Art and the Christian

Have you ever heard anyone say, “That’s an ugly sunset.” Probably not, but surely you have heard the word beautiful applied to sunsets. And when you hear the phrase “beautiful sunset” you probably don’t hear an argument to the contrary. Usually there is a consensus among those who see the sunset: it is beautiful. From a Christian perspective those who are there are offering a judgement concerning both the “artist” and the “art.” Both the “cause” and “effect” have been praised aesthetically. Torrential waterfalls, majestic mountains, as well as sunsets routinely evoke human aesthetic response. The Christian knows that the very fabric of the universe expresses God’s presence with majestic beauty and grandeur. Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.” Nature has been called the “aesthetics of the infinite.” Through telescope or microscope, one can devote a lifetime to the study of some part of the universe–the skin, the eye, the sea, the flora and fauna, the stars, the climate. All of nature can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities, which find their source in God, their Creator.

Anthropologists tell us all primitive peoples thought art was important. Why is this true? From the perspective of a Christian world-view the answer is found in how we are created. Since we are made in God’s image that must include the glorious concept that we too are creative. After creating man, God told him to subdue the earth and rule over it. Adam was to cultivate and keep the garden (Gen. 2:15), which was described by God as “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The implication of this is very important. God, the Creator, a lover of the beauty in His created world, invited Adam, one of His creatures, to share in the process of “creation” with Him. He has permitted humans to take the elements of His world and create new arrangements with them. Perhaps this explains the reason why creating anything is so fulfilling to us. We can express a drive within us that allows us to do something all humans uniquely share with their Creator. God has thus placed before the human race a banquet table rich with aesthetic delicacies. He has supplied the basic ingredients, inviting those made in His image to exercise their creative capacities to the fullest extent possible. We are privileged as no other creature to make and enjoy art.

There is a dark side to this, however, because sin entered and affected all of human life. A bent and twisted nature has emerged, tainting every field of human endeavour or expression, consistently marring the results. The unfortunate truth is that divinely endowed creativity will always be accompanied in earthly life by the reality and presence of sin expressed through a fallen race. Man is Jekyll and Hyde: noble image-bearer and morally- crippled animal. His works of art are therefore bitter-sweet  Understanding this dichotomy allows Christians to genuinely appreciate something of the contribution of every artist, composer, or author. God is sovereign and dispenses artistic talents upon whom He will. While Scripture keeps us from emulating certain lifestyles of artists or condoning some of their ideological perspectives, we can nevertheless admire and appreciate their talent, which ultimately finds its source in God. The fact is that if God can speak through a burning bush or Balaam’s donkey, He can speak through a hedonistic artist! The question can never be how worthy is the vessel, but rather has truth been expressed? God’s truth is still sounding forth today from the Bible, from nature, and even from fallen humanity. Because of the Fall, absolute beauty in the world is gone, but participation in the aesthetic dimension reminds us of the beauty that once was, and anticipates its future luster. With such beauty present today that can take one’s breath away, even in this unredeemed world, one can but speculate about what lies ahead for those who love Him!

What does the Bible have to say about the arts? Happily, the Bible does not call upon Christians to look down upon the arts. In fact, the arts are imperative when considered from the biblical mandate that “whatever we do should be done to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We are to offer Him the best that we have– intellectually, artistically, and spiritually. Further, at the very centre of Christianity stands the Incarnation – “the Word made flesh,” an event which identified God with the physical world and gave dignity to it.
A real Man died on a real cross and was laid in a real, rock-hard tomb. The dichotomy between sacred and secular is alien to biblical faith. Paul’s statement, “Unto the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15) includes the arts. While we may recognize that human creativity, like all other gifts bestowed upon us by God, may be misused, there is nothing inherently or more sinful about the arts than other areas of human activity.
The Old Testament is rich with examples, which confirm the artistic dimension. Exodus 25 shows that God commanded beautiful architecture, along with other forms of art – metalwork, clothing design, tapestry, etc…in the building of the tabernacle and eventually the temple. Here we find something unique in history art…works conceived and designed by the infinite God, then transmitted to and executed by His human apprentices! Poetry is another evidence of God’s love for beauty. A large portion of the Old Testament, including Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, portions of the prophets, and Job contain poetry. Since God inspired the very words of Scripture, it logically follows that He inspired the poetical form in such passages. Music and dance are often found in the Bible. In Exodus 15, the children of Israel celebrated God’s Red Sea victory over the Egyptians with singing, dancing, and the playing of instruments. In 1 Chronicles 23:5 we find musicians in the temple, their instruments specifically made by King David for praising God.

The New Testament also includes artistic insights. The most obvious is the example of Jesus Himself. He was by trade a carpenter, a skilled craftsman (Mark 6:3). His teachings are full of examples which reveal His sensitivity to the beauty all around: the fox, the bird nest, the lily, the sparrow and dove, the glowering skies, a vine, a mustard seed. Jesus was also a master storyteller. He readily made use of His own cultural setting to impart His message, and sometimes quite dramatically. Many of the parables were fictional stories, but they were nevertheless used to teach spiritual truths via the imagination. The entire Bible is not only divine revelation, it is itself a work of art.

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