art. His aesthetics spawned the idea of "Art for Art's sake", a view that art is answerable only to itself, that we have no right to make moral judgments on art, and that art has no social responsibility. In contrast, the great arts of the past were linked inextricably to puposiveness.
Finally, Kantian aesthetics upholds the disjunction of art and knowledge. Kant operated with an extreme dualism between knowledge and aesthetic experience which he inherited from the Enlightenment. He was a champion of empirical, scientific truth- what John Locke called `dry truth and real knowledge'. This reduced judgments about art to personal quirks and divested any discussion of art of real meaning at its logicus terminus.
Postmodernism is largely a reaction against the fallacies that Kantian aesthetics wrought.
In his important book Art In Action, Wolterstorff argues that works of art are first and foremost objects and instruments of action. They are inextricably woven into the fabric of human passions, endeavors and purposes. They are vehicles through which we carry out our intentions with respect to the world. Although perceptual contemplation is a valid activity to be engaged in, it is not the sine qua non of art. "Works of art equip us for action, and the range of actions for which they equip us is very nearly as broad as the range of human action itself...any aesthetic that ignores the enormous diversity of actions in which art plays a role, in fact and by intent, is bound to yield distortion and inscrutability" (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art In Action, (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1980), p. 10.)
The aesthetic theoretician Theodore Adorno, often cited as an ally to Postmodernist critics in the battle against modernism said, "Even before Auschwitz, in the face of historical experiences, it was an affirmative lie to ascribe to existence any meaning at all." Yet, as many commentators have noted, the idea of artistic truth is a central theme in Adorno's aesthetics. This idea pervades Adorno's writings, from his earliest literary review on "Expressionism and Artistic Truthfulness" (1920) to the philosophical essays published in the last year of his life (1969). His idea of artistic truth places Aesthetic Theory in opposition to Heideggerian mystifications of art and Wittgensteinian attacks on traditional aesthetics. (The classic English language discussions of artistic truth are John Hospers, Meaning and Truth in the Arts (1946; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974) and Albert Hofstadter, Truth and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).)
There is a problem with creativity in postmodernity : it serves no important psychosocial purpose, that is, it does not address any developmental-existential issue that has become a particular problem in the world, and it tends to inflate a half-truth into a whole truth. The postmodernist artist attempts novel stunts with old artistic props. In contrast, the modernist artist had hopes of clarifying issues through the lens of his art, to bring issues into critical consciousness. Postmodernist art does not make us aware of what is literally happening to us in postmodern society. Rather, to use Adorno's idea, it duplicates the postmodern world through art. Postmodernist art does not offer a critical perspective on its world : it does not believe there is any point in striving for anything so unrealistic. Its indifference to such striving is typical of the postmodern world. Thus, postmodernist art duplicatesconfirms the status quoof the postmodern world more than it knows. This degeneration of art to the role of a puppet of the zeitgeist turns it into mere propaganda. This is the final negation of the "moral quality" of art that has been held in regard in the past.
In her seminal work Has Modernism Failed? art critic Suzi Gablik has seen the degeneration of art as a main construct by which postmodernism has based its assault on society. The rise of individualism in art in the twentieth century led to the dehumanization of art. Kandinsky sought to elect the artist as priest to divine the soul. The rise of "Art for Art's Sake"- (Art with a capital "A" as Rookmaaker puts it) brought with it the canonization of abstraction as the primus of aesthetic theology. Traditionally, artists used the material to reach spiritual ends. Now the subject matter became mythic and symbolic in an obtuse way that divorced symbol from meanings, leading to moral ambiguity. Postmodernism rose synonymously with the pluralism of the late seventies. The freedom to plunder all forms of style and to assimilate contradictory values and conflicting statements led to art abdicating any connection with the transcendent.
Art and Knowledge
I have often heard complaints from Christians who are involved in the arts that there is a notable lack of helpful writings available to help in the formation of a Christian world view concerning the arts. While this once may have been the case, I dispute that this is true today. One must only look to the foundational issues. My personal library holds nearly a hundred books on subjects impacting Christianity and the Arts as well as several hundred articles. While all these are not all equally helpful, and quite a few are stuck in a modernist construct, help is available on a wide range of levels from the scholarly to the popular. I owe much of my thinking to the work of the critics referred to here.
One main area of misunderstanding which has led to the church's abandonment of the arts as a meaningful way to communicate Truth is the acquiescence to the Cartesian-Kantian view of Art's relationship to knowledge. Briefly I would point out relatively recent work in this particular area of philosophical aesthetics that can help reshape our view. It is beyond the scope of this paper to do more than provide helpful references to important work.
No discussion of the relationship of art to Truth can sidestep the work of Paul Tillich. No other twentieth century theologian has so passionately grappled with art. While I do not hold to a Tillichian view of Ultimate Reality, it is only fair to note that he has dealt in a helpful way with the thorny issue of Truth and art. Tillich was overly influenced by expressionism which flavored his view that for Ultimate Reality to be apprehended, natural forms of reality had to be shattered. Difficulties arise in his theory of religious symbolism. For instance, he fails to differentiate between the symbolism inherent in language and of that inherent in visual imagery. While transposition occurs in both constructs, they are not synonymous. Tillich tends to interpret lingual symbolism by a visual Gestalt. Here Tillich does not offer help in relating non symbolic language about God and ordinary statements about finite reality. Tillich was influenced heavily by a Kantian aesthetic. If one has problems in their Christology (particularly the the historicity of the incarnation as it relates to the biblical picture of Christ), as Tillich does, it is bound to bleed over into his understanding of art and knowledge.
A sounder view of art and knowledge is found in Calvin Seerveld's writings. Seerveld's idea of intuition was picked up from Dooyeweerd's notion. The Dutch Calvinist philosopher Hermann Dooyeweerd claimed that there was a transmodal level of human consciousness which forms a bridge between the analytical function of the mind and the field of investigation it confronts, making knowledge possible. This kind of apprehension is based not upon scientific observation, but an active participation in an object's multiple meanings based upon a "peculiar structuration of human consciousness". Symbolic actions operate through suggestion and are not literal statements. Art is quite capable of presenting us with sound, discernible knowledge. He reinforces the point in the article "The Relation of the Arts to the Presentation of Truth" (Braamfontein: De Jong,1971, pp.161-175) in which he states that the imaginative character of art consists "not in being fictional but in presenting whatever reality is fascinating the artist...symbolically". Seerveld defends art from the contention that it transports us into a world of fantasy, bereft from contact with the real.
Hans Rookmaaker also endorses Dooyeweerd's broad frame of reference, and with Seerveld stresses the double sided nature of art, its irreducability and its unbreakable connection with other aspects of reality. Rookmaaker differs with Seerveld in his understanding of inspiration, as well as the Dooyeweerdian concept of art as the externalization of a mental image, which Seerveld rejects. I find Rookmaaker to be a product of his times in that he applies Enlightenment constructs to his treatment of art. His work was important and influential, but one must take into account the times to which he was writing. He can be very helpful if one filters his writings through this realization. His purposes were not to refute postmodernity.
Jeremy Begbie is especially helpful in proposing a cognitive understanding of art. (Begbie, Voicing Creation's Praise, Edinburgh:T.&T. Clark, 1991, pp.247-252.) He draws his understanding of metaphor from the work of Michael Polanyi and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Polanyi has effectively refuted Kant's Cartesian conception of knowledge which has been so pervasive since his day. Godamer's main concern is to question the deep seated assumption in our culture that the appreciation of art and beauty has nothing to do with knowledge and truth. Gadamer insists that we do not react to the form of a work of art as opposed to its content; rather we respond to it as something that mediates meaning as a unity. The experience of art leads not only to self awareness, but to genuine knowledge. Like Gadamer, Polanyi is convinced that without community, without other people (living and dead) and without common language, shared traditions and common authorities there simply can be no knowledge.
Much modern epistemology has been too narrow to comprehend the depth and power of aesthetic experience. It is too restrictive to say that we only know something when we have a completely indubitable grasp on it conceptually. This is a typically Kantian notion, who was reacting to the Romanticism of his time which claimed that the key to all knowledge lies with the arts. His position creates such a disparity between knowledge and aesthetic perception that it causes more problems than it solves.
Finally, I must mention that on a popular level and from a more thoroughly Bibliocentric viewpoint the work of Gene Edward Veith can be tremendously helpful. In general, his audience is composed Christians and so, as one might expect, he uses biblical references and language that may not be helpful for the non Christian. His work is an exceptionally good starting point for anyone interested in forming a christian world view and apologetic for art.
Negating the negation
To sustain itself society must have values that resist change. It must have stability. Negation destroys tradition. The loss of the sense of the new and the shock of the new allowed change to accelerate without discussion, maximizing the variable of change, so that change itself became the paradigm. With all standards removed, stability was destroyed and replaced with a steady violation of expected continuities. Modern art engendered mistrust because society has no center or standard at its root. This is a construct that art tends to point out clearly. Modernism effected the systematic reversal of the values by which people in the past lived. Modernism refused the sacred, the mythological and the sacramental. It replaced it with what Peter Plagens has referred to as the "MacSacred". The numinous, the mythic and the holy are thus reduced to rags . In the postmodern milieu, everything is empty at its center. As modernism retreated into self expression and privatism, a progressive bourgeoisie continued to dehumanize art. In the introduction of the early "Postmodern Culture" (1985), Hal Foster rallied his readers to the cause of a postmodernism that critically deconstructs modernism as against a postmodernism of reaction which repudiates it. Nobody listened. A type of semioclasm arose in literary criticism that now rules the day. (Any exploration of the antimonies and complexities of modernism must take into account the work of Roland Barthes and the structuralist and post structuralist moments in critical theory of the 1980's and early nineties).
For the health of society, the arts must mirror man's dignity. The arts are not merely a mirror reflecting social and cultural values. They are powerful forces which shape and mold the way in which people live and behave. This is a view held by every major literary critic from Plato to T. S. Eliot. The arts of postmodernism have been divested of power, if power is the ability to carry out intentions. Passive expressions have no power, and such art cannot see itself as a force for meaning in the world. It is consciousness that gives the world a meaning. Skillful use of power depends on a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of the images we put out into this world. We carry out intentions, shaping the environment, and influence others. The question is, how much responsibility are we Christians willing to take for exercising intentionality in this world? This is a question for every Christian in every vocation, in every walk of life.
As Charles Newman said in his essay "The Post Modern Aura", if an artist proclaims himself as isolated and responsible to no one, he should not be surprised if he is ignored, uninfluential and perceived as irresponsible. In all the manifestations of the contemporary arts scene, one finds not only an absence of moral control and spiritual order, but in most instances an overt hostility to any such restraining concepts. Morality always involves a sentiment of submission because it demands the recognition of an authoritative norm, be it religious or secular, external, as in former times, or internal and self-imposed. The very terms "submission" and "authoritative" appear to be anathemas to an age intoxicated and toxified with the concept of "freedom." What one focuses on most is what one becomes. The assimilation of images into ones own being presents the gravest danger to postmodern man.If, in the novels which he reads, in the films and plays which he sees, and in the philosophical and ethical treatises he encounters, he is exclusively subjected to a vision of himself as a being that is violent, animalistic, alienated, and unaccountable, then is he not being encouraged to identify with such an image and to mold his own outlook and behavior to conform with such an image? Faced with the bleakness of a de-humanizing materialism, it becomes evident that an attempt must be made, in the words of Camus, to "negate the negation".
As Gablik said, "The postmodern world is filled with people who seek power, but it is not the power of vision. Postmodernism is empty at the center- it has no integrated vision. The dominant critical discourse steadily involves, through modes of deconstruction the dispersal of all frameworks of meaning, a self protective dodge of consciousness that is obviously more a symptom of our alienation than any diagnosis of that condition". (Gablik, "Reclaiming Sacred Vision", Art Papers, Nov/Dec 1986, p.4.)
Gablik proposes a reinfusion of a spiritual foundation (though certainly not a Christian one) in order that art may once again open up life and reality to a deeper and more satisfying understanding. So the new battleground for ideological supremacy will be, in my estimation, a spiritual one. The postmodern deconstruction of modernism has not erected in its place any positive structures. In effect, the culture has attempted to render the aesthetic landscape `tohu a vohu'- the state of the physical creation before the intervention of the power of the logos. This is a metaphysical mirror of what the world has tried to achieve since the fall- a state where God is silent and has not spoken in this space time continuum. But Nature abhors a vacuum. Will we in this generation be a part of forces of light that shall overcome the present darkness? A false spirituality is ready to coronate itself- a spirituality that is at its base a deceptive counterfeit . Christianity has to offer an alternative- a vibrant true spirituality based on ultimate reality- a spirituality only available in a Christian world view.
Understanding through the eyes
"The inborn capacity to understand through the eyes has been put to sleep and must be reawakened." (Rudolph Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), p.1.)
Truth is a daunting subject. It still holds the last bastions of sacredness in our culture. It is difficult for many who, though they do not believe in absolute truth, they still find it disquieting to joke about. Truth has consequences, and the entire basis for the denial of truth as a concept stems from the radical fallenness of the human soul. Even in a fallen state men have a sense that Truth relates to the real, to the radix of life, the rock bottom that we all hope to build on. We tend to choose symbols to speak of its essence and what we end up with is inscrutable mystery. Consider the two following representative quotations:
"Only propositions have the quality of truth. The only significant view of revelation is rational-verbal...Truth is only propositional." (Carl F. H. Henry in God Revelation and Authority).
"It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition of both truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors, or revivifying old. Is not the cause of truth, but its condition. It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself." (C. S. Lewis from "Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare")
With Henry, truth is an abstraction that we must comprehend by logic, reason and analysis. With Lewis, we have another route to Truth through myth, story and imagery. Truth is actively self revealing. Psalm 19 tells us this: "The heavens are telling... the firmament proclaims...day unto day pours forth speech. Night unto night declares knowledge." Though these two avenues seem disparate on the surface, they are reflective of what modern research and cognitive theorists proclaim: the human mind operates in a linear and nonlinear fashion. We are intuitive as well as rational. We are objective as well as subjective.
"The very essence of our life as conscious beings, all day and every day, consists of something which cannot be communicated except by hints, similes, metaphors, and the use of those emotions...which are pointers to it." (C. S. Lewis in "The Language of Religion")
Jesus reminds us that understanding will come if we have "eyes to see". With Christ there is no divorcement of the sign from the signifier. Our tendency to fragment reality may be due to our inability since the fall to handle more than a few facets of existence at a time. The rectification of this comes with the renewal of our mind. Here we join sanctified reason with the sanctified imagination to come to a comprehension that would be beyond us on our own. In Isaiah 1 :18 , when God reasons with us, He does so through images created by words. In this way, the words are tattooed on our psyche, or if you prefer, written on our hearts.
We can use vivid analogies and images to express the unliveability of postmodernism in its deconstructive mode to people living in the real world. Concrete language, stories, imagery, are invaluable (as narrative theologians have rightly argued). There are those who have trouble believing that our language describes a real world. To show that critical realism matters, we can use illustrations. Though concrete illustrations are critical, we should not abandon a vigorous use of abstract and conceptual modes of discourse in a total acquiescence to narrativism. This approach can impact the way we do apologetics, homiletics, and art. Stories are extraordinarily powerful, but deceptively ambiguous. Even Jesus' parables often left his audiences daunted. But let me make it clear that I am not promoting the use of imaginative constructs alone. As I have stated above, we must recapture the repudiated heritage of the arts and creativity to form a full orbed holistic approach to communicating Truth which marries the power of reason and propositional logic with the imagination. The tendency has been to choose one approach to the exclusion of the other. The power of stories alone to generate life-changing faith is much overestimated. Alone, of course, is the key word here.
Apologetics, as well as art, expresses absolute truth through relative modes of thought (the "treasure in earthen vessels").I contend that art can have an apologetical aspect. Now more than ever, given the postmodern pluralism we live in, both art and apologetics are personal matters, not merely intellectual ones. We should defend the faith to particular persons (not to disembodied minds) using concrete analogies and narratives. We should engage the whole being with our arts as well. In an era where postmodern experientialism is prominent, effective communicators can highlight the contrast between postmodernism's downward spiral into deconstructed despair and the genuine joy and love that God nurtures.
Let me make it clear that I do not propose that we effect a return to a premodern state of consiousness. This is an impossibility. It is also necessary to retain the distinction between symbol and referent. To worship the symbol for itself is idolatry. Yet I think Christians should reexamine the relation between symbol and reality, and determine if our network of transcendent signs is arbitrary or fixed. I would suggest that the effect of modernism on the church has been to cause a retreat from mediation of spiritual realities by symbol (including the sacraments). This has been a reactionary move, and the Church is poorer for it. What possible rationale can there be for a rationing of the sacraments that most churches have determined to engage in? Why only have communion once a month or once a quarter? Why, when it is enacted, is it so disengaging? The excesses of the Roman church and the triumph of Rationalism has turned our eyes from the power of signs to transmit truth directly to man. Discursive, abstract argument is not to be abandoned, but in a day where the meaning of language is suspect, meaningful relationships that correspond to a transcendent reality may have renewed power. Rationalism's day is gone, though its vestiges will linger for some time. The bankruptcy of our postmodern culture and the intrinsic need for man to communicate with sacred realities cry out for a return to the power of symbol.
The task of reclaimation
Modernism told us that we had to grow beyond our need for metaphor- that to speak accurately about ultimate reality one must dispense with simile, image and symbol. With modernism in its death throes, the Church is experiencing a state of rare opportunity, for the ascendant cultural power is a negative one that doubts and denies its own premises. In the current milieu all authority is denied that would impose meaning upon any sign, be it language or image. Yet the postmodern critic cannot live without either. I believe that language will not fail, but we who hold to an orthodix hermeneutic stand a better chance of prevailing if we understand that the spoken word is also a transposition of a greater reality, as the image or symbol is, although in a different fashion. The image and the word must not be divorced from one another. Many commentators assume that since premoderns were largely illiterate that they were deaf as well. Images have certainly never been divorced from verbal communication in the past. The current situation is an anomaly in the history of man. Never before has it been assumed that meaning is impossible. Nature cries out against this, and mankind will as well. Our greatest hope for communication to the postmodern world is an appropriation of both concrete words and universal symbols. Man cannot communicate the complexity of human experience otherwise. Words are by their nature referential, symbolic, mediatory- they mediate metaphysical truth. As Blake said, the visionary imagination discovers "eternity in a grain of sand." We apprehend the universal through the particular.
We cannot escape the pervasiveness and strength of metaphoric language in the Bible. The prophets and the parables use images to convey reality. One of the net effects of embracing a Kantian hermeneutic is that much of the Church has been polarized into hyper-literalists, esotericists, and demythologizers. We have denied the richness and levels of meaning when we encounter historical narrative, or we deny the literal historical level when we encounter archetypal typology.
In parabolic speaking, much of the truth is communicated implicitly rather than explicitly. Its truth is non propositional, non creedal and must be apprehended for what it is. Augustine spoke of words as "little incarnations of thought" and therefore, they are not arbitrary labels. The mental concept is clothed in word pictures that are actualized when spoken or written. the artist does much the same thing with his art. Communication in the arts is not realized until it is give some sort of form, be it music, dance, or image. Form and pattern are an extension of content and are determined by the content. If we divorce thought from expression, Truth suffers.
Again, I am not suggesting that the concrete symbols and images can exclude the conceptual and abstract. Discourse and propositional modes of communication cannot exclude the former either. These debates have raged in academic circles for some time, and the net effect has been to move through structuralism to poststructuralism and beyond to a place where discourse is meaningless. These circles have discussed the issues in an abstract, reified, removed from life, nonparticipatory milieu. The debate must ultimately be settled in real life, especially in the life of the body of Christ, to show that there can be meaning and purpose in a real way that is not arbitrary or self styled. In Christ the literal and symbolic cohere. This is an aspect of the Incarnation that we must focus on in this day.
Finally, we must not lay all the burden of the supposed incoherence of art in our time at the doorstep of the artist. At least a part of the inaccessibility can at times be traced to the viewer's refusal to think deeply. Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn (who just happens to be a Christian) states it this way: "Just because you're a Christian, it doesn't mean you like to think any more than anyone else," he said, referring to the contemplation often required to discern the messages in his songs. It is immoral for Christians to exclude the life of the mind from the Lordship of Christ.
How necessary is great and enduring art? Art is not a savior. Any redemptive qualities it has must ultimately find its source in a redeeming God. But over the centuries, art has sustained and elevated mankind. At times, it has represented a conquest by man over the diverse and bewildering complexities of human nature and of the surrounding world. Robert Frost maintained the true aim and purpose of poetry was that it results in "that clarification of life ... a momentary stay against confusion". We in the church can offer a harmony and balance which characterized the poetry of Hopkins or Donne, the music of Handel and Bach, the paintings of Michaelangelo and Watteau if our relationship with nature, the environment, and our fellow beings is increasingly ordered, harmonious, and balanced.Under these circumstances, when one asks about the necessity of Christians to exercise responsibility in the realm of the arts, one cannot help but recall the words of Pascal: "It is the nature of man to believe and love; if he has not the right objects for his belief and love he will attach himself to wrong ones." The meaning of art is linked to the meaning of life.