From music to bestselling novels to cinema, it seems like Christians have lost their foothold in the world of art. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we have to see that the art of the Church isn’t at all what it used to be. What ever happened to the Rembrandts, the John Bunyans, or the Thomas Tallises, Christians whose art is still renowned to this day? Have our standards for art been lowered in an attempt to appear more like the art of the world, or in order to become more “useful?” I’d like to submit that not only have our standards been lowered, but also in many ways we have missed the very point and purpose of Christian art.
So what is this purpose? What are Christian artists supposed to do?
Consumer art or Gospel art?
I create stories. It isn’t something I try to do, it just happens. Characters, places and situations pop into my mind and come to life on their own, taking me along with them as they go on their adventures. I love the rush of energy and heart-beating excitement when names and faces fall together in my mind, creating worlds and whole universes of story that beg to be explored. I am very familiar with the impatience to get to a computer or notebook and scribble down these ideas before they fade away. Then I inevitably run into a problem. My story oftentimes does not fit the paradigm of a Christian story. Whether it’s from my own mind or an external source, I feel as if my art is expected to fit a certain mold in order to be qualified as Christian art. And I know I’m not alone.
Many Christian artists feel the pressure to conform to a certain image of an artist: an artist whose work must be useful, specifically in evangelism. Whether intentionally or not, Christian artists are told it’s okay to be creative and write/play music/paint/sing as long as your art can be used as the bait on the evangelistic hook. This is a very utilitarian, pragmatic approach to Christian art. Many Christian artists feel that they are not allowed to just create; rather, they are expected to act as a channel for evangelistic efforts. A song that was written in order to glorify God through its beauty may not be valued nearly as much as a song that is meant to emotionally manipulate and draw sinners to walk down the aisle. Christian art has become a tool to save people rather than a means of glorifying God in a holistic sense.
So the artists in the Church are left wondering, “What are we supposed to do?” They want to make good art that glorifies God, but feel guilty when they want to make art that isn’t a means to an end. What do we do about this seeming dichotomy between being a Christian and making good art?
Artist Makoto Fujimara addresses this issue in an interview at The High Calling:
“There are many attempts to use the arts as a tool for evangelism. I understand the need to do that; but, again, it's going back to commoditizing things. When we are so consumer-driven, we want to put price tags on everything; and we want to add value to art, as if that was necessary. We say if it's useful for evangelism, then it has value.
“And, there are two problems with that. One, it makes art so much less than what it can be potentially. But also, you're communicating to the world that the gospel is not art. The gospel is this information that needs to be used by something to carry it.
“Only, that's not the gospel at all. The gospel is life. The gospel is about the Creator God, who is an artist, who is trying to communicate. And his art is the church. We are the artwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works. If we don't realize that fully, then the gospel itself is truncated and art itself suffers.”
Evangelism and beyond.
The uncontested purpose of Christian art is without question to spread the gospel. The problem comes from a definition of the gospel that is far too narrow. Yes, the gospel does proclaim the mercy of God to sinners, and the gospel does call sinners to repentance. But that is just one part of the gospel.
The gospel is the proclamation of the glory and infinite character of God. The gospel is the art of God Himself; a story of infinite themes, a painting of infinite colors, a symphony of infinite movements. Art was meant to pull from an infinite source holistically. Art that explores any of God’s attributes is to be valued as much as art that calls sinners to repentance.
In his book A Christian View of the Bible as Truth, Francis Schaeffer speaks of the totality of the Lordship of Christ applied to the arts:
“But there is another side to the Lordship of Christ, and this involves the total culture - including the area of creativity. Again, evangelical or biblical Christianity has been weak at this point. About all that we have produced is a very romantic Sunday school art. We do not seem to understand that the arts too are supposed to be under the Lordship of Christ.
“For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the Lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God - not just as tracts, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.”
Our art’s purpose.
We live in the ruins of a great kingdom. This kingdom was once un-fallen, perfect and right. Because of the sin of Adam, this perfection has been perverted and the rightness has turned to wrong. But being created in the image of God, the very source of all rightness and perfection, there is still something in us that recognizes the work of art in nature and the fallen world around us.
Artists in particular have an ability to see and feel the spiritual meaning behind the physical. It resonates with them and with this recognition comes an insatiable desire to create. So if a Christian can recognize the work of God in the fallen world it follows of necessity that his or her art would display the work of God. The goal of Christian artists, then, is that of archaeologists: they delve into the rubble of the ruins of this kingdom and emerge with remnants of its former glory, showing their findings, pointing people away from the fallen and to the perfect.
A Christian artist can look into fallen nature and see what God meant, and in his art he strives to bring that meaning out of the fallen-ness. That is what a Christian artist is supposed to do. When our art communicates the character and glory of God, our art becomes sacred.
Christian artists have an incredibly unique opportunity to share the gospel through their work, but let’s be clear about what we mean when we say “the gospel.”
The gospel is the whole character of God and His glory communicated to humanity, and it permeates every aspect of the Christian’s life.
The gospel that calls us from sin to righteousness is also the gospel that calls us to stare into the night sky and wonder at the stars, to listen with rapture at the Moonlight Sonata or a chorus of cicadas on a summer night. The gospel that brought us into the kingdom of light and beauty is the gospel that urges us to enjoy it, to revel in it, to go further up and further into it.