By: Steven Tuell
A former student told me this story about a conversation overheard at her seminary. A classmate said that she had always loved Roman Catholic cathedrals: dim and cool and beautiful, illumined with jewel-colored stained glass, they had always felt to her like holy places. Her professor replied, “I prefer the hard, clear light of reason.” In that exchange, I think, is everything that is wrong with Protestantism. We sometimes treat people as though they were disembodied heads—as though faith were just a matter of having the right ideas about God and sin and the world, and not at all concerned with sight or sound or smell or touch. We act, for all the world, as if our God had never become embodied like us in the person of Jesus, sharing with us this world of beauty that God created and called good. An incarnation faith, to the contrary, recognizes that through our senses, in the arts, God communicates in ways deeper than reason.
The Hebrew Bible celebrates the power of the arts in deep and profound ways. Consider Bezalel of Judah and Oholiab of Dan (Exod 35:30–35 CEB). They were not preachers, sages, or scribes, but metal-workers, gem-cutters, wood-carvers, weavers, embroiderers: in a word, artists. Yet the text says of each of them, “The Lord has filled him with the divine spirit” (Exod 35:31)! Indeed, in the NRSV, these two are said to be teachers inspired by God (Exod 35:34; the Hebrew reads that God “put it in [their] heart to teach”). Bezalel, Oholiab, and those whom they teach construct the tabernacle, Israel’s tent shrine, and all its accouterments according to the pattern revealed to Moses. The tabernacle, as a result, is more than a meeting place; it is a work of divinely inspired art.
Bezalel and Oholiab are not the only artists that Scripture calls divinely inspired. First Chronicles, describing the service of Levites in the temple liturgy, calls the ministry of the Levitical musicians prophecy (1 Chron 25:1, 3). The temple musician Asaph and his family prophesied by order of the king (1 Chron 25:2), while the musician Heman is called “the king’s seer” (1 Chron 25:5)—a term used elsewhere for David’s prophet Gad (2 Sam 24:11) and the prophet Amos (Amos 7:12). Playing under the inspiration of the Lord’s spirit, the temple musicians became prophets: channels of the divine word and presence.
In early Israelite prophecy, this link between prophecy and art was not unusual at all. Moses’ sister Miriam is a prophet (Exod 15:20; Num 12:1–16; 1 Chron 6:2–3; Micah 6:4), who beats a tambourine and leads the women of Israel in singing and dancing (Exod 15:20–21). In 1 Samuel 10:5 Samuel tells Saul, “…you will encounter a group of prophets coming down from the shrine preceded by harps, tambourines, flutes, and lyres. They will be caught up in a prophetic frenzy.” Caught up by the spirit of the Lord along with these prophets, Saul also prophesies (1 Sam 10:10–13). Similarly, the prophet Elisha calls for a musician, and then, “While the musician played, the Lord’s power [in Hebrew, “the hand of the LORD”] came over Elisha” (2 Kings 3:15).
The association of music with prophecy should be no surprise. After all, as much as we (rightly) emphasize the proclaimed word, few if any of us have a favorite sermon—but everyone has a favorite hymn! Music has the capacity to strike deep chords within us, and bring us to a heightened awareness of the presence, power, love, and majesty of God. As hymnist Fred Pratt Green wrote in “When in Our Music God Is Glorified”:
How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Clearly, the people of ancient Israel recognized the arts as a means of praising and encountering God. Music, sung or played; visual arts such as painting and stained glass; textural art such as sculpture, ceramics, or textiles; embodied forms such as drama, mime, or dance; even graphic novels and cinema—all can serve in our contexts too as prophecy, a means of God’s communication in and through us. Sadly, too many of our churches are, like that seminary professor my student encountered, suspicious of the arts. Others welcome art only when it is explicitly and didactically Christian: Christian movies, Christian music, Christian painting. But such expressions, even when they provide good moral or theological object lessons, often prove to be bad art! On the other hand, good art, simply by being good art, can connect us on a deep level with the beauty and order that God has woven into our world.
Good art—particularly good popular art, shared throughout our culture—can become not only a means for our people to experience God in their world, but also a means of outreach to the world. This is nothing new. Already in the second century, Justin Martyr used popular myths and legends such as the story of the Greco-Roman hero Hercules as a way to talk about Jesus. His point was not that Jesus was Hercules, of course, or that Hercules was Jesus. Rather, Justin understood that people moved by the story of the god-man Hercules and his tragic death could better understand the story of Jesus, God incarnate, and his death for us. So too, the friendship and self-sacrifice in the Harry Potter novels, the heartbreak in an Adele song, or the visual shock of Banksy’s graffiti, may become a way for us to invite others to encounter, and be encountered by, the living God.
After studying at West Virginia Wesleyan College and Princeton Theological Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Currently a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Tuell’s particular research interests are biblical prophecy, particularly the book of Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve, and the biblical literature of the early Persian Period. An ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, Tuell has served churches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Virginia. He is a member in full connection of The Western Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church, and preaches and teaches frequently throughout the area. He and his wife Wendy have three adult sons.