The Three-Fold Task for Christians in the Arts
How should we approach the arts as Christians? It's a simple question with a multi-layered answer. This post will take a forest approach as opposed to one deep in the trees.
When I think of how to use my creativity for the Kingdom and train others to do the same, three tasks come to mind. These tasks are for Christians in the arts, and by that I mean Christians who study the fine arts or simply enjoy them. Really, these tasks are for all creative people (i.e. all image-bearers) to consider. Here they are:
We are to delight, discern, and deliver.
I'll let those three D's sink in for a moment, and meanwhile, check out my doodle. . . err, illustration. It came to me while journaling.
As you can see from the illustration, each of these actions are inter-connected with one another and equally important. Let's walk through each of them.
"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1).
The first task is to delight in the creativity around us, whether it comes from the hand of God or our neighbor. The arts deal in the realm of beauty, and beauty is meant to be enjoyed and beheld. Delighting in beauty can be a pleasing act to God, for beauty flows from his character. He is the first and most beautiful one!
Last Sunday we arrived a little early to church, and while we sat, the worship team started playing a hymn -- just the instruments moving in unison. The beautiful melody quickly moved me to tears. And then my nose started running . . . My wife turned to me and just smiled. She knows that beauty strikes me this way every time. The music that morning tuned my heart toward Christ.
It's easy for me to think about art pragmatically, as especially in my role as a teacher. Study art because you'll be able to do x, y, z or you'll have skills that will allow you to be more x, y, z. And while those things can be true, we must not forget that art is a gift from God to be enjoyed.
A great novel is a gift. A beautiful song is a gift. A choreographed dance is a gift. And where do these gifts comes from? "Every good gift and every perfect gift," writes James, "is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. . ." (James 1:17).
So, whether you're at the Lourve studying the Mona Lisa, or you're writing a poem, or you're standing in a darkened sky gazing at the stars, delight in the creativity around you.
"Take every thought captive to Christ. . ." (2 Cor. 10:5).
Francis Schaeffer has helped me understand that art, whether a movie, a novel, a painting, or a dance, is not a neutral thing. All art carries a perspective on the world. Artwork absorbs the worldview of the artist(s).
Now, it's true that we can see this in some form of art more easily than others. For example, we can identify the worldview of a movie more easily than the worldview of an orchestra. The simple reason for this is because a movie uses images, words, and sounds to affirm or negate ideas about the world. A film often answers these worldview questions:
What is man?
What is God?
What is the world we live in?
Because art carries a perspective on the world, we can say that art also makes arguments about the nature of the world. If we look closely enough, our culture's art tries to tell us what we should love and hate, fear and long for. It tells us these things through words, images, music, movement.
Notice how the arts often aim first for the heart and imagination. . . and then the head. The arts usually use the vehicle of delight and entertainment to reach their patrons. Clever. And sometimes sneaky.
We can think of art as a Trojan Horse, especially art built around a story (novels, movies, dance, etc.). Within its belly is a worldview placed there by the author(s). The worldview can be sinister or wholesome or somewhere in-between. Because art can be so pleasurable, the Horses often enter our gates undetected with our guards asleep in the towers.
Christians must practice discernment, looking carefully at the worldview that hides in the belly of the Horses that land on our shores.
Second, we must also use discernment to assess the craft or quality of artwork. Christians should gravitate toward creativity that is of the highest quality. I like what Dorothy Sayers says in her essay titled "Why Work?":
No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.
God's creativity is marked by the highest of standards. That's why he could say it is good when he finished creating the world (Gen. 1). This is a reminder that we should not only strive to make our art excellent, but understand what makes art finely crafted as opposed to poorly done.
We should learn the standards of excellence in our craft, whether it's photography, painting, or dance. Identifying art that has a dangerous worldview is paramount, but learning to recognize shoddy from finely-crafted work is also important.
"The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it" (Gen. 2:25).