Do We Need the Arts?

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The following text came from the speech that Philip Himebook gave during the Westminster Dinner & Dialogue at Theatre Memphis. He gives great insight and thoughts into why the arts matter. Enjoy!

Philip Himebook
Music Director
Grace Community Church, Collierville, TN

By Philip Himebook

When I was between the ages of 7 and 9, somewhere in there, my father was a band and choir director at a school in Huntsville, Alabama. During a conversation with one of the school parents, a man said to my father, “Frankly, Mr. Himebook, we don’t need the arts to survive.” My father said, “You’re right. We don’t need the arts to survive. We need the arts to live – and there’s a difference.”

When we address the question of why the arts matter, I think we have to take a step back and answer, or attempt to answer a much broader question first: What matters most? I would argue, as I think many of you would, that above all, what matters most at the end of the day, is TRUTH.

I have three points to make, because I’m Presbyterian, and we love having three points.

  1.     The arts point us inward and challenge us to empathy.
  2.     The arts point us outward and develop our imagination.
  3.     The arts connect us with traces of the Divine.

So first, the arts point us inward and challenge us to empathy.

If truth matters most, then what is the best way to communicate truth? I’m a Christian, so my stance on this topic will be from a Christian perspective. Christianity has a lot of bedrocks of how to communicate truth – we often think of the 10 commandments, or, more to my point, the commandments summed up by Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.’

But as a Christian heavily involved in the arts, I think we often tend to miss out on what was Jesus’ clearest, most personal form of communication during His earthly ministry – this would be His use of parables. When He was teaching, you didn’t see Him pulling out some fortune cookie cliché saying, like, ’Don’t do this – do this.’ Rather, it’s ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like … a mustard seed/treasure buried in a field.’ And then He would proceed to offer an analogy to draw their attention to an underlying truth through the art of storytelling.

What is it about a good story that sticks with us? Why are stories so important? Well, for starters, I don’t think it takes much convincing for me to tell you that we live in a broken world. That we are broken as human beings. As a Christian, I believe that we are born in sin, and therefore we are bent inward, we are self-centered by nature, and it’s something we must fight against. The natural inclination of man is to wield whatever he holds as his moral compass and use it as a means to look down on his neighbor in superiority.

But what does a good story do? It puts you in front of a mirror to see your true condition, it puts you in the place of someone else less fortunate, it makes you walk in their shoes, someone with a vastly different story than your own. It broadens our horizons to see beyond our own self-centeredness by giving us experiences we haven’t had, or haven’t had yet. It builds within us a sense of empathy for our fellow man.

And there are so many different kinds of stories, and they all speak to us of our humanity. Oscar Wilde is attributed to having said, ‘I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.’

We see our humanity in Comedy: Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘HMS Pinafore’ – we know laughter is good medicine, and we see it displayed cleverly in the story of a captain’s daughter who loves a lowly sailor. And yes, it’s a hilarious show, but it also drives home the point that several characters repeat throughout, “love levels all ranks”. What a beautiful truth!

We see it in stories of Tragedy & Damnation, such as ‘Faust’: A man who literally makes a deal with the devil. One author writes of this story, ‘ “What shall a man gain if he has the whole world and lose his soul?” Matthew 16:26 – This [Faust] was the blackest and most captivating tragedy of all … A life of good or evil, the hope of Heaven or the despair of Hell, Faust stands as a reminder that the choice between these two absolutes also falls to us.’ And so, through the use of tragedy, we are reminded that our choices have eternal weight.

We see it in stories of Redemption.‘Les Mis’ – A prison convict, Jean Valjean, embittered against the world after unjustly serving years in prison, is confronted with an act of mercy, and when met with the contradictory nature of grace, cries out, ‘Jean Valjean is nothing now!Another story must begin!’ And that’s only the end of the prologue. The rest of the show features a life changed by redemption, a person who once scorned his fellow man due to his own injustice, now seeking to be an agent of God’s mercy; and his influence affects every character he encounters.

We see it in tales of courage, such as Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’, where the king and his men are about to face a force that greatly outnumbers their own at Agincourt, and rather than give way to fear in the face of death, he proudly declares, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that shed his blood with me shall be my brother!’

We are reminded of the powerful bonds of friendship to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. The character of Samwise Gamgee, speaking to Frodo on the slopes of Mt. Doom, ‘I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you.’ I cry every time. We see the sacrificial love of a true friend on display, and it should move us.

And it’s not about the fantastical setting, or the cool sword fights, or even the drama, it’s about the reason for taking a stand. Tolkien’s character Faramir says it best in the ‘The Two Towers’, ‘I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.’

The arts point us inward and challenge us to empathy. The arts also point us outward, and develop our imagination.

I remember sitting in the movie theater with my younger brother, watching the first of the ‘Star Trek’ movie reboots. In the opening sequence, set in this fantastical realm of ‘space, the final frontier’, it shows a character giving his life to save his family and his friends. It’s a fantastic scene, in my opinion. Examine the facts, though – it’s a stupid space movie, shot on sets and with green screens – they’re not actually in space, fighting aliens. But the way the director had shot the sequence, coupled with the emotion of the music, I looked around and there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. And my thought immediately was, “We are getting teared up over a stupid space movie!” And why?

Because, for how secularized the arts have indeed become, we are still hardwired to react to a display of ultimate sacrifice, what we as Christians recognize as a biblical truth, that ‘there is no greater love than a man lay down his life for his friends.’

And speaking as a Christian, it confronted me on a very personal level – that if Hollywood could get us to care so much for a fictional character in a silly space movie, how much more should the cross of Christ and His sacrifice impact my life, and His calling for me to love others? See there, fiction aided in reinforcing something very true, and very real, and therein lies the power of the arts.

Francis Schaeffer in his work, Art & the Bible, said, ‘Christians ought not to be threatened by fantasy and imagination. Great painting is not ‘photographic’. Think of the Old Testament art commanded by God. (He’s speaking of the book of Exodus, chapter 38) There were blue pomegranates on the robes of the priest who went into the Holy of Holies. In nature there are no blue pomegranates… The Christian is the really free person – he is free to have imagination. [He] is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars … an art work can be a doxology in itself.’

The arts confront us with our self-centeredness, but it is pointless if it doesn’t in turn cause us to face outward, to seek to be the change. One of my favorite quotes by G.K. Chesterton is, ‘Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’

The poet Rainer Rilke was so overwhelmed by the statue of Apollo, that at the end of his poem, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, dedicated to that experience, he writes, ‘We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power.’ And this is how he closes the poem, ‘would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.’

He was confronted with beauty, with art, and it didn’t just open his eyes, it expanded his imagination and it prompted him of the necessity, the need to change his life.

The arts point us inward and challenge us to empathy. The arts point us outward and develop our imagination. And lastly, the arts connect us with traces of the Divine.

R.C. Sproul once asked, ‘What makes art Christian art? Is it simply Christian artists painting biblical subjects like Jeremiah? Or, by attaching a halo, does that suddenly make something Christian art? Must the artist’s subject be religious to be Christian? I don’t think so. There is a certain sense in which art is its own justification. If art is good art, if it is true art, if it is beautiful art, then it is bearing witness to the Author of the good, the true, and the beautiful.’

How do the arts bear witness to God?

Let’s very quickly look at the top contenders: poetry, art, dancing, singing.
Poetry – what are the psalms but poems, songs of praise, the outpouring of the human soul to God? Psalm 139, ‘If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.’

Art – look at the Old Testament! What we read from Francis Schaeffer earlier. Think of the incredible amount of detail that went into the temple. Exodus 35, ‘Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft.’

Dancing – God delights in dancing. Psalm 149, ‘Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly! Let Israel be glad in his Maker, let the children of Zion rejoice in their King! Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre! For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.’

Singing – Did you know God sings? Zephaniah chapter 3, ‘Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’

God is singing over His children right now!

Why are the arts important? Because they are a reflection of the attributes of God! The arts point us inward and challenge us to empathy. The arts point us outward and develop our imagination. And the arts connect us with the Divine. Empathy, imagination, and worship.

Now maybe you don’t feel that you have been particularly gifted in the music department, or in the arts in general, and that’s ok. My wife is a ballet instructor. Now, it should take no stretch of the imagination when I say that I don’t dance, especially ballet. But I’ve seen works of art on the ballet stage that have left me breathless. I may not have the ability to participate in what my wife does, but I have the ability to support her, to support her artistry, to grow in my appreciation of how incredible the art of ballet is. And I would say the same is true for everyone. A lack of ability to participate in the arts should not lead to a lack of appreciation for what the arts can and are doing for society.

‘Whether through paint or sound, metaphor or movement, we are given the profound gift of participating in the re-creative work of the Triune God, anticipating that final and unimaginable re-creation of all matter, space, and time, the fulfillment of all things visible and invisible.’ – W. David O. Tyler

We are made in the image of God, a God who creates, who gave us voices, and movement, and the ability to fashion language into poetry, the ability to create everything from a painting to a skyscraper. When we engage in the use of those faculties, I believe we are engaging in the most beautiful love duet of all time with the Creator of the Universe.

Like a symphony that moves you to tears, a ‘pas de deux’ that leaves you in awe of the synchronicity of the dancer’s movements, a poem or a sonnet that elevates words of an adoring lover to their highest form, a piece of art that stirs your imagination, a good book that draws you into a fantastical world; like the beautiful and sometimes cheesy love duets that we all grew up singing in Disney movies, or stirring arias of passion in a Puccini opera – THESE are a foreshadowing of heaven. They are a glimpse into the creative mind of God, who created us, placed us here in the world at this moment in time, and gave us a command: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength’ – and how best does one express that love in a triumphant combination of all four of those elements, but in the arts?

And the second half of that commandment – ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Our art has the opportunity to challenge ourselves and our audience on how we can better love our neighbor. What could be more important?

I’ll close with this: In the film ‘Dead Poets Society’, Robin Williams’ character tells his students, ‘We don’t read and write poetry because its cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.’

Whether as a participant, a patron, or just an appreciator, I cannot encourage you enough to invest yourself in the arts. What do you stand to gain?
Empathy. Imagination. Worship.
We don’t need the arts to survive. We need the arts to live; and there is a difference.