Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

Big, Sweeping Visions

It's what art can do.

The Mind of Christ in His World: Part 2 (2)

Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. Acts 10.10, 11 

Why not just a word?
I don’t want to pass lightly by the fact that, when God came to Peter on that rooftop, He had a very simple message to communicate: Go to Caesarea and lead this Gentile to Jesus: it’s OK. God intended to strengthen Peter’s mind for the highly unusual and path-breaking work He had in store for him. He needed to make sure the message sank into Peter’s mind.

Surely just that simple word would have been enough for the apostle? Isn’t that how most of us seek to know the mind of the Lord, by looking to His Word? But when God wanted to change Peter’s mind – indeed, his whole worldview – He didn’t just speak. Instead, God treated that apostle to an elaborate vision, large and spreading out over all the earth, to guide him into a new way of thinking about the peoples of the world.

One of the powerful devices by which art arrests our minds and hearts and leads us into new perspectives and new ways of thinking, is through big, sweeping visions of reality. The artist will often paint or write a grand scenario of characters, themes, colors, images, and artistic devices of various sorts, just to make a single statement of truth. Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Or Handel’s Messiah. Or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Grand, big, sweeping visions make an impact of majesty and importance in which a kernel of new meaning can be planted with powerful effects.

God wanted Peter to think differently about the Gentiles and their place in the Kingdom. So He sent a big, sweeping vision of all creation, and sent it three times, to make sure Peter didn’t miss the point.

Can a work of art affect the way you think about even the most everyday aspects of your life? Help you to see the glory and wisdom and beauty and goodness of God in ways you never have before?

“The Task”
Indeed, it can.

Consider, for example, William Cowper’s (1731-1800) grand epic poem, “The Task” (you can read the entire poem at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library). Cowper was challenged by a lady friend with the daunting task of writing a poem about a sofa. Now, as a poet, I can assure you, this is hardly an inspiring subject. I mean, what can you say about a sofa that would affect the way anyone thought about such an everyday item? We might think that, given such a task, a poet could probably exhaust everything that could be said about a sofa in a sonnet of 14 lines.

Cowper’s “The Task”, however, glides along in perfect iambic pentameter blank verse for thousands and thousands of lines in a grand tour de force of creation, culture, and the glories of God available on every hand.

Cowper had a single thought he wanted to convey, something like “A sofa is a wonderful convenience provided for the comfort of men by the manifold goodness of a loving God.” Cowper, however, wanted to make that point with great emphasis. He wanted to make sure that readers thought about more than a mere sofa whenever they sat on one. So he positioned his object in a poetic statement of Christian worldview that is almost without peer in the world of Christian verse.

Beginning with a meditation on the history, character, and use of the sofa, Cowper branched out into a sweeping survey of the glories and benefits of country life, remarking the Presence of God and His many gifts to humble people of all sorts. Along the way, he celebrated the glories of honest work, marveled at the diverse people who populate a country village, frowned upon the evils of city living, chided parsons who do not take seriously the task of preaching, and wondered at the intricate beauty of clocks, the nobility of patriotism, and the proper place of governments, armies, and newspapers. Here’s a brief sample of his verse, as he reports an observation most of us will have seen:

Nature inanimate employs sweet sounds,
But animated nature sweeter still,
To soothe and satisfy the human ear.
Ten thousand warblers cheer the day, and one
The livelong night; nor these alone, whose notes
Nice-fingered Art must emulate in vain.
But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime
In still-repeated circles, screaming loud,
The jay, the pie, and e’en the brooding owl,
That hails the rising moon, have charms for me,
Sounds inharmonious in themselves and harsh,
Yet heard in scenes where peace forever reigns,
And only there, please highly for their sake.

And over all, God
Through all the many other vignettes and observations of his poem, Cowper set a context of the sovereign rule of God over men, Who, out of the enormity of His grace, provides them with even the humblest of everyday comforts and delights. Like a sofa.

Sure, Cowper could have tossed off a sonnet and let the matter go, but the task before him gave him an opportunity to magnify the glories of his subject – and of God – in a way that no catalog narrative describing a sofa could ever accomplish.

Cowper’s sofa – and his poem – challenges us to see everyday things in a different light, and in new ways, so that the glory of God can impress and transform us, even right where we sit. And even where we sit can cue up grand, sweeping visions of the greatness, goodness, beauty, and power of King Jesus. Big, sweeping visions like Cowper presents in “The Task” can stretch our minds and firm up our thinking about God, His sovereignty, and His love for all He has made.

For reflection
1.  Would you say that you see all aspects of your life within the framework of one coherent, overarching, thrilling vision of life? Why or why not?

2.  Meditate on 1 Corinthians 10.31. Choose an object in your immediate purview. How much can you say about the glory of God by observing that object? Do you think reading a poem like “The Task” might help you see everyday things differently? Explain.

3.  Few people read much poetry these days. As Czeslaw Milosz explained in his book, The Witness of Poetry, a lot of the blame for this falls on poets and poetry. But much great Christian poetry exists that can help to shape our minds toward the mind of Christ. Can you think of a Christian poem – or a hymn lyric – that has particularly affected your view of life and the world?

Next steps – Conversation: Use your answer to question 3 above to engage a fellow believer in a conversation about the power of poetry or hymn lyrics to contribute to the renewing of our minds.

T. M. Moore

Want to read a bit more by William Cowper? Our book, An Essay on Preaching, develops around Cowper’s comments on the preaching of late-18th century England. His insights are keen and scorching, and his words offer an admonition and corrective to preachers and teachers today. Order your free copy of An Essay on Preaching by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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