Friday, February 26, 2010

Martin Luther's Views on Art - Part 2

Even if Martin Luther does not treat the subject of art thoroughly or systematically, perhaps other aspects of his theology could help inform this project if they could be applied towards a justification of images.

One interesting idea that has come up in the course of my reading is Luther's view on the irregular aspect of God's Word. Although Carl Christensen notes that for Luther "it was above all the spoken or preached Word that really constituted the chief means of grace,"1 perhaps there could be other means as well. God speaks to us in ways we do not expect. Missiologist Paul Chung notes that "From an irregular perspective, according to Luther, God's presence is attested by the sun and moon, heaven and earth, and all of the fruits on earth. If we do not recognize God's presence in the cultural and natural world, it is not God's fault but our fault. God does not desire to be hidden from our eyes."2 Taking Chung's reading of Luther's incarnational theology to heart, perhaps there is room for the idea that God might speak to us through images (or even sci-fi film). One could argue that human-created images are in some way an extension of the fruits of God's creation.

Christensen asks the question directly: "Must the Word of God take an exclusively verbal form?"3 It seems for Luther, images can aid scripture in conveying the Gospel, but Christensen thinks Luther would not go so far as to place the two on equal ground. In fact, the written Word is not even as prominent as the oral or preached Word as a means of conveying grace. Christensen lays this all out:

"The relationship of religious art to the means of grace must be seen finally within the context of this larger question of the nature of the Word and its expression. Visual images for Luther indeed are useful instruments for conveying the message of the Gospel. They assist in making the Word manifest by providing additional media— with their own particular type of pedagogical effectiveness— for its proclamation. But, ultimately, the fine arts cannot claim for themselves a full equivalence with preaching and the sacraments as channels of divine, saving grace. For they not only share the disabilities of the merely written word (as compared with living oral proclamation), but they also suffer from an inadequacy at the point of indicating explicitly and without further elaboration what the true content of God's message is."4

It appears that Luther would allow that art can convey grace (Luther is especially amenable to music for this possibility), but there is this hierarchy of effectiveness in a given medium's conveying of the Word. Images are less effective, in Luther's eyes, than words, and much less effective than spoken words. I have experienced this argument recently from a mentor of mine seeking to challenge me. I explained that people will use different forms of non-verbal art (singing, painting, dancing, sculpting, filming, etc.) as sources of meaning-making whether or not the Christian Church endorses them. To this he replied, yes, but do these sources "speak" in the same sense? This is certainly a provocative question, and I'm not exactly sure how to answer it.

No, non-verbal sources of meaning-making will not speak in the same way as verbal sources. They do not as directly convey the gospel message as verbal communication is the most direct form of language humans have devised. However, such verbal communication does not engage significant portions of who human beings are (and who God has created human beings to be). Mind, body, and spirit are not engaged by just words. We need more than words! Images may not directly speak in the same way as words, but might they provoke reflection on the Gospel in a unique manner? Non-verbal art gives more room for ambiguity of message, but might this ambiguity offer the viewer or participant the possibility to engage more fully with the form and subject of the art? This is not to say that as a rule this is the case. It is to suggest that the non-verbal Word of God might "speak" more deeply to a person who is especially receptive to non-verbal mediums.

There is much much more in Luther to chew on for this subject, but I must move on. Having dealt with questions of method, hermeneutics, theological aesthetics, etc., it is time to turn to the meat of the course. Coming up: "What does it mean to be human?"

1Carl C. Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1979), p. 63.
2Paul S. Chung, Christian Mission and a Diakonia of Reconciliation: A Global Reframing of Justification and Justice (Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran University Press), p. 48.
3Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany, p. 60
4Ibid., p. 64.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Martin Luther's Views on Art - Part 1

Martin Luther von Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 1532 in Regensburg

One of the goals for the first couple weeks of the study was to try to get an understanding of where Martin Luther sits with this idea of "Why not the image as a source for theology?" As my background is Lutheran, it would make sense that I would know Luther's position on this subject. I know this appears to be far off-base from where this study is eventually going, but it is important to me to have questions of theological aesthetics running throughout the course of this conversation. It is helpful in this case that I get a sense of the history of the theological debate about images to better appreciate the current context in which I freely say, 'Of course sci-fi films can engage me theologically.'

For starters, I read the three brief passages of Luther's in Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen's Theological Aesthetics: A Reader and read her introduction to the section on thinkers from the Reformation. Thiessen notes that "for Luther visual images are a 'small matter'"1 Luther does not write a classic treatise on the subject, and only in his Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments does he go into any depth. Carl C. Christensen notes that Luther's writings on art are scattered across occasional writings, biblical commentaries, and didactic sermons or tracts.2 My first response in reading this was disappointment. Scattered references? Is art really such a small matter for theology?

In reading the passages themselves, I have a few observations.

1. Luther seems profoundly ambivalent about art. For example:

"God grant that [images] may be destroyed, become dilapidated, or that they remain. It is all the same and makes no difference, just as when the poison has been removed from a snake. Now I say this to keep the conscience free from mischievous laws and fictitious sins, and not because I would defend images. Nor would I condemn those who have destroyed them, especially those who destroy divine and idolatrous images."3

But then later:

"Of this I am certain, that God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?"4

2. Despite the negative first quote above, Luther is not so concerned about the idol worship of images as he is about people believing that placing images in churches are in some way a good work and service to God. This worry must be framed in terms of Luther's larger theology of justification by grace and not by works.

3. Positively, we have the following in these passages: works of art can be used for pleasure and decoration; images of the saints and of Christ and crucifixes may be used for memorial and witness; and pictures of biblical characters and stories can even serve as a teaching tool for better understanding. These examples demonstrate a very tolerant view towards art (even though there are counter-examples elsewhere). Much more tolerant, I gather, than Luther's fellow reformers, Zwingli and Calvin.

However, ultimately, Luther does not seem very concerned with spelling out a systematic theological aesthetics. He is drawn into speaking about the issue due to accusations and misunderstandings about his view on images. Additionally, he spends a good deal of his time addressing extremists such as Karlstadt who were destroying images in Wittenberg when Luther was absent. So, we don't get a proper laying out of theological or biblical support for images. We get informal, pragmatic comments about their use and misuse.

1Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p. 126.
2Carl C. Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1979), p. 43.
3Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments. In Luther's Works, vol. 40, Church and Ministry II, trans. Bernhard Erling and Conrad Bergendoff, ed. Conrad Bergendoff, general ed. H.T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1958), pp. 90-91.
4Ibid., pp.99-100.


Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock (1958)

In doing some reading for another class, Roger Haight's Jesus: Symbol of God, I have run into some philosophy that gives more nuance to my introduction to this course. In my introduction, I mentioned the conversation that a person has with a piece of art when that person encounters the art. I tried to draw out in my rudimentary language how this encounter and ensuing conversation occur. However, many great thinkers have already done this. One field of philosophy that can enrich my original thoughts is that of hermeneutics.

It is key to note first of all that Haight sees hermeneutics as an integral human activity: “To be human is to interpret.”1 Similarly, to be human is to seek out learning, which I would take to occur in the process of interpretation. Haight proposes forming Christological knowledge through an open-minded, relational, epistemological approach that is informed by the hermeneutical theories of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. These theories will also be helpful for understanding the process of learning in this study of sci-fi film and theology.

Drawing on Gadamer’s seminal work Truth and Method, Haight says that for Gadamer, “Foreknowledge and questioning on the one hand, and fusion of horizons and application on the other, enter into the structure of all knowing: knowing is interpreting, out of a tradition and into a present-day situation.”2 Of importance are the text, the interpreter, and their contexts or horizons which are fused and applied in the interpretive event. Haight then references Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics and Human Sciences for the idea that texts bring a surplus of meaning to the interpretive event: “By an indigenous surplus of meaning, a text acquires new meanings in new situations, meanings which are also intrinsic to the original.”3 In the process a relationship forms between the text and the interpreter.

However, this relationship does not develop in an isolated bubble. Rather, it forms in a matrix of interconnected webs of relationships, past and present. This happens first in the personal experience of the interpreter, as the relational horizons (past and present) of the interpreter and text come together. Then, when meaning is concretized in language (or perhaps in images) and shared, it is released from the confines of its past meaning and new possibilities open up as it reaches more people and the web of relationships expands. Thus, Haight is led to say, “Surely the theory of communication, interpretation, and understanding that is outlined here presupposes a common anthropology that serves as the bond that links human beings and texts across time and cultures.”4 Implicit in this celebration of the relationality of hermeneutics is a celebration of the Other: both the Other of the text and the Other(s) represented in the web of relationships surrounding the interpretive event. Learning is enriched by a multitude of perspectives. As such, I hope to have interdisciplinarity and conversation drive my learning.

1Roger Haight, Jesus: Symbol of God (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999), p. 41.
2Ibid., p. 35.
4Ibid., p. 43.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Confession: Some Biases

Having an ideal of openness does not mean that I come to the conversation as an empty vessel. I have biases that have developed as I develop my own theology of images. For instance: I reject a spirit/matter duality. I believe God has invested God's self in all of creation, and thus we can experience God in the material stuff of this world. Matter carries grace. It does not capture God in any way, but God is invested in it. We are made of grace-filled matter as well. We should not be ashamed of any part of ourselves - our body, mind, heart, spirit, etc. We encounter grace-filled matter with our whole selves, and these encounters demonstrate the interconnectedness not only of body, mind, heart, and spirit, but the common threads of grace that run through all of creation (of which we are apart). By extension, I have a hunch that God is invested in human-created images - in science fiction films, for instance - and the possibility is that we can encounter God through them. And so I ask, "Why not the image as a source for theology?" This question serves as a basis for the semester's conversation.

Below are a famous icon and the words of St. John of Damascus, which inspired my riffing above.

A 6th Century Icon of Jesus at Mt. Sinai, St. Katherine's Monastery

If you say that God ought only to be apprehended spiritually, then take away everything bodily, the lights, the fragrant incense, even vocal prayer, the divine mysteries themselves that are celebrated with matter, the bread, the wine, the oil of chrismation, the form of the cross. For these are all material: the cross, the sponge, the reed, the lance that pierced the life-bearing side. Either take away the reverence offered to all these, as impossible, or do not reject the honor of the images.


You, perhaps are exalted and immaterial and have come to transcend the body and as fleshless, so to speak, you spit with contempt on everything visible, but I, since I am a human being and wear a body, I long to have communion in a bodily way with what is holy and to see it.

- Saint John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, Trans. Andrew Louth (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press,
2003), p. 42-43.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sci-Fi Film and Theology: Introduction

Moon - Duncan Jones (2009)

When a person engages with a work of art, a conversation occurs between the person and the work of art, the art itself an act of disclosure on the part of the artist. God is also involved in this conversation - God is invested not only in the physical stuff of the art and the totality of the person, but also in the relationship that forms in the conversation. Wilson Yates describes the encounter between the artwork and the interpreter: "In this process the task for the interpreter is to 'see' the work of art and engage it in dialogue rather than simply 'look' at the work of art and remain detached from it or treat it only as an object for other ends... At its best, this process becomes, as I am suggesting, a dialogical engagement in which you and the work interact with each of you responding and embodying the other."1 Such an epistemological method moves us beyond the objectivist approach of separating ourselves as subject from an object we are considering. By seeing the interconnectedness of all subjects and objects, we become more laid back in our approach to knowledge, more open, loving, and caring. We embrace mystery and life's ambiguity.

In the following weeks, this dialogical method will inform my approach to the worlds of science fiction film and theology. I will be engaging theological questions such as 'What does it mean to be human?' and 'How should we relate to our technologies?' by putting into conversation sci-fi films and theological texts that address the questions. I am no expert at theology, nor at sci-fi film, and in some ways I see this as an advantage. The ideal is to step into the worlds created by the sci-fi films and theology texts and be open enough to allow transformation as a possibility for the conversation. Therefore I do not offer any hypotheses as to how this conversation will go or where it will end up. I start with questions and texts to provide a starting point and I make a hunch that theology and sci-fi films have something to say to each other. Since learning never happens best in isolation, I will be watching as many films as possible with other people to bring other conversation partners to the table.

This statement of purpose is rather formal, and the hope is that this blog will NOT be too formal, but I find it helpful to lay out these original objectives. Let the conversation begin!

1Wilson Yates, "A Model for Interpreting a Work of Art." From a classroom handout in TR 246: Theological Reflection on 20th Century Art. Class taken at United Theological Seminary, Fall 2009.