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We will never in this world, nor perhaps in the next, fully appreciate the cataclysm that was the coming of Jesus Christ. John speaks of His redefining all the fundamental categories of religion (16:8ff.). But every corner of the realm of human effort felt the impact as well. Despite much popular teaching to the contrary, all our institutions were transformed. Gender roles were reshaped. Slaves became free and free men took upon themselves the title of slaves for Christ. In Jesus, all was fulfilled or shattered and radically redefined. From that point on, it is the incarnation that gives shape and meaning to all our understanding. Nothing and no one will ever, could ever, be the same. Jesus’ coming didn’t usher in a better world but a totally new one. It is a truth so large I cannot imagine it’s ever being overstated.
When we come to the arena of music and the arts, the surface of the life of Jesus barely betrays a ripple. He leaves behind no artifacts, no paintings; only scribbling in the sand (John 8:6–8). No great symphonies; we hear Him singing only once (Mark 14:26). This is not to overlook the luminous parables that have transcended time, but when you look closely at His life you become convinced of what Frederick Buechner said, “Jesus came, not simply to speak words that were true, but to make us true.” His works of art were a series of perfect interactions with people like Nicodemus, the woman at the well, or Simon Peter. Jesus left living works of art (poiema) in His wake — possibly even you and me. In the same way that He filled with new meaning every other area of life, so too we must come to understand that the arts have been transformed and redefined as well in light of the incarnation. But as with everything else, it is an unexpected transformation, a door opening to a world we would have never dreamed possible.
Paul provides the perfect frame through which we can take our first glimpse into this unexpected new perspective on making art. Appropriately enough it is in the form of an ancient lyric found in Philippians 2: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 5–11, emphasis mine).
Paul is writing to a group of first-century Christians who were beginning to lose sight of what the incarnation was all about. False teachers had begun to preach that Jesus had only “seemed” to come in the flesh. This heresy, referred to as “docetism” in later years, would trouble the church for centuries.
In the face of this confusion, Paul sings them a song about the unimaginable incarnation. It is a hymn with only one opening verse and a single chorus. In the opening of the hymn (vv. 6–8), the shocking, unexpected categories of incarnation are first introduced; humility, servant-hood and obedience. The single verse provides the foundation for the overflowing praise of the chorus in verses 9–11. The darker themes of suffering servant-hood provide the prelude to the dazzling light of lordship and universal worship. It was badly-needed theology in the form of a song that could be learned and sung again and again. Theology, good and bad, is usually sung before it is written. In light of our present discussion, humility, servant-hood and obedience provide the basis for a new perspective on excellence in the arts, a point of view that can only be provided by the incarnation of Christ. Let’s look at them individually, trying to see how they fit into this new “incarnational” perspective on the arts.
The world sees art as a matter of self-indulgence, of self-expression. Artists are the ones who get the glory. In fact, we are willing to overlook every sort of outlandish behavior from those who are deemed “artistic.” Humility, as defined by the world, is often understood as a barrier to true artistry.
But all that has changed — changed simply because our perfect Paradigm, “made himself nothing.” “He humbled himself,” sings Paul, and by so doing he actualized a new possibility for art as a vehicle for hidden-ness for the artist. Humility, which in Christ simply means knowing who you really are, becomes an ally to the artists. This is the freedom of which Paul spoke in Colossians 3:3, being hidden in Christ. This hidden-ness was taken for granted in the early Renaissance. It didn’t even occur to artists that they should sign their works. Michelangelo carving his name across the front of his first pieta was seen as an exception to the rule.
By “taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7), Jesus shattered the expectations of those who were looking for another sort of Messiah. They thought the Christ would have servants, not be one. They could imagine their messiah killing the Romans, not dying for them. But Jesus, dressed as a slave with basin and towel in hand, confounded all their expectations. Jesus, standing on the shore after the resurrection, with wounded hands, next to the fire with fish and bread, the risen Lord still servant to His disciples, was beyond anyone’s imagination.
In the same way, Jesus has made possible a depth of meaning and purpose in art that we could have never dreamed of. In His wake came the new and exciting possibility of art and music that knows no other purpose but to wash the feet of the world. Songs and poems and paintings can serve as bread for a hungry world. Once we’ve caught a glimpse of this new vision for art, how could we ever settle for less? In fact, since His coming, it might even be said that art that does not reach for this paradigm has lost some, if not all, of its meaning.
“Obedient to the point of death,” Paul’s poem states, “even death on a cross.” It is precisely at this point, the nexus of the chiasm (a literary device used in literature), that the verse ends and the chorus of praise (vv. 9–11) begins. Jesus’ radical obedience is understood to be the key to it all — His life as well as our salvation.
This idea of radical obedience contains a new hope for art and music as well — another sort of salvation. Behind the concept of obedience is the notion of the “Other,” the one to whom I owe obedience. That Presence must always be acknowledged in and through any creative work, be it art, music, or dance, because from that Other comes the call, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “makes everything possible.” Here the world of the artist is transformed into a lifestyle of listening, of waiting, of a new familiarity with silence.
The “therefore” with which verse nine opens represents the tremendous hinge upon which everything turns. The “humility” of the verse is transformed to the exaltation of the chorus. The “servant- hood” of the verse becomes the undeniable lordship of Jesus, before whom every knee shall bow. We catch a glimpse of the radical reversal, the unexpected transformation that the incarnation represents, and the fullness of meaning overflows in praise to Him.
But Paul has, in a manner of speaking, “wounded us from behind for edification” has he not? Just look at verse five: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” That is, make humility, servant-hood, and obedience a part of the way you think. Allow this “incarnation song” to disrupt and undo your old value systems. Understand that this Christlikeness is meant to transform the way you understand and create art.
Perhaps we could explain away Paul’s radically transforming vision and its application to our own lives, except for the fact that Jesus Himself has applied these categories to us: “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). And “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26).
And so, when the question of striving for excellence in the arts is voiced, we cannot help but hear the song of Philippians 2:6–11 echoing in our ears. We discover that “striving” has been redefined as “working as servants.” We begin to see that “excellence” now means “whatever reflects the glory of the incarnate One.” Nothing will ever be the same. How could it be?