Ask about the Lord's Prayer project at Azusa Pacific University, and the response will likely be, "Which one?"
After all, the question could refer to the art book, the scholarly commentary, the work of fiction, or the choral piece. Across campus, the Bible serves as the keystone for scholars and writers, artists and musicians, playwrights and filmmakers. Few books, if any, cross so many disciplines and lend themselves to such varied treatment. What about this one Book allows for such a broad range of scholarly activity? Why do scholars from diverse fields focus their creative energy on the Bible?
For APU English professor and author Joseph Bentz, Ph.D., the motivation lies in filling in the blanks. “The Bible gives a massive amount of information, and yet leaves a lot to the imagination,” he said. “We know from Genesis 19:26 that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back, but we can’t help wondering why she looked back—what was she thinking? The Bible keeps us guessing, which allows room for inspiration and interpretation.” Bentz’s current book project, Named, takes familiar characters from the Bible such as Moses and Joseph and transports the reader into the characters’ shoes. “Christians hear and read these stories so often, and yet it is easy for us to forget that these larger-than-life characters were real people, with real day-to-day struggles. I enjoy the challenge of bringing the events and people of the Scriptures to life for a modern audience.”
Professor of music technology Michael Lee, M.M., who wrote a Lord’s Prayer-inspired a cappella piece for the Men’s Chorale called Our Father, Vindicate, sought to recapture some of its fervor and revolutionary zeal. “The Lord’s Prayer is very familiar to today’s believers, and that familiarity has drained away some of its meaning,” said Lee, who holds master’s degrees in both music and theology.
“However, to the devout Jewish listeners in Jesus’ day, it was a revolutionary prayer that was intentionally controversial. Every statement in Matthew 6:9–13 started out familiar and then completely subverted what they expected. My goal with the piece was to recast the Lord’s Prayer to recover some of the urgency and militancy that it originally held.”
“The process of creating from the Bible spurs my personal spiritual growth,” said Diane Glancy, MFA, visiting professor of English, who recently published a short story in Books & Culture magazine about Anna, the prophetess described in Luke 2:36. “As I wrote from Anna’s perspective and found her voice as an old woman in the temple, it gave me hope for my own spiritual life as I age. My Anna wasn’t lonely and languishing in the temple — she was vibrant and full of life. She couldn’t wait to pray.”
However, Glancy pointed out that creating from biblical stories and characters brings its own unique challenges. “When the Bible is your source, historical and theological accuracy become paramount,” she said. “We have to tread lightly, balancing the use of our imagination with the warning in Revelation 22:18 that we must not add to or remove anything from God’s Word.”
Lee agrees. “Creating from Scripture changes the process. There is a much greater sense of obligation. With other sources, we have more freedom to play with the text in a way that can be more useful musically. Scripture brings with it a deeper burden to pursue the meaning and intent of the text.”
While affirming the need to maintain the integrity of Scripture, actor and director Monica Ganas, Ph.D., professor in APU’s Department of Theater, Film, and Television, suggests that Christians should not allow this consideration to impede the creative process. “We’re very shy about producing work that the Church might not understand. As a result, we tend to be faint-hearted in what we attempt,” she explained. “Theater and visual storytelling should be able to demonstrate the redemptive dimensions, the healing dimensions, and the comic dimensions of the Scriptures.” She recently acted in Pulling Teeth, a film project that looks at the humorous side of the tale of Jacob and Esau as told in Genesis 25:29, transporting it into a modern dentist’s office. “Christians seem especially scared to explore the comic elements in Scripture, but God is the Source of humor-believers should be able to do comedy better than anyone else.” How, then, do Christian artists and scholars determine where to draw the line?
According to Bentz, such discernment requires exhaustive research and prayer. “We need to cultivate a sensitivity to taking imagination too far. This starts with researching everything from a historical and theological standpoint, and then asking God to communicate what He wants to say,” he said.
“It’s a highly meditative process,” said John Hartley, Ph.D., of his recent project, a commentary on the book of Genesis. The distinguished professor of Old Testament in the School of Theology has also written commentaries on Job and Leviticus, with a pending volume on Proverbs marking his fourth. “Commentators must seek diligently to grasp the core meaning of a particular verse, paragraph, chapter, or section within its historical and cultural context. Then we investigate the trajectory of that core concept as it occurs in other biblical texts, with the goal of capturing its dynamic power as a God-given guide to faithful service in the Kingdom.”
Professor of art Jim Thompson, Ed.D., who based a piece, titled The Bread Box, on the Lord’s Prayer, asserts that unifying concepts that move throughout Scripture explain part of the fascination the Bible holds over artists and scholars. “This one Book was written over a 1,600-year period, by at least 40 authors in 3 languages, and yet, the consistent theme throughout is God’s redemption of humankind. How exciting to be able to take a text like that and let it inform what we create.”
Furthermore, Bentz pointed out that this diverse authorship provides a literary foundation for scholarship. “The Bible holds so many different types of literature—poetry, history, genealogy, prophecy, letters. There is something for everyone.”
According to Ganas, Jesus’ parables provide an example of this dynamic at work. “Jesus’ parables lend themselves to treatment in theater and film because they are enduring and timeless. Jesus used timely metaphors to make His point, and as a result, it is easy to update their symbolism for a modern audience,” she said. “It’s easy to translate the Good Samaritan into the Good Biker.”
David Weeks, Ph.D., new dean of the Honors College, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and professor of political science, believes that the Bible’s cross-disciplinary nature also says something about the disciplines themselves. “Ultimately, every academic and creative pursuit deals with fundamental questions. Each academic area seeks answers to life’s most important questions, and the Bible addresses many of them. As a result, Scripture becomes fertile ground for researchers and artists in almost every field.”
Weeks explores this idea in his current writing project, an article insert for the Christian Worldview Bible, where he describes how the Bible has influenced his view of politics. “While Scripture says nothing about campaigns, legislation, elections, or tax rates, the text says a lot about the more fundamental political questions. The Bible teaches us about God’s sovereignty and the derivative nature of human authority, about human nature and the inherent worth and dignity of human beings, and about humans living in community and why civil society is indispensable. All of these make up the core of political philosophy and influence how we deal with one another and make political decisions.”
Across the board, Azusa Pacific’s scholars cite one overriding reason for the Bible’s preeminence as impetus for academic and creative production—its position as the primary Source for insight into God’s Truth. “Scripture is the inspired Word of God,” said Glancy. “The Holy Spirit works through the Bible in a way that He doesn’t work through any other book. " Thompson’s sketchpad, which he takes to church with him each Sunday to capture ideas inspired by his pastor’s sermons, illustrates a similar sentiment. A recent Sunday’s sketch shows a plain white field, with a wadded-up piece of paper in the foreground. On the corner of the paper, the words “In the beginning . . . ” are barely visible, with the implication that it goes on to tell the story of the Bible. The tentative title? “Nothing Else Is Needed.”
Posted: September 20, 2013