I am a house church guy who likes cathedrals. My spiritual forebears in the Reformation include some who smashed statues and images and others who banned organs. My spiritual contemporaries include some who participate in the Anabaptist Orchestra Camp and others who are performing complex choral works tomorrow afternoon by the great Lutheran composer Bach. (If you live near Lancaster, PA, perhaps you can catch this Singet dem Herrn concert, which appears to include a 40-page piece for “double choir and strings with continuo, vocal ensemble and soloists,” complete with “intricate passages of fugue, which is sort of like a round in different keys that expands as it goes.” Good stuff, and definitely not the sort of thing that Conrad Grebel would have approved.)
I am an Anabaptist and, like most Anabaptists, I am somewhat ambivalent about the place of the arts in the Christian life.
When I was a young teen, I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. My father didn’t think this was very practical. He was probably right, though he and I may not fully agree on why. While I have never lost my capacity to delight in the arts, especially the musical ones, I am afraid I would have made a bad concert pianist. I am not sure I believe in the cause strongly enough—even though there are times when I have felt that my soul would surely have shriveled up and died were it not for the beauty of musical (near-)perfection. I have worshiped while listening to Rachmaninoff piano concertos and while listening to Phil Keaggy guitar solos. But if I had attempted the life course of a career concert musician, I am afraid I would have been only an all-round poor imitation of the great Albert Schweitzer, who abandoned a promising musical career to be a medical missionary.
All that for background. This week at work I was blessed to listen to the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew on Tuesday, Mark on Wednesday, and Luke on Thursday. One story that caught my ear was the familiar account of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment. Here is the story as it is told by Matthew:
6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:6-13)
You can also find this story in Mark 14:3-9 and in John 12:1-8 (where she is named Mary).
Perhaps you, like me, have sometimes heard people draw implications from this story for our understanding of the arts. I’m quite certain I’ve heard, though I can’t say where, this line of thought suggested: This woman, in a creative and symbolic act, expressed her deep devotion to Jesus. Jesus praised her for this extravagant and apparently wasteful gift. Similarly, Jesus is pleased when we give extravagant and apparently wasteful displays of devotion to him through the creative arts.
Some quick browsing now online confirms to me that something like this kind of thought is sometimes expressed by Christians writing about the arts. For example, read this from Steve Scott (otherwise unknown to me):
Jesus placed a value on signs and sign making that had little to do with the price of the materials involved, and he seemed to show little regard for the social controversy and the lack of immediate graspability that came with the sign. Mary, in some ways, faced the problems that many sign makers and artists face today. They are told their work is an expensive luxury. They are told their work seems controversial, often for the sake of controversy, and they are told their work is obscure, for the sake of obscurity. When Jesus told the other celebrators to leave her alone, he upheld her dignity as a person and gave his support to the dignity of her gesture. He stated that this gesture of hers would be recalled wherever the gospel is told. Jesus reminds his audience—then and now—that images and symbols have value. And those who work with signs, metaphors and images are doing valuable work.1 (emphasis added)
Or consider this footnote find:
Calvin Seerveld makes a compelling case that beautiful works, such as that of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany…, should be allowed a place in the Christian life alongside activities such as evangelism and feeding the poor. Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (Toronto: Piquant, 2000), 1-5.2 (emphasis added)
And there is much of the rub for me: I often find myself identifying more with the disciples (worse, Judas, according to John’s version) than with Mary. I walk into an ornate church or indulge in live musical soundscapes, and I sense that something is profoundly right, and I even find myself drawn to worship the Creator—and then I wonder how we can spend such measureless loose change on such extravagance while God’s children elsewhere are crying for bread.
I do not have a theological resolution for this problem that I can share with you in this post. Rather, I want to share an exegetical observation that occurred to me while listening to the Gospels this week.
One phrase stood out to me. Hear Jesus’ words: “You will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11). Mark includes the same statement (Mk. 14:7). John highlights this thought by placing it at the very end of the story: “You do not always have me” (John 12:8).
What this phrase means, at minimum, is that Mary was doing something for Jesus that she and the disciples would not be able to do later. There would be opportunity later to care for the poor. But there would be no “later” for doing whatever it was that Mary did to Jesus.
What was it that Mary did to Jesus? In Matthew, Jesus explains it like this: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). Mark’s Jesus says, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” John’s Jesus speaks parallel words.
Can you see where my thoughts are headed? Consider R.T. France’s comments on this story:
The woman’s extravagant loyalty offsets the shameful horror of crucifixion. That is why it must always be remembered, not simply as a model for uncalculating devotion (though it certainly is that) but as an affirmation of the value of his death from the point of view of faith.
It is a matter of priorities (cf. the rather different lesson on the priority of the spiritual over the mundane, also set in Bethany, in Luke 10:38-42). A definitive moment is upon them, and even the duty of helping the poor must take second place. Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves. It is because this unnamed woman has seized on that sense of special occasion that her act is to be remembered. Probably without realizing it, she has provided a pointer to the theology of the cross.3
So let me sum up what I’m observing: It seems to me that Jesus very clearly indicates that what Mary did for him was an act specially suited to a unique, non-repeatable opportunity. No Christian artist today has Jesus in the flesh before him or her, on his way to the cross. No one today can anoint Jesus in preparation for his burial, either literally or figuratively.
More than that, listen again to France’s suggestion: “Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves.” In other words, let’s say that Mary owned a second flask of ointment. What would be the right way to use it after Jesus’ death and resurrection had passed? According to Jesus’ words, the right thing for Mary to do with another such flask of ointment, would not be to use it to anoint Jesus. Rather, it would be fitting to use it to care for the poor.
So… my ambivalence about the arts continues. I conclude that we should exercise more care not to take this biblical account out of context as support for our artistic endeavors, especially our expensive ones. I suggest that we will need to look elsewhere if we want to find strong biblical basis for extravagant expense in art or worship.
(Help me out. Do you see a biblical basis somewhere? To be clear, I am not claiming or aiming in this post to deny any such biblical basis for investment in the arts. Rather, my main concern is that we keep our theology tethered to Scripture through careful exegesis.)
And if I were to try to draw any tentative positive lessons for our art from this passage, I might suggest the following:
- Our art should be consistent with “a theology of the cross” (to borrow France’s words). This suggests to me that (a) what artistic expressions we do create must be consistent with all that the cross represents, and (b) sometimes the call to bear the cross will be a call to surrender our present artistic desires.
- Our art should point us to the day when Jesus will return in the flesh. Yes, Christ is present by his Spirit now. But this is yet the day of the Bridegroom’s absence, when fasting and mourning are still appropriate (Matt. 9:15). Only when he returns will the full consummation of true art be realized. Any artistic perfection now must strengthen our hunger for the perfection of Beauty (Christ and his likeness) then.
This post raises unfinished thoughts. What do you have to add to the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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- Steve Scott, Like a House on Fire: Renewal of the Arts in a Postmodern Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 102-103. ↩
- Jason S. Hiles, Images in the Service of God’s Word: A Theology for the Christian Use of Visual Images, a dissertation presented to the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest, 2008), 262, fn 75. ↩
- R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007), 974. ↩