Faculty and students at a small midwestern college were once subjected to a somewhat anarchical display of art criticism. THIS IS NOT ART was rubberstamped on a dirty wall, a potted plant, and across the screen of the color television in the Student Center.

Walls? A potted plant? A color TV? Andy Warhol produced art from a soup can, but that was probably not what the college art critics had in mind. Could there have been a genuine hunger beneath their extraordinary actions?

“Our notion of beauty,” says Virginia Stem Owens, “has been so called into question and undermined that everyone is a little embarrassed by the word now.… Beauty is a word that has been bought out by Hallmark cards.”

Instead of beauty we have what Jacques Maritain called “sensual slush.” It serves well the “unnatural principles of the fecundity of money and the finality of the useful,” which Maritain saw as the spirit of the age.

Evangelicals need not be governed by these principles. As torchbearers for mainstream Christianity, they have a vigorous, exultant, and profound basis for artistic pursuit. “Embedded in the texture of the Bible,” writes Aiden Nichols, “is a metaphor of vital significance for the Scriptures as a whole, that of man made ‘in the image of the invisible God.’ We can hardly expect to grasp the sense and scope of this metaphor unless we have some fairly adequate notion of how art subserves the human search for meaning and truth. For these metaphorical utterances are appealing to nothing other than man’s experience of art.”

Yet, instead of a world in the process of being restored to its role of imaging God’s glory—as windows flung open to him by Christ—we are presented with the static, flat, asymbolic world of “a heap of broken images, where the Sun beats and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief and the dry stone no sound of water” (T. S. Eliot).

This fraud provokes only sporadic protest now, when there should be a lifelong raging against the dying of the light. To dissociate significant Christian vocation from painting, writing, drama, music, and poetry is to defraud both the Christian and the non-Christian of the breadth of expression God made possible in the Incarnation.

There is, moreover, a discomforting link between the representation of created things—especially in painting and the plastic arts—and idolatry. Such a connection between image making and idolatry dates back to the cradle of the Christian faith. Christianity is steeped in the Jewish mentality, which, writes James F. White, “held in tension the transcendence of God with God’s concrete involvement in the actual events of human history … even inanimate objects can gain a power to speak and yet never become identified with God themselves. Thus a false split between the material and spiritual is avoided.”

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This tension between transcendence and immanence is ever in danger of being disturbed. Says Francis Shaeffer: “On Mount Sinai God simultaneously gave the Ten Commandments and commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle in a way which would involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever known.”

There was a strenuous struggle between transcendence and immanence in the church during the Byzantian controversy (A.D. 726–843), from which came the explosive exegesis of the Pauline concept of the Christ as the Image of God. The iconoclastic crisis (the decree against images) and the victory for icons was for the Eastern Orthodox church a major effort in developing the startling implications of the Incarnation. The outcome of the controversy resulted in that church’s sanction and approval of painting and iconography. If God took a body and stood in full sight of his creation so that the apostle John could say: “We have heard … we have seen … our hands have touched.…” then the attempt to represent godlikeness in a way that can be heard, seen, and touched is claimed to be a valid endeavor. Only in being embodied is God fully expressed to us. While the orthodoxy of such views has been fiercely challenged in the West, it has not lacked supporters.

“One important way of expounding Christ as the recapitulation of mankind,” says Nichols in connection with Irenaeus’s teaching, “is to say that the Incarnation was the exhibition of the image in which man was originally made.” Irenaeus’s concept was that “Man’s original capacity for god-shapedness, his initial capability of acting as a disclosure of God, was restored to him in the person of Jesus.”

For Clement of Alexandria, the Incarnation was the “Son’s step into the range of the visible … a sensuous affair, and the senses, correspondingly are vitally operative in perceiving it.”

Many others also struggled to express themselves in regard to the Incarnation. It is hard to imagine the passion with which the church fathers defended the legitimacy of icons. They thus ensured the place of art, out of a conviction that the world, since Christ’s advent, now carried the “power of significant presence” (Saint John Damascene).

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It is certain that this period of theological ferment unleashed a great flowering of art: the Latin plainsong, the luminous iconography of Byzantine and Russian orthodoxy, the roofs and spires of church architecture.

The theological waters navigated by the church should not be ignored. To create significant form and meaningful shape is a truly Christian vocation, “so long as the thing made remains a message/icon pointing beyond itself, transparent to the power of life itself in creation,” writes Jay C. Rochelle.

While such a view may be regarded with suspicion by some evangelicals, it may cause them to rethink the unwisdom of abandoning art as belonging to a secular culture. Only God’s revelation in Christ gives us the image, example, and cornerstone for art.

And dissatisfied sophomores can find encouragement in their efforts to stamp out the fake and demand the real.

Mr. Abraham recently completed graduate study in communications at Wheaton College (Ill.) and has returned to his native Bahrain where he was a schoolteacher.



Screenplay by Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffith; directed by Warren Beatty.

How much do you want to know about John Reed? Warren Beatty’s Reds is an ambitious attempt to chronicle this prototype American radical journalist, backdropped by the social foment surrounding the Russian Revolution.

Reed authored the famous Ten Days that Shook the World, a worshipful account of the Russian Revolution. Beatty, who does everything in this movie but sell popcorn, miscasts himself as Reed and sometimes appears to have wandered in off the set of Shampoo. Likewise, his dialogue focuses not only on the real injustices of the time, but drags in the dreary demonology of the seventies.

Diane Keaton faces similar problems as Reed’s wife, Louise Bryant (who later married the first U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R.). Her mannerisms are of Woody Allen’s New York, not John Reed’s. It is not her fault that her lines interpolate a collection of current feminist cant.

The documentary-style “witnesses” who periodically testify remain confusingly unidentified. There is no repartee and we are never sure to what they are witnessing. Reed’s heroism? Naïvete?

As a period piece, Reds is a mixed bag, alternately blurring and informing; the costumes and settings are faithful and beautifully photographed. One strike-breaking villain even wears a black hat. When not oppressing the poor, the Christians of the day apparently spent a lot of time persecuting people like Reed and Bryant. Reds succeeds as a romance. The portrayal of love as something stronger than dogmatic politics is the picture’s strong suit.

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The specter of millionaire actors spending millions to film someone who eschewed private property is certainly entertaining. Along with all the Oscars, they will, no doubt, recoup their investment with some to spare. But is that a crack in the Kremlin wall from Reed rolling over in his grave? Perhaps in 50 years a film will be made about Reed’s journalistic descendants who adulated the Soviet regime when it had hardened into a boring, brutal tyranny. Will they call it Pinks?

Reviewed by Lloyd Billingsley, a writer in Poway, California.

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