On Monday 28 March I presented a chapel talk at Biola University in La Mirada, California, a leading evangelical university. Below is an edited version of the text.
My work as an art critic, museum curator, and art historian has been strengthened and challenged by an unusual and often overlooked book in the Bible, the book of Jonah [...] The book of Jonah is a parable at the center of which lies the deep mystery to which St. Paul refers in Eph. 3: 6, that "through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." But before we look at Jonah we need to begin with St. John's Prologue, where it all truly begins with the Word. Let me read John 1: 3: "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." St. Paul refers to these two words, "all things," as well, in Col. 1: 16-17, "For by him [that is Christ] all things were created…He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." And in Eph. 1: 10, "to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ." It is easy to gloss over the jarring reality of that phrase, "all things" and reduce it to "most things" or "all things that I'm comfortable with," but by "all things" St. John and St. Paul mean precisely that, all things. If all things are made through and held together in Christ, I have to admit that includes the works of art I study and write about as well as the goals, aspirations, intentions of the artists who make them. My responsibility as an art critic, then, is to reveal the Logos that dwells in the logos of the work of art.
Jonah is the only one in the parable that that Lord has a problem with. He receives no resistance from nature: the sea, the winds, the giant fish, the vine that grows then dies, all obey His Word. He also receives no resistance from the Gentiles: the sailors repent and believe and the entire city of Nineveh, including their king, repents and believes. Only Jonah resists the word of the Lord. [...]
The parable is about our willingness to serve the Lord in the manner He intended. And what does He intend? He intends for Jonah, for Israel, for the Church, and for us individually, to live for those around us. We are embodiments of God's presence in and for the world. As Jeremiah writes to the Babylonian Exiles in chapter 29, we are to seek the good of our neighbor. Our blessings come in seeking their good. Jesus seems to be thinking about this story when he tells his disciples in the book of Matthew that the fields are plenty and ripe for harvest, but the workers are few. We are the only obstacle, then, to the Lord's work. For the Lord sees this corrupt culture not as an obstacle but a harvest. We are not used to being the problem—we arrogantly believe we're the answer: we believe that what the culture needs is more of us--Christian artists, Christian designers, Christian whatever. We assume that this judgmental attitude puts us on God's side. It is "us" against "them." And the echoes of Jonah's resentment is found in the phrases we use, like "redeeming culture," "engaging culture," and "transforming culture," and various other manifestations of the "culture wars." From my personal experience, the last thing culture needs is more Christian artists—or Christian anything for that matter. Our rhetoric not only makes it seem as if we are working against culture but also that it exists only to be changed. But in reality, we don't particular care much about changing it either, for our engagement often becomes simply the raw material for the cultivation of our own careers. There has developed a very lucrative Christian subculture and intricate Byzantine institutional framework that actually rewards us for not becoming involved in the culture, which maintains the distinctions between us by making us the only active agent working on a passive culture out there and using that engagement to build and polish our careers in here.
How is this relevant to my work as an art critic and museum curator and to your work, in the world? For the next few minutes, let's consider our Nineveh today to be Los Angeles and that we, here at Biola, enjoy the blessing of being the Lord's dove, the symbol of peace in the world. Let me share with you a few thoughts:
First, the Lord is on their side. The Lord desires all to be saved, as St. Peter writes in 2 Peter 3: 9. He is bringing all things to himself through Christ and in Christ all things hold together. When we approach the world, then, we must do so knowing that to be on the Lord's side means to be on their side as well.
Second, we have to recognize that we as the Church exist not for ourselves, but to give ourselves for the world, and not just the world in general, but that great city out there, Los Angeles. Israel is to be a light for the Gentiles, we are to be a light for the world. We have heard this time and again in Sunday school, in Bible studies, and from the pulpit. But do we know what it means and the sacrifice it implies? It means that as light and salt, we exist for the other. We are means to an end. Salt exists to preserve food and bring out its flavor; it exists for the benefit of the food. Light exists to illumine objects so we can see them better. The Church does not exist for itself. What does this mean for us, here, today, at one of the premier training grounds for evangelical Christians overlooking a modern day Nineveh? It means that we are not called to craft a successful career out of "Christian engagement with culture." The Church is not a place where successful careers are built. Many Christian culture makers and entrepreneurs, whether in art, film, design, fashion, music, or ministry operate in a hamster ball. They are in the world of culture, but they are completely sealed off from it. They can see it and think they're in it, but they can neither touch it nor be touched by it. They can tell stories about it, what it's like "out there in the culture," but they have no tangible experience of what it smells like or feels like because of this hermetically sealed hamster ball called "a Christian perspective" or "a Christian worldview" that isolates rather than reconciles. A Christian perspective, whatever that means, should dissolve into enriching those cultural practices that we illumine, that we season in order to bring out their flavor not ours. We need to be salt and light for culture, we need, as Jeremiah writes, to seek the good of our neighbors—for that is from where our blessing will come. If we are salt and light, we should disappear, dissolve into the culture for the good of the culture. We need to get off the mountain-top of La Mirada overlooking Los Angeles and seek its good, not ours, and resist the temptation to cultivate a career as a "Christian" artist, "Christian" musician, "Christian" designer....
Finally, we have to admit that it is God's mercy and love for all people that truly offends us. We delight in calling down fire from heaven to destroy the cultural prophets of Baal; we delight in declaring that the culture is debased, nihilistic, beyond repair. But it is we, the Church, who stand in the way of God's work in that very world. God's obstacle is not nihilism, postmodernism, or Godless Hollywood; it is us. The question the Lord puts to Jonah is put to us: Why should we be angry with God's mercy and love? As Jesus tells his disciples, the harvest is plenty. The problem is that there are not enough people to work the fields—to actually be in the fields, to get cut, bit by insects, dirty, and exhausted. There are however too many so-called workers standing on the edges of the field or those who trample it down in their air-conditioned hamster balls that don't feel the heat, the bites, the pain, and so cannot or will not harvest. And so, all we need to do is go into the fields. Get out of our hamster ball, climb down the mountain, walk through the city, sacrifice our lucrative career in the Christian subculture or using our Christian faith to advance our own careers and live for the good of the culture. We must risk getting pushed around, risk getting dirty and bruised and infected by the culture, by those fields that are ripe for harvest. In the parable of the sheep and goats in Mathew 25, Jesus separates them based on how they treated the least of their neighbors, whether they fed them, clothed them, loved them. This is not just about serving lunch at a soup kitchen or leading bible studies in jails. Los Angeles is chock full of poor, hungry, needy people who live in mansions, drive Bentleys, and wear Prada. But how are we to do that if we are not entangled in their lives? How are we to do that if we are more concerned with crafting a powerful and success career as a Christian speaker, Christian filmmaker, Christian designer, Christian scholar?
[...] We must remember for whom the Sign of Jonah is given in the gospels. It is not given to Nineveh, to Los Angeles, to an unbelieving secular culture, an unbelieving world, but to an unbelieving Judea, who betrays the Lord's love and demands a sign, because they have forgotten that they have been chosen for another. In other words, the Sign of Jonah is given to us, the arrogant and selfish Judeans, to us here at Biola, who believe that we are right with God and on his side. And that is why the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites will stand in judgment of Israel, stand in judgment of us, the unbelieving Church that is resentful of God's love and mercy that is poured out lavishly on Nineveh, on Los Angeles.
I urge you to use what is left of the bright sadness of this Lenten season to read and re-read the book of Jonah and contemplate the implications for your life. May your time here at Biola prepare you to become hopelessly and wonderfully entangled in and for our culture, for it will be in this entanglement and the risks and difficulties it brings that we can truly be salt and light and serve as co-laborers with Christ to reconcile all things to and for Himself.
And May the Lord bless you and keep you, may his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, may he look upon you with favor, and give you peace. Amen.