Welcome back to our brief(ish) four-part trawl through the murky waters of art theology.
We began, effectively, by asking the question: “How do we answer when we’re asked to justify art?”
This demand for justification is something that artists are familiar with. It might come from parents: “Don’t you think you should do something that will give you a little more financial security?” It might come from the government: “Why should we fund your art project when we can invest all this money into buying footballs instead?” It might come from art critics: “Why is your work so derivative?”, or from the public: “Why is your work so different?” Or it might come from our own treacherous heads – as a violinist friend of mine was prone to asking: “Why should we bother to learn this piece when we’ll never play it as well as Heifitz?”
This constant urge to justify naturally leaves us grasping for an answer, and there is an overwhelming temptation to make God that answer. And so, very often, we arrive at a theology which has been shaped not by the Bible, but by our own powerful desire to give credibility to the absurdity of trying to make it as an artist. Art becomes a special, godly, holy thing – something that is particularly dear to God’s heart, something that he wants us to pursue no matter what anyone else might say. This understanding of art – which I’ve called a crutch – is usually backed up by two arguments: that creativity is special because we were made in the image of a creative God, and that art is somehow especially glorifying to God. We looked at these arguments in parts two and three, and concluded that, far from giving special status to art, they merely serve to give equal status to art – and special status to Jesus and the gospel. We also saw how attempting to use these arguments to claim that art is especially holy actually causes damage to the arts, to artists, to our understanding of God, and to our witness to the world. Phew.
At the end of part three, with the ground levelled, I suggested that a better answer to the question “How do you justify art?” is simply “I don’t need to justify art”. Art is a great thing! It’s hard to say (from the Bible) that there is anything especially godly about it, but similarly no one can say (from the Bible) that there is anything especially ungodly about it. It’s been given to us as a good gift – like science, medicine, and everything else – and there is nothing intrinsically immoral with the idea of trying to make a living in the arts.
But we’re still left with a difficulty: art doesn’t pay – at least, not well. It’s undeniably hard to make a living in the arts. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to try – but it does mean we need to ask some serious questions. It might not be ungodly to try, but it might not be wise either.
So Should I Be an Artist?
That’s the million dollar question. Much as we’d love the Bible’s answer to be “yes, go for it!”, I hope we’ve seen that we can’t take such a simplistic view. In fact, there is very little advice specifically for artists, or artists-in-training, in the Bible – if we assume that art is a “special case”. But, as we’ve seen, it’s not. That idea might still sting, but actually, by surrendering the dubious special case we’d built for the arts, we get to enjoy the far greater riches that the Bible holds for the general case. There is very little in the Bible about how to work as an artist – but there is plenty in the Bible about how to work.
With art’s special status revoked, the question “Should I be an artist?” becomes much like the question “Should I be a lawyer?” or “Should I be a pilot?” or “Should I be a Teaching Assistant?”
To begin to answer questions like these, we need to start with some others:
Can I do this job and survive as a Christian?
Can I do this job and fulfil my Christian obligations to my family?
Can I do this job and be obedient to the Bible’s general teaching about work?
With the opportunities and skills God has given me, how can I best serve him?
If you can genuinely answer “yes”, “yes”, “yes”, and “by being an artist”, then go ahead. But this won’t be the case for everybody. It is perfectly possible for God to give us a great love of the arts, and great skill in the arts, but not the wherewithal to turn that passion into a living. It would be a tragedy to embark upon a career that could eventually rob us of our Christian assurance, under the mistaken impression that God was especially pleased with artists.
The arts are a great gift from a good God, and it is right that we enjoy them. If we are lucky enough to have been blessed with the ability to make a living in the arts – and we can make that living without compromising our obedience to God’s word – then we are blessed indeed. Very few people have the privilege of making a living from their passion. But we need to fight the temptation to justify the arts by assigning them some sort of “especially sacred” status – this devalues the arts, damages artists, and risks portraying our magnificent, glorious God as little more than a crutch for our hobbies.
God’s image is seen most supremely in his Son, and God is most supremely glorified by his Son on the cross. It is every Christian’s duty to make this known. There is nothing wrong with pursuing the arts – in fact, it’s a great thing – but we must never make the mistake of thinking we are doing God a greater service through our art than through proclaiming the gospel.
As Francis Schaeffer put it: “No work of art is more important than the Christian’s own life, and every Christian is cared upon to be an artist in this sense… each man has the gift of creativity in terms of the way he lives his life. In this sense, the Christian’s life is to be an art work. The Christian’s life is to be a thing of truth and also a thing of beauty in the midst of a lost and despairing world.” (Francis Schaeffer – Art and the Bible)
The truth and the beauty that this lost and despairing world so urgently needs is not our creativity, but our knowledge of Jesus Christ. If we filled every museum and concert hall in the world, but kept quiet about the gospel, then we would have done the greatest disservice both to the God who created creativity itself, and to his whole creation.
There is obviously much more to say on these matters, but four blog posts seemed more than long enough as it was! However, I’ll try to read and respond to any comments, so the debate doesn’t need to end here – I’d love to hear people’s reactions, good or bad.