Theology of the Arts – Part 3


Looking at Crutches (continued)

Since we started the last two posts with a quote from a composer, I thought this time we would begin with a painter. Unfortunately I began my search amongst the sayings of Salvador Dali, and I’m still trying to recover. So instead, here’s a little insight from another splendid fellow, W. H. Auden:

“The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: ‘For God’s sake stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages,’ what just reason could he give for refusing?”

It is this search for a “just reason” that we have been discussing in the last two posts. In particular, we’ve been asking whether or not we can use God as our just reason. Does our theology of the arts allow us to say “Art is especially special to God”?

Many artists would say “yes”. Gustav Holst, for instance, wrote that “Music, being identical with heaven, isn’t a thing of momentary thrills, or even hourly ones. It’s a condition of eternity.” Beethoven advised “Don’t only practise your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.” Robert Schumann thought that “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist”. To these men, art had some special power to bridge the gap between God and man. Hopefully we know that nothing but the cross of Christ could ever reconcile man to God, but is it still true that art has a special role to play in our spiritual lives – one that justifies the artist’s labours? When the going gets tough – as it usually does for anyone attempting to make a living from their art – can we encourage ourselves by saying that God wants us to persevere, because art is, in some way, especially special to him?

In part one I suggested that this idea, however appealing, is very hard to justify biblically. I called it a crutch – not in order to be offensive, but because that’s how it is often used – as a prop to keep us going in the face of all odds. In part two we began to examine this crutch, looking at one of the two main arguments people tend to use to create it. In this part we’ll look at the other main argument.

Before we get started, let me once more state that I’m not in any way against the arts, or artists. I passionately believe that art is a wonderful, vital gift from God, to be used and enjoyed. But I believe that this crutch – born of our attempt to answer W. H. Auden’s question – is damaging both art and artists, and needs to be scrutinised in the balanced light of scripture. So let’s do that now.

Argument Two – That Art Is Special Because It Glorifies God

This idea is everywhere, but I’m often left wondering what it actually means. For example, here are some nuggets I’ve picked out from a range of Christian writings on the arts:

You were created to reflect, reveal and release the Glory of God in the earth through your art. (Matt Tommey – Unlocking the Heart of the Artist)

To be a Christian artist means that one’s particular calling is to use one’s talents to the glory of God, as an act of love toward God and as a loving service to our fellows. (Hans Rookmaaker – Art Needs No Justification)

A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself. (Francis Schaeffer – Art and the Bible)

Artists are called and gifted – personally, by name – to write, paint, sing, play and dance to the glory of God. (Philip Ryken – Art for God’s Sake)

So, we must glorify God with our art. But how do we do that? What does it even mean to do something for God’s glory? The most helpful definition I’ve seen came from this article by John Piper on how to glorify God through exercise (something you are unlikely to catch me doing). In it he states that to “glorify God” means to “make God look good, like he really is”. I take it that in order to make God look like he really is, we need to reveal something truthful about him. So the question becomes: does art do this? Does art reveal truth about God? Well, yes, it does, but

But This Argument Doesn’t Make Art Special

Art reveals something about God… but so does everything. Because God made the entire universe for his glory. To quote Isaiah: The whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3). Or to quote David: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) Wayne Grudem, who helped us think through the image of God idea in the last post, sums it up like this: “All of creation reveals something about God to us.” (Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology).

Does art glorify God? Yes, but by the same token, so does science, and accountancy, and taxidermy. So do paperclips. So does ironing. So does everything. Even spiders. And I hate spiders. It was all made for God’s glory. So the old “Art is special because it glorifies God” argument doesn’t really get us anywhere. In the end, it’s saying no more than “Art exists”. It’s a great and wonderful thing that art exists, but when it comes to glorifying God, it’s not especially special.

Just as in the last post, this truth may sting a little – but again, it should be great news for artists. It’s certainly great news for musicians: your right notes glorify God – but so do the wrong ones. In fact, the wrong ones probably glorify God more, since there’s less danger of the audience giving the glory to you by mistake… wouldn’t that be awful?

And again, if I’m not excited about glorifying God by playing badly – or by doing the ironing – then it’s probably because my excitement stems from something other than God’s glory.

Let me give an absurd illustration of this last point.

If I’m ever lucky enough to be having a picnic in a park on a nice day, I like to pick blades of grass and turn them into reeds. With a bit of practice it’s possible to make a deeply offensive semi-musical instrument which is powerful enough to shatter the stillness of any balmy afternoon and draw confused looks from people at opposite ends of the park. I recommend it as a fun way to pass the time.

Now, if I did this for long enough, with enough bits of grass, we’d end up with a small bald patch of lawn where I’d been sitting. So I could truthfully tell you that all my ear-splitting squawking was making the grass shorter. It is.

But let’s say you are also in the park, and you are fed up with the noise, so you come over to ask why I’m doing it. What if I replied by saying “I’m doing it to mow the lawn”? It would be a little odd, to say the least. Still, give me the benefit of the doubt – maybe I’ve never heard of a lawnmower, and I really do want to make the grass shorter. Maybe I think this is the best way to go about it. So you take pity on me, explain the mechanics of grass shortening, and give me the keys to a giant jet-powered formula-one deluxe lawnmower. And I carry on plucking individual blades of grass and using them to make squeaky noises.

You would have to conclude, with the best will in the world, that I wasn’t really interested in mowing the lawn.

As I said, it’s an absurd illustration, but when we claim to be making art in order to glorify God, we are basically just plucking bits of grass and blowing raspberries. God is glorified by our art, just as the grass does get shorter when we use bits of it as musical instruments. But if glorifying God is our objective, then we ought to be looking around for the equivalent of the lawnmower – because we are sitting in a very, very big field.

But This Argument Does Make the Gospel Special

The amazing thing is, we have the lawnmower. Every Christian has. Remember we said that to glorify God means to “make God look good, like he really is” – and where is God’s goodness most prominently displayed? Where do we most see God as he “really is”? Painted in a fiery gold sunset on the canvas of the sky? Resounding in the chords of a glorious symphony? Or hanging, naked and dying, on a rough Roman execution device?

The cross of Christ is where God is most glorified. It’s where we get the starkest, most unambiguous display of his character. It’s where we get the definitive demonstration of his love – “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10). It’s where we get the definitive demonstration of his justice: “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26). It’s where we see his definitive triumph over his enemies: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Colossians 2:15). It’s where we see God most clearly for who he is.

The cross is God’s greatest act – his greatest glory. So when we tell people about the cross, that’s when we are most glorifying God. That’s the lawnmower: the gospel. We could spend our entire lives practising and, maybe, eventually pull off the greatest performance of the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto anyone has ever heard. Great. Now let’s say we have one halting, awkward, stilted conversation about the gospel in the interval. We spill our drink, stumble over our words, and the person we’re talking to thinks we are an idiot. But in terms of God’s glory, that was the main event. The concerto was just a clearing of the throat, a single plucked blade of grass.

To sum up, once again we find that an argument which is so often used to elevate the importance of the arts actually does no such thing – as before, it puts art on a level playing field, and instead elevates the work of Jesus Christ.

Why Have We Been Doing This?

We’ve looked at the two main arguments that go into making the crutch. (There are a few other minor arguments in use too, but we don’t have the space to discuss them here, and I’ve not found any that fare much better when looked at in a whole Bible context.) Hopefully you can see why I think it was worth tackling the main ones. Remember that I’m not trying to “devalue” the arts. Far from it. It’s the crutch I’m attempting to attack, not the arts. I gave three short reasons for doing this back in the first post, but let me give you a much bigger reason now.

Let’s go back to our picnic in the park. There is nothing wrong with plucking a few blades of grass and using them to make squeaky noises. If you asked me why I was doing it, and I said “For fun”, then everything would be fine. As long as I’m not upsetting too many joggers, where’s the harm? The problem only comes if I claim that I’m doing it to mow the lawn. In that case, there are two options. Option one: I’m being sincere. I think that the way to cut the grass is by plucking it one blade at a time and using each blade to make a squeaky noise. In this case, I’m probably a bit of an idiot, and you’d better hope that I’m not actually employed as the park manager. Option two – and this is far more likely: I’m just lying. What I really want to do is to turn blades of grass into musical weapons for making old ladies jump. I’m just trying to use the side-effect to justify my actions.

Either way, there’s a bit of a problem.

It’s a far bigger problem when we do this with God and the arts. When the world asks “Why are you making art?” we could simply answer with “Because we love it”. In that case, all is good. Where’s the harm? As we’ve said all along, art is a wonderful, precious gift from God. Why not make art, if it’s something we love? The problem comes when we feel the need to justify ourselves, and when we do so by making the crutch our answer. When we say “We’re making art in order to glorify God”, or “We’re making art to reflect God’s image”.

When we do this, we have the same two options as we had for the grass. Option one: we’re being sincere. We think our art is how we glorify God and reflect his image. But knowing what we know about God’s image and God’s glory, can we honestly hold to this defence? If we can truthfully claim that we are making art in order to glorify God and reflect his image, then we’ve not really understood what glorifies God, and what reflects his image. And you’d better hope that we’re not actually employed to do that… except we are; every Christian is. Every Christian has the job of making God known.

Option two, as with the grass, is that we’re just lying. We want to make art, and we’re just using the side-effect as a reason to do it. We’re not really interested in reflecting God’s image, or in glorifying him – at least, not as interested as we are in our art. We’re just using God as an excuse to pursue our idol.

Either way, it’s a serious matter. Aside from the implications our ignorance or our idolatry will have for ourselves, we must remember that the non-Christian world doesn’t understand what it means to be a Christian, and they are looking to us to find out. If they think our God is so small that he can be adequately glorified by a Beethoven symphony, or so simple that his image can be adequately reflected in an oil painting, then we are failing in our primary duty to make God known. The problem is not with the symphony or the painting. The problem is not with the arts. The problem only comes when we attempt to use this crutch. We’ve turned our mighty God into a small bit of wood for propping up our hobbies.

By attempting to use God in order to elevate art, we’re ultimately damaging art, ourselves, and our witness to the unconverted world. Is that reason enough to want to pick the crutch apart?

Painful though it might be, we need to surrender our crutch, and find a more helpful way of solving the problem we started with: Where do we find the confidence to say to the world “We are right to be working this hard at something that most people think is inherently useless.”?

Art Needs No Justification

And this is where I want to side with Hans Rookmaaker – or at least with his title: Art needs no justification. You want to be a musician? Fine! A career in music is a wonderful thing, if you can do it. You want to be a painter? Fine! Painting – like medicine, or science – is glorious. We don’t need to justify our decision to go into the arts any more than a policeman needs to justify his career choices, or a teacher needs to justify theirs. In God’s great goodness, we are free to pursue any line of work – as long as it’s not immoral. In theory it is perfectly possible to be a godly, obedient Christian, and a professional actress at the same time. It’s a valid thing to do, and it’s a good thing to do.

But it might not be a wise thing to do. Because we still have this problem: art doesn’t pay.

And that is the question we will explore in the final part of this blog series.


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