All things symbolize. Learning to encounter God through the symbolic can become a core part of our spiritual lives! To know him through art, cities, nations–to read them as expressions of aspects of His Being is such an exciting adventure of life and exploration, which allows us to see one another and our world as part of God’s art!
God wants us to be able to read the symbols of our personal lives as well as the symbols of our world. People create symbols, as we are made in His Image. To learn to read symbols is a worthy journey, not just for artists but for each of us.
For some time, i have been exploring the relation between cultures and symbols. My father studied anthropology–collective rituals and the desire humans have to make communal symbols, which can be shared and understood. At university, i also studied religious symbols and the need each culture has to make symbols of transcendence.
Often we see that certain rituals or even transcendent symbols “drift” away from their original source, and get lost in terms of meaning. So for example, in church services, we no longer understand why we sit and stand at certain moments in a service. But God wants to help us re-attach these symbols to their meaning. This restorational process has to do with the creative life being re-integrated with the core identity of people and places.
So that both individually and collectively, people and places can start to symbolize from who they trully are. Then we are able to trace the symbols back into core identity and celebrate this expression of a part of who God is.
God’s art is integrative. His creativity is connected in Himself to His other aspects. For He is one. He also desires that we be one! For this reason, art is not separated from business or athletics in His Eyes as they are in the world, but are different dimensions of who He is.
When we look at the world, we see about five global cultures–art, military, athletic, religious, business. These five aspects of His expression are present everywhere. They each have “fallen” or broken expression on earth now, but each, redeemed, have aspects of Himself He wants to express.
(Military–His Might for behold He comes in might and glory on horses etc; Athletic–for see His speed and the angels rushing in flames of light; Religious–behold the temple building and the various tabernacles, festivals and pilgrimages; Business–what is fair that he might exchange with the good samaritan, for He exchanged goods fairly in justice etc; and then art, for in the beginning, God created; Jesus timing was also always symbolic right up until His death in relation to the jewish holidays etc.)
Some friends don’t like the thought of God being athletic or military, but we must see beyond the broken versions of these on earth, to see what purified aspects they reflect of God. Clearly, scripture describes Him as Mighty and “Lord of Hosts”–but see for yourself and ponder.
GOD IS ONE–He is integrated and an integrator:
All these aspects of God are one and related and integrated in Him, as we can see in the life of Jesus, who was the “exact expression of the Father”. He wants the same for us. For we are an expression of Him. We may emphasize or amphlify one or another of these aspects in our lives, but each can be present as part of Him. God desires an integrative expression of Himself on earth in people, cities and nations–in short, in the entire planet.
In our personal spiritualities, God wants to know us and meet us in our creative lives as He does every other aspect of our beings. If this area is stunted or split off, we miss out on another area where we can and should be meeting and knowing God. My passion is to help others meet God through their creative lives and to bring this part of themselves back to Him and into active dialogue with the one who made it. As we do, we also get to know this amazing part of God Himself–the one who created the world. Jesus came to guide us home, to tear down the inner dividing walls so that we could know the Father in every area of our lives. This includes our creative area. We are in this sense all artists called to know God as artists!
What is important is how to trace the symbol back to its source–the identity of the thing itself. When we look at a city, and read it’s core symbols, we are reading to find out who that city is. When we look at a cathedral, we are reading to find out who the church is. No less, in our own lives, when we create art, we are tracing these symbolic gesttures we create, as ones in the image of a creative God, to find out who we are. Then also, we ourselves are symbols made by a God who is symbolic. Ultimately, it is our aim to get to know this symbolizing God and what He has said about Himself through symbols. And to know ourselves–by extension–as symbol makers.
The earth is God’s expression. It has a symbolic dimension in which God is communicating something about Himself. We are made in His Image, so also create symbols from our core identities. We can see this in reading cities, nations, regions. What are they symbols of that region or city or nation and what do they say about the core identiies of those who live there. The symbolic is one dimension of Reality as God made it, and it is worth it to learn to read this dimension.
“When I look at the world, I see an expression” Bono, the irish singer puts it. And David echoes this in Psalm 139, one of the greatest written songs about the identity of the earth and humanity, and God’s celebration of Himself through His Creation. God has clearly symbolized Himself through His creation, and as we trace it into Him, we are amazed at all there is to know and love of who He is.
Scriptures again call us His “poems” worth reading, worth tracing into who God is. In this way each person, city or nation become a way of knowing God. Each, a reflection of some amazingly unique aspect of Divinity–an expression of some nuance of His Being.
This is why we do not hate one another, or the many nations–for we see them a broken reflection of who God is. And we want to know and love this reflection, this aspect of His Identity.
We make art, because we are symbolizers, creators. In creativity, we find play, energy, God’s life principle, as well as discovery, innovation, possibility and hope! We make art because we are made in the image of God who made art–us for one. We are His art. So we must learn how to navigate the symbolic as a way of knowing ourselves and knowing our Source. Art is part of what we are, and is therefore part of who God is.
So learning to read a city’s architecture is not just a matter of cultural studies or history, though it is that; it is a spiritual matter–a way of meeting and knowing God who created us.
The universities, and unfortunately, many churches and even the art world itself, have mystified art. When we start with who God and who we are, and then look at “art”, a different, less fuzzy picture emerges. He is symbolic. He is symbolizing Himself. We are symbolic, we too symbolize. We want to know God, so we must understand the nature of symbolic communication.
Symbols are just one dimension of God’s communication of Himself, but an important one. Through symbols God speaks more densely of Himself–one image can often hold many revelations of meanings. You see a symbol like the cross spoking out in many dimensions in revealing so many aspects of who Christ was. Or a simplier symbol of the parting of a particular river, revealing multiple but not infinite meanings. God is a communicator, and wants to be understood.
Art is not just mystery, though at times, it trails into it. For God Himself has mystery and hiddeness. And artists have historically always been drawn to the unknown, the mysterious, the hidden. Why is this? Because He has these dimensions in His personality.
When I first went to visit Notre Dame, i felt the arches trailing into mystery. I felt that even the many artists who built it did not understand its full significance when they sketched from dream and vision their images of what they wanted stone and glass to express. Often, it is like this as we create, we are not sure what we are exploring until much later. We see an image emerge in paint or glass, and only afterwards do we recognize the patterns of meaning we were entranced in as we created. This happens to me often as i paint.
What were these artist actually saying about the identity of the church itself? What did these high ceilinged arches and angelic crests reveal about her heavenly home. What is this cathedric vision. There is so much to read when looking at a cathedral! So much to listen to visually about ourselves, and about God.
Later in my life, i visited Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona. Here is an entirely different cultural and individual expression of cathedral, and yet, when tracing it home to its source, some of the same meanings came clear. The cultural expression being unique, but the universal significance of building to symbolize the church remained with me. There is something of trascendence planted on the earth in both. There is something about the practical meeting the impossible–the sand meeting the stars; the salt meeting the light in these buildings.
As we begin to read architecture, the cities and nations themselves symbolically, we can learn more and more of who God is, and who we are. When we look at one another, our cities and nations as reflections or symbols of God, a whole new way of seeing opens to us–one in which we are no longer in opposition to the universe–or one another- but one in which we are humble children in a grand garden of His Expression, coming to know the one who made us, coming to know the one who loves us, coming to know the one we ultimately love.
If we come to art, as a way of getting to know God and by extension ourselves, we come to see creativity in an essential way as a part of who we are, and a part of who God is. We also are then freed to look at the architecture and art and the nations themselves as symbolic reflections of a creative God. Then, we can read each’s symbols back into their true identities and be part of the restoration of God’s symbolic dimension on the earth. This is the larger context for the creative life of artists on earth, but also part of the global restoration of His Kingdom expression. As the Kingdom presses in, we will see a clearer contrast between the broken off symbol and the integrative symbol. We can labour, with Christ, to be part of His global restoration of His Own Symbolic expression of the planet.
The prophetic movement over the past 30 years in the church is just one sign of the beginning of this global symbolic restoration. We also see it in the art world, and amongst the cities. The desire to “remember” the significance of central symbols in our towns and cities. To recall what they meant and what part of identity they came from. In short, to reattach the creative lives of a people or place to the vital identity that God gave them to reflect. We see the olympics stirring up this desire in places like China. We see the German flag finally being waved again at world cup ceremonies. We see the berlin wall coming down, and the desire to make a new symbol in its place. We see the erecting of the Freedom Tower. We see the cathedral of healing of aids victims in Africa. We see the life of Martin Luther King and his labour to overcome racism in America. We see the emergence of patial, but hopeful symbols globally–just as we see the banners of pornography and sex-trade and disintegration also simultaneously raised. But this was to be expected. Scripture told us the two would come in stark contrast. Ours is the battle for symbolic restoration. Let us choose it personally and collectively.
We are not always patient for the emergence of God’s symbols on the earth. We tend to rush ahead. But as artist, and as those concerned that His Kingdom come asap–we must be patient and labour as His images get reattached to the core identies of people, cities and nations. We must want to see them whole as He does, and once we do, to labour for that fuller expression! That is the prophetic work of the artists, motivated by the desire that God could express Himself less interruptedly through us, in us, and out onto His earth!
As God becomes more incarnate in us in these times–as the Kingdom presses IN, we will sense His symbolic life becoming increasingly “real” in and to us. As HIS imagination becomes more tangible–we will remember how to read again, how to interpret again and how to dream, paint and create! And we will begin to be able to see the true “reading” of our cities and nations symbolically, being willing then to labour for a fuller expression of their identities. So that the world can see a clearer picture of God. That is our motivation–to present an accurate picture of God–that was what Jesus did, and that is what He wants to do in and through us. This is part of His entering more immanently in our day. As He presses in, the partial passes and we start to taste the fuller–in the area of the arts and the symbolic dimension this grows increasingly exciting!