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The Theater of Revelation: Art and the Grace-Fullness of Form

by Judith Rock

Ms. Rock is a dance and choreographer living in New York City. This spring Harper & Row will publish her book Performer as Priest and Prophet, written with the late Norman Mealy. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 23-30, 1988, p. 306. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Because our religious tradition finds the heart of divine revelation in the Holy taking human form, Christians have a powerful theological basis for understanding and learning from the arts. Unfortunately, Protestants have historically had an uneasy relationship with the arts because we have mistrusted form and physicality. Our inheritance of Reformation iconoclasm is usually put forward as the traditional reason for our discomfort; and in the mainline churches our commitment to social justice and our resulting decisions about stewardship are cited as contemporary explanation and justification. While both of these factors -- an inherited distrust of physical form, and a current focus on monetary economies -- clearly shape our feelings and actions in relation to art, the equivocal nature of the Protestant relationship to the arts becomes ever clearer if we look at what lies behind the question of iconoclasm. Why should we mistrust images? Is anyone in our image-flooded culture in serious danger of confusing a painting or a sculpture of Jesus with Jesus himself? The issue is not idolatry.

Theological mistrust of images grows out of beliefs and feelings about the relationship of divine grace to the physical world. When the Reformers rejected images, they were condemning the medieval Carolingian use of relics. Under the French Catholic Carolingian ruler, the church decided to use art as packaging and promotion for relics, which were, almost literally, a foundation of both government and religion. Both spiritual and temporal rulers had these bones and possessions of the saints built into their thrones and altars, and wore them in their crowns and around their necks. Providing a slender bridge between the beneficent unseen world and the malevolent world of everyday, the relics promised a measure of safety, order and power.

By the time of the Reformation, many people felt that no fruitful relationship between the church and the visual arts, at least, was possible. Although even the iconoclasts of the early church had believed that divine power could operate for the good of human beings through some specially blessed material objects, the Reformers were reluctant to affirm that God’s grace was mediated through the physical world. Seeing that both art and nature can be evil, how, they asked, can either be relied on as a channel of revelation? For them, revelation was to be found only in the Christ of the Scriptures.

For the artist, the problem with all of these positions is their apprehension about the created world here and now. Any artist, Christian or otherwise, who is unable to trust the physical world is crippled as a creator. Not that the artist sees the world of form as an Eden; far from it. Creation, like the life of the incarnate Christ, is as full of pain and ambiguity as of clarity and joy. Nevertheless, the productive artist must turn to nature -- that is. to matter -- as a potential source of blessing.

Art is always the result of determined wrestling with matter. The artist refuses to let that material "angel" go. until it turns and blesses artistic vision with physical form. However, a central difficulty in the relationship of the church with the arts is the church’s tendency to ignore form in favor of content. Though the modern church generally professes to have grown beyond its earlier nervousness about the arts, the overriding issue. for example when an artist is commissioned to create or present a work, is very often "message."

For the artist, however, form is not a vehicle for a message, not a "package" for content, not a lesser or expedient means to a somehow "higher" end. An authentic artwork is an indissoluble union of line, color, movement, sound, rhythm, idea. The oneness of being that the early Christian writers tried to communicate when they described Christ, fully human. and fully divine, is not unlike the oneness of form and content achieved in a successful dance, symphony, sculpture, play or novel.

The perfection of Christ’s union of humanity and divinity was so important to understand that two heresies were like warning signs for those straying too far in either direction. We must remember, the early church fathers warned, that this union is not a confusion of divine and human. But at the same time we must also avoid drawing false distinctions between the divine and the human in Christ. The union of humanity and divinity in the incarnation of Christ, and the union of form and content in a successful artwork, are neither a confusion of unlike elements nor a hard and fast distinction between unlike elements. Both relationships are much more suggestive of a marriage.

Every painting of the annunciation and the nativity announces clearly that what is being revealed and celebrated is the tangible presence of the Holy. Whatever we believe about the virginity of Mary, Jesus was knit together in his mother’s womb -- like all the rest of us. Form-giving is a talent humans have, and whether we are Mary pregnant with the Christ, or a painter of the most modest talent creating a watercolor, we create form only by means of matter. Form-giving is part of grace: the establishment of relationship and order, sometimes permanently, most often more briefly -- even momentarily. Form-giving is what allowed the Word to dwell among us, full of grace and the truth of our relationship with God.

The incarnation that the artist effects is, like all other births, a blossoming of the physical world. For the artist, the physical world may not be the only reality, but it is the theater of revelation, just as it is in the story of Christ’s incarnation. And if the physical world is the theater of revelation, then it is not only translucent to grace, but is itself, as the physical source of form, a source of grace.

As every child with a skinned knee knows, the physical world is a place of bane and blessing equally. Such relentless ambiguity in creation has proved too much for some Christians, and they have succumbed to the temptation. to find grace only beyond physicality. The resistant stance resulting from this temptation runs through Protestantism and Roman Catholicism alike. In the late 17th century, for example, Angelique Arnauld, head of the Port Royal convent in Paris. forbade the growing of flowers on convent property. She said, "I love all that is ugly; art is nothing but lies and vanity. Whosoever gives to the senses takes away from God" (Germaine Bazin, Baroque and Rococo Art [Oxford University Press, 19641, p. 36) Mother Angelique was a Jansenist Catholic, whose understanding of grace and the physical world was much closer to that of some Protestants than to that of many of her fellow Catholics. The Jesuit educators and missionaries of her time found means of grace in beauty, the arts, humor -- whatever, as they put it, seemed innocent in and of itself. They understood all of these sources as actual and potential channels of God’s communication to humankind. The attitude toward the operation of divine grace in the physical world seems to be a clue to the Christian’s attitude toward art; these attitudes cut across even the most distinct denominational lines.

Grace, in its more mundane meanings, can be a pleasing quality or attractiveness; favor or goodwill; gratitude or thanks. All of these meanings can be seen as lights coming from different directions to illumine the concept of grace in its theological sense. The first of the three meanings suggests something to which we respond by wanting to approach it, get closer to it. The graceful mover draws our attention and admiration. The second meaning describes a relationship established when someone invites trust and offers what we need. The old form of address to a dignitary, "Your Grace," assumes, rightly or wrongly, that the person so addressed is positively disposed toward us -- a source of help and nurture. The third meaning describes a relationship between us and that to which or whom we are grateful. Before or after eating, we say "thank you" because our needs for food and comfort (and also, often, for companionship and beauty) have been met.

The most striking feature of these three meanings of the word grace is that they all refer to physical expression or relatedness. Grace is a quality of movement and a physical attraction, grace is a relationship out of which our needs are met, grace is an expression of gratitude. The word also carries the sense of social harmony and order. We say approvingly that someone accepts defeat "with good grace," or extracts herself from a difficult situation "gracefully." That is to say, the working relationship among the diverse elements of the situation was not disturbed.

There is a cosmic dimension to this meaning of grace: a small creation, a tiny cosmos of people, feelings and events has been preserved in good working order, and we are glad. Grace, then, is what holds the whole together on the physical and practical level of day-to-day functioning -- not from outside, as in the Carolingians’ understanding, but as a potential for order within the physical world itself. The potential, of course, is often not realized; but this analysis does address the problem of good, which needs to be addressed at least as much as the problem of evil. It is this potential which finally yields the artist’s blessing of form.

It is not that grace is typically "pretty." Occasionally it is, but most often its dominant characteristic is strength. The dancer’s grace, or beauty of movement, is the result of an entirely disciplined body and a set of muscles like steel springs, the price of which has been years of painstaking physical work. This type of grace, just as in the case of God’s grace, is not free" in the sense that it might be had for the wishing. It comes from a submission to the laws of the created world, and operates through them, not outside them. On several occasions, people with no dance training have assured me that God has "given them the gift of dance," and that therefore they do not need to study the art form; but their performances have not borne out their claims. Grace seems to be given only in the terms of the creation; in the case of dance, the terms are usually about ten years of intensive training. Grace in all its senses comes through immersion in physical realities and necessities.

In the incarnation, Christians have been directed to physicality and form as the locations of God’s presence. The physicality of the incarnation is not, as we are so tempted in our hearts to believe, a temporary inconvenience to divinity. Perhaps it is difficult to believe otherwise because physicality can be such an inconvenience to us. We are clumsy, we get sick, we grow old, we die. Being embodied is often uncomfortable and embarrassing. And so, discovering that we can’t escape the oppressive grace-fullness of our bodies, we do what we can to ensure that God, at least, shall escape our pains and frustrations. In how many Christian imaginations and theologies, private and public, does Jesus the Christ swoop through the 33 years of his life, dipping briefly into the world of matter before soaring off toward the real point, the resurrection? Of course, there is his appalling death. But do we not tend, more often than we care to admit, to see his death as the necessary event that makes the resurrection work?

Theologians have always told us that this sort of theology is a mistake. The Christ, they have patiently and impatiently repeated, was both fully human and fully divine. No compromises or glosses on either side -- which means that he served the necessities of the form he was given just as we do, and just as every artwork does.

The theologians have told us this, but it is the artists who can make us see it. Twenty minutes with the late-15th-century Isenheim altarpiece by Mathias, called Grünewald, will remind us. This work incorporates scenes of the annunciation, the nativity, the crucifixion and the resurrection. All of them proclaim that divine revelation, and the grace it brings, are as much the result of wrestling with the ambiguity of the physical world as artistic creation is. In the annunciation, Mary scrutinizes the angel out of the corners of her eyes; she is not ecstatic or shy, but distinctly suspicious. In the nativity, she is entirely absorbed in her squirming baby, and at her feet are his chamber pot, towels and tub. The crucifixion is a clinical portrayal of torture -- as obscene as torture is and almost too painful to look at. The resurrection painting restates the issue for us, in case we have missed it. A glory of light surrounds the Christ’s upper body and face, which is as serene as a Buddha’s; the knees, in plain earthlight, are ugly and knobby, and the big feet have crooked toes. This Christ, even in resurrection, is fully divine and fully human, both at once.

The message is that the elements of faith -- revelation, grace and sacrament -- have no meaning, do not work, apart from the physical world and the human talent for form-giving. They are physical events in the ongoing drama in the theater of revelation. They extend, we believe, beyond the physical world into the mystery of God. One can, they tell us, get there from here. But if one doesn’t start here, revel in the here, wrestle with the here, one won’t get there.

Our here is where we have to start, but it is also often a place that is hard to love, a painful place, embarrassing, polluted, threatening. And it is a place that will one day kill us. But unless we decide to throw in our lot with Mother Angelique and hate the gifts while loving the Giver, our assignment is to love the here in the same way in which Jacob loved the angel. Sweaty and panting, frightened and exhilarated, we are to wrestle with the here until it turns and blesses us. To commit ourselves to this encounter is to see grace operating in and through physicality: engaging us in relationships with the created world, blessing us, stirring our excitement and response.

If physicality itself is the theater of revelation and therefore a means of grace, then as long as the world lasts, the drama in that theater will not end. That being so, form, which is physicality communicating itself, is the focus of that drama. And artists are those wrestling most consciously to embody form. Out of their struggles with shape, movement, color, sound and rhythm come revelations for all of us. Indeed, we can apply what we learn from their wrestlings to struggles in other arenas.

The revelations that artists share with us can take startling forms. Just as no one expected, or wanted, a crucified carpenter for a Messiah, the point of the church’s relation to the arts should not be to obtain "religious" art, as that category is often defined: art which inoffensively restates the old stories and reaffirms what we already know and like.

In a sense, we in the church are still in the same benighted state with respect to the arts as was one bewildered 18th-century Englishman with respect to nature. After a trip through Switzerland, he reported that he would have liked the Alps very well, thank you, if it had not been for the mountains. In his opinion, what could not be tamed, cultivated and made to fit within the current definition of "the edifying" and "the agreeable" was useless, and therefore both disturbing and unworthy of his attention. This gentleman and his contemporaries did not admire untamed nature, and the church still does not admire "untamed" art. Coming to terms with the relationship between the form of an artwork and its content is a recurrent problem for the church. We are always tempted to protect ourselves from the unaccountability and exuberance of art by approaching it as another tool, something to be used in the service of an agenda.

Understanding form itself as a means of grace challenges us to take another look at the sometimes forbidding wildness of the arts, to open the doors of our churches not only to obviously useful and "religious" art, but to unpredictable forms, forms that exist apart from any question of usefulness. The truth is that art, at least apparently and in the short run, is not very useful. It does not feed the hungry or provide shelter or end wars. This is a hard truth, for 20th-century churches are caught up in a passion for usefulness.

But so much in the Bible -- both the Old and New Testaments -- is not apparently useful. Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger was strenuous, frightening and revelatory; sleeping soundly in preparation for the next day’s work would have been useful. Jesus’ death on a cross was horrifying and, ultimately, revelatory; a royal progress through the world would have been more immediately useful.

Theologically and socially speaking, ours is an age of urgent and desperate foreboding, and we value utility and practicality because we think we do not have the time for anything else. However, just the opposite may actually be the case. As the modern church grapples with the world, hoping for new blessing, we may find it in places where the church has seldom looked. We need a new incarnation -- a new indication of God’s presence among us here and now. Struggling to bless vision with form, artists may be the new prophets of grace. Though they may sometimes seem to speak in strange languages, we have, in our ancient assertion that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth," the key to understanding.


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