ROB BELL is the coolest pastor in America. As he probably wouldn’t want us to say, the founding pastor of the mega Mars Hill Bible Church has been hailed as “the next Billy Graham.” He travels the country, speaking with live sheep as props (okay, maybe only once). His two bestselling books—Velvet Elvis and Sex God— have raised eyebrows and challenged minds. But the relationship between faith and art is one of his most visible passions, and he joins Patrol contributor Jake Dockter for a revealing, only slightly philosophical conversation.
Jake: To start with some little definitions: what is art?
Rob: I would begin with the understanding that God has left the world unfinished, and so, in Genesis chapter 1, this creation poem is about trees that are created to have the ability to create more trees. So, to me an authentic spirituality begins with the premise that we co-create the world with God. The world is not done, and that all of action is essentially rooted in creativity. Any way in which you contribute to the ongoing creation of the world you are in fact, in some form or another being creative and so then I think the question from there becomes “what is art?”
And I would argue that art is simply the creating within the particular medium, free of any utilitarianism. So a business person creates for the purpose of making profit, a product, providing goods and services. Art, specifically like the fine arts, music, sculpture, dance, spoken word, is the manifestation of that creativity in a form that is free from any pragmatic needs. So this painting just exists, beauty is its highest goal, as opposed to food that actually feeds us. A degree of art and creativity is in food, but it has a larger function. To which song is just a song. It may convey truth, it may have lyrics that are rooted in some particular world-view a person is trying to further express.
I think we must have art because it reminds us that God is not always a pragmatist. Because our world wants to turn us into slaves, everything is about how hard you work so you can create something so you can buy something so you can make something, so you’re back in Egypt. That’s the defining story of the Bible: people who are enslaved in Egypt, and their whole use is that they are a machine and they’re used by pharaoh to build stuff. So to me we need the artist to remind ourselves that God is not always a pragmatist. I love this passage in Job where God is like, “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THE STORK?” It’s beautiful poetry about a God who gets off on things just cause they are and that to me is central to any sort of living, breathing spirituality is going to be plenty of room for things that don’t have any purpose other than their own beauty, design and order.
Jake: And that connects to the whole Christian art versus secular art debate. Creation glorifies God…
Jake: It’s intrinsic. The rocks and trees cry out.
Rob: Exactly. I would argue that if you need to add a label to it, than you have missed its inherent goodness in the first place. So when people tack “Christian” as an adjective onto things, it’s a misunderstanding of Genesis, that creation is already blessed, it doesn’t need your adjectives or labels to somehow make it blessed.
Jake: You’re familiar with the band Over the Rhine?
Rob: Yes! Amazing!
Jake: Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine talks about labeling something as “Christian music” or “Christian art” is subverting it because you are basically using it as propaganda. Using it to bring people to the Lord or to serve a purpose, becomes utllitarian and it loses it real purpose to be good and beautiful.
Rob: Yes. Exactly.
Jake: As we talked about earlier, the creation bringing forth other creation, life itself but also in art, or even if you don’t identify yourself as an artist but you build houses or people who just want to be a mom to bring forth more life. Where do you see that creative drive coming from?
Rob: I would say that it’s rooted in the fact that we bear the image of our creator. So we’re created in God’s image and God is a creator. I think it’s built in every single person. When you ask people long and hard and if they can get through the cynicism and skepticism to “what do you love to do?”, “what is it that you could do forever?”, “what is that when you do it you feel you were made to do it?” you will get down to some form of co-creating. There’s something that I do, and when I do it I lose track of time. So I think a lot of people, what they love to do is some form of creation, they just haven’t been told it in those kinds of terms.
Jake: Why do you think we respond to art so viscerally? Art we react to, the song or movie that makes you weep. I myself have had more emotional, visceral reactions to art than in spiritual interactions.
Rob: Well you just talked about several things that I don’t know are several things. To me you were just talking about one thing. You were putting reaction to piece of art over here, and then you putting God over here.
Jake: Creating separations where they don’t exist?
Rob: I would say you were talking about…if you had a powerful interaction with a piece of art, than somebody was speaking to you. So I wouldn’t put those in separate categories.
Jake: I agree, and I wouldn’t either. But people do … we have a hierarchy.
Rob: Yes. I think a lot of people are victims of the past 200 years of history which is, I would argue, coming out the Enlightment, some strongly held materialism that has infiltrated almost every area of culture. Where people are told that unless you can access it with your five senses it’s not real. So we have these experiences that transcend our five senses and we don’t have language for them. And then religion seems a little weird—especially if you turn on Christian cable TV, where it’s just a freak show. So some of the ways in which people have been taught how to interpret those experiences, we don’t have language for it. So they have a powerful interaction with a painting or hike up a side of a mountain and, because the religious structures they have been around did not give them ways to interpret that, they assume that can’t have anything to do with religion. It’s just this experience that kind of stands isolated from any sort of worldview. But I would say that any sort of experience like that, the earth is God’s and anything in it, as a Jewish prophet said it.
Jake: Which leads us into the next idea. In Velvet Elvis you say that “art has to, in some way, keep going. Keep exploring, keep arranging, keep shaping and forming and bringing in new perspectives.” And drawing that connection to the Christian faith and how we need to keep exploring and examining, re-interpreting. So there is this connection, for both art and faith to explore what they mean, but it seems that there is an unspoken, socially constructed boundary. Artists create art that is provocative and are protested–for example the sculpture My Sweet Lord or the art of Banksy, who you refer to in Sex God. So there seems to be a limit, “Go explore, but not that far” kinda thing. In relation to our faith as well. So, is there a line?
Rob: Well, the word morality means group consensus. So even the idea of morals come from the latin word mora, which essentially means agreed-upon standards. So even our ideas of morality are whatever the tribe has agreed is acceptable. The Hebrew prophets, that was the highly prized thing, was the person who speaks the word of God. They just spoke about the tremendous economic injustice and the trampling of the poor and how the people’s hearts had turned from God, so they went too far and were protested. Every group has its area, every group has its boundary and every group has its line. It’s interesting that this passage in Ephesians, the writer talks about how in Christ there is this new humanity, so is this piece of art giving us insight into the new humanity, does this tap into an even greater understanding of what it means to be fully human or does it take delight in the ways in which we fall short?
There are some basic questions you can ask about a piece of art. But provocative art will always be here. That’s fine and that is oftentimes the artist’s job. There is one writer I know who, when he first started out, somebody very wise told him to use his pen redemptively. It is easy to use the pen to destroy, to tear apart, to shatter and shred or the pen can be used to rescue and redeem and elevate and inspire. And part of that may involve shredding to pieces so that you can build something new. My Sweet Lord is a fascinating commentary on the church in America and its superficial shallow, saccharine, sweet Gospel that doesn’t have any room for suffering, doesn’t have any room for brokenness, doesn’t have any room for the orphan or widow or the stranger among these. That’s actually a very provocative, brilliant piece of art.
Jake: It seems to me that with something like the chocolate Jesus sculpture, people just look at it and get that gut reaction, or they are told what their gut reaction should be by a leader. How do we get people to go past that initial negative response? The sculpture of Christ was in chocolate, it is called My Sweet Lord, which is a thing we all say so it is actually a physical portrayal of a metaphor that we use. So there is nothing heretical when you take a deeper look, but we often don’t take that deeper look, the intention, the purpose. How do we get past that? Is there a scriptural foundation for digging deeper, and not taking things at face value?
Rob: Well, anybody who would protest a sculpture without understanding anything about it, this has nothing to do with being a Christian, this is somebody with no character or integrity. So I wouldn’t even drag religion into it. This is somebody living at the edges, this is somebody with no center, this is somebody who is consumed by fear and suspicion. I mean, if you make a ruckus about something of which you know nothing, that’s just poor humanity.
Jake: Going back to the initial impetus of creation, God created. Quantum physics says all light and the universe is expanding from one point. God created the earth, almost a domino effect of I create because my Dad created and my Grandfather, boom boom boom back to the initial moment of creation, it seems to me that they all go together. Do you think that if I paint or Radiohead composes, that that is specifically connected to the movement of that moment from God?
Rob: That’s nice. I mean, it’s deep in the bones of humanity. I don’t know how it’s described in genetic or neural terms, but that’s pretty sweet right there, what you said.
Jake: It’s kinetic energy.
Rob: Yeah, I think we are hard-wired to it. Ask anybody who creates why they create and they say “I don’t know.” Why do you write a book? “’Cause something fell into my brain and heart from somewhere and If I don’t get it out I am going to spontaneously combust.” That’s why I write books and make films and go on tours. If I don’t get this out I am going to be over in the corner in the fetal position.
Jake: We were talking about art for utility. Which would then open it up to debate of whether it is art or not. What about aesthetics? Some art looks good, is purely well-designed, and well-conceived, but may have a pragmatic use. Nazi propaganda posters, for example. They have aesthetic quality. How do we respond to that?
Rob: I would go back to using your pen redemptively. I would go back to the new humanity. That (propaganda) was created for the purpose of furthering a worldview and a series of attitudes that aren’t to me to be reflected in the new humanity. So, whether the outfits are nice and the colors looked good and it was a nice font and aesthetic was nice… And at that point, for many who experienced it that way, its tainted. It wasn’t used in the service of the new humanity so it carries with it almost a mark of sorts.
Jake: I think that so many people interpret good art as pretty art. But there are so many amazing artists who present ugly images that are very powerful. For example the photography of Dorothea Lange in the depression.
Rob: Mmhmm, it still haunts us.
Jake: A lot of times it’s hard…
Rob: Half the psalms are laments, some people say. So these poems and prayers, half of them are unresolved shouting grieving rants. People with broken hearts, and that is what makes them so powerful is that they aren’t pretty, but great art.
Jake: In our faith we respond to images so strongly like the cross. These iconic images in our minds. Image is obviously powerful, the riots and protests in Europe about the caricatures of Mohammed are a prime example of the power of religious images. How do we see the power of image in our faith? How do we utilize it or act against it?
Rob: I think it’s very powerful. We are visual people. God gave us eyes. I think its only normal we would rely on them. Baptism is a very powerful thing to observe, that’s a very tactile kind of image. They are windows and portals and doors into the divine.
Jake: Madeleine L’engle writes about our structures and uses of idols and icons in her book Penguins and Golden Calves. We often misinterpret the use of icons as always idol worship or a negative connotation, but I think for the people who use them who don’t worship them but use them as that portal or window into the divine it is a powerful way to touch an unphysical God. A way for the divine and the mundane to meet. We have all the relics, the piece of the true cross or the finger bone of Saint whoever. God touched that, I can touch that, so I can touch God. Do you see art as a similar thing?
Rob: For sure. Jesus says that God is spirit. So the divine is, in the divine’s primal essence, immaterial. We are made of dust, so for us to access the divine it has to come in a medium that we as dust can wrap our minds around. That’s how we understand the divine, is when the divine takes on flesh and blood and dust or wood or clay or paint or melody. I mean, God says to Moses, when you go to pharaoh you will be like God to pharaoh. God uses humans. That’s how God shows up in flesh and blood. Incarnation, whether it’s flesh and blood of people or the divine coming through the physical, otherwise we would have no access. You can sit on a rock and imagine love and compassion but until love and compassion take on flesh and blood, or take on some material medium, it’s just an idea floating around out there. So we need this.
Jake: Basically, Christ coming and manifesting himself was the unphysical becoming physical. God, being immaterial revealing himself through other mediums, angels, a burning bush, dreams, etc. But this was like, now I’m really here. So is art a version of the non-physical becoming physical?
Rob: Yes. Sure. The endless process of the divine taking on flesh and blood.
Jake: And then from there, movement. Completely changing and revolutionizing?
Rob: Yes. Exactly.
Jake: On the NPR podcast, speaking of faith…
Rob: I’ve heard of it. My wife listens to it.
Jake: Well, Krista Tippet, the host, interviewed a cosmologist named
George Ellis. They talked about the physical mathematical laws that we know exist in the universe, and the mathematical laws. He says that if we found an alien civilization, light years away, that we could and even if we could not talk or communicate we could do math together, as mathematics is constant and the same and hard wired into the universe. He theorizes that in the same way there are ethical laws hardwired into the universe, which he calls “kenosis,” the “pouring out.” Christ pouring himself out, the sacrifice, offering life for other life etc. That this is a genetic code of life and could be found anywhere. Following this do you think we can speculate or theorize to creative or artistic laws to the universe? Beyond the matter creates matter, cause and effect. What have you seen that would support this hypothesis of creative laws?
Rob: I would say across cultures unless people have been forced into dehumanizing conditions like slavery, famine, starvation, oppression you find people creating stuff everywhere. Unless there are oppressive forces holding people down, people naturally create. You can find painting all around. You find cave painting, so from the beginning of time, expressing themselves, through whatever medium they had at their disposal, was something humans have done. You could probably argue from that alone that there is something about the human condition that it can’t help but make more.
Jake:Moving on to the next question: in Christianity as a whole, I don’t see people using their imagination very much. So much of it is taking someone else’s word for it.
Rob: Yeah. Well, I would leave that faith if I were in something like that.
Jake: It goes back to Madeleine L’engle, in one of her books she talks about how as a kid at her grandparents’ house she could fly down the stairs, but as she grew up she came back and wasn’t able to do it anymore, but was still fully convinced that she was able to fly. It wasn’t a child hood fantasy, it was real to her.
Rob: I love that. That’s great.
Jake: How do we go back to that in our faith? The magic and the mystery?
Rob: I think you have to cry out to God and and asked to be delivered from a system. American culture in the year 2008 is an oppressive system. It tells you to just buy, to follow the rules and be happy. I think you have to ask whether or not you want to be delivered from the system because that’s what it is. Principalities and powers is how the New Testament refers to it. If the idea of somebody’s faith for them would be unimaginative, that’s just not a faith, I don’t understand that.
People have to ask themselves questions about what they even want or desire. Because it all begins with a deep dissatisfaction of how things are. And we do not change without pain. So a person would have to be in enough pain and despair to say “I do not want to be a part of this anymore. God, please show me another way of understanding things.” As far as people who are in systems that don’t work, like a religious system or a church, then you have to leave it. Because it’s destructive and it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to give you life.
Jake Dockter is a former Relevant columnist. This interview is excerpted from his forthcoming book on faith and art.
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