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Christianity, Creation, and Art

July 3, 2010

Wendell Berry

For the poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry, people’s relationship with land and community is of utmost religious significance. This is especially important as it regards the Christian religion, which takes as one of its central points the fact that Creation is determined to be ultimately good by God and that it is an integrated whole, including both human and nonhuman inhabitants residing together in harmony in the natural world. Berry suggests in his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” however, that Christianity’s dualistic way of thinking has fostered an ambivalent and even disparaging attitude toward the material world as something inferior to the spiritual world towards which we are supposed to strive. As the negative impact humans have had on the earth has come to fuller light in the current ecological crisis, we must begin to rethink our evaluation of the relationship between Christianity and Creation. Berry argues in the essay that this dismissal of the material is all wrong. In fact, the very survival and renewal of Christianity depends on the survival of Creation—the material Creation—that lies at its very core.

Furthermore, issues of art, Berry argues, are intimately connected with these issues of religion and place. The way that humans go about engaging in artistry—the way they make and remake Creation—is indicative of their overall view of it. He says, “If we understand that no artist—no maker—can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them—all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance. In answering them, we practice, or do not practice, our religion.”  So our view of Creation, and of the Christian religion more generally, has for a central point of comparison, the way that we understand and put into practice human artistry and imagination. By making art well, by being responsible with our gifts, and by giving glory to God through the way that we make things, we are letting both God and others know what we really think about the world.

If human making is really as important as Berry suggests, it should become a top priority of the church to engage with the arts more fully and develop a proper view of their place within Christian life. By prioritizing the arts, not only their responsible and high-quality production, but also a belief in their nature as divine gift, the church could find itself more intimately connected with the community and place around it. Artistry changes ourselves, others, and the world around us, and Berry suggests, following this point, that it even has eternal significance. Now this seems to me like a good reason for the church to take the arts more seriously.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna permalink
    July 3, 2010 5:05 pm

    “If by prioritizing the arts, not only their responsible and high-quality production, but also a belief in their nature as divine gift, the church could find itself more intimately connected with the community and place around it.”

    Great stuff Jenn.

  2. July 3, 2010 6:55 pm

    Allow me to humbly recommend a book on Wendell Berry, recently published by Brazos Press:

    http://www.amazon.com/Wendell-Berry-Cultivation-Life-Readers/dp/1587431955/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278179520&sr=8-1

    • Jenn permalink*
      July 3, 2010 7:05 pm

      Thanks Paul. I’ve actually read this. It’s a really great book and deals with the themes present in Berry’s writing really well!

    • May 14, 2017 9:47 pm

      Thanks for your thghouts. It’s helped me a lot.

  3. July 3, 2010 8:22 pm

    You say that prioritizing the arts will help the church connect with the community and place around it, which is true. But I am also finding as I work on my dissertation that if the church were to be the artistic centre and provide the grounding for artists I believe it should, this would likely help the wider community find its place also. Contemporary culture has lost much of its memory, but the church could potentially change that.

    • Anna permalink
      July 3, 2010 8:26 pm

      “contemporary culture has lost much of its memory, but the church could potentially change that.”

      Ben, why would the church want to do that?

  4. Jim permalink*
    July 3, 2010 10:30 pm

    Jenn, thanks for this post. I really like that you connect human artistry and the ecological crisis. It seems to me that Christianity’s relationship to both art and the environment is deeply rooted in a doctrine of creation that underscores all of creation as God’s good gift.

    I have a question for you, and it is one that I don’t think I have a good answer for. You quote Berry as saying, “How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them—all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance.” I definitely agree with all of this, but what is curious to me is that a connection is being made from the religious significance of our remaking of God’s creation to the religious significance of the arts. But don’t almost all human activities involve recreating of some sort (taking materials and turning them into something else)? Isn’t the imagination as integral to science as it is to the arts? So, my question is, why should the church prioritize the arts when almost all human occupations could be lifted up as important ways that people make and recreate? What is special to the arts that is not special to, say, the sciences? I suppose that much may rely upon how one defines ‘human artistry,’ but still these questions seem worth pursuing given the contemporary church’s excitement about the arts.

    Ben, I have a question for you too. Sorry to add another one before you have had a chance to respond to Anna. I am wondering about your suggestion that the church be “the artistic centre.” What would this look like, and is this even possible given our political, economic and social context? Furthermore, what is this ‘grounding’ that the church should provide for artists, and is it different from the ‘grounding’ that the church should provide for other professions?

    • July 5, 2010 9:36 am

      Anna: my thinking behind that statement was basically that much of what was good in western culture has its origins in Christian ways of thinking and acting, and much of this has been lost. Although the church’s primary goal is of course preaching the Gospel, I think it is also good if those who make up the church contribute to both Christians and non-Christians having a better life in this world.
      Jim: I don’t know exactly what it would look like for the church to be an artistic centre–ask me in August. I do not think it’s something that can be done instantly, though. It would have to be generational work as both the church and larger culture are renewed.
      I also think the church should provide grounding for other professions (so long as they are in fact worthwhile); by “grounding” I mean theological justification if their legitimacy is questioned, and more importantly an understanding of how someone in that profession fits in the church body. I think artists are particularly important to the church, though, and also that many professions do, or ought to, have artistic aspects that are not always recognized. If I was clearer on some of these points my dissertation would be closer to being finished, incidentally.

    • Jenn permalink*
      July 6, 2010 10:43 am

      Jim,
      Thanks for your question. It’s true that it’s a difficult one to answer though! Berry’s understanding of artistry is quite broad. He defines “art” in this essay as “all the ways by which humans make the things they need.” So I think he would include the sciences, farming and agriculture, manual labor more generally, etc. in his understanding of the topic.

      Regarding the church’s prioritization of the arts in particular, I think my answer would be to stress the specific communal nature of the arts (not to say that the sciences aren’t based in or encourage community as well). In this essay Berry says, “The arts, traditionally belong to the neighborhood. They are the means by which the neighborhood lives, works, remembers, worships, and enjoys itself.” I think that what we typically think of as the “arts” lend themselves to this sort of communal interaction in a way that the sciences might not, at least not in society as it stands presently (which I would tend to think is not because of the specific character of science, but rather the way we think about science functioning within society… but that would be a whole other blog post.)

      Community tends to be an underlying theme in most of Berry’s work, and I think this is also the case here in his linking our view of Creation with our view of the arts and human making. Following from this, I would suggest that by prioritizing the arts (and I would take a broader view of the arts as Berry does), the church could simultaneously participate in community in present culture, while providing (and putting into practice!) a more cohesive view of Creation that takes into account the importance of the physical alongside the spiritual and suggests the interconnectedness of human and nonhuman creatures alike.

      That may not be the greatest answer, but hopefully it at least moves us forward a little! ☺

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