Art & Justice

Best Chicago experience? Neighborhoods. Sure, the Bean is great…really it is. I like looking at it. So shiny and polished. It’s a great public art piece, however if I have any input into visiting friend and family agendas, we’re mostly hitting spots not very near Millennium Park or the oh so Magnificent Mile. People want to experience these things, and they should, though the true culture lies a few L stops North, South or West.

Whether it’s coffee, tacos, thrifting, ethnic art galleries, indie book stores or fringe-y music and improv venues, it’s fun to make these local discoveries and share them with people we love. As the inevitable deep dish pizza trip looms before their return flight, it’s important to hit all the spots before we’re too “stuffed” to do anything. And even deep-dishing is best done in one of the neighborhood joints far from the hourlong waits in River North. Hey, Michigan Ave is great, even “magnificent” for a stretch there north of the river, and any Ave, St, etc. that leads to one of my favorite places on earth – the Art Institute – is one I’ll travel often. (Especially on free Thursday evenings with a valid Illinois ID).

I’ve been trying to take advantage of this perfect biking weather before the ominously predicted “brutal winter” arrives. With trail traffic down from its summertime peak – its congested, lane-blocking, side-by-side rollerblading (!?) peak – I feel more free to really take in the views. And on the lakeshore, they are outstanding. The craggy, soaring skyline sits right up against the endless expanse of Lake Michigan, which is a living painting. Sunrise or sunset, cloudy, clear, windy, calm, blue, green, gray…each day a new beauty, never repeating itself. But always with the perfectly straight, crisp horizon line, never varying, steadfast, eternal. Like God.

You’ll never see a jagged line where water meets sky because through this God is showing us he’s constant, trustworthy and calm. And yes, the scientific explanation is also God’s. He is a “natural” supernatural being working through both means. Science and Creationism go hand in hand. Much like the end of this age, when Christ returns and brings Heaven to Earth, reuniting the two and ushering in the new age of perfection where God visibly lives with humanity once again. The ultimate fulfillment of man-made skyline meeting naturally existing lake.

However behind the skyline you’ll find brokenness, tucked into every street in every neighborhood across the city. Sin touches everything and turns the heart inward on itself, making the self and every inclination of the self something ultimate. It makes us think and act as if we’re God himself, though we’re likely not directly conscious of this. Sin leaves injustice in its wake because it obscures the image of God in creation. And God, who is just, works through his church, his very body on earth, to reverse this. I’m still exploring this theme and where God may lead us into practical expressions of justice connected with art. He may be speaking to some of us even through this writing to begin seeking a way forward. And so it’s important we’re mindful of the nature of God in this endeavor.

At the heart of justice is a concern for others. God is fundamentally just because he exists in a community of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, and cares for each person within himself. As his children, we have this “image” of justice in us, so care and concern for others is central to following Jesus. And as we tend to be over-full of self-concern, God’s given us a way to break free and look outward. Know what it is? In his excellent book, “Generous Justice,” Tim Keller says it’s beauty. When we’re in the presence of beauty, we forget ourselves for a second. Art is central to justice because it gives us an experience of beauty. And the ultimate experience of beauty that actually leads to worship is a heart-level encounter with the risen Christ. He lived sinlessly into adulthood for us, died in our place and rose as the King with whom we’ll reign forever. The culmination of everything beautiful, functional and lasting.

Art is also central to justice because it’s central to God, who is an artist. He created the known existence as an artistic tour de force encompassing sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and emotion. And like any great design, it’s both beautiful and functional. Pure function and we’d have no sense of beauty. No French Impressionists, no Michelangelo or Maya Angelou. Just beauty and it’s a fragile, look-but-don’t-touch kind of existence. No, we’re told to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28 ESV). Live in the world, fully engage it, cultivate it, use it, pass it on to all future generations until the return of Christ. Talk about good design! No wonder I’d rather purchase something well made and meant to last, and don’t mind occasionally spending more for quality. God’s design is the most beautiful, functional quality meant to satisfy and delight forever.

Ah, but it’s been marred by sin! It’s decaying. It’s been literally cursed by the Artist himself as a result of our rebellious, self-sufficient pride. The universe is a damaged canvas containing the most beautiful work ever done, obscured by scratches and stains. And yet, God is so thorough, his work so perfect, he uses this very brokenness to produce the greatest masterpiece: the redemption of creation, purchased at infinite cost by the life, death and resurrection of his Son. And art reflects this by taking our hurt and injustice and transforming it into something beautiful. It validates our pain and produces hope and a sense of restoration to something lost. It has and will continue to inspire people toward peace and reconciliation, of which we’re in desperate need.

If you’re headed to the Art Institute, do check out the Impressionism. Beyond a particular style of painting, I like to think it’s representative of how God has “made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecc 4:11 NIV). God enters this fallen state and subjects himself to it – oxygen, gravity, age, hunger and thirst, unfulfilled desires and even the perverse cruelty of man, and he makes a way for us to see his face again, like we once did in the perfection Eden. Art expresses this Eden which we have in our hearts to some degree, yet can’t know fully. And yet our future in Christ is even more beautiful than Eden because it encompasses God’s entire family. You, me and all God’s people from all generations. It’s a place where art and justice reign, where we’ll inhabit culturally rich neighborhoods so beautiful and well-functioning, so new and exciting, we can’t help but become a bit touristy.


Words and Photo by Andy Tommelleo, Pastor at Destination