Something of a renaissance of evangelical interest in literature and the arts is under way. In the wake of growing scholarly productiveness and renewed concern for the social outcomes of the Gospel, there are signs that evangelicals are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibilities in aesthetics. Annual Writers Conferences on the Wheaton College campus, meetings on Christianity and the arts at such colleges as Houghton, use of religious drama at Gordon College and elsewhere, the openness of many a department of music and of fine arts to contemporary modes of expression, and the appearance of groups like the Fellowship of Christians in the Arts, Media, and Entertainment—these are signs of what is going on.
At the root of evangelical Christianity is its biblical heritage. The great company of Christians who hold the basic doctrines of the Gospel are pre-eminently people of the Book. For them, the written Word is the inspired source of knowledge of their divine Saviour and Lord; in its pages they find what they are to believe about God and what duty he requires of them. They are obligated to see every aspect of life in relation to the incarnate Word and to the written Word that bears witness to him.
“But,” thoughtful Christians are asking, “what about the relation of our biblical heritage to literature and the arts?” What about it indeed, in these days when none of us is exempt from the influence of the mass media and other powerful aesthetic forces?
Some think commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of God and the rule for all of life is a hindrance to aesthetic expression and appreciation. Complete fidelity to Scripture, they say, leaves little place for anything but religious use of the arts; they consider the arts as generally worldly and thus outside the bounds of biblical truth, mere marginal activities for those determined to be about the Father’s business. But this is wrong in principle, because it assumes a gap between sacred and secular truth and thus violates the unity of truth. Truth, though on its highest level incarnate in Christ and expressed in the Bible, is not confined to religion. All truth is God’s.
In a baccalaureate sermon entitled “Secularism and the Joy of Belief,” President Nathan Pusey of Harvard spoke of “the cultural ignorance [italics added] which comes from neglect of the Scriptures, unexamined persistence in immature conceptions of God … above all perhaps the loss of the practice of prayer” (The Age of the Scholar). If anything, the biblical heritage of evangelical Christianity affords a head start in the arts; it does not inhibit their practice and appreciation. Through the ages Scripture has been the single greatest influence on art. It sheds more light upon the creative process and the use of the arts than any other source, because in it are found the great truths about man as well as God that are at the wellsprings of art.
This leads to a challenge. Among the rank and file of evangelical Christians, aesthetic standards are generally low. The evidence is abundant. The pictures on the walls, the books on the shelves, the records played—so many of these things are products of a sentimental, pietistic dilution of the aesthetic integrity that should mark the Christian use of art. But, and this also must be said, evangelicals are not alone in their habituation to the mediocre in art and literature. A similar kind of cultural illiteracy runs through much of liberal Protestantism, and indeed through most of American life today.
The need among Christians is not for avoidance of literature and art they do not like or understand but for responsible criticism of it by believers who know the Scriptures and who also know the arts. T. S. Eliot has said, “What I believe to be incumbent upon all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world.…” And he adds: “We must remember that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order” (“Religion in Literature” in The New Orpheus, ed. by Nathan A. Scott, Jr.). Eliot’s words apply, of course, to forms of art other than literature. Observe that he says, not that Christians should not read what is written out of a purely naturalistic context, but rather that they should measure it by Christian criteria. The condemnation out of ignorance in which some Christians indulge simply is not honest.
This leads to the all-important question of Christian criteria for the practice and criticism of art. Here the basic document is the Bible. Not that the classical writers like Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus, and all the other non-Christian critics down through the centuries should be neglected. Under common grace these thinkers have some very important and even indispensable things to say. But an essential requirement of good scholarship is the use of primary sources. And for a Christian aesthetic, the primary source is Scripture. Surely the chief reason for our confusion about the meaning and use of art is the neglect of the biblical pattern for art through a onesided emphasis on secondary, extra-biblical sources.
There are two approaches to the Bible as the basis for a Christian aesthetic. The first is to examine all its references to art, most of which are to music. It is significant by the way, that according to the Book of Revelation, which John Milton called “a seven-fold chorus of Hallelujahs and harping symphonies,” artistic beauty is prominent in heaven.
The other approach is through biblical doctrine. Consider, then, the very beginning of everything. This we must do because true art is not merely imitative, as the Greeks taught, but also in its creaturely way creative. And it is not Plato or Aristotle or any other non-biblical writer but only Scripture that gives us authoritative knowledge about origins and the creation of man.
What the Bible says about God’s creative activity and man’s origin and fall and redemption is centrally related to a Christian aesthetic. But to understand that relationship we must look closely at the concept of God as the great Maker of all things and of man as his creation.
In a remarkable book about the relation of the human to the divine creative process, Dorothy Sayers reminds us that the author of Genesis points in his first chapter to one basic thing about God: that he creates. “The characteristic common to God and man is apparently [just this]: the desire and the ability to make things” (The Mind of the Maker, p. 17). Moreover, the pattern for this making is the relation of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Trinity. So the image of God in man has its creative, its “making” implications. God is the great Maker, the only true Creator, from whom all other creative activity is derived. That we are made in his image is probably the greatest thing ever said of man, and takes us deep into the nature of our human creative ability. For one of the marks of the image of God that we bear is that we, too, in our creaturely way, are makers. And in no human activity is this aspect of God’s image more evident than in our making of art.
Six times the first chapter of Genesis tells us that God looked upon what he had made and “it was good.” Then we read that when creation was finished “God saw everything that he had made and it was very good.” God is, as the ancient creed says, the “Maker of heaven and earth,” and what he made was “very good.”
There are great spiritual depths in the Hebrew word for “good” in Genesis 1, and its connotations surely include the concept of beauty. Some contemporary artists and critics today are inclined to downgrade the place of beauty in art. The cult of the ugly has its disciples. But Scripture links beauty to God and approves the beautiful. Moreover, by very definition aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty. Art cannot possibly be divorced from beauty. Beauty is inherent in the universe. If “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” as they so gloriously do, it is with a beauty that transcends in majesty, power, and diversity all the works of men. The problem is that there are many, some Christians among them, whose idea of beauty is not broad enough to include dissonance in music or big enough to go beyond what is merely pretty in painting or blandly nice in poetry and literature. Beauty has various manifestations. It can be strong and astringent; it has disturbing and shocking as well as calm and peaceful moods.
Man in his making of things follows the pattern of the mind of the triune Maker of all things. This concept shows us the incarnational aspect of art—its down-to-earth here-and-nowness, in which the idea takes to itself a real body, an actual form, whatever the aesthetic medium may be. In his making of art man does indeed reflect the image of God. To hold this firmly is the best answer to the irresponsibility of those Christians who turn their backs upon the arts as mere luxuries, frivolous side issues that are not to be taken seriously in these urgent days.
Nevertheless, some of the distinguished Anglican and Catholic thinkers (like Dorothy Sayers) who have written so helpfully about the incarnational aspect of art and the analogy of human to divine creation are open to the criticism of not giving enough attention to the relation between man’s creative faculty and his sinfulness. They stress Genesis 1 with insufficient reference to Genesis 3.
For there is another side to the idea of man’s aesthetic capability as a reflection of the image of God. This side has to do with man’s fall through sin, the primordial tragedy that resulted in the marring of God’s image in man. No biblical thinker, whether in aesthetics or in any other field, can afford to slight the fact that, because of the fall, man has an innate bent toward sin, and that this bent is reflected in what he does. Christians know how God has provided for the redemption of fallen man through our Lord Jesus Christ. They also know that the redeemed are not now exempt from sin and that, while in the inner man they have been restored, they too bear the marks of the fall in their lives—and in their art.
To be sure, God in his grace enables artists, including some great non-Christian ones, to produce glorious works. Yet there is among us finite men no perfect artist. The only perfect artist is God, and the only perfect works of art are his original creation and his written Word, and the only perfection in art is exemplified by Christ, the God-man, who in his mastery of spoken word spoke as never man spoke. Knowing these things should keep us from arrogant pride, of which artists have their share.
Most of us, evangelicals included, use the words “create” and “creative” too loosely. God is the only true Creator, and his Son is the only truly creative man. For all others, the words “create” and “creative” must be used with reservations and with the awareness that their application to man is only an accommodation. To say, as Dr. Rosemary Park did in her inaugural address as president of Barnard College in 1963, that “truth not only is to be uncovered but created” is a perilous misconception akin to the Promethean error.
Consider, then, fallen man—the artist included—and his redemption. It is not art—music, painting, poetry, drama, or whatever it may be—that can be redeemed but only the man or woman who makes it. Christ did not die for things; he died for persons. Yet redemption does make a difference in art through the kind of person it makes the artist. Bach was an evangelical Christian. No one knows just what his work would have been had he been an unbeliever, but it is safe to say that it would not have reached so high as it does in the St. Matthew Passion and in the B Minor Mass. Or take Rembrandt. Would the largest category of his works (including some of his very greatest) have been on biblical and religious subjects had he been an atheist? And what about Milton? Could an unbelieving man have written Paradise Lost? Or, to look at a modern example, what of T. S. Eliot?
The point must not be pressed too hard, lest we become involved in judging the faith of others. Only God knows those who are his. And we must always grant that the sovereign God is great enough to allow unredeemed men to achieve supremacy in the arts; that he has indeed done this is a fact of which all of us, Christians and non-Christians, are beneficiaries. The honest thing for the Christian student of the arts is simply to say that the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” does as he wills, and then to rejoice in the special qualities of the work of the redeemed artist that might not be there were he not a Christian.
Whether art is made by Christians or non-Christians, all aesthetic achievement that has integrity comes from God, who gives men talent as he wills. Therefore, it is to be enjoyed with gratitude to the great Giver of every good and perfect gift. Art, though it has tragic depths, is not in itself tragic. The artist reflects the mind of the Divine Maker, and when He created, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Art may be, as Calvin Seerveld says, a happy act of praise to the Creator, a humble celebration of his greatness. In that way it makes its own noble contribution to man’s chief end, which is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickBecome a Shadow of Your Future SelfManifesting isn’t the answer. Consenting to holiness is.