Theology & Culture (8): Why The Arts Matter to God

As a young believer and a cultural separatist in the 80s and 90s, I was pretty sure that “the arts” were very bad in some foreboding but non-specific manner. I wasn’t sure why they were so bad, but it seemed self-evident that I was supposed to be “agin’ it, not fer it.” During my childhood years, I had a rather limited television intake (The Andy Griffith Show was an exception, although the presence of Otis made even this show “iffy”), an almost non-existent movie intake (except for Billy Graham movies), and a zero-calorie music diet (classical music and hymns only; rock music was Satan’s music, and I knew this because Bill Gothard told me so).

Now, don’t get me wrong-I’m happy about the alternatives my parents presented. I read books (lots of them, including biography, history, theology, fiction, etc.), I played sports, and I spent time with my family. But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t sure “what to do with” the arts, including popular art forms like cinema, television, and Top-40 music. I knew that I disagreed with a lot of the messages that were being put forth through those media, but I also knew that some of it was beautiful and that all of it was powerfully influential.

Because of this recognition that I didn’t know what to do with the arts, in my college and early seminary years, I fluctuated between cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony, sometimes within the space of one week. It wasn’t until I discovered L. Russ Bush and Francis Schaeffer that I began to learn “what to do with” the arts. L. Russ Bush was the Academic Dean and Professor of Philosophy at SEBTS. In his introductory philosophy course, he covered the history of philosophy and while doing so illustrated by pointing to movies, music, and television shows which espoused particular philosophical viewpoints. In his Ph.D. Seminar on Christian Faith & the Modern Mind, he surveyed late 20th century art, architecture, cinema, and music, showing the philosophical and religious underpinnings of various artists and works of art.

During Dr. Bush’s courses, he introduced us to Christian art critics such as Hans Rookmaaker (professional art historian and critic) and Francis Schaeffer (Christian theologian and apologist). Schaeffer’s work (which depended in part upon Rookmaaker’s) has been enduringly influential among evangelicals and is crafted for non-specialists, so his work shaped my view of art early on.

In fact, in my recent seminar on Theology & Culture (cross-listed for undergrad and grad students), we read Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible.* This slim little volume provides a handy starting point for a discussion of theology and the arts, so I will mediate a bit of Schaeffer’s thought, in the hopes that this brief blogpost will stimulate further interest in theology and the arts.

At the beginning of the book, Schaeffer makes a biblical-theological argument for the goodness of the arts. He began by arguing for the Lordship of Christ over every realm of culture and specifically over the arts. He continued by giving multiple specific examples of Scripture promoting the arts. He honed in on the art in the tabernacle and Temple, on “secular” art in the Bible, on Jesus’ use of art, on poetry in music in the Bible, on drama and dance in the Bible, and finally on the pervasively “artful” portrayal of heaven’s beauty.

After having built his theological case for the arts, he begins to theologize about the arts. One of the more noteworthy sections is his provision of four standards by which one can judge a work of art. The first standard is technical excellence: a painting, for example, should be judged on its use of color, form, balance, the unity of the canvas, its handling of lines, etc. The second standard is validity: is the artist honest to himself and his worldview (or does he, for example, sell out for money)? The third standard is content: is the artist’s worldview resonant with a Christian worldview? An artist’s body of work reveals his worldview, even though he may not be aware of this. The fourth standard is integration of content and vehicle: does this work of art correlate its content with its style?

Another noteworthy section is Schaeffer’s articulation of four types of artists. The first is the Christian artist who works from within a Christian worldview. The second is the non-Christian who works within a non-Christian worldview. The third is the non-Christian who works with the remnants and residue of a Christian worldview. The fourth is the Christian who does not fully grasp the Christian worldview and therefore works with elements of a non-Christian worldview. The first type of artist is the one Schaeffer considers exemplary.

Schaeffer was not a professional art critic and his work has some flaws. However, he is profoundly right about several things: (1) Christians ought to produce good art, art which arises from within a comprehensive Christian worldview; (2) this art does not have to be explicitly religious (e.g. having manger scene as its subject matter) and in fact is often more powerful when it is not; and (3) Christians ought to be aware of the art arising from their culture because such art makes us aware of the worldviews underlying it, worldviews which are deficient and can be remedied by the gospel and a Christian worldview.

My conviction is that one of the various reasons Christians have an increasingly ineffective witness in the United States is because we have abdicated our responsibility to glorify God within the arts. To the extent that we have involved ourselves in the arts, we have done so by creating music labels and music production companies that produce art that is explicitly about religious characters and often is preachy and not very compelling. In the most influential sectors of American society (Hollywood, New York, etc.) we have fled the premises.

May God grant us young men and women who will view their lives missiologically, and immerse themselves in arts communities in Hollywood, New York, and Nashville, proclaiming and embodying the gospel in ways that are faithful, meaningful, and dialogical for those particular communities.

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*Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

  7Comments

  1. Micah Brake   •  

    Great article, Dr. Ashford!

    One question (and it is sort of left over from the 20/20 Conference):

    What does it look like for a Christian to make art according to a Christian worldview or (as Dr. Little called for) to be Christians “making culture”?

    That is, how do Christian artists/writers/cinematographers/musicians make art that isn’t focused on manger scenes, but that is still arising from a Christian worldview? Can a Christian make a PG-13 or R-Rated movie? Do Christians have to write books that deal with God, strictly? Can we write murder mysteries or make new popular Rock songs?

    Can you help me by spelling this out a little more? Thanks.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Micah, great question. In short, your comments reveal that you are thinking in the right direction, in my opinion. One popular (but misguided) view is that Christians must make “Christian art” in order to please God. In other words, they believe that an artist must paint nativity scenes (complete with a donkey and angels with feathered wings)or that a musician is limited to writing songs about Peter, James, and John. But this view is wrong-headed. In the Scriptures, we see that God is the first artist, the one who painted the sunrise and sunset that we now seek to imitate with our own paintings. Further, he endowed humans with capacities for imagination and creativity so that we can be “little artists” just as he is the first Artist. In addition, he commanded men such as Bezalel to create art that was not explicitly “religious” in its subject matter. In summary, Christians are free to use their imaginative and creative capacities to create art that arises from their Chrisitian worldview. That art may or may not have explicitly religious subject matter.

  3. Nathan   •  

    Hello Dr. Ashford,

    As a Christian and a former student within the fine arts I found your post to be intriguing. I was wondering what your view was on Chapter 4 of “Knowing God” by J.I. Packer, which is titled “The Only True God”. As a student within the college, I’m having trouble figuring out what my belief is in regards to the topic. Your advice would be appreciated.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan, thank you. If I remember correctly, Packer’s fourth chapter deals primarily with whether or not Christians should construct images of God to be used in corporate worship. My initial response is that we should not use any images of God in corporate worship, something on which nearly all Baptists agree. Further, I find it unhelpful to hang hang “portraits” of Jesus Christ in church vestibules, hallways, etc., because of the high potential for those portraits to be viewed as representational rather than symbolic.

  5. Andrew C.   •  

    Great post! I of course agree with your insight on this. It is an amazing thing to watch when Christians participate in the arts instead of avoiding it.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Andrew, spot on. Christians often critique the arts, but perhaps less often are they inclined to create art that is arises from a faithfully Christian view of reality and that conforms to standards of professional excellence.

  7. Pingback: Art & Christians (this was worth a look) | In pursuit of grace and truth

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