Art and the Christian: Common pitfalls in a complex relationshipWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Creativity is the first attribute of God recorded in Scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He not only made everything, but delighted in it and called it good. As the capstone of his cosmos, he made men and women in his image, giving us talent and inspiration to write, sing, dance, paint, perform – in short, to create and enjoy art to the glory of our Maker.
Yet for all that, the relationship between the church and the arts has been complex, to say the least. Some faith traditions celebrate artistic expression, at times beyond the bounds of proper discernment. Others view art with suspicion, or at best as a carrier of information. Creative excellence gets pushed to the side; all that matters is the message.
Naturally, like any of God’s gifts, the arts can be abused this side of the Fall. But that happens among Christians and non-Christians alike, only in different ways. Rather than promoting unbiblical ideas in art, believers are more apt to force artistic expression into moulds it was never meant to fill, or to look for meaning in the wrong places. Having said that, there are a few common pitfalls we can avoid if we want to engage the arts in ways that better honour our creative God.
Not all art has a Gospel message
Books and articles about finding the Gospel in popular works of fiction have proliferated over the years, to the point of forming a subgenre in their own right. At first, it made sense. Early examples sought out Gospel truth in The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series, which was none too difficult, considering both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien purposely wove Christian themes into their work.
But over time, the search to uncover hidden Gospel nuggets has expanded to include slasher films, zombie shows, moody dystopian teen lit – pretty much anything that’s trending on cable or Netflix or the Amazon bookshelf. One is left to wonder whether such efforts are exegetical or eisegetical in nature. Are they drawing meaning out of the works or reading things into them that aren’t there?
This is not to say such stories contain no themes that align with scriptural truth. All of us, including non-Christian artists and writers, live in God’s world, which runs on laws of reality that he has established. It’s a complex world full of stories of every kind, about love, justice, kindness, heroism, sacrifice – all qualities that find their source in God and point back to him. However, just as nature declares God’s glory without words, so can art reflect shards of his truth without an overt Gospel message. It can be an overreach to look for such a message in places never intended by the author.
No style of art is morally bad
During medieval times, there were disputes in the church over which intervals of the musical scale were appropriate for worship. Famously the tritone, consisting of an augmented fourth or diminished fifth whose notes sound ominous when played or sung together, was banned from church use and later given the nickname diabolus in musica, Latin for “the devil in the music.”
Before we smile too broadly, it’s best to recall that such worship wars, different in detail but similar in spirit, have been endemic in the church right up to the present. And the wars aren’t restricted to worship music alone. From time to time, Christians will go on a crusade against some popular style of music they don’t like or understand, usually one favoured by their kids or by a socio-ethnic group not their own. Jazz is the music of social rebellion. Rock is the music of the devil. Rap is the music of urban violence. And on it goes.
This impulse to dismiss entire art styles as morally suspect extends beyond popular music. Various genres of literature, film and visual art have also served as sporadic targets for Christian critics. One school of criticism singles out modern art and classical music produced since the late 19th century as especially problematic. The paintings of the French Impressionists and the music of Debussy, we’re told, broke with the formal artistic rules of their day and thus ushered chaos and subversion into modern art. One would be hard-pressed, however, to look at Monet’s Water Lilies or listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune and find any trace of chaos or subversion, or in fact anything other than sheer beauty.
Beauty wears many faces
We all want beauty in our art, works that delight our eyes and ears and speak to our heart. But we also tend to equate beauty with things that are pretty, pleasant and safe. This is especially so among people in the church. However, the canvas of creation presents a different model of beauty, one that wears many faces. It includes things that are neither pretty nor pleasant nor safe: the dark depths of the ocean; the frozen wastes of the Antarctic; apex predators that God feeds with their prey in due season. These all possess beauty that may be bleak or craggy or deadly, but it’s beauty nonetheless.
Nor can beauty in the arts be restricted to religious themes, or to styles considered realistic and inoffensive. Non-religious or abstract art is no less beautiful, nor is art that addresses dark or difficult themes with honesty and integrity. In fact, such works can be far more beautiful – and truthful – than the sanitized, empty expressions of sentimentality that often plague religious art. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Creative excellence matters
The ancient Greeks had a word, arete, usually translated as excellence, which they held to be the chief of all virtues. It encompassed the qualities of beauty, strength, courage, intelligence, effectiveness, the fulfillment of potential, a thing designed to be the best it could be. Sometimes translated as virtue itself, it was adopted by the authors of the New Testament. When the Apostle Paul encouraged the Philippian church to ponder things that are excellent, this was the word he used.
When it comes to the arts, however, Christians have too often allowed this principle to fall by the wayside. As long as a book or painting or movie or song is “clean” and contains an appropriate message, its artistic merit is treated as if it were beside the point. This has led to a ruefully large volume of Christian art that’s better described as Christian kitsch – tacky and sentimental, with no creative edge or anything relevant to say.
Brothers and sisters, it ought not to be so. Aesthetic beauty and creative excellence matter – they matter to God, the ultimate artist, and they should matter to us, women and men made in his image. We do no honour to our Maker, and no service to those around us, with vapid messages wrapped in mediocre art. As God’s ambassadors, we should be on the leading edge of creative innovation, not trailing in the cultural wake.
Art shouldn’t be “used” but enjoyed
People of faith have a habit of speaking about arts and the media in terms of “using” or “consuming” them. To be honest, these are awful terms to use in connection with creativity. They betray a pragmatic mindset, in which art is reduced to an empty vessel for conveying information, like a bland cracker on which the tasty and nutritive message sits.
That’s not at all how art is designed, of course. Its meaning isn’t always direct, but rather allusive, open to interpretation by the audience, and organically linked to the creative style of the work itself. The power of artistic expression lies in appealing to the senses, emotions and imagination as much as to the intellect. As such, a work of art needs to be received on its own terms, rather than “used.”
As C.S. Lewis noted, “A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used.’ When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities. . . . ‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”
In the beginning, God created the cosmos for his glory and pleasure. When he finished, he stepped back, expressed deep satisfaction in his work and called it very good. This is the template for all subsequent artistic activity by his image-bearers. Questions of content and discernment aside – and those are necessary questions – before anything else art is to be enjoyed, by its author as well as its audience. It must be allowed to speak its truth and beauty in its own voice, and to echo the creativity of the original divine artist. Soli Deo Gloria.
Sources and further reading
Ned Bustard, editor, It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, Square Halo Books, 2007.
Ned Bustard, editor, It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God, Square Halo Books, 2013.
Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware, Finding God in The Lord of the Rings, Tyndale House, 2006.
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, HarperOne, 2017.
Leland Ryken, editor, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, WaterBrook Press, 2002.
Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, P & R Publishing, 2006.
Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible: Two Essays, InterVarsity Press, 2006.
W. David O. Taylor, editor, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, Baker Books, 2010.
Gene Edward Veith, Jr., State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe, Crossway, 1991.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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