by Craig Branch – This is the introduction to the Areopagus Journal Volume 4. No. 1, January-February 2004
Why does an apologetics ministry choose to cover the topic of “Art and the Christian” in its journal? Perhaps the very reason we ask that question reveals the need. In most people’s minds, art is relegated to the rarified air of a few gifted and talented artists and a cultural elite who understands and (at least pretends to) enjoy them. Yet in reality, we are all bombarded by art everyday and it has an impact on our lives, both for good and bad. Art is a powerful medium which both reflects and influences the shape and direction of culture.
As Christians, we are called to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, called to redeem the time, and to be salt and light in the world. We are also warned not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). That process involves challenging and refuting arguments, theories, reasonings, imaginations, and every elevated thing that presents a substitute for God and His truth, and we are instead to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Taking every thought captive to Christ’s truth brings us to the application of Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”
We tend to think of art and beauty as merely decorative and ornamental instead of being a moral necessity. Beauty and truth are not separated in God’s world or the universe, and should not be separated from human thought or activity. It was God who took care to design a flower as well as a majestic mountain range. He joined beauty and truth into a holy union. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. . . the heavens declare His righteousness, for God Himself is judge” (Ps. 19:1; 50:6; see also Ps. 104).
Our apologetics emphasis involves knowing the truth, clarifying and defending the truth (pointing out the errors), advancing the truth, and being the truth. Art involves quite a spectrum of expressions that are very much part of our culture. It involves painting, music, dance, books, plays, sculpting, poetry, crafts, architecture, and even television and movies. So what do we mean by the term “art”? Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines art as, “A creative work generally, or its principles; the making or doing things that have form or beauty. The special skill required by those who practice one of the fine arts; artistic faculty.” A closely related term in the realm of artistry is “aesthetics.” Aesthetics is defined as “the theory of fine arts and people’s responses to them; the science or branch of philosophy that deals with the beautiful; the doctrines of taste.” It is taken from the Greek work aisth tikos, which means perception by feeling or experience.
So is there a standard for good and bad art? Who sets that criteria or standard? Is beauty, as professor James Spiegel asks in his article in this journal, “in the eye of the beholder?” Is there a Christian position on aesthetics and arts? And on what levels are Christians to be concerned and involved?
Assuming that Christians should care about the arts, where are the Rembrandts in the 21st century? Rembrandt was a highly skilled and acknowledged Christian master artist of the 17th century whose portraits, landscapes, and religious themes were and are admired by Christian and non-Christian alike. Yet today we find very few Christians of universal fame in any of the various expressions of art mentioned above. Again, why is this the case? As Michael Horton writes,
We evangelicals regard the question of beauty with a certain degree of awkwardness. . .
. . .many Christians who are interested in art face the same dilemma that Christians who enjoy philosophy or science deal with: the modern Christian world tends to be suspicious of their spiritual discernment.1
A brief sketch of the history of art and culture gives us some insights on where we are today. Prior to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (Age of Reason), Western culture’s medieval worldview was basically a Biblical one, in the sense that all was seen as created by God with a certain order and a difference between good and evil. Authority was only in God or derived from God. It was during the period known as the Renaissance (14th–16th centuries) that the movement toward humanism began to grow. In humanism, beauty and truth are found in man and his relationship with the material world, rather than in God. This began a gradual yet relentless and ever-escalating descent from the authority of God to the view that man is the measure of all things. Of course, during the Renaissance there were a number of artists like Rembrandt and Leonardo Da Vinci (not to be confused with the fraudulent caricature in Dan Brown’s recent Da Vinci Code) who were notable exceptions.
The Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment (17th – 18th centuries). Its dominant conviction was that right human reasoning could find true knowledge and meaning leading to the betterment of mankind. Intellectual struggles between Christians and humanists resulted in heretical hybrids like Deism, but the culture was largely converted to scientific rationalism.
Notably the Reformation occurred between the two humanistic movements, but to the natural mind even that appeared to be merely a change of authority. Yet Jesus says, “If you abide in My word, you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” and “He who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (John 8:31-32; Matt. 10:39).
Since the Enlightenment, Man has become more and more autonomous. To be free is to be free from all authority. The 20th century, especially in the 60’s and 70’s began to witness art forms that were more and more rebellious and iconoclastic. And with the steady ascendancy of materialism and the gradual supremacy of technocratic and commercialized interest, professional artistry is faced with a crisis. It panders to the mass audience, to television, tabloid, titillation, superficiality, pragmatism, and permissiveness. Serious art is pushed back into expensive, esoteric ghettos such as art museums, recesses of libraries, off-Broadway, and various art societies.
When the Christian encounters many of the art forms today, he typically responds either by uncritical acceptance and compromise, or by separation in disgust, forming our own art ghettos that are often adorned with Christian “lite” art. In 1981, the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, Franky Schaeffer, wrote a scathing rebuke of the Christian community’s response to art in his book Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts. His observation was that Christians’ faith had become compartmentalized, forming an unbiblical dualistic way of dividing the world into secular and sacred.
Yet, the Bible speaks over and over again about God’s directions to man to exercise his God-image-in-man creatively through art forms. Francis Schaeffer systematically points to many of these references in this booklet, Art and the Bible. He points to the use of art forms in the tabernacle and temple including ornate candlesticks adorned in the crafted natural beauty of branches, flowers, and almond blossoms. Other commanded adornments were colors of blue, purple and scarlet, precious stones, as well as architectural pillars, pomegranates, lilies, carved lions, oxen, cherubim, poems of Solomon, musical instruments, and dancing. There were even choreographies (Exodus 15:20), sculpture (Exodus 25:9-40), silversmiths (Exod. 31:1-11), songwriters (Psalms), composers (2 Chron. 5:11-14), storytellers (Judges (Psalms), composers (2 Chron. 5:11-14), storytellers (Judges 22). All of these were directed by God for the purpose of beauty as well as worship that glorified Him.
In this issue of Areopagus Journal are several articles we hope will be helpful in the process of renewing you into a fuller image of God. First, Gene Edward Veith writes “The Gifts of Bezalel: Art, the Bible and Christian Aesthetics.” Veith emphasizes the fullness of the Christian’s calling as he embraces spirituality in aesthetics and guards against conformity to a fallen world’s values. Veith writes, “Christians have a basis for art, beauty, and aesthetics, one which has inspired the arts for centuries. But today’s Christians are too often impoverished when it comes to the arts, buying into the same hedonism, commercialism, and subjectivism of their non-believing neighbors.”
Also, James Spiegel of Taylor University contributed “Good Art or Bad Art: What’s the Difference.” He challenges the pervasive sentiment that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and its postmodern corollary “right and wrong are merely matters of individual preference.” Spiegel makes the case for the reality of aesthetic absolutes and identifies several criteria to help the reader distinguish the good art from the bad.
These articles are followed by a series of three practical “how to” articles, giving some recommendations on how to enrich your appreciation of visits to art museums, music concerts, and reading stories. It is our hope that as Christians we will expand the artistic dimensions of our lives with our hearts and minds. The world needs redemption in all areas. We must not neglect the important sphere of art and do all things to the glory of God. AJ
Craig Branch is the Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama. (At the time of publishing in 2004)
1 Michael S. Horton, Where in the World is the Church: A Christian View of Culture and Your Role in It (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 99, 103).