This week, Pastor Shaun will fly to Italy to teach at Incarnate, an Operation Mobilization (OM) Arts International school for Christian artists. The school is “designed by artists for artists who are passionate about living out the Great Commission well.” One of the subjects he will teach is How Theology Affects the Arts. Here is a piece of the material.
Augustine defined theology as “Rational discussion respecting the deity.”
It is easy to understand the prime place of teaching and preaching in theology, with their emphases on propositional points and logical argumentation. But we don’t often think that art, in any of its forms, has a place in the discussion. We know intuitively that art as a mode of communication is different, and have difficulty relating it to theology. What then could be the voice of the artist in the discussion?
To consider how art can contribute to theology, consider the following quotation by Calvin Seerveld from his important work Rainbows for a Fallen World:
In other words, the unique voice of the artist in theology is that it is not a pedagogue or a preacher, but enters the discussion on a different register. Consider the difference between hearing a sermon on the universe as God’s creation versus staring up at the stars of the Milky Way in a clear night sky. Or consider the difference between hearing a lecture on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony versus hearing it performed live.
While teaching confronts you directly to change your mind, art can affect you subtly to change your heart. It enters the discussion as a whisper, quietly taking us by the hand and on a journey behind our prejudices to help us to see with “wide-eyed, childlike astonishment at the marvelous, mystifying handiwork of the Lord" (Seerveld).
To see how art can enter the discussion more clearly, let’s look at art through the four primary categories of biblical theology.
In Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer wrote, “It is tragic that men and women everywhere are losing the sense of wonder, confessing now only one interest in life—and that is utility!" When all we do is analyze and dissect the creation, we lose the sense of awe and wonder of the creation and its Creator. The artist adds to theological discussions by retrieving this. Rational analysis can inform you, but art can move you.
William Blake once wrote: “a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” Just as the astonishing beauty of a grain of sand and the beauty of a flower pedal help us to look with amazement at the world God has made, so art can point to transcendence. It can communicate Truth through beauty, as God did through the creation of the world. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
The Bible teaches that sin is is a far bigger problem than we tend to think. More than an occasional bad deed or a few character flaws, humanity’s problem is that, deep in our hearts, we love sin rather than the holiness of God. As a result, our world is full of evil, brokenness, and suffering.
The medium of art can convey the fallenness of our world in ways that make the reality of sin more vivid to us. Seerveld writes: “Art calls to our attention in capital, cursive letters, as it were, what usually flits by in reality as fine print. There is a type of exploratory, uncovering, at-the-frontier element prevalent in art.” Art can express the moral outrage over evil and suffering that we cannot articulate with words.
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Pain depicted an art can be God’s megaphone which reminds us of the need for healing.
Even while expressing the depths of pain and suffering brought about by sin, art will also carry the message that sin will not have the final word. Therefore, even art that portrays the ugliness of sin can be beautiful. Art is a testimony that God exists and that He is at work to redeem, to restore.
In my childhood home hung a painting of a wrinkled, elderly woman with an expressionless face worn out by years of suffering. But she is holding a flower which is bright and new – a picture of what God will do for His people one day. Unlike nihilism, Christian art is purposeful and hopeful.
Perhaps there is no greater example of this than the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is an odious symbol of death and suffering, but it communicates to us beauty and hope. Tim Keller says it like this: “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
Art is one way that humanity can respond to the Creator’s original mandate to cultivate the earth. Seerveld writes:
Art in this sense can be seen is a “covenanted cultural response” to the Creator’s cultural mandate. But as we know sin entered the world and as a result, art can easily become idolatrous, meaningless, and cheap.
The story of the Bible is that Christ reconciles all things through his redeeming work. God is in the business of bringing all things together under one head: Christ. So art is to be reclaimed in Christ’s name and brought under his lordship. Creation gives us a mandate for cultural activity; redemption gives us a mandate for cultural renewal.
This means that much like farming, or business, or sport, art will be the vocational calling of some. It will therefore require training, practice, and skill. This is not to say that all art must be done in the professional vocational sense, but more in the indicative sense. Christian artists will produce art as they seek to glorify God. The gospel calls us back to our image bearing identity as the people of God.
As we seek to glorify God with our art, we must remember that even the best art is just the tuning of the orchestra as we await to enter into the beauties of eternity with our Creator. Until then let us not stop doing art well and continue to cultivate it as a theological tool in the rational discussion about God.