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A Christian View of the Arts – Part I

Psalm 27:4 – “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.”

Psalm 29:2 – “Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.”

“There is no accounting for taste” goes the ancient Roman maxim. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Everyone has his likes and dislikes when it comes to artistic expression.” Appreciation of art is strictly a matter of individual opinion or preference, right? Not necessarily. Just as a Christian worldview applies to the matters like economics and science, so the same philosophy should influence our understanding of beauty, a term we should define.

What is Art?  

Because of Enlightenment revisions, today we think of art as the fine arts: literature, poetry, music, theater & dance, and the plastic arts (painting, sculpture, architecture). How we understand, evaluate and appreciate (or reject) these forms of art greatly depends on our worldview. 

The word art comes from the word artisan. The Bible first mentions cultural advancement when it speaks of the descendants of Cain fathering those who play instruments. A man named Jubal “was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ” (Gen 4:21). The first “inspired” artists created the Tabernacle and all the associated items “for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2, 40).An artist was not originally separate from any other artisan – one who made furniture, or a stone mason, or weaved clothing. What we think today of an artist was simply an artisan, working with paint, words, or music.

The beginning of art is found in God’s creation of the world. God is the ultimate artist, and he created all things “good” (Gen 1). All nature declares the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). Mankind is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). No one can deny the beauty so obviously displayed in nature. Even atheistic scientists wax eloquent about the beauty of the heavens and the earth. The deeper we probe into the mysteries of nature, the more beauty we find—in space, on the bottom of the sea, in the composition of a molecule. God’s creative hand is seen everywhere.

 

Art is an expression of  imagination, a communication of an idea. Any idea can be judged as to its relationship with God and with God’s Word. Sometimes it is difficult to judge what is being communicated. But in many cases the message is very close to the surface and easily evaluated. A picture, a song, a poem, a movie, a story—virtually any kind of artistic expression has moral content and thus is open to judgment.

Obviously, those who think differently about God will also think differently about art. Without a secure attachment to the Word of God, no ultimate standard for evaluation exists. Thus, for many, art cannot be judged as to merit or value. Anything that people call art must be art.

Why should Christians be concerned about art?

  1. Creating artistic expressions of various kinds is one way man reflects the image of the Creator. Man is a sub-creator, who fleshes out the meaning of the world in culture. Human creativity is a direct reflection of the image of God in man (Gen 1:26-27). God empowered certain individuals with artistic skills (Ex 31:6). Unfortunately, such powers were often corrupted to make idols (Ps 135.15-18; Rom 1:23).  
  2. The most powerful expressions of this meaning are the arts, which transmit and explain how man thinks about himself, God, and the world. Everyone expresses his idea of the world in some semi-artistic way. And even if one does not produce art, he most likely is a consumer of it. Almost everyone appreciates art in some form.
  3. Art becomes the fruit on the tree which shows what the culture is.  Like Jesus said, a good tree brings forth good fruit (Matthew 7:17). A man speaks (or writes or paints or composes) from the abundance of his heart. Those whose nature is still “dead in trespasses and sin” will usually produce art that reflects the depravity of the lost soul. A culture is lost deeply affected by whatever religion is dominant, which will come through in its art.  The Scriptures speak of this life and culture as worldly, earthly, fleshly, sensual, and demonic. This [value system] and this lifestyle are ungodly, unholy, and unfit. Although the nature of this culture is also deeply spiritual (living in the spirit of this age), the evidences of this culture are, likewise, quite objective. There are styles of personal appearance and dress that purposefully and plainly identify with antichristian culture and, thus, offend both the letter and tenor of God’s revealed truth and innate holiness. There are certain genres of language and speech that are clearly antichristian and unbefitting a child of God. There are specific art forms and particular music styles that are unmistakably identified with godless culture and living. These forms and styles ought not to be embraced by those who claim to be Christ’s. To associate oneself with such dress, speech, art, and music is to disassociate oneself with Christ, his [value system] and lifestyle.
  4. Artists are agents of change. They introduce philosophical ideas into the stream of culture. Styles and forms of art are delivery mechanisms to awaken people to a whole new way of thinking and acting. Thus we must be very careful about the kind of art we access, because art communicates ideas.
  5. Since art is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful influence on the thoughts and affections of men, we have to give it careful attention. We are to cast down all ideas that exalt themselves against God and bring every thought into the captivity of Christ (2 Cor 10:5).  
  6. The arts are specifically commanded to be used in worship (Col 3:16, Eph 5:18). There is no escape from art and liturgy in corporate worship. Worship has to take place somewhere, and there are forms involved whenever you worship. Even very plain auditoriums include liturgical forms. We cannot remove all art from church. Every form is an art form, and every art form communicates something. E.g., the pulpit, the platform, the building, chairs, clothing, music, offering plates—all have meaning and value. Everything has style and aesthetic value. Whether simple or sophisticated, all elements and items used in worship have meaning and value. Some things are done primarily for beauty, artistic merit and/or style (e.g., clothing has style; it’s not simply to cover us up or keep us warm). All forms are art forms, and every form communicates something. E.g., cathedrals include expressions of transcendence and holiness, and thus inspire awe and reverence—that’s a planned, designed response. A very different feeling comes from a civic hall or theater.

God gave specific directions for the beautification of the tabernacle/temple. God ordained that the place of worship should be full of beautiful artistic expression. Skilled craftsmen molded gold, wood and bronze into a wide variety of shapes for various purposes. “All manner of artistic workmanship” (Ex 35:33) could be found within the tabernacle. Even the utensils were beautifully crafted from pure silver and gold. The clothing of the priests and Levites were also specially made and decorated. God was concerned about the appearance of the temple. It was a building whose excellence called attention to the glory of the God who dwelt there. There was nothing mediocre, superficial, or tacky about it.

 

  – David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa

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