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12 September 2021

The power of art, the glory of God.

They’re in the movies we watch.  The books we read.  The songs we listen to.  I’m talking about the constant messages that bombard us in everyday life – messages telling us that we can do it ourselves.  Solve our own problems, dig ourselves out of the pits we fall into.  You might hear it as Katy Perry sings on the radio: “I went from zero, to my own hero,” or when Chester Charles Bennington defiantly declares that he’ll face himself, cross out what he’s done, and issue his own forgiveness.  Our movies similarly are full of heroes and heroines instilling within us faith in the power of the human spirit.  Henley shows it as clearly as anyone in his poem “Invictus.”  He speaks of his “unconquerable soul,” of his head “bloody, but unbowed.”  In his last stanza he says: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

It’s the message isn’t it?  The message that we are strong.  We can do it, we can be who we want to be, do what we want to do.  We have but to find the inner courage and strength and the world will fall down before us in awe at what we can do.  Our trials will not best us, we will rise above them.

The power of these kinds of messages, particularly when they are cloaked in the arts, should not be underestimated.  I found the  following quote on this issue enlightening: “The poet-president of theCzech republic, Vaclav Havel, was asked to account for the remarkable success of the so-called Velvet Revolution against the communists in the former Czechoslovakia.  Havel answered like this, “We had our parallel society, we wrote our plays and sang our songs and read our poems until we knew the truth so well that we could go out to the streets of Prague and say, ‘We don’t believe your lies any more – and communism had to fall.” (Cited in John Olley’s article: “The Psalms: A Songbook for Post-Christendom”)

Art, whether in song, word, or in visual creativity, is incredibly potent.  That’s the way God made it.  It moves and stirs our souls.  It touches our hearts, sometimes profoundly.  It can sway our moods, subtly shape our view of the world, and even profoundly shape our character.  It was given by God as an incredible gift to be used in worship and service to him, but it can also be a powerful weapon when twisted and perverted by our enemy.  Many a godless idea has been normalized in our society through Hollywood.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find these messages influencing the way I think as well.  There’s something moving in the words of Henley after all.  They are inspiring, after a fashion.  And yet it has ever been the practice of the enemy to employ parts of the truth in the service of his lies.  Strength and determination of character are admirable qualities when inspired by godliness, and determination is certainly a quality we see in “Invictus.”  If you read the poem, however, Henley’s determination is a twisted beast that has been turned upon its Maker.  In this sense it is dangerous, for the lie he presents might slip by our guard under cover of the beauty of his words.

As always, we must combat the lies with the truth that we have in Christ Jesus.  We are not the powerful warrior of Henley, bloodied but unbowed.  We are the humble maidservant of Psalm 123, setting our eyes upon the Lord “till he has mercy upon us.”  You see, Scripture reveals very clearly the true nature of humanity.  Though once glorious and mighty, we are now fallen, weak and pitiable wretches whose only hope is divine power and mercy.  That’s what you see in the Bible again and again.  Noah, drunken and shamed in his tent.  Abraham, fearful and afraid in the face of the Egyptians.  Samson womanizing and defeated, his strength departed.  David, head in hands as his family falls apart around him because of his sin.  And yet all of them are saints, saved and redeemed by the blood of the lamb, counted in the list of the faithful in Hebrews 11.

God is gracious.  In his mercy, he permits us to find our own sin waiting as a constant reminder of our need for the Saviour.

It’s a humbling thing to realise that “sin so easily entangles us” (Heb 12:1) isn’t it?  It’s more humbling still to experience the pain of tripping over, and then being washed in the fountain of his love and forgiveness in Christ. “Truly God is good to Israel” (Psalm 73:1).

Though godless art and creativity abounds in our culture, sending messages seeking to confuse us, God’s word is a light unto our feet, and a lamp unto our path.  We are new creations in Christ Jesus.  Old things have passed away, all things have become new.  Why not seek to enjoy and support more of the kind of art that glorifies God?  Why not seek to create it?  It is God’s gift after all.  While Larry Norman might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, he had a point when he said: “Why should the devil have all the good music?”

The oldest preserved verse we have in English literature is Bede’s “Cædmon’s Hymn” (composed sometime between AD658-680).  The verse, though unfortunately being poetically diminished in translation (but still worth reading in full!), finishes like this:

“He sang about the creation of the world and the origin of the human race and all the history of Genesis; about the exodus of Israel out of Egypt and entrance into the promised land; and about many other stories of sacred Scripture, about  the Lord’s incarnation, and his passion, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven; about the advent of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the apostles.  He also made many songs about the terror of the coming judgment and the horror of the punishments of hell and the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom; and a great many others besides about divine grace and justice in all of which he sought to draw men away from the love of sin and to inspire them with delight in the practice of good works.”

It’s a good heritage isn’t it?  May we too praise him in the song, inspired to hate sin and to love the great God who has saved and redeemed us.

Soli Deo Gloria!