Theology of the Arts- Part 1


The Way Things Are

“I always said God was against art and I still believe it. Anything obscene or trivial is blessed in this world and has a reward – I ask for no reward – only to live and to hear my work.”

Such were Edward Elgar’s words in 1900, and they have been a common complaint of artists and musicians for hundreds of years: Art Doesn’t Pay. We all know the stories of unappreciated composers dying in penury, unrecognised painters taking their own lives, inebriated writers living out their bitter final years in exile. We know that art is hard. Be it the extravagant, ear-severing Van-Gogh-esque battle against depression that sometimes comes with the “artistic temperament”, or the mundane drudgery of the daily battle for survival that comes with the hand-to-mouth lifestyle, it is engrained in our cultural understanding that One Must Make Sacrifices For One’s Art.

Which poses a fairly big question – one that many artists and musicians will grapple with at some point in their lives: is it worth it? Is it worth the pain? The frustration? The tedium of practising scales, the grind of auditions, the constant sense of being unappreciated, the nagging suspicion that you have spent the best years of your life learning to do something that no one really wants to pay you to do..? Even if it’s never voiced out loud, we catch glimpses of it in the eyes of our friends, or family, or, on a bad day, our own reflections: that horrible, accusing question – “Why not just give up and get a real job?”

For an artist, whose hopes, dreams, desires and expectations may have been built around their art since they first wielded a brush/baton/bow, it’s a question that seems to strike at the very heart of our identity – and a question as undermining as this demands an equally reassuring answer. The kind of answer that can stand up to the critics and crush the ever-writhing serpents of self-doubt – the kind of answer that can give an artist hope.

Hans Rookmaaker famously said “Art needs no justification”, but in a sense he was wrong: artists are always going to be seeking justification – it’s our crutch. We need something to keep us going in the face of all common sense. We need a reason to say to the world “We are right to be working this hard at something that most people think is inherently useless.” And we need that reason to be impressive. We need the big guns.

The Solution

Guns don’t get much bigger than God. And so we draft God in. Here’s how it works:

If an artist, in the midnight of their blackest despair, can say to themselves “God wants me to keep painting”, then there is still a reason to fight.

If a musician can say “God has called me to glorify him through my clarinet playing”, then maybe he will find the courage to get up from the last terrible audition and start preparing for the next one.

If a playwright can say “God gave me this gift and he expects me to use it”, then she has a solid motive to keep trying, whatever the critics said about her last offering.

One Must Make Sacrifices For One’s Art, yes, but it’s worth it, because God Is On Our Side. “God has called me to be An Artist.”

Here’s how one contemporary Evangelical Christian writer puts it:

This call [to be an artist] should then be pursued, no matter what sacrifices are required… One thing true artists should never do is to abandon their calling. Anyone who is called to be an artist should be an artist! God’s gifts are never to be hidden; his calling is never to be denied. (Philip Ryken – Art for God’s Sake)

This train of thought runs like a thread through much of the Christian arts scene, manifesting itself in many different forms. It can appear openly, as an explicit teaching, or hidden, as a subconscious assumption. It can appear, carefully nuanced, on the lips of godly and wise saints, or you can find it running free, rampant and unchecked, among more liberal theologians. What it boils down to is this: in some way, God thinks art is special. Art is especially holy, or especially glorifying, or especially godly, or especially blessed, or especially pleasing to the Lord. Art is special, so artists are special, so we can get on and pursue our art – for God’s sake.

That’s our solution – our crutch.

The Problem With Our Solution

There’s just one problem with all of this: I’m not sure it’s true.

I have yet to find a convincing Biblical argument that allows us to give the artist any special value in the currency of God. Or rather – since all Christians have special value in the currency of God – I have yet to find a convincing argument that makes the artist especially special. Art, as far as I can see, isn’t especially special.

Before you stop reading in disgust, please believe that I’m not out to attack the arts – quite the reverse. I’m immeasurably grateful to God for my own experiences as a musician, and although my soaring ambitions to achieve international stardom as a concert violinist haven’t (yet) quite made it across the border into real life, there are no sour-grapes in what I write. I love the arts, and I love artists – which is why I’ve spent the best part of a year examining this crutch, and the Biblical arguments for it. I’ve been asked to assemble my thoughts into this blog by some godly guys who also love the arts and love artists. They share my conviction that God’s good gift of the arts is too precious a thing to be handed over to the Enemy’s armoury, to be turned into nooses, millstones and idols. Art is a wonderful thing, and we want to keep it wonderful.

Which means taking aim at this crutch, and giving it a good kicking. In love.

Kicking Crutches in Love

Now I don’t particularly want to be the bully who runs around kicking people’s crutches out from under them. But I think someone needs to, for many reasons, of which I will give you three:

Firstly, because a crutch made out of wishful thinking and misunderstandings is a dangerous thing to put your weight on. It may hold up under a light load – but that’s the worst kind of crutch: if it’s going to break, it will do so when your burdens are at their heaviest and you have the most to lose.

Secondly, if God’s word has to be twisted, even slightly, to make this crutch, then we may be in danger of removing a vital support from something else. Life as a Christian is hard, and we need God’s word to keep us on track. The Bible should be sufficient for all our Christian needs – 2 Timothy 3:16 – but only if we understand it rightly. If we start borrowing bits of it to prop up our artistic dreams, we might find we’ve left a gap somewhere else where the ceiling can start to sag…

Thirdly, hard as this may seem, it’s just possible that the crutch is keeping us upright, when God wants us on our knees. Our crutch might be saying “God wants you to be a professional sculptor” when God has an entirely different job planned for us. Whatever his design for our future, one thing is certain: God wants us to be humble before him – and that might mean losing the crutch and falling into his loving hands.

So, that said, we need to take a responsible, critical look at this crutch. This is what we will do in Part Two. Please remember that it’s the crutch we’re attempting to expose, not the arts themselves – the arts are certainly a good and wonderful gift from God; the crutch might not be. So please join us in Part Two where we will start to examine the main arguments that make up the crutch. Until then, if you have any thoughts or comments on what you’ve read here, do let us know.


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