Theology of the Arts – Part 2


Looking at Crutches

Here is how Anton Bruckner responded to his critics:

“They want me to write differently. Certainly I could, but I must not. God has chosen me from thousands and given me, of all people, this talent. It is to Him that I must give account. How then would I stand there before Almighty God, if I followed the others and not Him?”

What do we make of these words? In many ways, Bruckner had a point. His music has survived, and it is good – he was indeed blessed by God with a talent that marked him out from thousands of others. He wasn’t being big-headed when he said this. And we must give him credit for acting in line with his conscience. But what kept Bruckner going in the face of critical derision was a conviction that God wanted him to make his art his way.

Where did Bruckner get this conviction? And can we share it? Can every struggling artist claim that God wants them to make their art their way? Indeed, that he’ll be angry with them if they don’t?

In part one of this blog I suggested that this attitude is underpinned by the assumption that there is something especially special about art – something that makes it more precious in God’s sight. Why couldn’t Bruckner have given up when the going got tough, and become a mechanic instead? Because he was called to be an artist, and art is special. Art is special, so get on and do it for God’s sake – whatever the sacrifice. I called this line of thinking a crutch.

This is the crutch that helped Bruckner, and in his case things turned out well. But I don’t believe this is a Biblical idea – in fact, I think it’s a dangerous notion which can cause great harm to the arts and artists. So in this post we will attempt to take a clear, critical look at this crutch, and see how it fares in the revealing light of scripture.

Let me reiterate from part one – it is not the arts themselves that I am taking issue with. I hope I’ve made it clear that it is out of a love for the arts, and artists, that I am writing. Rather, it is our understanding of the arts that I want to examine. And that means examining this crutch.

So, how is the crutch constructed? How do we tend to argue in favour of art’s special status? There are many parts to it, but from my survey of the literature on the theology of the arts, and from years of talking to Christian musicians, there appear to be two main arguments that crop up over and over again: that art is special because we are made in God’s image, and that art is special because it glorifies God. In this post we’ll tackle the first of these ideas.

Argument One – That Art Is Special Because We Are Made in God’s Image

The idea of God’s image comes in Genesis 1:26 – “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” (All Bible quotes are from the ESV, UK version, unless stated otherwise.)

What does it mean that we are made in God’s image? Presumably it means that we were somehow made to be like God – that we are somehow meant to do what God does. And what had God just been doing in Genesis 1? Creating!

So the argument runs something like this:

God is the creator.

We are made in his image.

So we should create.

The argument becomes more convincing if you factor in the other creatures. What is it that separates us from the animals? We were made in God’s image, and they weren’t. So there must be something that distinguishes us from them. What? Well, every human culture has, at some point, produced art. Whereas animals don’t produce art. So art must be part of what makes us human. “Creativity is a part of the distinction between man and non-man.”, as Francis Schaeffer put it in his short book Art and the Bible.

This is all pretty sound – creativity is a glorious, god-like attribute, and an essential part of our humanness. It’s certainly worth remembering this, in the face of a culture that seems to care little about supporting and nurturing art. But this line of argument is very easy to abuse.

Here is how Steve Turner puts it, in his book A Vision for Christians in the Arts:

“Creativity is part of that inherited image because God is a designer and maker… This means that creativity is not merely permissible, it is essential. It is what God wants. To express ourselves in art is to experience more fully the richness of being human.”

I don’t believe there’s anything false in this statement, but it’s a dangerous way to phrase things. While it’s true in the general sense that creativity is a God-ordained, essential part of humanity, it’s all too tempting to go beyond the general case and start applying this directly to ourselves and our own chosen field of creativity. From “God wants art to exist” we take the short-cut to “It is essential that I become an artist… God wants me to express myself in art…” Art becomes an especially godly thing to do, our critics become those who are trying to rob us of our essential humanity, our identity becomes dependant on our success as an artist, and our understanding of God becomes skewed.

This all happens when we gloss over those crucial little words “part of”. Look again – Schaeffer and Turner didn’t say that being creative was the sole outworking of our being made in God’s image – only that it is a part of it: “Creativity is a part of the distinction between man and non-man”… “Creativity is part of that inherited image…” But, naturally, any book on the theology of the arts will single out creativity for discussion, with the result that, I suspect, few of us will have ever stopped to wonder what else being made in God’s image might mean. We put all the weight on the creative aspect and end up with a theology of the arts that says art is especially godly. So let’s attempt to redress the balance now.

This Argument Doesn’t Make Art Especially Special

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology contains some very helpful thinking on this. In particular, he talks about some of the other ways in which we are set apart from the animals, including:

Moral aspects – we have an inner sense of right and wrong.

Spiritual aspects – we have spirits, so we have a spiritual life; we can pray, we can hear God speak to us through his word, etc.

Mental aspects – we can employ reasoning, logic, abstract thinking, science, complex language and emotion.

Relational aspects – we are given the right to rule, we are given the authority to judge, we can relate to one another in far more complex ways than the animals.

All these things are part of what it means to be made in God’s image.

So, when George Seurat created Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, he was displaying a facet of the image of the God Who Creates.

When he finished painting and cleaned his brushes, he was displaying a facet of the image of the God Who Sustains.

When he finished his studies in art and spent a year doing military service, he was displaying a facet of the image of the God Who Rules.

When he made decisions, he was displaying a facet of the image of the God Who Discerns. In his relationships, he was displaying a facet of the image of the God Who Relates. When he ate, when he tied his shoelaces… whatever he did, whenever he did it – whether it was anything to do with his art or not – he was displaying the characteristics of God in a myriad of ways.

In fact, it’s impossible for us to do the simplest of tasks without employing at least some of what it is that makes us God’s image-bearers. It is impossible to iron a shirt without using discernment, reasoning, logic, and science (and, in my case, prayer).

If music, or painting, or sculpting, is somehow “sacred” because it reflects the image of the creator, then so is brain surgery, rocket science, accountancy, driving, street-sweeping, working in Tescos, and ironing. Art is wonderful, but this argument doesn’t make it especially special.

This idea might sting a little, but actually it should be great news for artists. When I’m performing Sibelius’ violin concerto, I’m reflecting the image of God. Tragically, no one ever asks me to play Sibelius these days, but all is not lost, because I am frequently asked to clean things. So I still get to reflect the image of God. And if that prospect doesn’t excite me in the same way, it’s probably because my excitement was never about being made in God’s image in the first place.

But This Argument Does Make God’s Word Special

If we’re sincere in our assertion that the value of art stems, in part, from its connection with the image of God, then we are left with an interesting corollary. Ask most artists or musicians how they can make their art more “valuable” and they will probably say “Practise!” But that’s ignoring what we’ve just claimed is one of the sources of art’s value. If we’re being consistent, we should also say “Read the Bible!”

Here’s why:

We were made in God’s image, as we’ve seen:

“So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.”

(Genesis 1:27)

But that image was broken at the fall, when we rejected God. Since then, though we still imperfectly reflect the image of God, we also reflect the image of Adam:

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived for 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”

(Genesis 5:1-3)

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam]…”

(1 Corinthians 15:49a)

Then along came Jesus, the perfect image of God – he never sinned:

“He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”

(Colossians 1:15)

“The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

(2 Corinthians 4:4)

And we are gradually being made like Jesus as we grow in Christian maturity:

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam],

we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus].”

(1 Corinthians 15:49)

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

(2 Corinthians 3:28)

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”

(Colossians 3:19)

And this growth in Christian maturity comes as we feed on God’s word:

“And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

(Acts 20:32)

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

(2 Timothy 3:14-17)

“Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.”

(1 Peter 2:1-2 NKJV)

To summarise, we are all broken images – shattered mirrors – but Christians are being “fixed” as we grow in our knowledge of God, through reading his word. The more we build our lives upon what we read in our Bibles, the more like God’s image we become.

So, if our justification for pursuing the arts is genuinely because we want to reflect God’s image, we should be pursuing Christian understanding with equal, or even greater, rigour. A musician friend of mine was once told by another musician in her church “You have your Bible studies, and I have the orchestra” – as if the two things were somehow equivalent. That’s a terrible misconception to be labouring under. Remember, as images go, we are all just a pile of glass shards. When we get together in an orchestra, we’re attempting to align all these tiny shards, to angle them in the hopes that they will catch a small reflection of just one aspect of God’s face – his creativity. But when we get together in a Bible study, the Spirit is there with his pot of glue, patiently reassembling those shards into a surface that can reflect the whole face of God.

Any Christian who is serious about the value of art should be passionate about the value of God’s word.

To summarise, then, we’ve seen that one of the main arguments often used to give art its “special” status in fact does no such thing – rather, it puts art on a level with all other human activity, and instead gives much greater status to Jesus and God’s word.

In the next post we’ll look at the other main argument which is often employed to elevate the arts – the idea that art is especially glorifying to God. Until then, as ever, please do ask any questions or raise any points in the comments below.


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