The Case for Art

When I say “art,” I am referring to the broadest scope of possibilities available for this word. If your “art” happens to be painting, good for you: We have mental imagery and a shared understanding for what the work and habits of a painter might look like. But someone else’s art might relate to a cause, a group, a place, a skill, a realm of knowledge, or a special burden that person has chosen to shoulder. It is impossible to define or delineate all the aims or undertakings that might call to a person. Yet I refer to this calling as “art” because it is specifically not commerce and not an obligation. It is the thing you would do whether or not anyone else understands why.

Nor is this thing a “passion.” There is nothing passionate or passion-like about the art I am describing. It is quiet and unassuming. It is not at all obsessive; it is not at all intense. If any reasonable person voiced any reasonable cause why we should quit our art, we would quit—and feel relieved to do so. Indeed, those with art in their lives quit all the time! The art is the thing that keeps coming back within the incompleteness after one has given it up, whispering to again have a place.

Why should we pursue our art? Why should we give time and attention to personal pursuits that call from out of the most individual parts of who we are? One answer is because this is the voice of God. Not God speaking with sentences and syntax, but God speaking his wish for you in terms of the way he made your mind and heart, and the interests he planted there. When we are given freedom by virtue of awakening into faith, part of that freedom is permission to go after what God has given us to pursue. Even if no one else understands why, he does. Art is our way of being in his company.

But there are more practical advantages as well. The question of why to pursue our art—why to give time and attention to it in the face of so many other pressing things to do—can be answered even with no mention of the divine, which is the case with most (not all) of the points below.

Why should you pursue your art? Seven reasons:

1. Defiance

What kind of world do you want to have? It is easy to succumb to the pressure to allow all of the time to be filled by pursuits that fit the context of work, obligations, passive recreation, and the forms of busyness that all of our neighbors and associates can understand. But shouldn’t the world and its possibilities be bigger than this? If you think so, then it falls in part to you to push back with your own choices and help pry open this bigness.

2. Children

Perhaps counter-intuitively, once you become a parent and thereby have less free time, it becomes more important, not less, for you to give some time to your art. You want your children to understand that they have the right to be themselves, and so you must model the exercise of this right for them to see.

3. Joy

That stillest part of the self is the place where joy lives. It requires the effort of our permitting and cultivating self-expression in order for joy to flourish. Happiness is fine as well, and the experience we routinely call happiness is a passable substitute for joy, albeit a fleeting one. Joy is something richer and more solid, with a greater power to affect the world.

4. Imagination

Here is the most immediately practical of all of the arguments for art. When my attention is given over to this peaceful and non-obligatory pursuit, I am removed for moments at a time from the grasp of my anxieties. Sometimes, answers to problems in my “real life” come to me that I could not have seen while in that real life’s fearful grip.

5. Vulnerability

Offhand, this one sounds like a risk of art rather than a virtue, and maybe that’s what it is. To express the authentic self is to allow that self to be exposed. Yet living without being exposed is not living strong, it’s just living shielded. By making ourselves vulnerable, we grow stronger from the experience of seeing that the vulnerability is survivable.

6. Connection

It’s not generally given to us to understand the “why” of our art. We just have the interest, the inspiration, the call—and what purpose it might serve belongs to God. But whatever that purpose is, it almost certainly entails other people. Pursuing our art and even struggling with it makes it possible for the art or struggle to find these people: those who might be a part of the pursuit, those who might help or encourage us, or those we might encourage or help. Our art is, among other things, a signal. It is the flare that might identify the artist to a potential ally, or the light that might help some other artist see the way to continue or begin.

7. Philippians 4:8

Paul includes this appeal to his listeners within the closing of his letter to the Philippians: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.”

The enemy is in our heads. At least it’s in mine. In my experience, there are so many ways to get anxious, so many ways to feel bent out of shape, so many ways to get greedy, so many ways to feel entitled, so many ways to resent, so many ways to smolder and churn with either anger or fear. Our art offers a better way than all of this. The mental clutter and corrosion might simply be an inevitable part of our passage through this world, and it won’t go away on its own. But the art offers something to replace it with, something better and richer to which to give my thoughts, aims, and attention, as well as some of my resources and even some of the energy of my self.

Art is a way we follow Paul’s advice. Again, I don’t know what your art is—and maybe you are still finding it—but it is something true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. Further, it is something that was given to you by God for the benefit of this world, and for the enrichment of your life within it.


The official start of fall came two weeks ago and the cooler air came not long after that. Autumn is a wonderful time to surrender.

I have been neglecting to add anything new to this blog for a long time, because I have been giving my free time and attention to a big project: another book.

When people interested in my writing ask when I will next have a new book to share, I have been telling them, “Sometime in 2016.” Back in February, the vagueness of that answer seemed to give me a wide and comfortable margin. Now that it’s October, I see I am not going to fulfill such narrow timing.

The onset of cool evenings provides a welcome break from the relentlessness of the possibilities of warm and sunny days. I can now see that some of my aims for improvements around the yard and house, for example, will remain unfulfilled for a while longer. I can see that many of my hopes for sharing bright days with my tender family were realized (thank You), but that we have now segregated ourselves back again into the separate rhythms of work and school. Whatever the summer was this year, it is now done. Whatever to-do lists I had for this summer, they are at an end. Autumn is a wonderful time to surrender—so wonderful that I question how people in parts of the world without seasons manage to deal with their overreaching ambition. The arrival of cool evenings is a reminder of the presence of grace.

This book I have been working on is sitting here beside me on my desk, in the form of a thick unbound stack of pages. I had hoped it might be finished. It is not. Parts of it are tinny and parts are incomplete. The subject matter it deals with is sufficiently difficult that perhaps the book has not yet faced that subject as well as it might. I still have work to do.

And meanwhile, it has become important to me to recognize I still have this work to do and make peace with it. I don’t want the work of this book to be relentless anymore. Among other things, I would like to return to this blog and leave time for at least occasionally posting here.

In my next post, I think I would like to explore why a struggle like the one I am describing—wrestling with a book in my case, wrestling with different artistic burdens in others' cases—is worth taking on.

Weirdness (Audio)

What does a Christian believe? People assume they know. They deeply assume they know—just as I would have assumed the very same before I knew differently.

The general formulation of what a Christian believes goes something like this: “If you are a good person and you make a decision to believe in Jesus, then you will go to heaven after you die.”

I placed that formulation in quotes because the interesting thing about it is that every element of that statement is at least questionable or incomplete. Taken as a whole, that formulation almost entirely misses the point.

These drawings relate to the opening moment
of my talk. I use the analogy of a two-dimen-
sional creature who can move only along a flat
surface (as the arrows show) to suggest how
Jesus transcended three-dimensional space in
the ability he demonstrated to enter a closed
room. As I mention in my talk, scripture is
peppered with this weirdness, which points to
something profound.
I recently had a chance to speak about this to the Village Church of Mariemont. Listen to the audio at the link below. The voice you will hear from the beginning of the audio is mine (no introduction is included), then the different voice you hear at the very end of this audio file is that of the Village Church’s pastor, Todd Keyes.

My title for the talk was “The Weirdness of Christianity.” Follow this link to listen. What we actually believe as Christians is as strange as it is simple.

(Link will take you to a new screen. You might need to hit the download icon at the top of that screen before audio will play.)

Beatitudes (Audio)

The Beatitudes are a distinctive passage of scripture. The passage is familiar to most people—it begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and proceeds into a list of several other “Blessed are” statements, including “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Yet most people are also fuzzy on what Jesus is saying here, and unclear about why he began the Sermon on the Mount with these odd-sounding lines.

I recently had the chance to speak about the Beatitudes at the Village Church of Mariemont. In the audio at the link below, the voice you’ll hear introducing me is that of Todd Keyes, the Village Church’s pastor.

Listen here to my talk about the Beatitudes.

(Link will take you to a new screen. You might need to hit the download icon at the top of that screen before audio will play.)

Miracles and Science (My Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather’s Book)

Francis Jones Lamb wrote one the best books on the subject of miracles that I have ever come across. I might be biased, but I don’t think so—the family connection is not that close. Born in 1825, Lamb is my great grandfather’s great grandfather. I learned about him and his 1909 book, Miracles and Science, only this year.

He was a lawyer. His book draws on this background to address the question of the credibility of the Bible’s accounts of miraculous events. Specifically, he notes that the Bible satisfies our own society’s legal definition of a document that qualifies as credible evidence.

The Bible is not like other religious texts. It does not claim to have been delivered from beyond or above. The New Testament, in particular, is not made up of claims of revelation (the sole exception being the one book that goes by that name), but instead it consists of accounts and letters that refer to events that were known to witnesses at the time.

Our own system of law occasionally refers to documents of just this sort. In Lamb’s 19th century, for example, land that had been in one family’s possession for generations might have had no documentation formally detailing the ownership, and no living witnesses to describe how and under what terms the land was obtained. Legal disputes related to this ownership were therefore resolved by looking to ancient letters and other accounts, to try to fathom what people at the time seemed to believe about the property. With regard to ancient questions, the law considers this to be reasonable proof, because it is the highest-quality evidence that we can expect to obtain across a large gulf of time.

Similarly, the New Testament’s gospels and letters constitute reasonable proof of the events to which they refer. We would certainly have far better evidence of these events if we had camera footage from 2,000 years ago or a 2,000-year-old eyewitness who was still alive to speak. But because this kind of evidence does not exist and cannot exist, it is unreasonable to demand it. The most reasonable response to the long-accepted accounts of Jesus’ life is to regard these accounts as credible, including the accounts of the works that he and his followers did. Thus we can reasonably assume that the people in the first century saw miracles.

Meanwhile, we do not see miracles. This is the other major issue Lamb confronts. Christian writers and speakers often try to close the distance between biblical times and our time by leaving open the question of whether miracles can occur today. They do this by softening the definition of what constitutes a miracle. However, an event that is merely unlikely, even if it is an answer to prayer, does not match the miracles the Bible portrays. Jesus and his immediate followers did not do the unlikely; they did the impossible. Water turned to wine, people spontaneously healed, and one man (actually two men, for a brief moment) walked on the surface of a lake. Moreover, these events were not in dispute. Many of these events were performed publicly in front of numerous witnesses, and the miraculous nature of the events was so undeniable that doubters were turned around by what they saw (John 10:38). Today, supernatural events of this kind of clarity and renown are not happening. Why this difference?

Why do miracles occur in the Bible but do not seem to occur within the lives we live today?

The interesting thing about this question is that it contains its own answer.

In the Old Testament, when God spoke a message for Moses to give to Pharaoh, God expected Pharaoh to ask for a miracle as proof. He prepared Moses to answer this request. In Pharaoh’s sight, Moses was to turn a rod into a living snake (Exodus 7:9).

In the New Testament, when Jesus drove moneychangers from the temple, the Jews asked him, “What miracle do you do to show that you have this authority?” (John 2:18).

Throughout the Bible, in other words—in Old Testament and New—this one principle related to God speaking seems deeply established. Namely: If God expresses his will, there is a miracle to confirm that this is indeed God speaking.

At the temple, Jesus answered the Jews’ question. It was apparently a valid question to ask.

And with Moses, God did not regard Pharaoh as impudent for asking for confirmation. On the contrary, he readied Moses to give this confirmation.

The picture that emerges from these two biblical episodes, and from other passages Lamb cites, is that looking for a miracle to confirm God speaking is reasonable and necessary prudence. If there is no miracle to accompany a divine message, then it is not a divine message.

Why did the people living in biblical times experience miracles? Because they were living in biblical times! The Bible was being written. While God did not speak the Bible in terms of dictating it, its text is God-infused or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible's contents, these certain documents out of the first century and before, contain timeless truth and spiritual truth, ultimately conveying more and providing for more than what their authors imagined when they were writing or dictating them. The miracles of the first century, performed in many cases by biblical authors, serve to ratify that these were inspired times. That inspiration reaches us today through texts that were recorded within this period.

In a small way, my ancestor’s book also came to stand for something more than what its author imagined it to be, because I am now left with the awareness that publishing books after thinking about scripture is a quirk that recurs in my bloodline. The book is old enough that it's in the public domain—modern editions consist of just image after image of the pages of someone’s original 1909 copy. (Actually, I love this.) A free digital version of these images-as-pages is available through Google, but I found the book hard to read in this form. I purchased a print edition, which is essentially a softcover stack of high-quality photocopies of the original pages. The publisher, Nabu Press, apparently specializes in reprinting public-domain works in this way. I am not affiliated with the publisher and know nothing more than this about the company, but the edition that I purchased is available here.


The fear of the Lord is not just a trembling concern for the prospect of God’s retribution. Maybe it’s not that at all.

The Lord deliberately made you (Psalm 139:13-16). He places particular desires within your heart (Psalm 37:4). He sets captives free (Luke 4:18).

To take up this freedom ought to bring boldness. To seek the heart’s own desire within a life made by God ought to bring joy. The beginning of fearing the Lord, and perhaps the middle and the end of it as well, is to stop fearing other things.


Here is what the material world is all about: death.

The certainty of death encircles and limits everything we do. There is not only the certainty that each life will end in death, but also the certainty that everything that exists will eventually somehow end—whether through dissolution, decay, destruction, or some other loss. Everything vanishes into the void.

Here is what Jesus is all about: life.

Describing his aim and his mission, he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

He repeatedly used the phrase “eternal life.” Famously, he used this phrase in John 3:16. We read that biblical phrase, “eternal life,” and we think of heaven. However, during those times in scripture when Jesus was clearly and directly talking about an afterlife in heaven, he did not use this phrase. He spoke of “paradise” (Luke 23:43) and “my Father’s house” (John 14:2). “Eternal life” is some concept that is distinct from this.

The Greek word in the Bible we translate as “eternal” is aionios. According to the concordance I have closest to hand, a more precise translation would be “perpetual,” which is a slightly different term. I would like to suggest the translation “timeless.”

The very reason we have time is because we have death. According to physicists, the directionality of linear time—that is, the sequence we’re locked into, in which one event follows another event in an order that can’t be reversed—is defined by entropy. Entropy is the tendency toward irreversible decay that is built into the nature of everything made of matter or energy. Through entropy, everything is fundamentally falling apart. What we experience as time is the shadow of entropy’s progression. Thus, we who live inside of linear time are, quite truly, passing through the valley of the shadow of death.

Yet here is what Jesus knows that physics does not: Get beyond this realm in which entropy rules, this realm in which death governs the system, and what you find outside the limits of this realm is not nothing, but life.

Moreover, what lies beyond the boundaries of this world is real life—abundant life—because it is completely unbeholden to time.

“Life after death” does not say nearly enough to describe it. “After” is still a time word. “After” leaves the life still subject to time, still bound inside of death. What Jesus brought could more fittingly be described as “life beyond death,” because now that we know the truth, now that we know about the ultimateness of life, we can look past the rulership of death in this very moment. We can look past it to the life that is timeless, and therefore indestructible, and therefore with us not only after this world is done but also right now. Indestructible life is the certainty that supersedes whatever aspect of death or loss os entropy is taking something away from us today.

We cannot envision this fully. The very brains with which we think are bound within linear time. But when the living God entered physicality as one of us, he conveyed the message as pointedly as it could be conveyed within the realm we do understand. When Jesus died and stood up alive outside the grave, he made two things clear: (1) death is not the final ruler of things and (2) the living God is. Scripture says that if you can get your head and heart around just the essence of these two ideas, then you will be saved from this world’s futility. See Romans 10:9.

In allowing humanity and history to witness his resurrection, Jesus opened a window in the material world. That window had always been there, and maybe a few people such as Enoch had found it, but for all of the rest of us, death was blocking the view. In rising from the dead, Jesus opened a window in the world to reveal the transcendent and welcome truth of the way reality actually works.

Looking through this window, we see that life wins. Death does not contain us. It is a joyful discovery. Free of the subjugation, free of grasping for temporary victories in a losing war, we can at last change direction and live a different way. Death (and entropy, and time), where is thy sting? Death does not contain us, and seeing this, we can also see the next point, which is that death does not have to constrain us.

These Words

The most important fact in all of reality is that God exists. What are you to do with this fact?

From more than 3,000 years ago, here is quite possibly the ultimate writing on the subject:

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. —Deuteronomy 6:4-7

A few observations about this passage:

1. “You shall love the Lord…” leads directly to “… and these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.” Compare that with Jesus’ words: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In Old Testament and New, in documents written about 1,500 years apart, we find these two statements of the same idea—that the way to love God is to value highly and take seriously what he has said to us. (Indeed, the source of the two statements was the same. Jesus said Moses, traditional author of the passage above, was in fact writing about him—John 5:46).

2. Look at the activities mentioned in the passage above. They include sitting, walking, sleeping, waking. Meanwhile, there is no mention of any mountaintop experience, no mention of ritual. God, the creator of each day, is the author of our everyday lives. The mundane is not boring to him. He invites us into a life in which simple activities are lit up with sacredness, with nearness to him.

3. Are we to obey the words of the Lord’s commands? Strikingly, the passage above does not literally say this. It says we are to revere and treasure the commands—these words shall be in your heart. Perhaps this is because, as sinners, it is impossible that we would perfectly obey. We are instead called to be transformed by loving what God has said, and treating it as holy enough to aspire to be true to it. Even in the line attributed to Jesus in point #1 above, the original Greek word was tereo, which has the sense of “guard” rather than “obey.” “You shall keep my commandments” (emphasis mine) is how the King James expresses it.

4. You shall teach them diligently to your children. We have a generational responsibility. This treasure we keep is to be passed to its next possessors and guardians, and we are to do this diligently.

5. How do we treasure the treasure? The plain answer, out of the passage above, is that we revere the treasure at least in part by talking about it. The Deuteronomy passage entails considerable talking. The Law of scripture is, in this respect, considerably different from the sets of regulations that make up human laws. The Ten Commandments are concise and straightforward on the surface, yet flower with implication and meaning the more they are examined, the more they are discussed. Anyone claiming to know God’s Law so well and so fully that discussion was at an end would be contradicting scripture.

E-Books, Printed Books, and Axes

If I love a hardcopy book, then chances are good that I will still have that book in 20 years. I can pull that book down from my shelf and revisit whatever notes I wrote in the margins when I first wrestled with its ideas.

If I love an e-book, chances are not as good that I will still have it in 20 years. For digital media, 20 years is a long time. Across that length of time, it is likely that the e-reader I use will have been eclipsed by a different and better platform. The maker of the latest platform may or may not see value in supporting the legacy content I purchased for a different device. The “e” in e-book could stand for “ephemeral.”

As a result, I have this new consideration to factor in whenever I contemplate purchasing a book. Namely: Is this a book that has the potential to so elevate my thinking that I will want to be able to return to it, and return to the conversation I originally had with it, well into the future? Obviously, this is a tough call to make about a book I haven’t read yet.

We could call these great books “axes” in a nod to Franz Kafka. He wrote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Because of the problem of still-changing digital platforms, I tend to view books such as these as needing to be purchased and experienced in hardcopy. Axes, in other words, still need to kill trees.

I Will Give You Some Advice, and God Be With You

I’ve written about body, soul, and spirit. The Bible implies that each of our lives is comprised of these three realms. But the framework goes even farther. These three realms also account for the different priorities we follow and the different choices we make.

Here is what I mean:

1. We make emotional choices. We follow feelings or impulses founded on, say, increasing our pleasure or defending our turf. Or—this is the most common of all—we follow feelings or impulses aimed at maintaining our comfort. The emotions that arise within us tend to focus on the body.

2. We make rational choices. We choose actions and objectives based on what we think we would like to attain, and we make plans according to the best of our ability to analyze and anticipate. The thinking mind is the driver of the soul.

3. We seek to obey the will of God. Here, God makes the choice and we who believe seek to follow in it, even though what we follow is a mystery. God leads, because his knowledge and aims surpass our understanding. The means by which God moves us is through his Spirit animating our spirit.

This framework makes several things clear.

That second realm above is in tension between the other two. Rational thinking is both the saving grace and the impediment to the quality of our choices. It is a saving grace when rational thinking saves us from our emotion-driven course. It is an impediment when logic’s limited viewpoint stops us from pursuing what the Spirit would have us do. In following a leading from God, wrote Oswald Chambers, “there is no logical statement possible when anyone asks you what you are doing.”

Yet in this very tension, you can see the error we are prone to make in seeking God’s will—or at least the error I am prone to make. While the movement of the Spirit does defy logic, not everything that defies logic is a movement of the Spirit. Most of the time, the choice I have imagined to be “God’s will for me” was in fact just my own emotional bias or yearning dressed up in spiritual clothes.

Far from being emotional, in fact, the revealed will of God would actually be supra-logical. His plan would do logic one better. If you or I ever succeeded at following in his mystery without missteps, then we would see the Creator’s hand working through us to realize life, wholeness, and freedom along a surprisingly elegant path that was hidden from what our logic was able to foresee.

Along the same lines, good advice is also both a saving grace and an impediment. Sound advice from another can save me when feelings blind me, and logical advice from another can help me when I am formulating a logical plan. But advice can be dispiriting when the Spirit is advancing, because the well-intentioned giver of this advice invariably presumes to imagine what the outcome “ought” to be.

This explains the Bible’s seemingly conflicted perspective on seeking advice. According to Proverbs 15:22, plans go awry without counsel. But when Paul was trying to figure out the meaning of his conversion, he reports, “I did not immediately consult with anyone” (Galatians 1:16). Instead, he let the implications of his being called by Christ work through him for three years before he spoke with another apostle (1:18). Even in this meeting, the Bible does not record how much or how little Paul revealed.

How, then, do we give advice? How do we receive it?

I think I see a model in the way Jethro spoke to Moses in a scene out of Exodus. In this scene, Moses was wearing himself out by spending all day listening to his people’s complaints. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, thought he saw a better way.

“Now listen to me,” Jethro said in Exodus 18:19. “I will give you some advice, and God be with you.”

He then proceeded to teach Moses about delegating some of his responsibilities, to better preserve himself for the mission God had for him. It was the right counsel. In giving the advice, one man who was following God spoke out of the best of his judgment to another man who was following God, and divinely liberating instruction flowed through what was said.

God be with you. In the ways that you and I give advice, we should always be willing to say this. In the ways we hear advice, we should always submit to this expectation. As givers and receivers of good but limited human counsel, let us always hope that the best of our wisdom, and perhaps even something better than our own understanding, will find its way into what we hear and say.