Apr 21, 2005

Christians and Art

Last week I received an email from a young Christian who is a film-maker and writer. His favorite literary and film genre is science fiction. Yet, for whatever reason, he had been led to believe that his Christian commitment and his love for science fiction were somehow incompatible. He was worried that if he wrote and produced science fiction he would be endangering his soul. The fact that this young man even worried about these things testifies to the sad state of the evangelical church regarding its relationship to society and culture. Most conservative Christians today have adopted an unbiblical dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, forgetting that this world matters to God and that Christians can and should involve themselves in cultural endeavors like art, literature, politics, business--and do all these things as spiritual activities to the glory of God.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, had the right attitude about these things, though today many Christians would think he was "worldly," perhaps even sacrilegious. When asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord was returning tomorrow, he said, "I would plant a tree." Luther knew that planting a tree, if done to the glory of God and out of appreciation for the beauty of His creation, was a spiritual and sacred act, no less so than preaching the gospel.

So, I told the young man that writing and producing science fiction books and movies was nothing to fret about, nothing that would endanger his soul, nothing that ought to call his Christian testimony into question. No doubt, of course, the Christian artist will do his art differently than a non-Christian. He will, for example, not promote philosophical and ethical ideas that are inconsistent with biblical truth. But, guided by Christian principles, he can produce science fiction to the glory of God. I also shared with him the following principles for creating and enjoying art that I have gleaned from sources like Michael Horton’s Where in the World Is the Church, Gene Veith's The State of the Arts, and Francis Shaeffer’s Art and the Bible. I hope these principles are helpful to other budding artists out there.

Christian Principles for Involvement in Art
1. Recognize that art is a sovereign sphere of culture under God in which all humans, through common grace, may meaningfully participate. This implies that that Christians may participate in art for arts sake. They may even see art as a vocation for glorifying God. And their art need not have overt Christian content or be designed for evangelism or to teach morality, though it can do these things if the artist wants it to. It can be designed purely for entertainment and pleasure (Exod. 25:9, 18, 31-33; 28:33; 2 Chr 3:6; 4:3-4; 1 Kings 10:18-20; 2 Sam 1:19-27 [a secular ode!]; Note also David’s music!).

2. Acknowledge that beauty is not relative. From a Christian perspective, there is such a thing as real, objective beauty and real ugliness. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. [Phil 4:8-9; Exod. 28:2]. This does not mean, of course, that we will always agree on what is beautiful.

3. Art does not have to agree with Christian truth and Christian morality in order to be good art. That is, good art does not have to be consistent with the Christian worldview. Its message can be contrary to the Christian worldview and still be good, valuable, and enriching. Sartre’s novel Nausea teaches nihilism, but as Horton says, it is a masterpiece! It’s message is not good in the sense of being morally good or philosophically true, but the work itself is aesthetically good. Michaelangelo’s statue David teaches a humanistic view of man, as Schaeffer points out, but who can reasonably say that it isn’t a great work of art?

4. The Christian artist should never abandon his Christian convictions in doing his art. Though a Christian artist does not have to do explicitly religious art, he will not teach through his art things that are inconsistent with the Christian worldview or portray that which is evil as though it were good. So, for example, if a Christian produces a movie, that movie may portray an act of adultery, but it won’t portray it in such a way as to glorify it or approve of it.

5. Recognize that good art does not always have to be beautiful to be good art. Good art can express truth, for example, by portraying ugliness, and thereby be good art because it expresses truth about that ugliness; or the ugliness in the art may genuinely express the artist’s view of reality [e.g. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon].

6. Recognize that there are no exact criteria for distinguishing good art from bad art, but there are criteria. Though beauty is objective, there are degrees of beauty, and a large gray area in which our finite minds may have trouble deciding whether a particular piece of art is good, true, or beautiful. This calls for humility, patience, and a willingness to be gracious toward those with whom we disagree. However, just because there are no exact criteria does not mean there are no criteria. Francis Schaeffer in his little booklet Art and the Bible, sets out four criteria for making aesthetic judgments:

a. Technical excellence—Is the artist a skilled craftsman?
b. Validity—Is the artist honest to himself and his worldview?
c. Intellectual content—What worldview is expressed in the art? Is that worldview true?
d. Integration of content and vehicle—Is there a fitting correlation between the content of the art and its style?

7. Good art can be representational, abstract, or symbolic—the Bible contains all three! (Exod. 26:1; 1 Kings 7:15-22, 25; 28:15-29)

8. We must distinguish between secular and sacred art. Though we cannot draw this distinction too rigidly, as we have said before, it is still the case that art created for art’s sake and to be enjoyed by all is not the same as art created to aid the church in worshipping God. We might draw the distinction by using the terms "holy" and "common." Most art is common, created for common use by everyone. But, some art is designed to be "holy" [i.e., set apart for use in worship; see Horton, pp.85, 83-84]

9. Enjoy good art without guilt as a gift from God---even when it is purely secular! Good art is a gift from God because God gifts artists with the ability to produce good art, even unbelievers. And why shouldn’t Christians enjoy it? So, herein lies the Christian basis for enjoying good movies, going to art galleries, and ballets, and concerts, reading War and Peace and Lord of the Rings, and doing all these things that Christians often feel they have to apologize for because they are not "spiritual."

8 comments:

glympton said...

I teach humanities and art history at a local college part-time and I agree with what you have said.

An additional principle is to listen to and use one's intuition. God has written his laws on our hearts and has given us a capacity to know, feel, and apprehend using intuition. Kant called it judgement. We know what we like in art, we know whether a person we are talking to is a good or bad person, at least most of the time. I think what the Bible calls discernment is a spiritual gift God gives and we use. It is part of the general gift of inutition.

C. Davis said...

Thank you for expressing with such clarity the Biblical view of enjoying and producing art. I look forward to reading more on your blog!
C. Davis

Anonymous said...

First let me thank you for your opinion and appreciate them. As a judeo-christian artist I believe it is equally important to distinguish a work of art bringing glory to G*d and/or pleasing G*d. It is true that all good things and gifts come from G*d for the edification of the church or purely for the enjoyment itself. But I differ with the opinion that NOT all work of arts bring glory to G*d, it may be pleasing, moral(worldly), ethical, etc. but unless it in someway credits itself to G*d how can it bring glory to D*d? Regardless of the intent. It IS a good piece of work or art and pleasing to G*d but bring glory?

I believe when a work of art is finished and done in good taste and causes the spectator to inquire the artist for his motivation for creating it, now he is given the opportunity to "bring" or "give" glory to G*d by his sharing what G*d means to him and has done for him. The medium may be used as an opportunity to bring glory to G*d if the artist chooses to use it for that purpose, but the only means that G*d has has given us to lead others to Christ is his holy scripture. The word of G*d "brings" glory and "gives" to G*d because the Word is Christ. Let me finish by saying that I am not against christians involved in the entertainment industry, we need that, but let us be clear in what we really mean when we speak of "bringing glory to G*d" or "giving glory to G*d"

We need to make a difference in the industry and by just being "good" doesn't make us any different than a "nice guy", "ethical guy" we need to tell them who we are and why we do our best at it, and hopefully we can than share Jesus to them.

We can agree to disagree, and of course this my personal opinion and conviction just as well as your is.

Many blessings in HIS name!

gsbh said...

To the reader that feels we should always proclaim our faith in the arts. The Bible teaches us that there is a time and a place for everything. Jesus teaches us that we should feed the hungry first, then proclaim our message. Sometimes we should feed those hungry (aesthetically) with secular arts in order to get their attention and begin a relationship. (That is not to say we should produce art inconsistent with our beliefs). Then, at the right time, we can proclaim our message. An unbeliever may be more apt to listen to our message if he or she can see a common bond. We do not have to compromise our Christian faith to produce works that are pleasing to both Christians and unbelieves. Build the relationship first. To quote a secular work, "Build it and they will come".

uglyblog said...

Dr. Steve Cowan, I just started a new blog called Ugly Blog, so I've been looking around for ugly blog related blogs. Anyway, I found this entry (Christians and Art) during my search so I thought I'd make a quick post to let you know! I'd be happy to trade links if you're interested. Have a great day - Eric

artisan said...

Hi there Dr. Steve Cowan, I was just cruising the blogosphere searching for the latest information on poster art and came across this great blog. Although Christians and Art wasn’t quite what I was looking for, it has excellent articles. I see now why I found your page when I was looking for poster art related topics. I’m glad I stop by, keep up the good work.

Richard said...

Hi there Dr. Steve Cowan, I was just cruising the blogosphere searching for the latest information on inspirational art and came across this great blog. Although Christians and Art wasn’t quite what I was looking for, it has excellent articles. I see now why I found your page when I was looking for inspirational art related topics. I’m glad I stop by, keep up the good work.

Richard said...

Well hello there Dr. Steve Cowan, I was just searching for some ideas on when I happened on to your Blog. Although Christians and Art isn’t quite what I was looking for, it was for more information on . You’ve still got a great Blog here.