Lately, Jeremy and I have been reading and discussing Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God with our small group at church. Other than the book being a phenomenal and simple exposition of the parable of the prodigal son (found in Luke 15 in the Bible), the book also touches on an idea that, I believe, applies to the question of why art matters at all in these brief lives we live.
Near the book’s end, Keller discusses the last section of the parable, where the younger son’s return home to the father (who represents God) is celebrated with a great feast that represents “the great festival of God at the end of history” (p. 106).
In the section “Salvation is Material,” Keller continues to develop this idea:
“A meal is a very physical experience. Jesus left a meal, the Lord’s supper (communion), to be remembered by, and the final goal of history is a meal, the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). The resurrected Christ ate with his disciples when he met with them (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:9). What does it all mean? It is a sign that, for Jesus, this material world matters.
“The book of Genesis tells us that when God made this world, he looked upon the physical creation and called it ‘good.’ He loves and cares for the material world. The fact of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of a new heavens and a new earth show clearly that he still cares for it… The ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins, but also the renewal of this world… The climax of history is not a higher form of diembodied consciousness but a feast. God made the world with all its colors, tastes, lights, sounds, with all its life-forms living in interdependent systems.
“If the material world were only an illusion, as Eastern philosophy says, or only a temporary copy of the real, ideal world, as Plato says, then what happens in this world or in this life would be unimportant. All that would matter would be issues of soul or spirit. However, Jesus was not simply saved ‘in spirit’ but was resurrected in body” (pp. 110-111).
As Keller clearly sees, Jesus himself, in his incarnation and then in his bodily resurrection, shows us that our bodies and this material reality that he’s created matters. In fact, our own bodily existence matters, just as our bodily lives matter.
I believe it’s easy as Christians to rely on the disembodied, gnostic view of heaven as our future life and discount the drudging reality of our days — “It’s all gonna burn anyway,” Jeremy’s sister likes to joke. It gives us an excuse to check out, to give in to fear and sin, and to escape from bodily suffering with a fully spiritual heavenly existence.
But what I love so much about this teaching is that it makes what we do in our lives so valuable. Thankfully, what we do does not matter enough to disqualify us from the grace of God (being deeply rooted in sin as we are); however, our material actions count for something.
In particular, as Christian artists, we have an instinctual urge to create out of material objects (or to write about material objects, people, and circumstances) and we also have an inherent knowing inside us that tells us that what we see and taste and feel matters. There is something eternal about our physical lives, though we cannot quite say what it is.
In fact, our art is richer for all its concrete details. The best writing does not abstractly describe a scene; it shows us the world of the character, taking us into the tangible, physical world the character lives in, allowing us to walk around in the character’s body for a moment– to see through the character’s eyes, to feel with the characters hands, and to taste with the character’s tongue.
In Jeremy’s found object sculptures, he literally takes material objects that have been discarded and deemed worthless by someone else and turns it and other pieces of trash into an orderly composition. It’s not eco-art; it’s redemption art. It is a remaking of the chaotic material world into something meaningful, something with beauty instead of just burying it in a landfill to decompose over decades. Sounds a lot like how God will remake the earth itself, right?
I cannot tell you definitively that your art and mine will last eternally. I have heard others try to make that argument from the Bible, and I find it a bit weak. Art in itself is not eternal (for example, moth and rust have often destroyed the pieces of trash that Jeremy likes to turn into art). But you and I are eternal, and what we do matters, and because of that, I believe that making art reflects the Creator God himself and that art-making helps us to value God’s material world — and these things have eternal value.