3 Ways the Arts Can Aid Scripture Engagement

Just be careful about trying to tame the beast

“Lord, please give her an amazing experience of you.” This had been my recurring prayer for a friend who had grown up in the faith but had lost the fire. She still believed in God but wasn’t so sure about Jesus and had drifted away from the church.

Maybe you have found, as I have, that we are often the answers to our own prayers. That’s how it worked here. I invited this woman to a production of Godspell I directed at my church. She came away saying, “That was amazing. Just amazing. To see Jesus like that, so real, so fun. Amazing!” This was more than a polite pat on the back; she was deeply moved. In her repetition of that word amazing, I sensed God telling me, “You know that prayer you’ve been praying? I heard you.”

She had heard hundreds of sermons in her life, but this artistic depiction of Jesus broke through in a new way. This is one power the arts have. They amaze us. And it’s one of several ways the arts can help to get people connected to Scripture.

When we talk about “the arts,” there’s a whole menu available to us. Of course, music has long been part of Christian worship, usually accompanied by Bible-related lyrics. Many churches are now working with drama and dance, and some with visual arts such as painting and sculpture, and increasingly photography and videography, not to mention literary arts such as fiction and poetry.

Each of these art forms has a unique power—to amaze, enthrall, engage, illuminate, exalt, and more. It is possible to harness this power to accomplish your purpose. For instance, a dramatic scene from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman could illustrate a sermon on hopelessness from Ecclesiastes. But that’s a bit like asking basketball legend LeBron James to join your badminton team. He would probably do a great job, but that’s not what he does best. When we ask the arts to help us teach, prove points, or set a mood, they can do the job, but we’re wasting their greater power. The arts are wild beasts. We can domesticate them, but something great is lost in the process.

So, with due cautions about blunting their power, let’s consider how the arts might help us interact with God’s truth.

1. The arts can open our eyes.

Why did Jesus teach in parables? In answer to that very question, he quotes a passage from Isaiah 6:9-10 that seems even more mystifying than his parables. It’s about seeing and not seeing (Matthew 13:13). Presumably, through the art form of fiction, Jesus was able to share truths of God’s kingdom in a way that at least some could see.

You have surely experienced this in your own preaching. Eyes glaze over as you deliver three crucial principles, but as soon as you tell a story, they see. Perhaps you have also seen this in your work with the parables of Jesus over the years. We know them, and we interpret them, and sometimes we think we have exhausted their meaning, but the next time we come to them they surprise us again. This is because the truth of the parables is not in the interpretation, but in the story.

In various ways, the arts help us to see Scripture, God and the world in a new light. Sometimes this “new light” is quite literal—in the case of a photograph that shows the beauty of a place or person we might normally ignore—but often it’s just a connection made to a character, a sound, a stance, a struggle, something that draws us into the text as never before.

2. The arts can blow our minds.

We often boil the truth of God down to a set of principles. Then we teach these statements to our people, hoping that they can mentally grasp them. In this mode, we look to the arts to help us explain ideas. But of course they can do so much more.

And we need the arts to do more than that, because of the nature of truth itself. Didn’t Jesus say, “I am the truth” (John 14:6)? The truth found its fullest expression not in a principle but in a person. The word became flesh.

That’s what the arts do all the time. They turn ideas into tones and colors and clay and tensing sinews. God does speak to our minds, yes, but he also engages our senses and our bodies. This is the realm of the arts. We get nervous when the arts start to move us in ways we don’t understand, but could it be that God wants us to break free of our mental monopoly and experience his incarnate truth in incarnate ways?

It’s significant too that much of the Bible comes to us in artistic forms. Songs appear throughout Old and New Testaments, and poetry fills not only the Psalms and Proverbs, but much of the prophetic collection as well. Job, Song of Songs, and some of the prophets and parables even show the possibility of dramatic construction. Were they plays at one point? And have you read Ezekiel lately? His God-directed antics would put him right at home with some of the edgier performance artists of modern times.

Now we can work at finding the lessons in all these Scriptures, which we transmit to the minds of our congregations. But might there be even greater value in honoring the artistic parts of Scripture as art, presenting them, celebrating them and beholding them in a way that transcends our mental processes?

3. The arts can break our hearts.

We occasionally read in the Bible about “hardness of heart” keeping people from responding fully to God. In a parable, Jesus had some seeds of God’s message falling on stony soil. This affliction might be more common than we think. Perhaps all of us have built certain fortifications around our inner selves.

When we allow the arts to do their thing, those ramparts can be broken and breached by the Holy Spirit. We could be touched by a need we have steeled ourselves against, or we could be pried open to an encounter with God that we never expected. Or maybe we could be amazed by a dramatic musical portraying a Savior who laughs and loves his way to the cross.

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