|by Jimmy Williams
Jesus Appears to Thomas
Jacek Andrzej Rossakiewicz
Is there a legitimate place for the appreciation of art and
beauty in our lives? What is the relationship of culture to
our spiritual life? Are not art and the development of
aesthetic tastes really a waste of time in the light of
eternity? These are questions Christians often ask about the
Unfortunately, the answers we often hear to such questions
imply that Christianity can function quite nicely without an
aesthetic dimension. At the heart of this mentality is
Tertullian's (160-220 A.D.) classic statement, "What has
Athens to do with Jerusalem? The Academy with the Church? We
have no need for curiosity since Jesus Christ, nor inquiry
since the evangel."
This bold assertion has led many to argue that the
spiritual life is essential, but the cultural inconsequential.
And today much of the Christian community seems inclined to
approach aesthetics in the same hurried and superficial manner
with which we live most of our lives. This attitude was
vividly expressed recently in a cartoon portraying an American
rushing into the Louvre in Paris. The caption read, "Where's
the Mona Lisa? I'm double parked!"
Art and Aesthetics
What is aesthetics? Let us begin with a definition.
Aesthetics is "The philosophy of beauty and art. It studies
the nature of beauty and laws governing its expression, as in
the fine arts, as well as principles of art criticism"1.
Formally, aesthetics is thus included in the study of
philosophy. Ethical considerations to determine "good" and
"bad" include the aesthetic dimension.
Thus, beauty can be contemplated, defined, and understood
for itself. This critical process results in explaining why
some artists, authors, and composers are great, some merely
good, and others not worthwhile. Aesthetics therefore
". . .aims to solve the problem of beauty on a universal
basis. If successful, it would presently furnish us with an
explanation of the quality common to Greek temples, Gothic
cathedrals, Renaissance paintings, and all good art from
whatever place or time."2
At the heart of aesthetics, then, is human
creativity and its diverse cultural expressions. H.
Richard Neibuhr has defined it as "the work of men's minds and
hands." While nature (as God's gift) provides the raw
materials for human expression, culture is that which man
produces in his earthly setting. It . . . "includes the
totality and the life pattern--language, religion, literature
(if any), machines and inventions, arts and crafts,
architecture and decor, dress, laws, customs, marriage and
family structures, government and institutions, plus the
peculiar and characteristic ways of thinking and acting."3
Aesthetic taste is interwoven all through the cultural
fabric of a society and thus cannot be ignored. It is
therefore inescapable--for society and for the individual.
Human creativity will inevitably express itself and the
results (works of art) will tell us something about its
creators and the society from which they came. "Through art,
we can know another's view of the universe."4
"As such, works of art are often more accurate than any
other indication about the state of affairs at some remote but
crucial juncture in the progress of humanity. . . . By
studying the visual arts from any society, we can usually tell
what the people lived for and for what they might be willing
The term art can mean many different things. In the
broadest sense, everything created by man is art and
everything else is nature, created by God. However, art
usually denotes good and beautiful things
created by mankind (Note: A major point of debate in the field
of aesthetics centers around the definition of these two
terms). Even crafts and skills, such as carpentry or metal
working have been considered by many as arts.
While the works of artisans of earlier eras have come to be
viewed like fine art, the term the arts, however, has a
narrower focus in this outline. We are here particularly
concerned with those activities of mankind which are motivated
by the creative urge, which go beyond immediate material
usefulness in their purpose, and which express the uniqueness
of being human. This more limited use of the term art
includes music, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture,
drama and literature. The fine arts is the study of
those human activities and acts which produce and are
considered works of art.
Aesthetics then is the study of human responses to things
considered beautiful and meaningful. The arts is the study of
human actions which attempt to arouse an aesthetic experience
in others. A sunset over the mountains may evoke aesthetic
response, but it is not considered a piece of art, because it
is nature. A row of telephone poles with connecting power
lines may have a beautiful appearance, but they are not art
because they were not created with an artistic purpose in
mind. It must be noted, however, that even those things
originally made for non-artistic purposes can and have later
come to be viewed as art objects (i.e., antiques).
While art may have the secondary result of earning a living
for the artist, it always has the primary purpose of creative
expression for describably and indescribably human experiences
and urges. The artist's purpose is to create a special kind of
honesty and openness which springs from the soul and is
hopefully understood by others in their inner being.
Aesthetics and the Bible
What does the Bible have to say about the arts? Happily,
the Bible does not call upon Christians to stultify or look
down upon the arts. In fact, the arts are imperative
when considered from the biblical perspective. At the heart of
this is the general mandate that whatever we do should be done
to the glory of God. We are to offer Him the best that we
have--intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.
Further, at the very center 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 Greek ideas of "other-worldly-ness" that fostered a
tainted and debased view of nature (and hence aesthetics) find
no place in biblical Christianity. The dichotomy between
sacred and secular is thus an alien one to biblical faith.
Paul's statement, "Unto the pure, all things are pure," (Tit. 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
aesthetic dimension. In Exodus 20:4-5 and Leviticus 26:1, God
makes it clear that He does not forbid the making of
art, only the worshipping of art. Consider the use of
these vehicles of artistic expression found throughout:
Architecture. God is concerned with architecture. In
fact, 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. Similar instructions were given for the temple
later constructed by King Solomon. Here we find something
unique in history--art works designed and conceived by the
infinite God, then transmitted to and executed by His human
Apparently He delights in color, texture, and form. (We
also see this vividly displayed in nature). The point is that
God did not instruct men to build a purely utilitarian
place where His chosen people could worship Him. As Francis
Schaeffer said, "God simply wanted beauty in the Temple. God
is interested in beauty."6
And in Exodus 31, God even names the artists He wants to
create this beauty, commissioning them to their craft
for His glory.
Poetry is another evidence of God's love for beauty. A
large portion of the Old Testament is poetry, and since God
inspired the very words of Scripture, it logically follows
that He inspired the poetical form in such passages. David,
the man after God's own heart, composed many poems of praise
to God, while under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Among
the most prominent poetical books are: Psalms. Proverbs,
Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Poetry is also a
significant element in the prophets and Job.
The genre of poetry varies with each author's intent. For
example, the Song of Solomon is first and foremost a love poem
picturing the beauty and glory of romantic, human love between
a man and his mate. It is written in the form of lyric idyll,
a popular literary device in the Ancient Near East. The fact
that this story is often interpreted symbolically to reflect
the love between Christ and His Church, or Jehovah and Israel,
does not weaken the celebration of physical love recorded in
the poem, nor destroy its literary form.
Drama was also used in Scripture at God's command. The
Lord told Ezekiel to get a brick and draw a representation of
Jerusalem on it. The Ezekiel "acted out" a siege of the city
as a warning to the people. He had to prophesy against the
house of Israel while lying on his left side. This went on for
390 days. Then he had to lie on his right side, and he carried
out this drama by the express command of God to teach the
people a lesson (Ezek. 4:1-6). The dramatic element is vivid
in much of Christ's ministry as well. Cursing the fig tree,
writing in the dirt with His finger, washing the feet of the
disciples are dramatic actions which enhanced His spoken word.
Music and Dance are often found in the Bible in the
context of rejoicing before God. 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. 2 Chronicles 29:25-26 says that David's command
to have music in the temple was from God, "for the command was
from the Lord through His prophets." And we must not forget
that all of the lyrical poetry of the Psalms was first
intended to be sung.
The New Testament
The New Testament abounds as well with evidence
underscoring artistic imperatives. The most obvious is the
example of Jesus Himself. First of all, He was by trade
a carpenter, a skilled craftsman (Mark 6:3). Secondly, we
encounter in Jesus a person who loved to be outdoors and one
who was extremely attentive to His surroundings. 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 bruised reed, a vine,
a mustard seed. Jesus was also a master storyteller. He
readily made use of his own culture setting to impart his
message, and sometimes quite dramatically. Many of the
parables were fictional stories abut they were nevertheless
used as vehicles of communication to teach spiritual truths.
And certainly the parable of the talents in Matthew 25
includes the artistic gifts.
The apostle Paul also alludes to aesthetics in Philippians
4:8 when he exhorts believers to meditate and reflect upon
pure, honest, lovely, good, virtuous and praiseworthy things.
We are further told in Revelation 15:2-3 that art forms will
even be present in heaven. So the arts have a place in both
the earthly and heavenly spheres!
We should also remember that the entire Bible is not
only revelation, it also is itself a work of art. In fact, it
is many works of art--a veritable library of great
literature. We have already mentioned poetry, but the
Bible includes other literary forms as well. For example,
large portions of it are narrative in style. Most of the Old
Testament is either historical narrative or
prophetic narrative. And the Gospels, (which recount
the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Christ),
are biographical narrative. Even the personal letters
of Paul and the other New Testament authors can quite properly
be considered epistolary literature.
Aesthetics and Nature
The Bible makes it very clear that a companion volume, the
book of Nature, has a distinct aesthetic dimension. Torrential
waterfalls, majestic mountains, and blazing sunsets routinely
evoke human aesthetic response as easily as can a vibrant
symphony or a dazzling painting. The very fabric of the
universe expresses God's presence with majestic beauty and
grandeur. Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of
God and the firmament shows forth his handiwork." In fact,
nature has been called the "aesthetics of the Infinite."
The brilliant photography of the twentieth century has
revealed the limitless depths of beauty in nature. 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.
And since God's creation is multi-dimensional, an apple,
for instance, can be viewed in different ways. It can be
considered economically (how much it costs), nutritionally
(its food value), chemically (what it's made of), or
physically (its shape). But it may also be examined
aesthetically: its taste, color, texture, smell, size, and
shape. All of nature can be appreciated for its aesthetic
qualities which find their source in God, their Creator.
Wherever human culture is found, artistic expression of
some form is also found. The painting on the wall of an
ancient cave, or a medieval cathedral, or a modern dramatic
production are all expressions of human creativity,
given by God, the Creator.
Man in God's Image
In Genesis 1:26-27, for example, we read: "Then God said,
Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and
let them rule over . . . all the earth, and over every
creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' And God created man
in His own image, in the image of God He created him
male and female He created them" (Italics mine).
After creating man, God told man to subdue the earth and to
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 cosmos 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 which 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.
It should be further noted that art of all kinds is
restricted to a distinctively human practice. No animal
practices art. It is true that instinctively or accidentally
beautiful patterns are formed and observed throughout nature.
But the spider's web, the honeycomb, the coral reef are not
conscious attempts of animals to express their aesthetic
inclinations. To the Christian, however, they surely represent
God's efforts to express. Unlike the animals, man
consciously creates. Francis Schaeffer has said of
"[A]n art work has value as a creation because man is
made in the image of God, and therefore man not only can
love and think and feel emotion, but also has the capacity
to create. Being in the image of the Creator, we are called
upon to have creativity. We never find an animal, non-man,
making a work of art. On the other hand, we never find men
anywhere in the world or in any culture in the world who do
not produce art. Creativity is a part of the distinction
between man and non-man. All people are to some degree
creative. Creativity is intrinsic to our mannishness."7
The Fall of Man
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 endeavor or expression
and consistently marring all 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 Jekyl and Hyde: noble
image-bearer and morally crippled animal. His works of art are
therefore bittersweet. Calvin acknowledged this tension when
"The human mind, however much fallen and perverted from
its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with
admirable gifts from its creator. If we reflect that the
Spirit of God is the only foundation of truth, we will be
careful, as we would avoid offering insult to Him, not to
reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising
the gifts, we insult the Giver."8
Understanding this dichotomy allows Christians genuinely to
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. This should and can be done without compromise and
The fact is that if God can speak through a burning bush or
Baalam's ass, He can speak it 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 a fallen
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 by speculate about what
likes ahead for those who love Him!
Characteristics of Good Art
We now turn to the question of the important ingredients of
various art forms.
First, artistic truth includes not only the tangible, but
also the realm of the imaginative, the intangible. Art
therefore may or may not include the cognitive, the objective.
Someone asked a Russian ballerina who had just finished an
interpretive dance, "What did it mean? What were you trying to
say?" The ballerina replied, "If I could have said it, I
wouldn't have danced it!" There is then a communication of
truth in art which is real, but may not be able to be reduced
to and put neatly into words.
Great art is also always coupled with the hard
discipline of continual practice. Great artist are the
ones who, when observed in the practice of their art appear to
be doing something simple and effortless. What is not visible
are the bone weary hours of committed practice that preceding
such artistic spontaneity and deftness.
All art has intrinsic value. It doesn't have to
do anything to have value. Once created, it has already
"done" something. It does not have to be a means to an
end, nor have any utilitarian benefit whatsoever. Even bad
art has some value because as a creative work, it is still
linked to God Himself, the Fountain of all creativity. The
creative process, however expressed, is good because it is
linked to the Imago Dei and shows that man, unique
among God's creatures, has this gift. This is true even when
the results of the creative gift (specific works of art) may
be aesthetically poor or present the observer with unwholesome
content and compromising situations.
But we would do well to remind ourselves at this point that
God does not censor out all of the things in the Bible which
are wrong or immoral. He "tells it like it is," including some
pretty detailed and sordid affairs! The discriminating
Christian should therefore develop the capacity to distinguish
poor aesthetics and immoral artistic statements from true
creativity and craftsmanship dismissing and repudiating the former
while fully appreciating and enjoying the latter. Christians,
beyond all others, posses the proper framework to understand
and appreciate all art in the right perspective. It is a pity
that many have deprived themselves of the arts so severely
from much that they could enjoy under the blessing and grace
Artistic expression always makes a statement. It may
be either explicitly or implicitly stated. Some
artists explicitly admit their intent is to say something, to
convey a message. Other artists resist, or even deny they are
making a statement. But consciously or not, a statement is
always being made, because each artist is subjectively
involved and profoundly influenced by his/her cultural
experience. Consciously or unconsciously, the cultural setting
permeates every artistic contribution and each work tells us
something about the artist and his era.
An unfortunate trend in recent years has been the increase
in the number of artists who admit their primary desire is to
say something. Art is not best served by an extreme
focus on making a statement. The huge murals prominent in
former communist lands were no doubt helpful politically, but
they probably did not contribute much aesthetically. Even some
Christian art falls into this trap. Long on statement,
morality, and piety, it often falls short artistically (though
sincerely offered and theologically sound), because it is
cheaply and poorly done. Poetry and propaganda are not the
same, from communist or Christian zealot.
Another characterization of modern statements is the
obsession of self. Since the world has little meaning
to many moderns, the narcissistic retreat into self is all
that remains to be expressed. Thus the public is confronted
today with many artists who simply portray their own personal
psychological and spiritual wanderings. In art of this type,
extreme subjectivism is considered virtue rather than vice.
The statement (personal to the extreme) overwhelms the art.
Many of these statements seem to imply a desperate cry for
help, for significance, for love. In such art feelings
overwhelm for; confessional outpourings bring personal relief,
but little effort is put forth or the thought necessary for
the rigid mastery of technique and form. Perhaps that is why
there is such a glut of mediocre art today! It simply doesn't
take as much or as long to produce it.
But consider artists of earlier centuries, those who never
even signed their names to their work. This was not because
they were embarrassed by it. They simply lived in a culture
where the art was more important than the artist. Today we are
awed more by the artist or the virtuoso performer than we are
by the art expressed. Much of the earlier work was dedicated
to God; ours is mostly dedicated to the celebration of the
artist. Critic Chad Walsh alludes to a modern exception in the
writings of C. S. Lewis when he says that Mere
Christianity "transcends itself and its author . . . it is
as though all the brilliant writing is designed to create
clear windows of perception, so that the reader will look
through the language and not at it."9
Great art possesses this transcendent durability.
Art forms and styles are constantly changing through
cultural influences. The common mistake of many Christians
today is to consider one form "godly" and another "ungodly."
Many would dismiss the cubism of Duchamp or the surrealism of
Dali as worthless, while holding everything from the brush of
Rembrandt to be inspired. This attitude reveals nothing more
than the personal aesthetic tastes of the one doing the
Form and style must be considered in their historical and
cultural contexts. A westerner would be hard pressed, if
totally unfamiliar with the music of Japan, to distinguish
between a devout Buddhist hymn, a sensual love song, and a
patriotic melody, even if he heard them in rapid sequence. But
every Japanese could do so immediately because of familiarity
with their own culture.
Aesthetic sense is therefore greatly conditioned by
personal cultural experience. Just as a each child is born
with the capacity to learn language, so each of us is born
with an aesthetic sensibility which is influenced by the
culture which surrounds us. To judge the art or music of Japan
as inferior to American art or music is as senseless as
suggesting the Japanese language is inferior to the English
language. Difference or remoteness do not imply inferiority!
Truth can be expressed by non-believers, and error may be
expressed by believers. When Paul delivered his famous
Mars Hill address in Athens, he quoted from a pagan poet (Acts
17:28) to communicate a biblical truth. In this case, Paul
used a secular source to communicate biblical truth because
the statement affirmed the truth of revelation. On the other
hand, error can be communicated in a biblical context. For
example, in Exodus 32:2-4 we from Aaron fashioning a golden
calf for the children of Israel to worship. This was a wrong
use of art because it directly disobeyed God's command not to
worship any image.
How should a Christian approach art in order to evaluate
it? Is beauty simply "in the eye of the beholder?" Or are
there guidelines from Scripture which will provide a framework
for the evaluation and enjoyment of art?
Earlier, we mentioned a statement by Paul from Philippians
4. While the biblical context of this passage looks beyond
aesthetics, in a categorical way we are given in the passage
(by way of application) some criteria necessary for artistic
analysis. Each concept Paul mentions in verse 8 can be used as
sort of a "key" to unlock the significance of the art we
encounter and to genuinely appreciate it.
Truth. It is probably not by accident that Paul begins
with truth. Obviously not every work of art contains a
truth statement. But wherever and to what extent such a
statement is being made, the Christian is compelled to ask,
"Is this really true?" Does life genuinely operate in this
fashion in the light of God's revelation? And Christians must
remember that truth is honestly facing the negatives as well
as the positives of reality. Negative content has its place,
even in a Christian approach to art. But Christian hope allows
us to view these works in a different light. We sorrow, but
not like those who have no hope. Ours is a sorrow of
expectancy and ultimate triumph; there is one of total
pessimism and despair.
Honor. A second aesthetic key has to do with the
concept of honor and dignity. This can be tied back to what
was said earlier about the nature of man created in God's
image. This gives a basis, for example, to reject the
statement being made in the total life work of Francis Bacon
(d. 1993). In many of his paintings this contemporary British
artist presents us with solitary, decaying humans on large,
depressing canvasses. Deterioration and hopeless despair are
the hallmarks of his artistic expression. But if Christianity
is true, these are inaccurate portrayals of man. They are
half-truths. They leave out completely a dimension which is
really true of him. Created in God's image, he has honor and
dignity--even though admittedly he is in the process of dying,
aging, wasting away. The Christian is the only one capable of
truly comprehending what is missing in Bacon's work. Without a
Christian base, we would have to look at the paintings and
admit man's "true" destiny, i.e., extinction, along with the
rest of the cosmos. But as Christians we can and must resist
this message, because it is a lie. The gospel gives real
hope--to individuals and to history. These are missing from
Bacon's work and are the direct result of his distorted
Just. The third key to aesthetic comprehension has to
do with the moral dimension. Not all art makes a moral
statement. A Haydn symphony does not, nor does a portrait by
Renoir. But where such a statement is being made,
Christians must deal with it, not ignore it. We will also do
well to remember that moral statements can often be stated
powerfully in negative ways, too. Picasso's Guernica
comes to mind. He was protesting the bombing by the Germans of
a town by that name just prior to World War II. Protesting
injustice is a cry for justice. Only the Christian is aware
and sure of where it can ultimately be found.
Pure. This fourth key also touches on the moral--by
contrasting that which is innocent, chaste, and pure from that
which is sordid, impure, and worldly. An accurate application
of the principle will help distinguish the one from the other.
For instance, one need not be a professional drama critic to
identify and appreciate the fresh, innocent love of Romeo and
Juliet, nor to distinguish it from the erotic escapades of a
Tom Jones. The same dynamic is at work when comparing Greek
nudes and Playboy centerfolds. One is lofty, the other
cheap. The difference is this concept of purity. It allows the
Christian to look at two nudes and quite properly designate
one "art" and the other "pornography." Possessing the mind of
Christ, we have the equipment for identifying purity and
impurity to a high degree.
Lovely. While the first four concepts have dealt with
facets of artistic statements, the fifth focuses on sheer
aesthetic beauty. "Whatsoever things are lovely," Paul says. A
landscape makes no moral statement, but it can exhibit great
beauty. The geometric designs of Mondrian may say nothing
about justice, but they can definitely engage us
aesthetically. The immensity and grandeur of a Gothic
cathedral will inspire artistic awe in any sensitive breast,
but they may do little else. Again, the Christian is equipped
to appreciate a wide range of artistic mediums and
expressions. If there is little to evaluate morally and
rationally, we are still free to appreciate what is beautiful
in the art.
Good Report. In this concept, we have the opportunity
to evaluate the life and character of the artist. What kind of
a person is he? If a statement is being made, does the artist,
composer, or author believe in that statement? Or was it to
please a patron, a colleague, or a critic? Is there a
discontinuity between the statement of the work and the
statement being made through the personal life of its creator?
For example, Handel's Messiah is a musical masterpiece,
but he was no saint! Filippo Lippi used his own mistress as a
model for Mary in this Madonna paintings. The "less than
exemplary" lifestyle of a creative person may somewhat tarnish
his artistic contribution, but it does not necessarily or
totally obliterate it. Something of God's image always shines
through in the creative process. The Christian can always give
glory to God for that, even if a work of are has little else
going for it. The greatest art is true, skillfully expressed,
imaginative, and unencumbered by the personal and emotional
hang-ups of its originators.
Excellence. This is a comparative term. It speaks of
degrees, assuming that something else is not excellent. The
focus is on quality. Quality can mean many things in the realm
of art, but one sure sign of it is craftsmanship. Technical
mastery is one of the essential ingredients which
separates the great artist from the rank amateur. Obviously,
the more one knows about technique and artistic skill, the
better one is able to appreciate whether an individual artist,
author, composer, or performer has what is necessary to
produce great art. Many Christians have made unfortunate value
judgements about art of all kinds. Through ignorance and
naivete, superficial understanding of technique has been
followed by smug rejection. This has erected barriers instead
of bridges built to the artistic community, thus hindering a
vital witness. We need to know what is great art and
why it is considered such.
Excellence is also found in the durability of art.
Great art lasts. If it has been around several hundred years,
it probably has something going for it. It has "staying
power." Christians should realize that some of the art of this
century will not be around in the next. Much of it will pass
off the scene. This is a good indication that it does not
possess great aesthetic value; it is not excellent.
Praise. Here we are concerned with the impact or the
effect of the art. Is anything praiseworthy? The
crayola scribblings of a toddler are praiseworthy to some
extent, but it does not elicit a strong aesthetic response. We
are not gripped or overpowered by it. But great art has power
and is therefore a forceful tool of communication. Francis
Schaeffer has mentioned that the greater the art, the greater
the impact. Does it please or displease? Inspire or depress?
Does it influence thinking and behavior? Would it change a
person? Would it change you. Herein lies the
"two-edged-swordness" of art. It can elevate a culture to
lofty heights and it can help bring a society to ruin. It is
the result of culture, but it can also influence
Paul undergirds this meaty verse with the final command,
think on these things. Two very important propositions
come forth with which we can conclude this section. First, he
reminds us that Christianity thrives on intelligence,
not ignorance even in the aesthetic
realm. Christians need their minds when confronting the
artistic expressions of a culture. To the existentialist and
the nihilist, the mind is an enemy, but to the Christian, it
is a friend. Second, it is noteworthy that Paul has suggested
such a positive approach to life and, by application,
to art. He doesn't tell us that whatsoever things are false,
dishonorable, unjust impure, ugly, of bad report, poorly
crafted, and mediocre are to have the focus of our attention.
Here again the hope of the Christian's approach to life
in general rings clearly through. Our lives are not to be
lived in the minor key. We observe the despair, but we can see
something more. God has made us more than conquerors!
Arts, Culture and the Christian
We now turn to two final areas of consideration in the way
of suggested applications of what has been discussed.
Christ and Culture
At the beginning, we mentioned that aesthetics is related
to culture, because in culture we find the expressions of
human creativity. In his very fine book, A Return to
Christian Culture, Richard Taylor points out that each of
us is related to culture in two ways: we find ourselves
within a cultural setting and we each possess a
culture personally. That is, society has certain acceptable
patterns to which individuals are expected to conform. When
one does so, one is considered "cultured."
In the light of Romans 12:2 and other biblical passages,
the challenge for the Christian is to resist being "poured
into the mold of the world" without also throwing out
legitimate aesthetic interests. At the individual level, a
Christian should seek to bring his maximum efforts toward the
". . .development of the person, intellectually,
aesthetically, socially to the full use of his powers, in
compatibility with the recognized standards of excellence of
Culturally speaking, the same goal could be stated for
Christian and non-Christian alike, but the Christian who wants
to reflect the best in culture has his/her different motives.
And some Christians can display the fruit of the Spirit, but
be largely bereft of cultural and aesthetic sensibilities. D.
L. Moody is said to have "butchered the King's English," but
he was used mightily by God on two continents. This would
suggest that cultural sophistication is not absolutely
necessary for God to use a person for spiritual purposes, but
one could well ponder how many opportunities to minister have
been lost because an individual has made a cultural "faux
pas." The other side of the coin is that a person may have
reached the pinnacle of social and aesthetic acceptability but
have no spiritual impact on his surroundings whatsoever.
Three words are important to keep in mind while defining
Christian responsibility in any culture. The first is
cooperation with culture. The reason for this
cooperation is that we might identify with our culture so it
may be influenced for Jesus Christ. Jesus is a model for us
here. He was not generally a non-conformist. He attended
weddings and funerals, synagogues and feast. He was a
practicing Jew. He generally did the culturally acceptable
things. When He did not, it was for clear spiritual
A second word is persuasion. The Bible portrays
Christians as salt and light, the penetrating and purifying
elements within a culture. Christianity is intended to have a
sanctify influence on a culture, not be swallowed up by it in
one compromise after another.
A third concept is confrontation. By carefully using
Scripture, Christians can challenge and reject those elements
and practices within a culture that are incompatible with
biblical truth. There are times when Christians must confront
society. Things such as polygamy, idolatry, sexual immorality,
and racism should be challenged head-on by Christians.
How can accomplish this kind of impact? First by the
development of high personal, cultural, and aesthetic
standards. These include tact, courtesy, dress, and
speech. In doing this, Christians need to avoid two extremes.
The first is the tendency to try to "keep up with the
Joneses." This becomes the "Cult of the Snob." A second
extreme is to react against the Joneses and join the "Cult of
Second, Christians must employ all of life to proclaim a
Christian worldview. In a century dominated by darkness,
despair, and dissonance, Christians can still offer a message
and demeanor of hope. If being a Christian is a superior way
of living, its benefits should be apparent to all.
Finally, Christians should be encouraged to become
involved in the arts. This can be done first of all by
learning to evaluate and appreciate the arts with greater
skill. Generally, Christians can become involved in the arts
in one of three ways.
Involvement in the Arts
One of the deep hopes for this paper is that it might
instill in the reader a healthy desire to plunge more deeply
into the arts and enjoy what is there with the freedom Christ
has given. It might encourage us to remind ourselves that Paul
lived in a X-rated culture similar to our own. Yet he and most
of the other believers kept their spiritual equilibrium in
such a setting and were used mightily by God in their
Too often today Christians, like the Pharisees of old, are
seeking to eliminate the leprous elements which touch their
lives. With increasing isolation, they are focused more on
what the diseases of society can do to them than how they
might affect the diseased! Nowhere is this more critically
experienced than in the arts. We mostly shy away from those
contexts which disturb us. And there is today much in the arts
to disturb us--be we creator, spectator (a form of
participation) or performer.
Ugliness and decadence abound in every culture and
generation. From this we cannot escape. But Jesus touched the
leper. He made contact with the diseased one in need. As
Christians, our focus should be not on what art brings to us,
but rather what we can bring to the art! Therefore the
development of imagination and a wholesome, expanded analysis
of even the many negative contemporary works is possible when
viewed in the broad themes of humanity, life, and experience
of a truly Christian worldview. Great art is more than a
smiling landscape. Beauty and truth include terrible and
ominous aspects as well, like a storm on the ocean, or the
torn life of a prostitute.
Christians can also experience the arts as participators
and performers. If each person is created in the image of
God, some creativity is there to be personally expressed in
every one of us. Learn what artistic talents you have.
Discover how you can best express your creativity and then do
so. Learn an instrument, write some poetry. Take part in a
stage production. Your Christianity will not mean less,
but more to you if you do.
A third area often overlooked must also be mentioned. I
refer to those greatly gifted and talented Christians among us
who should be encouraged to consider the arts as a
career. A Christian influence in the arts is sorely needed
today, and things will not improve as long as Christians are
happy to allow the bulk of contemporary artistry to flow forth
from those who have no personal relationship with the One who
gave them their talents. The artistic environment is a tough
place to live out your Christian faith, and the dangers are
great, but to do so successfully will bring rich rewards and
Gini Andrews, an acclaimed concert pianist and author,
writes of the great need for Christians to excel in all the
artistic fields and sounds a challenge for them to develop
"All the disciplines, music, painting, sculpture,
theater, and writing, are in need of pioneers who seek a way
to perform in a twentieth century manner; to show with
quality work that there is an answer to the absurdity of
life, to the threat of annihilation, to the mechanization of
man, the message being sounded loud and clear by the
non-Christian artist. . . . "If we are to present God's
message to disillusioned, frenetic twentieth century people,
it's going to take His creativity expressed in special ways.
I hope that some of you in the creative fields will be
challenged by the Almightiness of our Creator-God and will
spend long hours before Him, saying, like Jacob, 'I will not
go unless you bless me, until you show me how to speak out
your wonder to the contemporary mind.'"11"
Here is expressed the unprecedented challenge and
opportunity before the body of Christ today. May God enable us
to seize it.
1. William Bridgewater, ed. The Columbia-Viking Desk
Encyclopedia, Vol. I (New York: Viking Press, 1953), p.
2. John I. Sewall, A History of Western Art. (New
York: Henry Holt & Co., 1953), p.1.
3. Richard S. Taylor, A Return to Christian Culture.
(Minneapolis, Dimension Books, 1975), p. 12.
4. Marcel Proust. Maximus.
5. Sewall, Ibid.
6. Francis Schaeffer, Art & the Bible. (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 15.
7. Ibid., p. 34.
8. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion,
Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company,
1957), p. 236.
9. Chad Walsh. "The Literary Stature of C. S. Lewis,"
Christianity Today, June 8, 1979) p.22.
10. Taylor, p. 33.
11. Gini Andrews, Your Half of the Apple (Grand
Rapids, MI:, Zondervan, 1972) pp. 64-65.
© 2006 Probe Ministries
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