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The day after writing this as some initial thoughts about Bible reading in light of aesthetic educational theory, I came to Psalm 119 in my Bible reading. Being newly attuned to the aesthetic dimension of learning I was struck by the way the psalmist responds to God’s Law as if to a piece of art.

As a celebration of God’s words Psalm 119 is a favourite of evangelicals. I am of that generation that can’t read verse 105 without Amy Grant singing sweetly in the background. That the Bible would be a light and a lamp is a common argument for its usefulness and importance in living the Christian life.

Of course, ‘the Law’ celebrated here is not just the lists of regulations (like Leviticus 19; I’ll use law with a lower-case l to make the distinction), but the whole Torah, Genesis through to Deuteronomy, the foundational covenant documents of Israel: their cosmology, narratives, laws and songs. Given that the Law does include laws (and other important content) it’s not surprising that Psalm 119 includes responses to the Law that are about understanding the content and obeying the instructions: we should keep God’s precepts diligently (v4, 5); we ask God to teach us (v26, 33) so that we might learn (v7), observe (v33) and understand (v34) God’s instructions. All very familiar territory to evangelical ministry cast in a traditional educational paradigm.

What struck me anew was the responses to the Law (the vast majority of the responses described in the psalm) that sounded more like the way someone would respond to an artwork, whether a painting or a sculpture or performance. Here’s a selection:

  • Delight (v16, 24, 70, 77, 92, 143, 174)
  • Love (v48, 97, 113, 127, 140, 159, 163, 165, 167); treasuring the word in the heart (v11), cleaving to God’s testimonies (v31)
  • Wonder (v18, 27, 129) and awe (v161)
  • Meditation (v15, 23, 27, 78, 97, 148)
  • Singing (v54, 172)
  • Joy (v111, 162)

No wonder the psalmist values God’s Law more highly than gold or silver (v72, 127)! Far more than just a set of words, this Law is a source of life (v93, 107, 154, 159) and light (v105, 130).

So here we have God’s word (the Law) being conceived of as a work of art, and being responded to by the construction of art (Psalm 119 is an intricately crafted acrostic poem). It’s a small step then to read Psalm 119 as a celebration of all of Scripture, the old and new covenantal documents that God uses for establishing, expressing and directing the covenant relationship between God and his people. As a result then, do we find in Psalm 119 the invitation to engage with all of Scripture with a similarly whole-hearted, multi-dimensional, not-merely-rational, ‘aesthetic’ response?

For all we know about the power of the arts in human culture, the essentially literary deposit at the heart of Israelite worship is remarkable. Scripture itself testifies to the value of artistic work, most notably in the artistry involved in the construction of the tabernacle and temple. You could argue even for an affirmation in Scripture of the power and importance of artistic work as an accompaniment to the worship of God. And yet none of that art work has survived other than in literary description. When we drill down to the centre of Israel’s worship, having passed through the grand architecture and intricate artistry of the temple even through to the cherubim atop the ark, what we ultimately come to, inside the ark, are words: ‘the two tablets of stone that Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt’ (1 Kings 8:9).

Evangelicals are wont to emphasise this point because it establishes the old covenant precedent for a word-centred new covenant faith. For example: ‘The astonishing thing about the religion of Israel was the absence of images of God; instead the ark of the covenant contained the Book of the Covenant, the written record of what God had said, and hence was still saying, to his people… The centrality of the word determines the nature of the piety of the Bible… The only authentically biblical religion is one in which words constitute and give access to the object of faith’ (Jensen, 2002, p.76-77).

Now, I can hear Andy Stirrup asking, ‘so what are you going to do with the fact that Hebrews 9:4 also lists the golden jar of manna and Aaron’s rod that budded as being inside the ark?’ That will have to be a question for another time. Though my first thought is that in God’s providence neither of those artefacts have survived. Not even the stone tablets have survived, nor the ark itself. Yet the words remain (cf Matt 5:17-18).

So I’m not suggesting for a moment we ought to step back from the evangelical conviction that God’s words of promise are at the centre of biblical Christianity. On the contrary; I’m thinking that by engaging with Scripture the way we would engage with a work of art we will retain the priority on God’s words to convey God’s revelation while also urging a holistic response to God’s revelation that takes us beyond the linguistic and rational.

Of course, it’s one thing to observe the rapturous response to God’s law on display in Psalm 119; it’s another to work out how to engender that same sort of response in ourselves, let alone in teenagers. The fact remains that the Bible is not a painting that we can sit in front of and enjoy pondering, it is not a piece of music we can listen to and sing along with, it is not a novel with the page-turning suspense of Harry Potter or Middlemarch. And yet, in my own experience I’ve found the Bible to be wonderfully intricate, intriguingly complex and persistently challenging. I know that accompanying young people as they engage with this text is going to take youth leaders into areas of confusion, doubt, and questioning. The simple way to avoid the uncertainty and potential anarchy that involves will be to go back to a safe set of comprehension questions on the parable of the sower. Safe and familiar, but not very engaging, not very imaginative.

Perhaps then a first step to a more holistic engagement with Scripture is a greater engagement with the whole of Scripture. It’s a beautiful thing.

Jensen, P. (2002). The Revelation of God. Leicester, UK: IVP.

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