by Justin Lonas
Editor's Note: This is the seventh of 10 articles on areas in which entrenched unbiblical attitudes tend to hold sway in the Church. We are seeking to encourage believers to live up to Paul's command to "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world rather than according to Christ" (Col. 2:8)
Tradition Number 7-Arts and Culture
Art and Christianity have had a fascinating and frequently changing relationship over the past 2,000 years. In the early Church, art and symbols served as vital indicators of the faith-messages between persecuted believers often had to be conveyed nonverbally for them to survive.
By the Middle Ages, the amalgamation of church, state, and culture into a single colossal institution brought art into the faith in dramatic ways. The majestic cathedrals, statues, icons, stained-glass windows, and mosaics that dot Europe to this day bear witness to the artistry that this combined power inspired.
By the time of the Renaissance, the Church began to lose much of its government power, but remained ingrained in the culture of the West. This time period produced some of the best known religious art such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and statuary, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Rembrandt's many biblical paintings. The primary difference in Renaissance art was its expansion past purely religious subjects in religious scenes to inject the artist's emotional response to the subject into the artwork.
As art progressed through the modern era, its subjects and styles drifted farther from the anchor of the Church. By the nineteenth century, the Church as a whole had shifted to a position that regarded most art to be anti-Christian and became, in effect, anti-art. This position remained dominant through the twentieth century and still finds voices today.
Now, with the commercialization of the Christian subculture, "Christian" art is available in more forms than ever before-music of all genres, film, fiction, poetry, sculpture, painting, and photography. This is, of course, to be contrasted with secular, mainstream art. The pendulum of the Church's relationship to art and culture has swung through the ages, bouncing between extremes of total embrace and total rejection and creating a false dichotomy between the Creator and the creativity He has given to us.
Scripture very early drew distinctions, not between acceptable and unacceptable art forms, but between acceptable and unacceptable responses to art. In Exodus 20:4, the Lord commanded Israel not to make any graven image of anyone or anything that would be worshipped in His place. Shortly thereafter, however, he commanded all manner of human artistry to be put to use in crafting the Tabernacle (Exodus 25) and the priestly garments (Exodus 28) purely for the purpose of bringing glory to Himself. The Temple (1 Chronicles 28, 2 Chronicles 3) was no exception-filled with works of art whose sole purpose to express His nature of beauty and creativity. The issue was clearly not with art itself but with its purposes and our responses to it.
Francis Schaeffer, in his 1973 pamphlet Art and the Bible, points out that art and civilization are part of man's God-given dominion over creation. He proposes that the exercise of our creativity through art is a direct representation of the fact that we are made in the image of God-we are acting in a godly fashion when we imagine and create. God, Schaeffer theorizes, is passionately interested in beauty (a quick look at the wonders of creation should banish any doubt of that from our minds).
The issue of art mirrors another age-old polarization within the Church-the swing between pathos (emotional appeals) and logos (propositional truth) in our approach to reaching the lost for Christ. In today's postmodern world, art can serve as a bridge between those who know the truth of God and those who reject the existence of truth altogether. A single well-crafted work of art can pierce a heart with the same truth that was denied access when presented propositionally.
To borrow again from Schaeffer, for such art to be effective, it must include four elements: 1) technical excellence (poor art doesn't convey its message well); 2) validity (art done to express something honestly and not just for money); 3) intellectual content (does it come from a biblical worldview?); and 4) integration of content and medium (is the way it is delivered suitable to the message?).
Truth can reach the soul when the artist uses God gift of imagination to convey a piece of His story. Because God is sovereign over all His creation, even non-believers can speak portions of His truth through art. They cannot tell the whole story (only the Holy Spirit and God's Word can), but they can draw people toward God despite their intentions to the contrary. Of course, this does not mean that all artists convey truth. Many deliberately or inherently draw people away from God and reinforce man's sinful nature. We should carefully evaluate all art because it has power to slip past our defenses.
My own Christian walk has been impacted heavily by the art of fiction and its ability to relate truth about human nature through imagined characters. Works of non-believers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, have helped give form to my understanding of morality, responsibility, and sin and its consequences. Works by committed Christians, however, have challenged me to rediscover God's truth in very deep ways. A Christian writer using his creativity to convey spiritual truth in the vernacular of the age is a powerful tool for the Kingdom. Catholic author Flannery O'Connor's short stories, such as "Revelation", have brought me face to face with pervasive pharasaism in my life and forced me back to God's grace as my only hope. C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy showed me with fresh eyes what God's sovereignty and my response to that should look like.
This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of this subject. Jesus' prayer for us to be "in the world but not of the world" (John 17:15) and our interpretation of how to work that out in the context of fulfilling the Great Commission is not universally agreed-upon. If, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism so succinctly puts it, "man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," art is an integral piece of our expression of His glory. Through our created capacity for creativity and imagination, we are able to plumb the depths of God's being in ways that logic alone cannot comprehend. For the Church to pursue God's end of reconciling men to Himself (2 Corinthians 5), we should recognize and utilize all the tools He has given us.
Justin Lonas is editor-in-chief of Pulpit Helps magazine.