One of the starting points for my research is investigating aesthetic education, particularly through the educational philosophy of Maxine Greene. Aesthetic education particularly emphasises the value of the arts for holistic education. Rather than relegating ‘art’ to the realm of recreation while the real business of learning is done by training the intellect, aesthetic education appeals to the importance of art and beauty as an integral part of human learning. It’s not anti-intellectualism; aesthetic education is not aimed at the overthrow of the intellect but ‘the overthrow of the tyranny of the intellect’ (Weitz, 1972, p.3).

So far all I have really done is spy Maxine Greene across a crowded room and overheard what other people are saying about her. She sounds like someone worth having a longer conversation with. My main introduction has come through Katie Douglass (2013) who is looking at the value of participation in the arts for faith formation of young adults.

Douglass affirms Greene’s emphasis on the role of creating art in order to bring about personal transformation: in creating art we ‘enable persons to reach out, each one in his/her freedom, to release his/her imagination, to transmute, to transform’ (Greene, in Douglass, 2013, p.457). In her research among young adults (American Presbyterian young adults to be precise), Douglass has identified the value of participation in creative arts for expressing spiritual life, for connecting with God and the Christian community, and for opening young adults to new experiences of God.

Like Douglass I have a feeling there’s something in aesthetic education, and in Greene in particular, that may be helpful for promoting Christian spiritual formation. One small difference is Douglass’ interest in young adults and my interest in mid-adolescents. More substantially, where Douglass has appropriated aesthetic education directly in relation to the use of creative arts in young adult formation, I am interested in what aesthetic education has to contribute to the way we read the Bible.

I can see the value that creating art has for those who are arty. I can even begin to see Greene’s point that the non-arty would benefit from getting some art into them. I’m hesitant however to say that the creative arts will be necessary for transformation. Experientially, I am aware of a great many Christian people who haven’t created anything close to what you would call a work of art. I’m not talking about the quality of their artistic endeavour (and neither does Greene. It is the act of creation that is transformative rather than the ‘quality’ of the output: ‘The goal in engaging in the arts is ‘not mastery or replication… but rather wondering, in the mode of practical reason, through imaginative and playful encounter with the potential result of transformation’ Douglass, 2013, p.458).  I know a great many Christian people who despite not being into creative arts have been profoundly transformed as they have engaged with God through the Scriptures. Theologically, God in his wisdom has chosen to leave us an inspired text rather than a set of paints and an easel. There may well be some youth ministries that will get great mileage from having a creative arts department, and more power to them. Yet in the reformed tradition, while we can acknowledge the value of the arts for some, we want to affirm a devotion to ‘the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching’ (1 Tim 4:13) for all.

Here then is my thought for today: what value might come by exploring the practice of Bible engagement in terms of aesthetic experience and the creation of art?

(Remember of course that this is a blog post not a final thesis or a sermon, and therefore happily speculative, thinking aloud, content to embrace being wrong etc etc. i.e. If this is ringing your heresy bells just take a bex and lie down)

What if we thought more about the writing of Scripture as the construction of a work of art? I suspect this would connect with Brueggeman’s idea of the prophetic imagination in the 8th century prophets (2001, 2012), and even with Vanhoozer’s idea of canonical practices of exegesis and wisdom in the apostolic authors of the NT (2005). Certainly many parts of Scripture are wonderfully ‘artistic’ narratives, poems, visions etc.

Can we then helpfully think about our reading of Scripture as the creation of an aesthetic experience’? John Dewey (according to Douglass) considered the act of  perceiving a work of art to be just as ‘creative’ as the artist’s creative work. In reading Scripture we are, in Dewey’s terms, ‘creating an experience’. As such we’re not just coming to a rational understanding of Scripture; we are paying due attention to the aesthetic dimension of knowing as we engage with this ‘work of art’.

Interestingly, Douglass speaks of the need to avoid creating experiences at variance with the intended meaning of the original work, while being free to (and urged to) engage in the surplus meaning within the work. It would be inappropriate to engage with Picasso’s Guernica as a picture of joy and happiness; while to connect that artistic construction with a contemporary experience of conflict would be engaging with the surplus of meaning. We want to encourage an imaginative engagement with the text that is not free to think anything we like (it’s inappropriate to engage with the Gospels and imagine that Jesus is just a really nice guy), but one that is free enough to be able to bring the text to bear in the 21st century.

What I find most intriguing in this line of thought is the value of thinking of pursuing a life of faith and faithfulness as creating a work of art. We of course are God’s ‘poem’, his workmanship, his ποίημα (Eph 2:10). Using this imagery, I’m thinking of our task of guiding young people toward transformation, helping them imagine themselves as people of faith and faithfulness as a practice of artistic creation. And it’s that work of artistic creation that promotes the holistic transformation that Greene and the aesthetic educators are on about. Youth ministries therefore become something like an ‘art studio’ for constructing the Christian life; the family and the church are the places where we create experiences that will embed the values of this transformed life that will then overflow into the rest of our lives.

Perhaps also this perspective will help us see more clearly other references to creativity and construction in the discipleship texts of the NT: constructing a spiritual house in 1 Peter? Presenting our bodies (not souls, or selves, but physical bodies) as living sacrifices in Romans 12? Singing, and making music in our hearts to the Lord in Ephesians 5? And if so, will we be released from ‘the tyranny of the intellect’ that leaves so much of engagement with Scripture in the realm of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ (what Douglass refers to as the ‘linguistically oriented educational and formational practice within the Reformed tradition’2013, p.459)?

Weitz describes the goal of aesthetic education as ‘the formation of the whole child, the body, including the senses and physical movement as well as the mind (1972, p.3). Surely that is the sort of comprehensive transformation we want for our young people and for ourselves.

Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.

Brueggemann, W. (2012). The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

Douglass, K. M. (2013). Aesthetic Learning Theory and the Faith Formation of Young Adults. Religious Education, 108(5), 449-466. doi: 10.1080/00344087.2013.835637

Vanhoozer, K. J. (2005). The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.

Weitz, M. (1972). What Is Aesthetic Education? Educational Theatre Journal, 24(1), 1-4. doi: 10.2307/3205383

4 thoughts on “The Art of Christian Living

  1. Pingback: The Art of Psalm 119 | heads up

  2. Graham, first, thank you for reading and engaging my work. I agree with your thoughts about life as a work of art – especially the Christian life. I think this metaphor opens up a world of possible interpretations that expand, rather than diminish God’s call for us to conform to Jesus.

    I appreciate the way you highlight the challenge to retain the value and primacy of Scripture. I found that the young adults I interviewed retained this primacy, likely from what they were taught during their younger years. As Christian educators I think it is extremely important to continue to lift up Scripture as a unique witness to the Triune God.

    I love your idea of engaging in Biblical studies as constructing a work of art for a few reasons. First, it emphasizes our active role in reading, interpreting, and being read by the Scriptures. Second, it assumes that something new will come out of the activity (new ideas, a changed life…). Third, it blurs the traditional assumption about reading the Bible that we merely read and apply to our life, and instead opens up a wealth of possible outcomes. Finally, art that lasts has had a prophetic voice in society. It is not merely lovely, enjoyable, or entertaining, but more often challenges assumptions, poses questions, or imagines a new reality.

    I look forward to seeing how your thoughts on this emerge!

  3. Thanks for your comments Katie. It would be great to be able to stay in conversation with you especially if I continue with Maxine Greene as a conversation partner. A copy of Releasing the Imagination arrived from the library this week so I’m looking forward to digging into her thought more deeply.

    The creation of something new is a key thought for me – that seems to express both the goal of a transformed life, as well as the hope of adolescents looking for their unique contribution to the world.

  4. Pingback: For Freedom | heads up

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