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The Holy Spirit and the Arts

This essay examines the Christian’s interaction with the Holy Spirit in the creation of art. We reflect on our shared doxological goal, then consider the difficult question of process, how we are to depend on the Holy Spirit to guide us from concept through production, to help us reach that goal. We consider two utilitarian approaches to dependence before endorsing an organic approach that emphasizes union with the Savior as the source and sustaining influence of our creative work. Finally, we illustrate the difference between subjectivism and objectively-based spirituality in the persons of Thomas Munzer and Martin Luther.

In the beginning of any artistic1 enterprise, we Christians who also happen to be artists brood over the unformed mass before us in much the same way as the Spirit of God hovered over the chaos at creation. The canvass, the stage, the page, stand empty. The rough-hewn stone squats undraped on the studio floor, awaiting the creator’s touch. As God’s Spirit brought order out of the confusion, so are we called to transform the emptiness before us—to spread onto the canvass, truth in living colors. To shape the formless stone in a way that will remind the world of the Rock that contains and inspires all form. To compose music that captures the echo of God singing. To direct a play or shoot a film in a way that opens a window into heaven rather than merely holding a mirror up to nature. And we share the Spirit’s purpose who, along with the Father and the Son, created the heavens and the earth: we want our art to glorify God.

“I made the earth, I created the people who live on it. It was me—my hands stretched out the sky, I give orders to all the heavenly lights” (Isa 45:12).

“The heavens declare God’s glory; the sky displays his handiwork” (Ps 19:1).

“For all things in heaven and on earth were created by him—all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him.

He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things” (Col 1:16, 18).

I enjoy reading my King James Bible where the Holy Spirit is called the Holy Ghost. I realize the occultish connotation in the word “Ghost” even when capitalized in the middle of a sentence. But it helps me think of him in new ways. I long to be Christ-haunted by the heavenly Muse, our Holy Ghost. It is he who not only hovers over us, but actually indwells us, patiently forming our spiritual substance into the image of Christ Jesus even as we try to put a spit shine on a scuffed up world. He lives in us somehow. Never leaves us. Never sleeps. He is here now, aware that I am typing, aware that you are reading. So immediate. So hauntingly available, it seems he should make more of a difference in what I produce. Patience isn’t my strong suit, and it may not be yours either. Nor is the humility that is part and parcel of not being God, even though the Lord graciously reminds us of it on a daily basis.

Where God the Holy Spirit expressed the immaterial thought of God perfectly as objective reality (the material universe), we human artists, even though filled with the same creative Spirit, struggle with an imperfect understanding of beauty, imperfect skills, and imperfect tools: is the chisel sharp enough, is the paint the right shade of red, how hard should we strike the key, how much pressure should we exert on the bow? Given our imperfections, how can we ever hope to honor God in our work? It isn’t that we don’t try hard. In fact, trying so hard is actually part of the problem. Oddly enough, we artists who wish to communicate a worldview consistent with our Christian beliefs often attempt to produce our art using the same process the world uses.

By “process” I do not mean the technical aspects of production. The tools of the trade are available to Christian and non-Christian alike and are amoral. The Christian filmmaker uses the same film stock as the agnostic. The Christian pianist uses the same piano as the atheist. No instrument, no tool has any moral quality in and of itself. These tools will simply serve to translate the artist’s immaterial thoughts into something more corporeal and sensate.

Nor do I mean by “process” the discipline required to use these tools effectively. Technical excellence requires disciplined study and rehearsal even among the gifted. By “process” I mean the way in which we draw upon the inner resources that inspire and ultimately guide our exercise. The question before us regards the “how” of art at a deeper level. Not “upon what or whom do we depend?” for the Christian’s facile answer is, “the Holy Spirit, of course!” But “how, in what way, do we depend on him?” The temptation for the Christian artist is to depend on the Holy Spirit of God in one of two ways: either as another tool or as a lackey.

The Holy Spirit as Holy Tool

Here, he functions as a sort of magic brush—given by God to make our art “special” in some spiritual sense that we secretly hope will translate into a larger advance, a bigger contract. So our attitude toward the Holy Tool can be as banal, as utilitarian as our attitude toward any of the other useful implements in our bag of tricks. It is a syncretistic business, this blending of a worldly approach with a spiritual purpose, and one that is doomed to produce little of eternal value, and if so, only accidentally. We are no alchemists, though we continue to use the base metals of this world in a vain attempt to create the heavenly gold of the next.

Such a mechanistic view of the Holy Spirit fails to satisfy, and it’s no surprise, given the organic union of Vine to branch in John 15. The issue isn’t really whether or not we should depend on the Holy Spirit in the artistic endeavor, but “how should we depend on him?” If we look to John 15 for an answer we discover there is no independence at all. There, the branch is either connected in a consistent, vital, life-sustaining union with the vine, or it is dead.

Even when we recognize our own frailty, it is easy to think that if we just open ourselves to the control of God’s Spirit, then we will achieve greatness as artists, producing work that will glorify God. Then God reminds us once again that he is, and we are not, sovereign. The degree to which our art will glorify God does not vary in direct proportion to our dependence on the Spirit of God in its production. That would make the “success” of our work thoroughly dependent on our own efforts. By depending on him in this way, we may achieve works of art that possess an imaginative resonance otherwise unobtainable. But that doesn’t guarantee that God will choose that work to honor himself. He may decide to honor himself through a less “Spirit-dependent” man or woman such as Balaam (Num 22), or he may work through a Spirit-filled person like Bezalel (Exod 31). God can and often does work in spite of us.

While we have no idea of how or if the Lord might choose to glorify himself through our artistic offerings, we still have an obligation to produce our works in a way that would please him. The artistic process must be spiritually based, and spiritually driven if we are to realize a spiritual purpose. We must allow God to produce his art through us—not as if we were limp gloves waiting to be filled by the Divine hand, nor as lifeless instruments waiting to be manipulated, but as children who actually participate with our heavenly Father in a dynamic creative process. And he has given us everything we need to accomplish our purpose.

God, the Master Artisan2, provides in this phenomenal universe limitless material for contemplation, as well as the material tools fit for the work of composition: palette, brush, chisel, pen, and in the person of the artist, balance, voice, imagination, a sense of timing. Artists learn the discipline of their craft to manipulate these and a host of other tools in a wide variety of media in order to achieve the desired effect—the translation of an immaterial idea into objective reality. Virtually any dedicated individual can gain access to these tools and learn how to use them. One needn’t be a Christian to master the techniques, the mechanics of the artisan. It is simply a matter of learning how to draw the brush across the canvass.

But humankind is more than a robot, and art is more than the result of assembly line mechanics. God has breathed into humans the breath of life, and in that breath we have absorbed the image of God in the immaterial essence of soul, spirit, mind, heart, and conscience, each contributing to the development of intellect, emotion, and will. Among all the animals that inhabit the planet, we humans possess the unique ability to think God’s thoughts.3 A man or woman may produce a work of art, but a dog or a canary never will.4 We are the only ones with a conscience to which God often appeals to exert a profound influence on the will. The degree to which we yield to his appeal is the degree to which we will enjoy blessing and reward. Conversely, the degree to which we resist his appeal to conscience is the degree to which, among all creation, we will suffer loss and shame. I can picture Mark Twain’s words chiseled into foundation of the bema of Christ as I stand watching my mound of wood, hay, and stubble consumed by the flames: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” The immaterial/spiritual components of humankind, which together make up the Imago Dei, are resident in all humans, saved or unsaved.

Where then, does the artist who is a Christian enjoy an advantage over the unsaved artist? In the indwelling Holy Spirit. The very God who formed the world, who brought order out of chaos at creation, also filled men like Bezalel (not a New Testament Christian, but an Old Testament believer) to produce works of art.

Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has filled him with the Spirit of God—with skill, with understanding, with knowledge, and with all kinds of work, to design artistic designs, to work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in cutting stones for their setting, and in cutting wood, to do work in every artistic craft (Exod 35:30-33).

For the artist who is a Christian, and indwelt by God’s Spirit, the creative process calls for more than the acquisition of the disciplines of his or her craft. It even calls for more than the supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit. The carnal Christians in Corinth remind us that the mere presence of God’s Spirit in the life of the believer is no guarantee of spiritual maturity. Paul reminds us in Eph 5:18 that, as in all the other facets of the Christian life, the creative process requires a consistent, conscious reliance on the Holy Spirit.

“And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:18).

It is interesting that the very next verse considers the righteous effect of such a Spirit-dominated life.

“speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord” (Eph 5:19).

The presence of the Holy Spirit is assumed. Paul’s focus is on the Christian’s relationship to the Spirit. The first response of a Spirit-controlled Christian, Paul says, is thoroughly artistic and relational. We are to express ourselves to one another and to the Lord through the artistry of music. The words translated “speaking” and “singing” are present active participles, suggesting an ongoing process. The Holy Spirit enables the Christian to celebrate, and thereby exalt God through discourse with other Christians and through private worship (“in your hearts”) to the Lord. The content of the musical celebration is dictated by the nature of the controlling Agent. The Holy Spirit inspires (in the non-technical sense) “psalms,” “hymns,” and “spiritual songs,” all terms which denote music that honors the Lord.

The ultimate purpose of the Christian artist, then, as it is for all Christians, is doxological; that is, we are to honor or glorify God in all that we do. We realize that purpose aesthetically, and in the context of relationship as we reveal ourselves through our art to the world.

All art is revelatory. What we reveal and how we reveal it demonstrate our devotion to the discipline of our craft (material technique) and to our awareness of truth (immaterial or spiritual sensitivity). The degree to which material discipline and spiritual sensitivity complement one another in a work of art is the degree to which the artist may achieve greatness qua artist, but here we must offer a caveat. Such correspondence may say little or nothing regarding the spiritual maturity of the individual artist. Caravaggio, the 17th century painter, provides a chilling example. His paintings reveal the truth of Christ’s deity (in his Raising of Lazarus, for example) more powerfully than any other artist of the Baroque period does, and yet he lived a stormy and often dissolute life. Given the piety of the subject and the excellence of the technique, the casual observer would have no clue as to the quality of the artist’s relationship with the God he revealed on canvass. Caravaggio’s technique was impeccable. His spiritual sensitivity, that is, his ability to discern spiritual truth, was highly developed. It was his unwillingness to submit to the control of God’s Spirit in the rest of his life that left him miserable and broken, and finally dead at the age of 36.

We are, in our moments of artistic composition, either under the control of God’s Spirit, or under the influence of our own “soulishness” (Jas 3:15), that natural tendency to satisfy the desires of the flesh.

When we submit to the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit, we Christians who are artists function most effectively as intermediaries, as spokespersons, or to use a biblical metaphor, as ambassadors. We are truth-bearers, though our message is at times couched in the poetry rather than the prose of life, and so it may be a bit more difficult to absorb on a first reading/hearing/viewing. At other times it is our privilege to unlock, all at once, the beauty in the everyday treasures of our world, and the viewer finds himself almost overwhelmed in a dynamic rush of truth and beauty. There is truth in a water lily, but who among us, gazing out over a pond full of green on green, unimpressionable and static as the scene before us, has experienced that truth in the same way as Monet? He recreates the fact of the green plants, painting unfocused images that captured an honest and multicolored—in short, a kinetic impression of that truth. Monet, as all artists, allows the audience to participate in the translated event so that they may vicariously experience the truth of the lilies in the same way he experienced it.

This world of common water lilies is the world we seek to reclaim, to recreate, for one simple reason: it is the world we have inherited. Adam lived in a world where he was connected to God (in the creation), then disconnected (through the fall), then reconnected (through the promised redemption in Christ, the last Adam). The world itself, however, remains disconnected and awaits redemption from the curse (Rom 8:22). Paradoxically, there is a need for a kind of detachment (another disconnect) in order for the artist who is a Christian to see the world, not only as it is—on its tired journey back to chaos, but as God wills it to be in the future—a new world taking its first breath.

Our God-given hope provides us a new set of lenses through which we can see these two worlds (the phenomenal, space/time world and the spiritual world) as distinct realities. So the Christian artist is left to discover in a ruined world the blush of beauty he had while virtuous, and which he will regain when redeemed. Ours is a task at once nostalgic and prophetic, and it requires that we work with what we have, i.e., within the limits imposed by our mortality. We cannot create something out of nothing. While God created what is actual out of what is imaginary, we creative artists must create what is imaginary out of what is actual, and the Holy Spirit works through us to create a work of art.

But then I think, how am I relating to him? If not as a Holy Tool to be picked up and set down at my discretion, then how should I relate to him? Like most artists who are Christians, I can honestly say that I depend on the Person of the Holy Spirit to help me. Then it hits me. When I say I depend on the Holy Spirit as a Person to help me, I find myself treating him, not as God, but as if he were a Best Boy on a movie set whose job it is to make me comfortable so that I can do my best work.

The Holy Spirit as Holy Lackey

As spiritually obtuse as it seems, we often exhibit a guarded, almost defensive attitude toward the Holy Spirit’s invasion into the creative sphere, into our domain. He is there to help, we insist, not to take over. We expect him to serve us, we remind him, just as Jesus did who came not to be served, but to serve. And isn’t the Holy Spirit subservient to the Lord Jesus and the Father?

To use a different metaphor, sometimes we subconsciously assign the Holy Spirit the job of Holy Editor. His touch should be light, and under no circumstances should he attempt a major revision. As a rule, immature artists put up with human editors (in their various incarnations) as necessary contractual evils. For the artist whose soul is wrapped up in his or her work, editors are the cutters of words, the redefiners of vision, the guardians of market-driven standards of mediocrity. It’s easy to impute our distrust for human editors (whose motives may be mixed) to the Holy Spirit (whose motives are pure, but which we suspect nonetheless).

A more ominous vision: the Holy Spirit as Divine Executive Producer—the Supreme Suit always on the set during rehearsals. He may be a really nice Guy and all, but if he’s always there, looking over our shoulder, how can we really create? He needs to stay in his office and write the checks, dispense the blessings and let us get on with our art. We shudder to think—what happens if, on the next to last stroke of the brush, he decides he doesn’t like the chiaroscuro effect? What if he says the invited dress stinks and we should cancel the show and return the advance ticket sales? What if he pulls the plug in dozens of other ways on our artistic creation?

That’s the risk we run, we tell ourselves, by allowing him total control, final say, absolute authority. It’s a kind of Hobbsian view of the Holy Spirit as despotic monarch, a necessary Governor because without him we spiritually antisocial artists would be throwing paint at each other rather than at the canvass.

And even if we were to seek his guidance, as we seek the guidance of a favorite director, how can we really know it is his voice we are listening to? How can we be sure we are being guided by the Holy Spirit and not by public pressure to conform (the world), our own insecurities (the flesh, or our corrupted/imperfect soul), or the evil one himself (the Unit Production Manager—or the devil, whichever you prefer). The Lord no longer carves out messages in tablets of stone. He doesn’t thunder in a voice that shakes mountains or Paramountains.

We would settle for a still small voice, a whisper even. But no. We are not told to seek something audible, but we must trust him to lead through his word, the Bible, and through a yielded heart to obey that word. That requires discernment, refined by careful study of the scriptures and long visits with the Lord in prayer. Spiritual discipline. Hard work with a spiritual twist that calls on us to rest in him. But we have such trouble putting the two together. We don’t like that tension. We want it to be one way or the other. We either want to work ourselves into an early grave and drag the Holy Spirit in after us, or we want to abandon all responsibility to work and let God dial the phone. Conservative evangelicals fall more easily into the error of works-righteousness than into the error of irresponsible passivity. But that doesn’t mean we don’t fantasize.

“Life would be so much simpler,” we sigh, bone weary, “if we could just shuck our left-brained rational, intellectual robes, and dive buck naked into the right hemisphere of creativity.” There’s an antiseptic security in an emotional vacuum. There we convince ourselves that spiritual decisions are best made inductively: gather the information, isolate the factors, weight the consequences, and engage the will. And yet, how arrogant to assume that our more intellectual, reductionistic approach to the Spirit-filled life is superior, when in fact that kind of 20th century asceticism leaves us intellectually puffed up and emotionally shriveled at the same time. Still, it’s a safe life. Our God is pretty tame most of the time: boxable, predictable, housebroken, servile. The alternative—the idea that the rock-splitting God of the Old Testament might still be lurking in the shadows of the Cross of the gentle Jesus, is too unsettling, too threatening for many of us seeker-sensitive types.

So we stand with the publican in the shadows of the temple, thanking God that He didn’t make us a woman or a charismatic, equating total surrender to the control of the Holy Spirit with a knuckles-dragging-the-ground, swinging-from-the-chandeliers, Neanderthal approach to the spiritual life. Why? Because we’re scared. Scared of emotions. But, as Howard Hendricks says, “we needn’t fear emotions. Emotions are God’s gifts. What we should fear is emotionalism, which is emotions out of control.”5 Our irrational fear is that the Holy Spirit might excite in us a fleshly response! So we try to keep him on a leash. We tend his holy fire, and of course wind up quenching him altogether, and living a life that isn’t spiritual at all. It is a life thoroughly fleshly and rotten to the core, with only the robes of spirituality to make it respectable in public. We refuse to risk embarrassment. We will protect ourselves at all costs.

But we shall be disappointed if we persist in this childish spirituality. Like children playing at the seashore, we build our theology of the spiritual life on the beach of our own personality, and then we’re stunned when it turns out to be nothing but a sandcastle. The cares of this world, or Satan, or God himself will wash it away. If we produce our art in the strength of the flesh, we shouldn’t be surprised if it has a fleshly half-life. We need balance between passive dependence on the Holy Spirit and responsible, obedience to his will. Two men from the Reformation will provide illustrations of lives in and out of spiritual balance: Martin Luther and Thomas Munzer.

Luther and Munzer at Spiritual Odds

Here at the end of the twentieth century, the artist who is also a Christian finds himself in somewhat the same position as Luther in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Luther confronted a church that claimed a spiritual purpose, but which had become infected with a worldly heart. Historically (and biblically) the church’s purpose has been to glorify the Lord through making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and then guiding those believers to spiritual maturity (Matt 28). Instead, the medieval church had decided to glorify God by edifying St. Peter’s and making disciples of the clergy. Luther recognized, as we must, that in order fulfill a spiritual mandate, the church had to be reformed. Likewise, we believe it is time for a spiritual reformation in the arts.

The suspicious attitude of many evangelicals toward our charismatic brethren can be summed up in an observation Martin Luther made concerning Thomas Munzer, his more volatile protestant counterpart in the Reformation: Munzer (along with Karlstadt), Luther said, had swallowed the Holy Spirit, “feathers and all.”6 It would be difficult to find two more different men in their views on bibliology, pneumatology, and sanctification. Munzer’s sole authority in matters of faith and practice was the inner light given by God’s Holy Spirit, and so was subjective in extremis. Luther’s far more objective standard of authority was the Bible. Munzer advocated fiery rebellion and swords. Luther pushed for dialogue and the armor of God (at least prior to 1525). If the Reformation had been played out on a baseball diamond and Luther and Munzer had been opposing pitchers, Munzer would have been the finesse pitcher, throwing curves, sliders, and a knuckler that never landed in the same place twice. Luther would have smoked you with a barrage of fastballs—his only pitch. But his accuracy would leave you shaking your head as he repeatedly nipped the outside of the plate for a called third strike.

But lest we see in these two men a clear dichotomy between a “right-brainer” (Munzer) and a “lefty” (Luther) we need to consider a couple of incontrovertible facts: 1) besides being an emotional zealot with a rainbow emblazoned on his flag, Munzer was a linguistic specialist in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and a recognized scholar of ancient and humanistic literature. He was particularly known for his work in the Old and New Testaments. Doesn’t fit the stereotype of the creative artist, does it? 2) Luther, our “typical left-brained dominant, logical, linear, academic” was a musician. Sometimes we forget that he was just as passionate about getting music into the hands of the people as he was in getting the Bible into the vernacular.

The main difference between the two men wasn’t their basic personalities. They were cut from the same temperamental cloth. Both were zealots. Both were capable of cruelty and of passion bordering on frenzy. Both were headstrong, with volatile, combustible spirits. Both felt compassion for the struggling peasant-class in Saxony, Thuringia, and beyond. Both were Christians as far as I can tell, though both exhibited plenty of flesh from time to time, and Munzer may have been merely a political opportunist wrapped in a holy shroud. These two fought each other, tried to destroy each other—Munzer, using the weapons of war; Luther, relying on prayer and dialogue. What led one man to pick up a pitchfork and the other to pick up a prayerbook? The issue is one of control. Two different forces controlled these men. It is paradoxical that Munzer, who professed such a dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide him, was ultimately blinded by pride and controlled by his flesh. Luther, I believe was, for the most part, controlled by the Holy Spirit. He “walked in the light” more than Munzer, even though his standard for discerning the will of God was the objective revelation given in scripture rather than Munzer’s subjective “inner light.”

Now, what do Luther and Munzer have to do with the topic of the Holy Spirit and the arts? Neither man was a champion of the arts as such. Oddly enough, both men were iconoclasts during the High Renaissance, that period when the arts in particular glorified man and during which the humanistic artist began to recast God in his own image. But the Renaissance was a double-edged sword. On one side the Renaissance with its secular humanism elevated and glorified man. But on the other side, as humanism replaced scholasticism as the principle school of thought, men like Luther and Munzer enjoyed the intellectual freedom to explore, exploit, and expunge long held doctrines. Both men used the new intellectual freedom to attack the moral depravity of the corrupt ecclesiastical system they had inherited as well as many humanistic tenets of the Renaissance that gave them the freedom to explore those ideas in the first place.

In other words, both were more than willing to bite the humanistic hand that fed them. Or simply to ignore the hand altogether. While in Rome to appeal a decision in the Observantist/Conventual controversy, Luther expressed little or no interest in seeing any of the great art of the city (Michelangelo was painting the Sistine at the time, less than two modern city blocks away from the debate hall). After the Holy See rejected his appeal, Luther had a lot of time on his hands. At that primitive point in his theological development, he was far more concerned with earning as many indulgences as he could before beginning the six-week hike back to Wittenberg. At the same time, Munzer was too busy whipping up the peasantry to a bloody rebellion to be distracted by the arts.

And yet both men recognized the value of the arts as utilitarian engines to drive their respective causes. Ultimately, Munzer used the arts to manipulate the masses. His dramatic tirades against scripture would have made Billy Sunday blush. On one occasion he threw the Bible down and stomped on it. Munzer understood the importance of visual symbols. His colorful flag was emblazoned with the rainbow, perhaps to signify the overturning of the old order as well as the blessing of God on the new. His fiery oratory was designed to inspire reverential awe and obedience.

In his last great battle against the assembled forces at Frankenhausen he dared the assembled armies of catholic princes to fire on his unarmed peasant army, boasting that he would catch their bullets in his sleeve! These techniques and others betrayed a reliance on theatrical gimmickry to sway an uneducated public. Munzer welcomed the Holy Spirit as the ultimate source of authority, but only he could interpret the Holy Spirit’s message rightly. Anyone suspected of disagreeing with Munzer’s leadership was automatically guilty of disagreeing with God the Holy Spirit, and that person suffered painful consequences.

Luther on the other hand eagerly sought the illumination of the Spirit in his study of the scriptures. His prayers are saturated with petitions that God would lead him, guide him, direct him in his study of the Bible. Luther was a brilliant debater, and a dynamic preacher, but he also enjoyed tremendous influence as a communicator of God’s truth through music. A few scholars have read the translations of his debates with Eck and others. More are familiar with some of his sermons, and, of course, with his translation of the Bible. But the music he composed continues to move and inspire congregations and their leaders, even today. And to teach. Music was for Luther the art of choice. Through music he could educate and build up the hearts of the common people he served. Through music he encouraged his parishioners to obey God’s word in the power of the Spirit.

For Munzer, the arts were a tool for touching the masses with the message of God as he received it through visions and dreams and direct command. His own imagination, however, was the sine qua non of revelation. For Luther, the arts, and music in particular, were a tool for touching people with the message of God as found in scripture. Each man claimed to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance, but in the final analysis, Munzer sought to use religion to enhance the mood7 necessary to advance his own political agenda, while Luther sought to be used by the Holy Spirit to advance God’s spiritual agenda. Luther’s more objective scriptural basis proved to be more reliable and a stronger safeguard against doctrinal perversion than did Munzer’s thoroughly subjective basis. An imaginative use of the arts was a part of the modus operandi for both men; however, due to their different approaches to the Holy Spirit, Luther’s imagination was essentially different from the Munzer’s. Coleridge addresses this difference in his famous definition of imagination:

The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will which we express by the word choice.8

In distinguishing between the secondary imagination and fancy, Coleridge draws the line between Luther’s artistic imagination and that of Munzer. Where Munzer was fenced in by the boundaries of his own fancy, the word of God freed Luther to explore the frontiers of heaven and what Coleridge would call the primary imagination of the infinite I AM.

Christian artists in the Reformed tradition, and especially those of us who have been burned by the fires of subjectivism, may tend to shy away from a direct appeal to the Holy Spirit to fill and to guide us in our aesthetic enterprises. Our theology tells us that those “tongues of fire” in Acts are legitimate expressions of an irruptive Spirit, but our experience has emerged from an orthodoxy that, in too many cases, has grown cold. We fear doctrinal error—as if calling on the Spirit means abandoning the word—and that we might wind up with our metaphorical heads on the block as the pitiful Munzer did. That fear, however, will paralyze us into a clinical, bloodless, plastic exposition of life—a rhetorical narrative that would have been better left untold. The word under the influence of the Spirit guards us from that kind of error. May we artists who are Christians embrace the word prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, to help us to see through deception to truth, and to enable us to render that beauty in a way that will honor the Creator.


1 . “Art” in this article signifies any work of beauty wrought by the divine will or by human hands, which serves to reveal in objective/sensate form the idea of the artist. The category of art under consideration is limited to the “fine” or “liberal/contemplative” arts (logic, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, sculpture, music, etc.) as differentiated from the “useful” arts (e.g., agriculture, medicine, education, government, war, industrial arts).

2 . For the purpose of this article we acknowledge God as divine Artist, though we recognize that any comparison with human artists is merely analogical. The Lord is creative in the absolute sense, calling his creation into being out of nothing, whereas the human artist may be more accurately described as being re-creative in that he must manipulate pre-existing materials in order to give form to his imaginative idea.

3 . While Montaigne strains to make a case for the ability of animals to reason alongside man, and thereby to produce sensible art, we would agree with Kant that such references to animals as artists must be metaphorical since “no rational deliberation forms the basis of their labor, [but] we see at once that it is a product of their nature (of instinct), and it is only to their Creator that we ascribe it as art” (Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. Creed Meredith, in Great Books of the Western World, 42.523 [Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990]).

4 . “A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will” (Karl Marx, Capital, edited by Frederich Engels, in Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed. 50.85 [Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990]).

5 . Class notes, Dallas Seminary, 1977.

6 . “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments.” Luther's Works. Vol. 40. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1958) 83.

7 . I am indebted to Gregory Wolfe in his brief exposition of Coleridge for the idea of “enhancement” as used here (“Editorial Statement: Image Vs. Fancy,” Image: a Journal of the Arts & Religion 7 [Fall 1994] 3).

8 . Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or, Biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions. ed. by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983) I:295-296.

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)