Reclaiming our voice in the arts
It’s National Arts Festival time in Grahamstown once again, and our city is gearing up for this annual extravaganza. Every Christian trying to live out their worldview in the arts is probably finding things difficult. Difficult because we as the church have often relegated this area to being one of little positive spiritual importance, and instead of being at the forefront of creativity (as we used to be), we are often restricting it through a limited view of what Christian art should be. Then, competing worldviews are increasingly taking us on a path of ‘excellence’ without ‘sacredness’. As far as the arts go, the church has shrunk its view of God, and the world has suppressed the truth of God.
The shrinking of God
It has shrunk Him from the God over every area of life to the God of personal salvation. With this shrinking of God has come our diminished creativity, limited imagination and a superficial understanding of the role of arts in our world. Church leader Chris Wienand wrote: The demise of the arts in the hearts, minds and lives of the church is surely an indicator that revival has been reduced to a charismatic experience and not the full embodiment of the faith as portrayed by the reformation and its artistic voices. The first mention of someone being “Spirit-filled” may come as a surprise to the contemporary Christian. I would have guessed it would be a preacher or prophet perhaps, but Exodus records that it was a craftsman by the name of Bezalel. Exodus 31:1-5 reads 1 Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts– 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. Why would this surprise us? The Expositor’s Bible Commentary challenges us concerning this passage:
“The Lord announces that He has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, and has filled him with the Spirit of God. To what sacred office, then, is he called? Simply to be a supreme craftsman, the rarest of artisans. This also is a divine gift…So then it appears that the Holy Spirit of God is to be recognised in the work of the carpenter and the jeweller, the apothecary and the tailor. Probably we object to such a statement, so baldly put. But inspiration does not object…It is quite clear that we must cease to think of the Divine Spirit as inspiring only prayers and hymns and sermons. All that is good and beautiful and wise in human art is the gift of God. We feel that the supreme Artist is audible in the wind among the pines; but is man left to himself when he marshals into more sublime significance the voices of the wind among the organ tubes? At sunrise and sunset we feel that “On the beautiful mountains the pictures of God are hung”; but is there no revelation of glory and of freshness in other pictures? Once the assertion that a great masterpiece was “inspired” was a clear recognition of the central fire at which all genius lights its lamp: now, alas! It has become little more than a sceptical assumption that Isaiah and Milton are much upon a level.”
Perhaps we have downsized our view of God to that which is overtly spiritual. In the arts, this has often limited our creativity to that which is expressly described in the Bible. Francis Schaeffer challenged the church as he wrote: As evangelical Christians, we have tended to relegate art to the very fringe of life. The rest of human life we feel is more important. Despite our constant talk about the Lordship of Christ, we have narrowed its scope to a very small area of reality. We have misunderstood the concept of the Lordship of Christ over the whole of man and the whole of the universe and have not taken to us the riches that the Bible gives us for ourselves, for our lives, and for our culture. How often do Christians think of sexual matters as something second-rate. Never, never, never should we do so, according to the Word of God. The whole man is made to love God; each aspect of man’s nature is to be given its proper place. That includes the sexual relationship, that tremendous relationship of one man to one woman. At the very beginning God brought Eve to man. A love poem can thus be beautiful… Schaeffer also boldly declared that “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.” Sadly, the opposite is often true. There is no better example of imagination and creativity than our Lord himself. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus delivers truths in parables and riveting stories to tax collectors, prostitutes and other certified sinners who are hanging on his every word. Mark 12:37 records that… “The large crowd listened to him with delight.” Jesus engaged the world with imagination and creativity, revealing ultimate truth in uncompromising holiness. I’ll be the first to admit that I could do with a lot more of this in my attempts to engage the world.
The world has suppressed the truth of God
So much for the church. What of the world? D James Kennedy notes: “Living in a post-Christian culture, we see the effects of man’s rejection of God even in art…Art reflects life, and if life to the artist is meaningless, so will art be meaningless.” We can easily identify with Kennedy’s illustration of this, from the old sitcom Get Smart, “when Maxwell Smart was explaining the meaning of a modern painting and in particular a black dot that seemed to be the focus of the painting. His theory made sense until that black dot, a fly, flew away.” Writer Thomas Howard says that modern art purposefully rejects Christian influence in art: “Christianity and art were causally linked between the fourth and the twentieth centuries. Even the ‘post-Christian’ art and literature of the last two hundred years in the West emerges from Christian roots – and often involves a more or less conscious repudiation of Christian categories, and an attempt to forge new forms, free of Christian influence.” So it follows that when a view of morality has been overthrown by another, art will necessarily become a Trojan horse for driving that view into the mainstream of society. G.K. Chesterton quipped that “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” The lines of ‘good,’ ‘evil,’ ‘beautiful,’ and ‘ugly’ have radically shifted, and will continue to do so it seems.
Current views of what is ‘en vogue’, ‘relevant’ and ‘liberating’ often have one thing in common: the idea that we will find true liberation when we cut ourselves off from the restrictions of ‘medieval,’ ‘puritanical’ or Victorian norms of morality aka Christianity. Hollywood amply supplies us with this philosophy, even in the ‘child-friendly’ entertainment genre, as the animation Happy Feet so aptly depicts. Similarly, the movie Chocolat (which was a lot more than about chocolate!) painted the church as an institution of colourless monotony, rigid and harsh morality, and scandalous hypocrisy. “Liberation”, colour, joy, restoration and laughter came with the emergence of a new morality and the downfall of the supposedly Christian norm. Unfortunately, this meta-narrative is not only out there, it is very much at home here. As my wife and I tried to find something worthwhile to attend in the Arts festival programme, we found the task was a lot more difficult than it should have been. But I shouldn’t have been too surprised, because ideas have consequences, and art is a pertinent example of this.
Truth that sets our minds free
All of this is not to say that there is nothing to appreciate in the contemporary world of art. Far from it. Artists do not have to be Christian for them to produce something that reflects truth and beauty. In addition, there should be a whole lot more to our art than simply copying and pasting the images from the Bible. Schaeffer once again challenges the church here: Christianity is not just “dogmatically” true or “doctrinally” true. Rather, it is true to what is there, true in the whole area of the whole man in all of life. The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, including true to the ultimate environment — the infinite, personal God who is really there — then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Such an attitude will give our Christianity a strength that it often does not seem to have at the present time. But there is another side to the Lordship of Christ, and this involves the total culture — including the area of creativity. Again, evangelical or biblical Christianity has been weak at this point. About all that we have produced is a very romantic Sunday school art.
Similarly, Calvin taught that ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ This also applies in the arts. God can and does use whomever He desires, and there is still a remnant of a Christian worldview that some still unconsciously apply in the culture, even if their hearts are far from God. Scripture itself reminds us that God works in people who have not yet heard or applied the gospel. In Acts 17, Paul, in preaching the gospel, quotes Greek philosophers back to the Greeks, in support of his gospel message. We too, can therefore apply this principle in our contemporary world, declaring “as some of your philosophers have said,” while pointing the culture back to ultimate Truth and Beauty himself.
In the current milieu, the Christian artist in a particularly difficult place, often unappreciated by the church and ridiculed by the world. His and her task is similar to that of famed 1920’s athlete Eric Liddell. Liddell had to convince his sister (in many ways like the church), that athletic competition is not evil, and like missionary work, it too can reveal the glory of God. Similarly, he had to point the world away from humanism to worship (by refusing to run in the Olympics on a Sunday when he would rather be worshipping God on the Sabbath), prophetically declaring that nothing, not even an Olympic medal should take precedence before God, the unchanging standard of Truth, Holiness and Beauty. For the rest of us as believers, the challenge is for us to see art and the artist the same way that God does, engaging the culture, supporting our artists, magnifying our view of God and prophetically challenging the world to return to ultimate Truth and Beauty.
- For those of you that will be in Grahamstown for this Arts festival, a number of Christian artists are exhibiting their work under the title “40 stones in the wall”. For more details, find them on their Facebook page: 40stonesinthewall (The painting displayed at the top of this page, Aerial View II by Janna Prinsloo, is from the exhibition: you can click on the image to enlarge it.)
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