Stephanie had been asked to serve as substitute pianist of First Baptist Church shortly after moving to the area for university. When the main pianist at First Baptist broke his leg, Stephanie began playing every Sunday. Her musical duties included playing an offertory, which involved finding a hymn that helped create a reverent mood. Occasionally, if Stephanie felt particularly ambitious, she would improvise on the hymn.
Meanwhile at university, Stephanie was studying piano performance, and her teacher had been helping her master Edvard Grieg’s Nocturne. She found that the haunting melody and other-worldly atmosphere of this piece helped evoke a sense of closeness to God. Often when Stephanie played the Nocturne, she lost track of herself in a way she had only ever experienced before during times of prayer.
One Sunday instead of performing a hymn for the offertory, Stephanie decided to play Grieg’s Nocturne. The reverent mood of the piece seemed like a perfect fit for this part of the service. After church, many people thanked Stephanie for the music, and one lady said that the song had brought tears to her eyes and helped her connect with the Lord in a way she hadn’t been able to do since her father died.
Unfortunately, the elders of First Baptist Church took a different view of the matter. Although they were gracious about it, they made clear through a series of emails that all musical selections at church had to be limited to “Christian music.”
“I’ll certainly respect your wishes,” Stephanie wrote in her reply, “but I’ve always thought that any music that is truly beautiful is ‘Christian’ in the sense that it gives glory to the Creator. If I didn’t think that then I wouldn’t have chosen to major in music at college.”
The elders didn’t directly respond to this point but explained that when hymns are played on the piano, even if people are not actually singing, the congregants can reflect on the words and grow closer to God through “spiritual thoughts.” By contrast, they argued, “secular” music like Grieg’s Nocturne only appeals to the human part of us.
The primary issue here is not what type of music is appropriate for church. I am a member of a church that doesn’t have an offertory at all and avoids instruments altogether. Rather, the issue at stake is the bundle of assumptions Stephanie encountered from the elders at First Baptist, including their restricted meaning of the adjective “Christian” in relation to art, and their assumed antithesis between the spiritual vs. the human. Similar assumptions have exercised widespread influence on how many Christians approach works of creativity, imagination, and art. (When I use the term “art,” I mean it in its fullest sense, and not its more restrictive meaning as merely referring to visual arts like painting and sculpture.)
God has bestowed some Christians with incredible artistic gifts, whether in music, theatre, painting, film, poetry, crafts, ballet, sculpture, fashion design, literature, and so forth. Yet often artistic Christians confess to feeling out of place in the church, especially in Protestant communities where they are left without any clear sense of how their vocation as artists relates to their vocation as Christians. If an evangelical Christian feels a vocation to be a missionary, there is a complex body of thought and tradition to help him navigate his self-understanding; by contrast, there is comparatively little support and understanding for evangelicals who have been called to pursue the arts, whether full time or just as a hobby. Part of the problem may have to do with implicit Gnosticism, together with a gnostic-like failure to take seriously the doctrines of creation, incarnation, resurrection, and eschatology.
In church communities without a strong understanding of creation, the value of art often becomes purely functional, perhaps as an adjunct to preaching, or as a marketing tool, or as a medium for illustrating truths (recall the elders’ comment to Stephanie that instrumental hymns enabled listeners to “think spiritual thoughts”). At best, these approaches leave us with very bad art; at worst, they help fortify the illusion that even the most creative and beautiful artifacts remain spiritually neutral until Christian propositional content or utility functions can be imposed externally. On this way of thinking, Handel’s Messiah is “Christian,” while his Water Music is not; a book like The Hiding Place is a “Christian book,” while Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not. But Water Music could become “Christian” if used in a commercial for your church, while Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterful novel could become Christian if the struggle between Jekyll and Hyde is made analogous to the battle between the flesh and the spirit. This is the artistic equivalent to educational curricula in which mathematics is converted into a “Christian” subject by having students perform story problems about the dimensions of Noah’s ark, in contrast to understanding mathematics as already Christian by its very nature. This misunderstanding of art leaves the specifically “Christian” element with no organic relation to the artwork as an artwork and only emerges through the imposition of content or function extrinsic to the art itself.
The theological consequences of these moves are severe, for they concede ground to three great idols of our age: Gnosticism, Pragmatism, and Atheism. They concede to Gnosticism that the visible world of space, time, bodies, and stuff, are not important to God. They concede to pragmatism that the value of an artwork lies in functional goals outside the work itself. And they concede to atheism that works of aesthetic creativity are in themselves spiritually passive and neutral—a realm independent from the Creator God. Those committed to theism may revolt against any discipline being autonomous from God yet may try to “redeem” art through extrinsic means rather than returning to a theology in which all that is good, true, and beautiful is understood to already be “Christian” by its very nature.
The inherently Christian dimension of good art—even art not consciously produced for the glory of God—emerges from the earliest chapters of the Bible. One of the striking features of the creation account is that God’s activity is not purely functional or pragmatic. After all, the Creator spent an entire day resting from His work (Gen. 2:2-3) and reflecting on the goodness of creation (Gen. 1:31). This shows us that God is able to exercise aesthetic appreciation. This same point is reinforced from examining the nature of God’s creation. When God created the world, He didn’t just make everything for its utility value, but He put in unnecessary extras that add beauty, wonder, and aesthetic richness to our experience of the world.
As we move through the creation account we find that human beings, as images of God, have inherited many of His characteristics. Human nature exists as an imperfect reflection of divine nature, and thus, the things we see God doing in Genesis 1 and 2 – such as speaking (1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.), naming (1:5, 8, 10, etc.), making (Gen. 1 & 2), reasoning (2:18) and exercising aesthetic appreciation (1:31) – are also qualities we have inherited as God’s image-bearers. Adam and Eve were able to exercise their aesthetic senses to appreciate all the wonderful things God gave them in the garden: they were able to enjoy the beautiful sunsets and vistas, to take delight in the music of birds and water, and to savor the aesthetically pleasing aromas of flowers and herbs. Not only do Adam and Eve enjoy God’s creation; they also make their own works, engaging in what Tolkien called “sub-creation.” For example, Adam’s appreciation of Eve led him to create an aesthetically pleasing artwork to describe his delight, namely the poem of Gen. 2:23. Eve exercised aesthetic appreciation when she noted that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6).
It is significant that the devil was able to exploit Eve’s sense of aesthetic appreciation when tempting her to sin. The words of Genesis 3:6 (“the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes”), has obvious parallels to Genesis 1:31 when God saw that everything He made was good. Eve’s temptation was to pursue this delightful and beautiful thing separate from the beauty of God and His commands. Eve’s imagination was corrupted by supposing that something could provide nourishment (life) apart from the Creator.[i]
Even after the fall, our ability to appreciate things that are creative and beautiful remains central in our ongoing vocation as God’s image-bearers. Aesthetic appreciation also remains central to our task of fulfilling the dominion mandate given to mankind in Genesis 1:26-28 and reiterated in Genesis 9. Consider that when God instructed Adam and Eve to use the resources of the earth to take dominion (Gen. 1:26-28), He wasn’t just talking about farming. He was referring to using the earth’s resources in all legitimate callings. The dominion mandate was a challenge for men and women to develop the earth, which was rich with technological, cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic potential. Early on in the Genesis narrative we see family groups specializing in certain types of labor, with some focusing on using the earth’s resources to make art. For example, we read in Genesis 4:21 that Cain’s descendant Jabal was “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe,” just as Jubal had been “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.” (Gen. 4:20). No doubt other families specialized in metalwork, learning to make jewelry and other aesthetically pleasing objects. Later on in the Old Testament, we are introduced to an artist named Bezalel who was able to serve God through great skill in engraving precious metals, stones, and wood-carving.
Now fast-forward to the present day. The descendants of Adam and Eve are still taking dominion of the earth, and many are still doing so in specialized ways. Aesthetically pleasing artifacts have expanded beyond making harps and flutes like the family of Jabal, or metal-working and wood-carving like Bezalel. Now Adam and Eve’s descendants are exploiting the earth’s resources to make oil paintings, cellos, novels, movies, aquarelle, websites, orchestras, interior designs, sonnets, recording equipment, opera houses, and icons. The list could go on and on.
When we appreciate an aesthetically pleasing artifact that someone else has constructed, or when we make something beautiful ourselves (even something as simple as knitting a sweater for a doll or singing a folk song), we are exercising a faculty that we share in common with the Creator whose images we are. But given the reality of our post-fall world, these artistic artifacts are often tinctured with sin. The devil still uses our aesthetic sense to tempt us away from God’s commandments, resulting in beauty becoming divided from her sisters of truth and goodness. Yet this constant potential for sin does not negate the reality that artistic production and appreciation remain crucial in the ongoing process of developing the earth’s resources to the glory of God.
What does this mean for you and me? Few of us can make a living as professional painters, pianists, poets, film directors, sculptures, fashion designers, ballet dancers, novelists, architects, opera singers, or icon painters. For most of us, our involvement in the arts will be through using, appreciating, and enjoying works others have labored to produce. This is analogous to God resting from His labor to enjoy the beautiful creation that was, at that point, already existent. When our enjoyment of art takes on this sabbatical quality of leisure (that is, when we step back and allow ourselves to simply be in the presence of profound creativity and well-designed craftsmanship), there is something deeply creational going on. Moreover, enjoying art for its own sake, and not just what it can do for us, helps inculcate in us the fundamental truth that the most worthwhile things in life are valuable for what they are in themselves, and that the most basic goods cannot be measured by a purely immanent and temporal frame. Ultimately, this trains our hearts for union with God, who is to be adored for what He is in Himself, and not merely because of what He can do for us.
This realization should be incredibly freeing to the Christian artist, critic, educator, or student since it liberates us to appreciate art as art, rather than needing to impose a Christian interpretation on the work before it has spiritual value.[ii] By being quality works of imagination, good art—whether literature, painting, metalwork, or some other genre—is already spiritually significant by virtue of what it is intrinsically. This includes works produced by unbelievers. Indeed, because all humans share a common creation, and because we all have access to what some theologians have called “common grace,” it follows that even art produced by unbelievers possesses intrinsic value if truly good and beautiful.[iii]
The intrinsic value possessed by good art often comes to us in the form of beauty that is purely “gratuitous.” “Gratuitous” is not a common term in modern vocabulary and tends mainly to be used in a pejorative sense, as when we say that a film has “gratuitous sex and violence.” Yet the word comes from the Latin gratuitus, which means to give freely. Something is gratuitous if it is extra, gracious, and in abundance, to what is strictly necessary or useful. A key feature distinguishing humans from beasts is precisely the presence of gratuity: things and activities that serve no specific utility function, and may even be gloriously inefficient, but add a layer of richness to our lives. Some examples of gratuitous activities would be eating a meal slowly, enjoying a long silence during a conversation, or reading a book that has no immediate practical benefit but nourishes the soul in unquantifiable ways. This is the difference between a refueling stop at the MacDonald’s drive-through vs. a table set with candles and tablecloth, or the difference between plain undergarments vs. lingerie, or the difference expressing oneself in a proposition vs. a poem. Those things in the former category are efficient in getting the job done, and sometimes that is exactly what we need; but it is the job of artists (again in the most general sense), to remind us that it is often the most inefficient things in life—those things that are gratuitous—that draw us back to what it means to be human.
Paradoxically, those things that make us the most human (including beautifying ourselves and our world) point beyond mere human nature, to what Burke called “the decent drapery of life… the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature…”[iv] When society denudes itself of all but the purely essential—in Burke’s words, throwing off the decent drapery of life—then pornography becomes the paradigmatic art form for all of society, revolving as it does on the reduction to bare essentials where nothing is left to the imagination, nothing contextualized by the transcendent, so what remains are only the brute facts of existence. Truly beautiful art is a way of pushing back against this purely functional anthropology to recover the gratuity that lies at the heart of being human. As such, art is civilizing and humane, for it proclaims that there are certain basic goods that remain valuable for their own sake, and not simply as means towards other ends, and not simply as proxies for the satisfaction of desire.
The contemplative reception of art is analogous to our approach to persons. The way we come to know a person is not to begin analyzing her, nor by expecting her to meet our immediate needs and desires; rather, we get to know a person by just listening to what she has to say, to allow ourselves to experience life through our friend’s perspective, and to be present with her. In short, to know a person requires a posture of silence in the presence of the other. The same process occurs in music, literature, painting, and all the arts; they invite us to be silent in their presence, and to enter into the realm of contemplative leisure that Christian sages and mystics have always seen as a necessary precondition to action.[v]
Art is not only sabbatical—insofar as it imitates God’s activity on the seventh day when He contemplated the beauty He created—but it also has a future orientation. In taking the raw materials of the world and renewing them, the artist serves as a type for God’s creative activity as He uses the raw materials of this world (including you and me) to build the New Heavens and the New Earth. This echoes Adam and Eve’s primordial vocation—understood in its depth by St. Maximos the Confessor—of bringing meaning to the raw material of the world.
One of my favorite examples of an artist transforming the raw materials of this world is a work made by the great early twentieth-century French artist, Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). One of his sculptures, called “The Arc of the Covenant” or “The Cathedral,” shows two intertwined right hands gently touching each other. This stone sculpture, which Rodin later cast in bronze, has the effect of creating a mysterious inner space in the area between the hands. The delicate space between the hands is like a sanctuary that, even in photographs, conveys a sense of peace, mystery, gentleness, and love. Somehow, Rodin has achieved the impossible of creating a simultaneous sense of movement and stillness, of passion and contentment, of energy and rest.
I have never seen “The Cathedral,” in person, although when I first saw a picture of it on my computer screen, I was overwhelmed with feelings that I couldn’t put into words, and which I still struggle to articulate. I felt like I was being initiated into a profound mystery about being human—a mystery that hovered just beyond the reach of conscious thought like waking from a beautiful dream that you can’t quite remember.
A sculpture like “The Cathedral,” does many things for us and in us and to us, and yet its value as an artwork—that which makes it good art—is independent of the viewer. And that is precisely why it impacts us so profoundly. I do not need “The Cathedral” to do anything for me for it to be valuable, just as God did not need to do anything productive when He rested on the seventh day; instead, the work invites us to just be present with it, to contemplate, to be “leisurely” in the presence of great beauty.
But beauty doesn’t always come in the grandeur of a work like The Cathedral. Part of growing into God’s likeness is that we learn to see the beauty in little things, and to detect beauty where a worldly-minded person might not see it. We can even begin to see beauty even in death, knowing that it is through death that the resurrected life of God’s kingdom is breaking into our world.
The reality of death means that all experiences of beauty in this world are transitory, like flowers that blossom in the sun only to wilt and die. We have encounters of true joy through the beauty of art, music, and friendship, but these are episodic and, even at their best, leave us merely longing for something that lies beyond the reach of the present age. Through these encounters we glimpse something eternal – something that remains even after death and vanity have had their say and after we have turned to dust in the ground. In a language beyond mere words, we are assured that there is a deeper magic into which we will one day be subsumed. Even as creation groans in bondage, every flower, every sunset, and every work of beauty is whispering to us of that coming finale towards which our present experience so tantalizingly points, and towards which all creation is waiting in hope.
The promise of eschatological joy, when we will be joined to the fountainhead of all beauty, is the hope for which lesser degrees of beauty point if we have ears to listen. That is why spiritual sensitivity to the beauty in this world cultivates a sense of holy discontent that refuses to be satisfied with anything but God Himself (a point I have developed in more detail here). The manifestation of what is beautiful in creation should be seen as an icon of Eternal Good, Truth, and Beauty, but it is only an icon; the reality towards which these qualities point can only be found in the happy vision of God. That is why the most moving poetry, the loveliest music, the most beautiful literature, always leaves us slightly unsatisfied. The best art points beyond itself and awakens within us deep yearnings for something more. Compared to the eternal realities awaiting us in the new heavens and the new earth, even these earthly blessings are but dim shadows.
[i] It is worth pointing out that the devil continues to tempt us on the same grounds that he tempted Eve. Satan is quite satisfied to let us go about our business as Christians—to attend church, to lobby our politicians, and to have Bible studies and catechism classes—as long as he can control our imagination. Once a child’s imagination has become corrupted then all the church services, catechism classes, family worship, and good education in the world will accomplish little.
[ii] This is a point that the Christian apologists C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were both sensitive not to overlook. Both of these men were deeply sensitive to beauty and urged people to move beyond shallow, moralistic interpretations of literary works which reduced everything to a disguised sermon. Lewis explored some of these ideas in his book An Experiment in Criticism while Schaeffer wrote about it in Art and the Bible. In Schaeffer’s book he compares the top-heavy mode of some modern artists to the way that many Christians unfortunately approach works of art: “Many modern artists, it seems to me, have forgotten the value that art has in itself. Much modern art is far too intellectual to be great art. …it is a part of the lostness of modern man that they no longer see value in the work of art as a work of art. I am afraid, however, that as evangelicals we have largely made the same mistake. Too often we think that a work of art has value only if we reduce it to a tract. This too is to view art solely as a message for the intellect…. Perspective number one is that a work of art is first of all a work of art.”
[iii] What Gregory Wolfe wrote in his book Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, about Christian art being incarnational, applies to much art that is produced by unbelievers: “All great Christian art is incarnational because art itself is the act of uniting form and content, drama and idea, the medium and the message. If art is dominated by a moralistic desire to preach at the audience, it will become lifeless and didactic. We can easily spot didactivism when its message is different from what we believe, but no one who cares about art should confuse it with politics or theology. Art does not work through propositions, but through the indirect, ‘between the lines’ means used by the imagination.”
[iv] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Dover Publications, 2006).
[v] This is a point that Gregory Wolfe makes throughout his book Beauty Will Save the World. Wolfe points out that attention to mystery, imagination and wonder in literary works come hard to the pragmatic and rationalistic Americans: “The root of the problem I believe, is a misunderstanding of, or aversion to, the nature of the imagination itself. Part of this can be traced to the Puritan and pragmatic strains in the American character. Conservatives have, by and large, focused their energies on political action and the theoretical work necessary to undertake action. The indirection of art, with its lack of moralizing and categorizing, strikes the pragmatic mind as being unedifying, and thus as inessential. Insofar as the great artists and writers of the past are admired, it is for their support of some idea, rather than for the complex, many-sided vision of their art….”