Arts & Culture

Reason for Being: A Christian Vision for the Arts

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Average people don’t think much about art and how it relates to Christian theology. For most of us, it is enough to know that art is out there. As for how we feel about it – it’s pretty cool.

However, those within the Church called to art as their vocation face heightened scrutiny. What is the value of making art? Can art glorify God if it doesn’t expressly incorporate him somehow, or if its content is antithetical to Christian morality?

Christians who are artists need not fear skepticism from fellow believers. Art’s reason for being is found in its beauty, something well attested to in a book of essays titled For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. If we know that beauty is enough for art’s existence, then we will see that 1) Christian art is not required to be a tool for evangelism; 2) Christian art can depict things we would not consider “appropriate” for a universal audience.

What Is Art and Why Do We Care About It?

What is art? Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, offers a tentative answer:

Art is, perhaps, one way of naming everything we as cultural beings do that cannot be explained in terms of its usefulness. It is not the realm of the useless exactly, but the incapable-of-being-expressed-as-useful. That which cannot be turned into a means to an end, but asserts itself as an end—intrinsically, and in some senses inexplicably, worthwhile.

The concept of something existing for its own sake is greatly at odds with the assumption that everything must be “useful.” In beauty, we have a better reason to value art than its utility. Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter and panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, articulates this well:

Strictly speaking, the definition of art is that it isn’t “for” anything. It is useless—except as a vehicle of the beautiful. It’s gratuitous… So why do we do it? Because we human beings are driven to it in a natural response to the cosmos. When we consider our lives and the world, our human nature kicks in and gets our hearts swelling, and we make things to express the resulting ineffable emotions [emphasis in original].

We should cherish art because it is beautiful. God has both made and uplifted the beautiful. As Lauren F. Winner, assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School, points out,

Scripture makes clear that God is interested in art. If you doubt that, turn to Exodus 26 and see how much space is devoted to the details of the tabernacle—loops of blue fabric, gold and bronze clasps, ram skin dyed red.

The description of the temple built by Solomon in I Kings 6 is equally instructive – interior walls lined with cedar, insides overlaid with pure gold, cherubim made out of olive wood. This worship space was not designed to be merely “useful.” Crouch draws a connection between art and worship, saying they “stand together on the common ground of the unuseful”:

Much is at stake in whether we think that our worship is a free response to grace or an exercise in persuasion, an effort to get either God or people to do what we want them to do. If we have a utilitarian attitude toward art, if we require it to justify itself in terms of its usefulness to our ends, it is very likely that we will end up with the same attitude toward worship, and ultimately toward God.

Art, like worship, is justified apart from works. It can aid worship, facilitate instruction, and serve many other purposes, but it does not need to in order to exist. For this reason, art is also not compelled to persuade.

The Art of Not Persuading

If the current state of the music and film industries is any indication, a song or movie can only be considered Christian if it mentions Jesus by name or comprehensively presents the gospel. This is the primary characteristic of Christian cultural output. It unambiguously identifies itself as Christian and explains why other people should be Christians too. Some believe that’s the way it ought to be, as Crouch observes:

We Christians have made our peace, more or less, with useful culture. Especially when it can be used as a means for our own ends. If the song has Christian lyrics, if the painting has an appropriately pious subject…we are ready and even eager to be culture makers.

Art is not confined to so narrow a purpose. We vitiate artistic endeavors if we enlist them chiefly as an engine for evangelism. W. David O. Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes:

If we go down this road far enough, we will begin forcing Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor to include vocal annunciations of Jesus’s name in order to be God-honoring classical music. If we believe that beautiful things cannot have their own justification for existing, then we might as well say that cherry tomatoes need to be used for evangelism in order to be worth producing [emphasis in original].

Artists are free to communicate what they wish through their work. I simply want to combat the idea that only evangelistic art is Christian art. Beauty is its own testament to God. Whatever an artist conveys through his or her work will better stand without labels and signposts.

Beauty Is At Least Sin Deep

If we accept art as a vessel of beauty, we should also accept that art created by Christians does not have to be “clean” or “family-friendly.” True beauty is not blind to evil. On the contrary, says Nicolosi:

I want to state unequivocally what the beautiful is not. It’s not cute. It’s not easy. It’s not banal. It’s not silly. The beautiful is not sweet or nice. It’s not facile. And it’s not unthreatening.

If the depiction of evil is inherently unacceptable, then why is the Bible full of such depictions (see Genesis 19:30-38, Judges 19:22-30, II Samuel 13:1-19, and many others)?

Just as the Bible reflects truth by accurately recording history (even the unsavory parts), so too does art reflect God’s truth when it graphically confronts us with the depths of sin and evil. It is easy for the graphic to become gratuitous, but it is possible to avoid this without sacrificing depth. Wherever the middle ground is, we do ourselves no favors by limiting Christian artists to the safe and saccharine.

If Christian artists feel a tension between their faith and their artistic impulses, the scope of Christian art is greater than they may know. No doctrine, tenet, or precept of the faith prevents us from reflecting the whole world around us, in all of its paradoxical goodness and darkness.

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  • John Thomas

    Thank you. I needed to hear this perspective today.

  • PeterKushkowski

    Fifty-five years ago an artist and his wife invited my wife and I into their home for an evening meal. Although we’ve long since lost touch with the couple the large pallet-knife painting above the fireplace mantel is unforgettable to this day. It was the grossest portrait depiction of the head of a man pleading with eyes upturned and fingers of hand extended. There was no hint of the Gospel until the artist answered my question about the work’s title. “Wretched Man,” came the reply, “from Romans 7.”.

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