Art and the Church

In the 1880’s, Yale president Noah Porter entered the office of one of Yale’s professors. The topic of discussion was a book by a famous philosopher which the professor had included in his sociology class’ syllabus. It was the job of President Porter to review all books to be used in Yale classrooms. After reaching the end of the book, Porter decided to meet with the professor in order to ask him why the book he planned to assign to his sociology class did not mention God. In the course of the meeting, President Porter introduced his concern and asked the professor his poignant question:

“Why doesn’t this book mention God?”

In response, the professor said:

“God has nothing to do with the subject.”

This professor’s reply is probably right in line with what the average Christian believes about art. Art has become a strange, almost religious word and artists have sometimes been seen as mysterious, mystical or priestlike. In fact, art historian Rosalind Krauss said this in the 1970’s:
“In the…nineteenth century…art became, as it has remained, a secular form of belief.”1
So a lot of Christians have distanced themselves from the arts.

But can a Christian make art and engage with art, even when there are wars going on across the world, even when there are famines, diseases, and injustice – can we as Christians commit to making good art in this broken world as a legitimate way to honor Jesus?

WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT ART

Gensis
The Bible begins by presenting God as the supreme Creator. Before everything existed there was only God. And his first act was to create. So creativity begins with God.
After God creates he looks at what he made and says that it is good. There are several different ways something can be good. Good can mean “It works the way it’s supposed to”. Good can mean “morally right” like “The good guy tackled the bankrobber and saved the hostages”. Good can mean “aesthetically pleasing or beautiful” like when you say “That sandwich was really good” or when you see a really well done painting and you say “That is really good”. I think when God said everything was good, he meant to communicate that His creation was functioning as it should, it was ethically and morally pure, and it was incredibly beautiful2.

Recent biblical scholarship has something else to add to what we read in Genesis. Theologian John Walton says that around the time Genesis was probably written, there was a certain way people in ancient Mesopotamia wrote about their gods and the temples of those gods. One of the most consistent features of those writings is the idea that the temples of gods were usually said to have been created in 6 days. So, John Walton argues, Genesis seems to be using this kind of literary device to state that the one, true God made the earth His temple3. In other words, we could state that Genesis chapter 1 is talking about God decorating a house for Himself. He could have made this place completely uniform, with every tree looking the exact same, every animal being only one species, sunsets being black and white. But He didn’t.

Exodus
Another interesting thing we see in the Bible is that the first person in the entire Bible said to be filled with the Holy Spirit is, of all things, an artist.

Exodus 31:1-6 says, paraphrasing: “God filled Bezalel with the Holy Spirit so he can make some good looking art for the tent where God will meet with His people.”

Consider the significance of this fact: God placed such a priority on beauty that He filled craftsmen with the Holy Spirit in order to make art.

New Testament Use of Art
Jesus used imagery all of the time when He instructed with parables and stories rich with imagery. For example, look how Jesus discusses the dangers of pursuing wealth:

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24)

Jesus wants you to picture something in your mind by using your imagination. Think of a camel trying to dive into a needle. It won’t work. When you read things like this, you're supposed to picture them in your mind, trying to see what the Bible is inviting you to see.

ALL TRUE ART HAS FORM & CONTENT
Armed with this brief theological understanding of art, Christians can approach art with an engaged, active mindset, rather than simply attempting to avoid it. To engage with art as Christians, we have to remember that all art has two crucial components:
FORM and CONTENT.
The form of art is what the art is made of, the actual material and how that material is presented. For example, a painting's form describes the colors used, the type of paint (acrylic, oil, watercolor, etc.), the material upon which the painting is placed (canvas, wood, etc.).
The content of the art is what the art is saying, what story the artist is telling us through their art.
Once you’ve had time to really look observe the art, then you can begin to study the artist, you can look their name up and see what else they’ve done and see what was going on when they did their work, asking yourself, “What story is this artist telling about themselves, life, the world, humanity, or God?"

HOW TO ENGAGE ART
The late Francis Schaeffer, in a book called "Art and the Bible", gave a four-step process for engaging all kinds of art, and that process is described below. However, there is a crucial first step in beginning to engage any art: you have to open yourself up to the art; you should try as best as you can to set aside your ideas about it, your personal likes and dislikes. You must, in C.S. Lewis’s words, get yourself out of the way4. Simply observe. Value what is in front of you as an artifact of someone's time and energy. Take a moment to simply be in front of the art.
 
After you’ve given the art an honest chance at doing something to you and valued it as the product of someone made in God’s image, you can then begin to engage the art with these four steps:

Technical excellence
Is it done well? It doesn’t matter at this point if you find the art disgusting or ugly – is it well done? Are the lines handled well? Is the color balanced?

Validity
Is this artist being true to their view of the world or is this artist simply trying to make money or be accepted by culture?

Content
Again, this is the story the artist is trying to tell. Even art should be judged by the Bible. If the story being told is false or is destructive, then we must say so. If something evil is being shown to be good through a well-made piece of art, we have to be ready to call it evil.

Integration of Content and Form
Does the story or content match the form? For example, someone wanting to poetically celebrate God's creation acts in Genesis could fail to do so by presenting a poem with words, pacing, phrasing (form) doesn't match or integrate with the content (the beauty) of the events:

"The world is made,
It's not plain,
Thank God for cool trees,
Thank God for you and me."


The content of this poem is amazing and jaw-dropping, since it's dealing with God's powerful work. But the form fails to communicate the grandeur and awe of these events due to poor language choice and organization of the words.

In closing, consider this fact: there are creatures that God put at the bottom of the ocean that we will never see. Why did God do this? Because He is creative! And since we have been made in His image, we are free to be as creative as He is. Which means if you’re a Christian who enjoys painting, you don’t have to only paint Noah’s ark or Jesus on the cross. And you don’t have to shy away from the ugliness and suffering of our world. Because God didn’t. As a Christian, you can be sure that your imagination is totally free to explore and present beauty - or suffering - from all facets of life.
1. Rosalind Krauss, "Grids".
2. These insights on the word "good" are from John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.
3. See John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One. For further reading, see Meredith Kline, Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony.
4. C.S. Lewis, "An Experiment in Criticism".