The Canvas Conference, a joint effort between Humble Beast and Western Seminary, took place August 12-13, 2016, in Portland, Oregon, and was hosted by Imago Dei Community. This event, which sought to address the intersection of Christianity and creativity through a robust gospel-oriented and gospel-driven lens, included talks given by a number of Western Seminary faculty members. In today’s post, we are featuring Dr. Ryan Lister’s conference talk.
I learned one of life’s greatest lessons from a film I never watched and, to this day, remains, unfinished.
Let me explain.
One of my college friends spent the summer between his Junior and Senior year making a film with a beat up camera and his two roommates. The premise for the film centers on Gary, an anxious man cursed with horrible eyesight and the need to control every detail of his life. But when he loses his thick-lensed glasses on the morning of the most important day of his life, everything goes into a tailspin.
That is until, after stumbling through the front door of his apartment, he is steadied by two sturdy, yet unfamiliar arms. In desperate vulnerability, Gary seizes the stranger and demands that he guide him through the blurry puzzle that is the city before him. The stranger agrees, much to Gary’s delight.
Then the camera changes perspectives. Every scene up until this point is from Gary’s point of view, so that all of Gary’s scenes after he losses his glasses are shot through an unfocused lens, making you feel every tinge of Gary’s helplessness. And just as he finds his guide for the day, the camera pulls back to bring the scene in focus. Gary, the anxiety ridden control freak, is wildly hugging . . . a homeless man—a homeless man who, as the story unfolds—has convinced himself that he is an angel sent to save Gary.
I never found out what happened to Gary. My friend ran out of time and money and a working camera and the support of his roommates before he could finish the movie. But I didn’t need to see the film to learn its lesson. The ironic message of the half-filmed film is that we at times need to lose our sight in order to truly see.
The Garden’s Form and Function
The beginning of Christian Scripture does the same thing, but in reverse. Instead of blinding our eyes in order to see the truth, God gives us sight to see the truth of God before sin. Scripture has the power to pull back the veil of sin that so often clouds our vision. This is most apparent in the beginning. And when we peek behind this veil at the start of our Bibles, we find a garden.
Now Christians talk all the time about Eden and rightfully so, yet, it usually is just to set the scene for the upcoming drama rather than be a part of the drama itself. But when we come seeking God’s agenda rather than pushing our own, we see that Eden is not just a backdrop for the world’s beginnings, it is a theology lecture in garden form. In every tree, plant, and fruit, God is explaining who he is and who we are. And as the true artist, he speaks to us through the garden’s form and function.
Eden’s form reveals that God creates for beauty. In Genesis 2, we are told that Eden is “pleasant to the eyes.” Beauty also runs through the river flowing from the garden. These sweet waters nourish all of God’s creation. And from its banks blossomed further monuments of God’s goodness and beauty, such as gold, onyx, other precious resources.
All of this shows us is that there is no deficiency in the garden. God holds nothing back. This is no utilitarian, bleached white, cinder block construction site meant to cloister Adam and Eve away from his creation. It is God’s best given to his image bearers. Eden is pleasant, attractive, beautiful, and satisfying to its fullest extent. So, if there is a problem—and there will be one—it is with man, not the garden, and not God.
This is why the two provisions God highlights are taste and beauty. That which is pleasing to the eyes is also good for food. This connection is not arbitrary.
Now in many Sunday School classes, the lesson stops here. The brief description of Eden’s beauty gives way to the crafty snake in the next chapter. But the next chapter doesn’t make sense without exploring Eden’s beauty further. As with most art, form is driven by function. And in Eden, the garden’s beautiful form follows a more beautiful function.
God plants the garden for a reason. The most obvious reason is the provision of a home and nourishment for mankind. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” But why make it beautiful? Eden is the epicenter of created life. And this life is connected to Eden’s very practical beauty.
This is why the two provisions God highlights are taste and beauty. That which is pleasing to the eyes is also good for food. This connection is not arbitrary. Instead, the garden says that beauty—when it is true and uncorrupted by sin—is essential to the human experience. We are literally sustained by God’s beautiful gifts.
But before we run off and tell everyone that the garden’s function centers on humanity, pause to hear the subjects of the verbs in Genesis 2. The Lord God planted. God put man. The Man he had formed. The Author is trying to tell us something. Maybe, just maybe, the garden is more than just Adam and Eve’s dream home and grocery store in one.
Rather, I think God wants us to see that the garden exists for the pleasure of mankind but that pleasure is only found ultimately in the beauty of its creator. It is true that the garden serves man; but the garden reserves its worship and revelation for its Maker alone. Thus, while the garden speaks to humanity’s needs, the garden SHOUTS God’s beauty. Eden echoes with his beauty. The ultimate function of the garden, therefore, is to display God in all of his marvelous splendor.
In a sense then, the garden is the world’s first art gallery where God is the artist, the artist who reveals himself through every work of art. God sings his beauty into every living thing and presses his glory into every detail of the world. He adorns the garden’s hedgerows with gloriously invasive images of his power, sovereignty, goodness, love, holiness, and, of course, his beauty. When we truly see it, we cannot pull our eyes away.
This gallery is all the more beautiful because its artist is an artist in residence. He plants Adam and Eve in the garden, yes, to enjoy his work but maybe even more to enjoy his presence (Gen 3:8). The question Eden gently asks is, why settle just for the divine art when you can also have the divine artist? And this question still hangs in the air. So yes, the garden is the first couple’s corner lot with water view. But the garden’s true beauty is God himself, the one who draws near with bounty and beauty so that you may draw near to worship him.
And the garden has one last lesson for us: God is God and Man is not. God builds, orders, and plants the garden. Man can only receive this gift, just as he received the gift of life, his wife, and his purpose—all from the Lord’s hands. God is the creator. And man is the created. This distinction makes sense of garden life and makes sense of our broken lives today as well. And though we hate to admit it, this last lesson is perhaps one of the most beautiful things about the garden.
When we see Eden behind the veil, we find that we were made for beauty (form) and beauty was made for us—to see and enjoy and worship the one who created and defines Beauty (function). So pursue beauty in everything you do, but do it for God and for God’s reasons. Do unto the Lord—as beggars giving the King everything the King first gave us. When we do this the best we can—through the Spirit—every true act of beauty we create hints at what this world was, what the world was supposed to be, and the one God is renewing through the gospel right now.
And that is a beautiful thing.
About J. Ryan Lister
J. Ryan Lister (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. He and his wife, Chase Elizabeth, have four children.