Art, Beauty and God

Last month we enjoyed a vibrant Harvest Festival with much in evidence for which to give thanks. The beauty of creation was highly through the displays provided by Gillie MacMillan and Nick Hollinshead. What really struck me, in reflecting on this service and the various contributions made by a number of people, was that beauty is something for which we do not always give sufficient thanks to God. The creation is not just useful, it is delightful. God’s generosity to us is seen in looking at the world and listening to its sounds. To gather together for the purposes of thanking God in a context of beautiful music and the beautiful harvest arrangements only heightens the experience of thankfulness and wonder at God’s goodness.

Now you might be thinking at this point: ‘that’s all very well, but the arrangements and the music were of human rather than divine creation, so you’re talking through your hat’. But it's a bit more complicated than that. When you think about it, whether we consider the visual or the performing arts, we rely on God as creator to make them possible. The physical objects, whether paint or flowers that we rearrange to create beauty, are not of our making. We can only take what is given and rearrange or combine those elements into something new. In the same way, whether singing or playing music, we use our bodies to produce sound; bodies that were given to us. We did not create ourselves. The arts then, are always reliant on God’s prior act of creation and artistry.

In that sense all art is derivative, and in more senses too. Humans are unique amongst animals in the way that we create and enjoy abstract beauty. A peacock displays astonishing beauty, but always in the same way, and only ever with exactly the beauty given to it. Humans are genuinely, and wonderfully, creative. This is no accident. We were created, according to the Scriptures, in the image and likeness of God. In part, this teaches us simply to value human life. An assault on a human being is like an assault on God himself. But it teaches us more than this. Our bearing of the divine image is reflected in our capacities, as there are certain abilities required to represent God to his creation. The capacity for rational and abstract thought, for instance seems to be restricted to humanity within the whole animal kingdom. Similarly, our creativity reflects the one who is ultimately creative. The arts then, give us more reason to be thankful and enhance and heighten our worship, precisely because they offer us a sliver of reflected glory.

All of which brings me back to my Harvest theme this year, that it is a festival designed to remind us that we depend on God's generosity, and to keep us from falling into the fairytale world of believing that we are self sufficient. In my Harvest sermon I reflected on the thought that ‘the best things in life are free’, and whether or not that statement is really true. I argued that it is not, because although we may not ourselves pay for the love and care we received from our parents, or for the friendship of others who treat us better than we deserve, those things do have a cost. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that the best things in life come to us at the expense of others, willingly given. With the Harvest arrangements and the Choir anthem and the Organ Voluntaries, we all enjoyed those free and gratis, but they were not cheap. The flowers and vegetables did not arrange themselves, David did not become so brilliant on the organ without year and years of painstaking practice, and so it goes for the choir and so on. Others have paid in pain and time and effort so that we can enjoy even the simplest pleasures.

And so we come to the main theme of this month’s magazine: Remembrance. It is as we mark Armistice Day and as we reflect on the rivers of blood that have watered the gardens of our prosperity and freedom, that we cannot allow ourselves to forget that the best things in life are not free. Gratitude and Remembrance are the only appropriate response to the horrors that others have suffered for us, and so, year by year, we offer them gladly. And these men and women that we remember reflect something of the divine glory even more than the artists and musicians that echo God's gift of creation and creativity. God’s generosity is seen even more clearly at Christmas and Easter than we do at Harvest. Not only has God given us ‘all good things for our enjoyment’, but He gave the greatest gift imaginable: the gift of his own Son. Those who gave up their lives that others might live, whom we honour at Remembrance, exhibit a generosity that echoes, lest we forget, the breathtaking generosity of God himself.

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