Christians and art

How did the Christian Church in the West go from being the leading force in the arts to naff sceptic? The Enlightenment, with its rejection of public religion, was a key turning-point but the Church herself contributed to the current state of affairs. Perhaps the Reformation culture wars are to blame: in northern Europe, rejecting false doctrines led to iconoclastic fury and the whitewashing of cathedral walls.

In his essay, Aesthetics and worship, James S. Spiegel, a philosophy professor, attempts to consider what should be done to remedy this situation. If you love Jesus and you love the arts, you’ll enjoy reading this, and if the thought of anyone expressing themselves through the medium of dance makes your toes curl in horror then you should probably give it a read too.

To entitle this post ‘Christians and art’ is to run the risk of conflict with others who champion ‘Christians and justice’, or something else equally worthy. But embracing one doesn’t mean rejecting the other, though one may get more emphasis in an individual’s life than the other. Which is another reason why we should be in a diverse community of believers, so that all the ‘Christians and …’ are represented and expressed.

Spiegel begins by considering God and His Word, not simply to appease nervous evangelicals but to show them that what they most cherish teaches that they should cherish art. He demonstrates that the Bible’s testimony is that God is beautiful and creative, and that He creates beautiful things. This creativity is objectively assessed in Genesis 1, “it was good”, which is a key point for Spiegel. This mitigates against art being wholly subjective (what you like and don’t): “there are absolute standards according to which a thing can be assessed aesthetically”. Moreover, as human beings are made in the image of God (a creative act in itself), we should be creative as He is.

The Bible provides another argument in favour of Christian creativity. It is not just that singing, dancing, drama and visual art are sanctioned on its pages, or that God is said to give gifts of creativity to people, or even the overwhelming use of writing styles that are not simply theological essays (song, story, poetry, etc.), but the fact that the Bible itself is an artistic medium - writing.

Having made his case, Spiegel goes on to prescribe virtues and warn of vices for Christian artists. Here’s what he wants to see:

  • Technical excellence.
  • Truth-telling and authenticity: “Included here is the practice of genuine personal vulnerability, something often lacking in Christian circles today”.
  • Originality.
  • Moral integrity: communicating “redemptive themes”, not commenting on the world for combat’s sake but looking to serve in a way that will “imaginatively persuade and enlighten”.
  • Intentionality.

And here’s what he doesn’t:

  • Laziness, being too easily satisfied.
  • Banality.
  • Artificiality: from the kitsch in your local Christian bookshop to “the use of hackneyed formulas in music (e.g. a key change towards the end of the song) and maudlin dramas that oversimplify the complexities of real life moral problems and dilemmas (e.g. “Yes, Jane, your pregnancy out of wedlock is a serious problem, but if you just trust the Lord…”).”
  • Authentic utilitarianism which simply uses art as a means to an end, such as evangelism. This is the most frequent fault he sees in the church today, the need for “practical application or tangible outcome” – criteria that cannot be said to be passed by all that God has created!

Church leaders are encouraged to make the arts a regular part of their lives (visiting galleries, etc), and to help foster fellowship and discipleship among Christian artists. And, of course, to see art as worship. Worship is defined as the active giving of glory to God, a broad definition that gives scope for creativity. Corporate worship must not distract us from God but help us focus on Him, illuminating the truth about Him. What this will look like will vary from church to church: a small congregation in a remote village may have less ‘resource’ than a cosmopolitan church in a city, but to whom little has been given little will be asked, and to whom much has been given much will be expected. And in which of these would Emily Dickinson have been found?

Spiegel may seem overly prescriptive at times but this is a discussion usually heavily balanced against his case so his manner is understandable. The didactic tone also comes from the conviction that objectivity should be applied to aesthetics as much as it is to ethics. For Christian artists surrounded by the uncertainty of modern art this is a vital truth to get hold of, and it should also assure those who erroneously link artistic creativity with general unorthodoxy. The Bible references and end-notes give the curious reader much more to explore.

As someone who doesn’t quite know what to do with his enjoyment of writing, I found the accusations of laziness, artificiality, and utilitarianism highly provoking, and the virtues of technical excellence and authentic, self-disclosing truth-telling exciting. As a leader I was stimulated by the vision of a church community vibrant with creativity. Art is not the only thing but Spiegel makes a powerful case that it is part of the ultimate thing.