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Christianity and the Arts

By David Hein

One of the truly significant early books in the field of Christianity and the arts — Theology and the Arts (1966) by David Baily Harned — will soon be available once again. Wipf & Stock Publishers will reprint it in an attractive and inexpensive trade edition, available by June 1.

Anyone picking up a nearly 50-year-old book is entitled to wonder if the work is any longer even readable. In 1966 the Westminster Press launched Theology and the Arts into the world of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and the Beach Boys. In the United States, JFK had been assassinated and Lyndon Johnson had defeated Barry Goldwater, but on the moon an astronaut had not yet landed and made his giant leap for humankind. Urban riots produced seasons of tension in American cities, but realistic hope for lasting change was grounded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1966 the most traumatic institutional dislocations — and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy — were still a couple of years down the road. In domestic politics, 1966 marked the high tide of American liberalism and the Great Society — as well as the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California. The body counts in Vietnam were climbing higher, and antiwar demonstrations were drawing tens of thousands of protesters. The loss of South Vietnam to the Communist North and widespread disillusionment in the wake of Watergate were long years away. In 1966 young people could still enjoy a summer of fun in their Mustang convertibles, easily running to the shore on the three gallons of gas a single buck would buy.

As the young author of Theology and the Arts was putting the final touches on his first book, the mainstream Protestant establishment was intact, its denominational executives still respected at large and quoted in the national press. David Harned and other astute observers of the American religious scene could scarcely have known that 1966 would mark the peak of oldline-Protestant membership. Massive changes in American religion — especially the rise of the new evangelicals and the demographic transformation of the Roman Catholic Church with the influx of new immigrants — were just around the corner. In the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, liberation theology was not quite yet in the ascendant, although liberal Christians were reaching out to the secular city. In the hallways of divinity schools, no one would have predicted that, 50 years hence, the neo-orthodox Swiss theologian Karl Barth (d. 1968) would be far more popular and widely read (and respected) than his liberal peers.

Sometimes what makes a book readable 50 years after initial publication is its author’s ahead-of-the-curve sophistication coupled with prescience. Then again, sometimes a writer’s contra mundum conclusions will do the trick: wait long enough for culture’s carousel to turn and your narrow lapels will come back in style and your trendy colleague’s Nehru jacket and love beads will look hopeless. Sometimes plain good luck can turn a dated monograph into a contemporary classic, happily rediscovered and warmly appreciated. What is the case here?

Some of the style of Theology and the Arts is clearly past its sell-by date — especially its use of non-inclusive language — but its key insights are not. Visitors to this book expecting to encounter only a historical artifact — a dusty stagecoach stop on the old national road leading to a ghost town named Theology of Culture (Hon. Paul Tillich, Mayor) — will instead discover a bustling center of lively intellectual commerce.

Part of the reason for this book’s enduring appeal is owing to the truth of your grandmother’s advice to spend your scarce, hard-earned dollars on the acquisition of “good goods”: they would serve you better in the long run. Notwithstanding the unconscious sexism of this book’s occasional wording, the overall style of Theology and the Arts is undertaken with an expert craftsman’s attention to grace and detail. Form follows function, style embodies meaning, as the author makes a powerful case that language must be used with care if we are truly to attend to and appreciate the world that God has made.

Which is perhaps where some degree of luck comes in. What this author might have fretted about but could not have fully envisaged in the mid-1960s — when, ballpoint pen in hand, he word-processed his book in ink on yellow legal pads — was not only the incredible extent of change in the offing but also the nature and direction of that change. Wait half a century, a Time Lord like Dr. Who might have told our young scholar, and your book will find a new audience, composed of individuals four times as needy as their predecessors though not one whit happier to hear what you have to say.

Fifty years on, even the act of reading is not like it was. The bill of lading issued to today’s American culture-shippers comprises a familiar rundown: the internet and the iPhone and the electronic tablet, the postmodern devaluation of a text’s meaning, the wholesale relaxation of academic standards in favor of consumerist credentialing, the eschewal of historical knowledge and of heritage, a lazy shunning of manners in general and of patience and attentiveness and personal investment in particular, and cheap success and shamelessness, coupled with a leveling contempt for “outmoded” codes of honor and for real experience and accomplishment. In addition, by the winter of discontent 2013-14, the cynical corruption of language at the highest levels of the U.S. government would make the credibility gap of 1966 look like a hairline crack.

Harned is lucky, then, that times are so parlous and our common cultural currency so debased — lucky, that is, if he wants his old book to look exciting and newly relevant and indeed to be more valuable and needful than ever before. Although a Protestant theologian, he is also fortunate that American Christians have largely ceased to focus as much as they did 50 or 60 years ago on denominational identity. In our ecumenical age, Roman Catholic theology enjoys a cross-denominational appeal, alongside classics of spirituality. Not through luck alone, however, did Harned grasp the perduring value of the work of Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and William F. Lynch.

Although his book’s literary examples are not recent, they are in a more important sense thoroughly up to date. What Harned calls “the will to power that acknowledges no commitment to truth except to the truth of its own ambition” is pervasive in American society today; and therefore two of the novels he explores, George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, warrant wide attention still. The will to power, Harned writes, “insists that it can use words with impunity,” although “what it does with them threatens the survival of true community.” Words become warped into slogans and clichés and stereotypes, while propaganda “claims that some finite community is absolute” (p. 179).

In totalitarian hands, as Orwell writes, words become Newspeak, which solidifies conformity and prevents ideological heresy and intellectual originality. “Ignorance is strength” in the land of Big Brother; and thus the richness of words, Harned notes, “is politicized away.” Moreover, in 1984, traditional forms of play have been proscribed. People have turned relentlessly self-serious. No art thrives. In a vital human community, Harned observes, “play creates a private realm,” and from Big Brother’s point of view that’s precisely the problem, because space apart from the state “conflicts with the absolutist pretensions of the regime” (p. 180). In Orwell’s words: “To do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife … meaning individualism and eccentricity” (p.  180).  In 1984, Harned asserts, Orwell presents “past reality” as both “future possibility” and “always present danger” (p. 181).

Rhetoric that uses words as instruments of power, jargon that deadens language and short-circuits original thought and creative expression, politically correct conformism that shackles art and the rest of culture: all are fundamentally unnatural and therefore heretical usages for any faithful son or daughter of God the Author of nature.

The true artist has a crucial role to play. Like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, the artist taps on the wall with a pince-nez (or paintbrush or flash drive): “2-4,” prison code for the first-person singular. Harned comments: “Rubashov suffers no conversion, no revelation, just a curious toothache and a vague suspicion that something is wrong with the assumptions by which he had lived. That is all.” But that is enough, for “the whole mystery of existence is contained in the sound” of this political prisoner’s defiantly self-assertive tapping against the forces of oppression and dehumanization (pp. 186-87). Like Rubashov, any real artist “is busy tapping out 2-4 against a wall of stone, refusing to let us rest content with the illusion that man is only the quotient of one million divided by one million.” The artist’s effort is “an affirmation of the powers of the self to create meaning, and so of the meaning of human life.” Artistic work is also “an affirmation of the possibility of significant communication, testimony to its reality, and so an avowal of the value and importance of life together” in community (p. 187).

Thus any artist’s proper concern is not heaven or hell “but this earth and those who inhabit it.” Those of us who are not artists can follow where they lead. Then we might discover in their work “intimations of judgment and grace, damnation and salvation, symbols of expiation and atonement, images of life and death, rejection and renewal” (pp. 187-88). But providing religious answers is not the artist’s vocation, which lies instead in “the province of this earth,” in “the redeeming of words,” in offering “indispensable medicine for the shabbiness of common speech,” and an antidote for the “ravishing” of words by the will to power (p. 188).

For these essential reasons, Christians should acknowledge and embrace the value of what the artist accomplishes, for the artist’s work is a crucial response to what the Creator has done. Christians might sometimes “thirst for redemption [out of this world] because they want release from the burdens of creatureliness,” and that is an understandable desire. But the more faithful, heroic path is for Christians to “turn their eyes toward the creation into which Christ has come,” to “speak of the love of the Creator,” to call men and women to the world and to “affirm their venture in it” (p. 190).

When they do, they will learn from artists much about the meaning of true freedom and the realization of human potential. Harned rightly faults the Russian religious philosopher and radical mystic Nicolas Berdyaev for his theoretical commitment to unbridled liberty: “In the name of freedom he protests against all that confines and limits man. Yet when all constraint is gone, human freedom has disappeared as well. It has lost the structure that provides it with determinate possibilities to actualize.” For Berdyaev freedom occurs when all limits fall away. “But,” Harned asks, “is this [occasion] not also the moment of [freedom’s] death? These limits are what endow freedom with concrete potentialities” (p. 87). A bit later in his essay Harned cites as evidence for his point the freedom-enhancing and potential-liberating musical forms embraced and cherished by a more balanced Russian, the composer Igor Stravinsky (pp. 102-03).

David Harned’s book will not please readers seeking to impose an ideology on a work of fiction or Christians hoping to be told the religious “message” in modern art or longing for comfort from “spiritual” texts. Theology and the Arts is for readers interested in seeing what the proper relation is between incarnational theology and the imaginative arts; it is for persons curious about the connection between the rational faculty and other difficult but ultimately pleasure-conferring routes by which reality may be apprehended. It is for women and men who find themselves eager to enjoy an artist’s playful, participatory response to creation — as both painter and viewer, author and reader, composer and listener attend to and engage with singular works in their concrete particulars.

Finally, this book is especially for persons grasped by the Christian tradition’s central themes of creation, cross, and eschatological consummation. Readers will find freshly pertinent insights into the role and irreplaceable significance of the artist in a world that God made to be a fitting place for the expression of creaturely freedom and creativity.

David Hein is an affiliated scholar of the John Jay Institute in Philadelphia and professor of religion and philosophy at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. This essay is adapted from his foreword to Theology and the Arts and used by permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers.


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