How Artists Do Theology

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 by: Philip Tallon Posted

Preparing for a class on Christian doctrine, I’ve been perusing the great artists, to see what they have to say about the Christian faith. Painters, for better or worse, do theology and even biblical interpretation when they set brush to canvas. One painting in the “better” category I keep coming back to is “The Garden of Eden” (1828), by Thomas Cole.

The painting’s a helpful theological corrective for many of us, focusing our eyes not on the first sin, but on the gift of creation itself. Cole lets us breathe some of Eden’s air without rushing to the temptation and fall. As befits a painter, Cole accomplishes this visually. Typical of a Hudson River School artist, his landscape is enormous, and may not even feature the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at all. When visually represented, the garden story often hinges around the prohibition, and paintings of Adam and Eve often feature the tree, and the serpent prominently. (See, for instance, Michelangelo’s rendering of the fall and explusion.)

As painted by Cole, however, the garden seems to encompass the whole earth. It is an infinite playground in which Adam and Eve are dwarfed by rivers, mountains, trees, and even sparkling gems that erupt from the earth. As Cole himself wrote in an 1828 letter about the painting, “I have endeavored to conceive a happy spot where all the beautiful objects of nature were concentered.”

This conveys first to me the magnificent, plurality of creation: a Christmas stocking so overflowing with treats that we will never get to the bottom. The immensity of the landscape is an infinity of delights for the primordial pair. C. S. Lewis said it better when he complained, through Screwtape’s inverted perspective, about how God is “a hedonist at heart.”

Screwtape elaborates:

All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore”. Ugh! I don’t think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific Vision. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working, Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.

The first idea suggests a second: that the prohibition was, perhaps, not so unbearable after all. If there is a sea of pleasure to swim in, then we have little excuse for wanting to get our feet wet in one forbidden puddle.

G. K. Chesterton captured this insight in a different context. In a chapter in Orthodoxy, titled, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton enumerates all that he has been taught by some of the wisest of all stories, fairy tales. One key element in many fairy tales is a wild and wondrous gift that comes with a condition. Chesterton calls this the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Cinderella can have a magic dress and go the the ball, but she must be back by midnight.

To complain too much about the prohibition, Chesterton suggests, shows a certain ingratitude about the nature of the gift that requires it. He writes, “If Cinderella says, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer, ‘How is it that you are going there till twelve?’” If some extravagent gift comes with a small requirement, perhaps we would be better off meditating on the unexpected pleasure rather than the insignificant prohibition. This fairy tale principle, for Chesterton, carries over into everyday life as well.

For this reason (we may call it the fairy godmother philosophy) I never could join the young men of my time in feeling what they called the general sentiment of REVOLT…I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself… Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears in mere absence of mind.

Cole’s “Garden of Eden” is of a piece with Chesterton’s writing on fairy tales. Both try to direct our eyes to the extravagance of the gift of created life. And both suggest (either explicitly or implicitly) that all morality is a form of gratitude.

 

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