I was watching a TV show once about some archeologists who stumbled upon the site of an ancient civilization. They were painstakingly excavating the ruins, discovering various cultural artifacts, analyzing and cataloging the multiplicity of embedded remains. From all of this, they were hoping to glean a picture of that prehistoric culture, how they lived, what they valued, who they were.
The ancient Mayans, the Celts, the Egyptians, the Chinese dynasties of the past—much of what we know of these ancient peoples is revealed through their arts. More than just a mural or a decorative bowl or an architectural design, the cultural artifacts they left behind reflected the people of these cultures—their values, their aspirations, their religions, their lives. In a sense, the archeologist finds not just what they made out of the world, but from them, infers how they made sense of the world.
And that got me to thinking about thinking. What if an archeologist had stumbled upon my brain, and they began excavating the ruins of my thoughts and ruminations, my emotions and experiences? Would they get a good picture of who I am from the music I’ve listened to, the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve watched? Would they understand what I valued, what I aspired to, what I had faith in? What are the cultural artifacts rattling around my cerebellum that would define me?
Well, there are hundreds of hours of Bugs Bunny cartoons and Star Trek reruns in there somewhere. There’s easily a million songs by the Beatles, Steely Dan, Miles Davis, John Mayer, Johann Sebastian Bach, Weird Al Yankovic. But also Christmas carols, children’s tunes, and the theme songs to Gilligan’s Island and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Memorable movies like “Braveheart” and “Forest Gump,” and silly ones like “Airplane” and “Elf.” Bits of Shakespeare and nursery rhymes. Books I’ve read, and books I’ve had to read, from Dr. Seuss to Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck to Dave Barry.
And there are moments when various artistic moments have unraveled me too. My heart pounding to the resounding crescendo of a symphony orchestra. Looking upward in quiet and reverent awe at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Beaming with unabashed pride at one of my children’s crayon masterpieces. Finding myself weeping unexpectedly at a film like “Schindler’s List” or “Good Will Hunting.” Moments of worship where I felt the presence of God deeply through the words I sang.
All of these artistic expressions have become indelible “cultural artifacts” in my brain over the course of my life. They’ve affected me somehow—in the way I think and in the way I view the world. This is true for me, and true for you. We simply don’t realize the degree to which the arts have put form and substance to the things we value, to the things we aspire, to the way we live our lives.
The arts have foundationally formed our worldviews, i.e., our philosophy and conception of the world, in a thousand undetected and deeply imbedded ways. Let me give you an example. What do you think a police officer does on a routine day? We have a tendency to think of a cop as someone who routinely kicks down doors, chases murder suspects, analyzes DNA samples, and stakes out drug houses on weekends. But a typical police officer’s real life is more often conspicuously typified by paperwork, policies, and a certain and secure monotony. Our view of law enforcement has been colored by thousands of sensationalized stories and images we’ve seen on television and in the movies.
The arts have also foundationally formed our faith and theology as well. Thoughtfully consider how you view heaven or hell, for instance. Are there pale wafting clouds or harp arpeggios or glowing halos in the heavenly places? Are there underground pools of fire or pitch-forked demons in the nether regions? Is heaven “up” and hell “down”? Do the angels have wings and the demons have horns? Where did these images and ideas come from anyway? They have come from the conglomeration of paintings, books, comic strips, and movie scenes from the exaggerated imaginations of various painters, authors, and filmmakers over many hundreds of years.
And it may be more subtle than you think. Consider, in your mind’s eye, the face of Jesus. Does he have dark brown, shoulder length hair, blue eyes, and western European features and wear a white robe? If so, then your version of Jesus may have been formed by caricatures you saw in a North American Sunday School and affirmed in various Hollywood movies. Now you may not believe this to be a matter of import, until you remember that a good portion of the Old Testament pointed to a coming Messiah who, in the fulfillment of prophecy, was a descendent of David, a descendent of Abraham, from a small middle east town called Bethlehem—a black-haired, olive-skinned, middle-eastern Jew.
Through these examples, we can begin to get a sense of the degree to which we are influenced by movies and the media and the arts as much—if not more so—than the Bible itself. Even our definitions of grace, justice, forgiveness, marriage, friendship, love, and all of life—are all tinted and tinged by the arts.
The arts in all its forms—music, dance, drama, film, painting, poetry, photography, architecture, sculpture, and scores of other expressions—can be a powerful and beautiful thing. The arts communicate to us, move us, form us. And, I believe, that is the way that God made us. For God is the Master Artist upon which He weaves the tapestry of the universe. And we are made in the image of God, to be both creation and creators in God’s eternal plan. As such, the arts provide us with a means upon which Truth can come to us, and where God can meet with us.
Certainly, we must be aware that the arts have an affect on us. The arts have the ability not just to sway our emotions, but more foundationally to sway our philosophies, principles, paradigms, personas. Children get a sense of right and wrong from the cartoons they watch. Teens derive their understanding of sexual norms from movies and the internet. Adults struggle to grasp at the good life that has been defined to us by reality TV and the media. We must be aware and even wary of the arts, particularly when art is undergirded by worldviews contrary to the Gospel.
But more importantly, shouldn’t we also be open to the Truth that comes to us through the arts? For Truth—the deepest, most mythic kind of Truth that stands beyond fact—is conveyed more easily and fittingly through a song or a painting than through a textbook. This is why the Bible includes songs, poetry, prophetic metaphor. This is why Jesus taught with parables and why David composed psalms and why the book of Genesis is filled with poetry. This is why a worship service is more than a sermon, but includes music, visual artistry, and sacramental actions. This is why God gave us imaginations and creativity and a sense of aesthetic. Because Truth extends beyond mere fact.
And the arts are also a powerful means of speaking deeply to the brokenness that is a part of our humanity. The arts uproot our doubts and our disappointments, our pain and our scars, our secret sins and our unspoken fears. Everyone needs saving, and in some subterranean chasm of our souls, we all know it. So the arts go beyond expressing Truth. The arts also have the capacity to reveal, restore, heal, remind us of our need for redemption. In the best of all artistic expressions, there is some aspect of redemption.
Talk to a musician, and he will tell you that music is like breathing to him. Talk to a dancer, and she will tell you that dance is like breathing to her. The same is true for the part-time novelist, the community theater actor, the struggling indie songwriter or poet rapper. It may be that those of us who are not attuned to the language of the arts are suffocating, and not even know it.