Since the Reformation, some Christians have had a tentative, even suspicious, regard for the arts.

From the very beginning God’s people practiced the arts. Adam composed the first poem in the world, about Eve (Gen. 2:23).

Bone of my bone,

Flesh of my flesh,

She shall be called wo-man,

For she was won-from man.

Aaron’s sister Miriam choreographed a dance to celebrate Israel’s deliverance from the pursuing Egyptians (Ex. 15:20). God gave Moses blueprints for the tabernacle’s architecture and the ark with its sculptured angels made of gold and decorated candlesticks (Ex. 25:9–40). The Lord poured out specially the Holy Spirit upon silversmiths Bezalel and Oholiab so they could practice their arts with special skill (Ex. 31:1–11).

David wrote many songs and hymns for use in worship (Psalms). Solomon’s artisans carved, with God’s specific, handwritten approval (1 Chron. 28:11–19), bas-reliefs of flower blossoms, palm trees, and angels in the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 6:23–25); and the artists carved hundreds of pomegranates on the free-standing columns arranged like sentinels in front of the temple (1 Kings 7:13–22). Musicians and a Levite band of instruments frequently accompanied worship (2 Chron. 5:11–14 and Psalm 88 subtitle).

The Bible also tells us that from earliest history men who did not fear the true God practiced art as well. Lamech’s son Jubal played the harp and flute (Gen. 4:21), and Lamech’s own oratory was boastful bombast (Gen. 4:23–24). The ziggurat tower at Babel was an architectural monument to human pride (Gen. 11:1–9).

The Bible uses without prejudice all kinds of literary art, from Jotham’s fable (Judges 9:7–20) and Samson’s riddles (Judges 14:8–18) to the majestic poetry of many psalms and passages like Isaiah 40. God has even revealed his will in Scripture through a dramatic chorus of voices like the book of Job and the artful parables of Jesus (e.g., Luke 10:30–37; 16:19–31).

The point is not whether followers of Jesus Christ should be busy in art or not. Since the very creation of the world the problem has been whether these arts have been fashioned and used by men and women as vehicles of praise to the Lord, or whether they have been conceived and executed as expressions of human vanity.

For centuries, Christian craftsmen practiced their art as a service to the church. Nobody thought of art as “fine art,” as if art were something utterly special for and by itself. Guilds of painters, sculptors, and architects were on a par with guilds of weavers, silversmiths, and carpenters. Music and literature were the skills of tradesmen called musicians and minstrels. And the medieval church put all such artistry into its service.

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Art was conceived by Christians as (1) a liturgical means for worshiping God. Plainsong became Gregorian chant used in the Mass. Rhetoric was converted into pulpit homilies. Sculpture ranged from baldachin to gargoyle; artists in lead, colored glass, and precious stones taught catechism lessons in brilliant, stained glass windows; architects preached Gothic cathedral sermons in stone. Artistry was understood to be a worthy natural means by which talented men could lift their neighbor into a church experience of God’s grace.

As the church lost its monopoly control over cultural life during the Renaissance, and as art came into existence as “fine art,” patronized by rich nobles at their courts even more than by archbishops and popes, a new position firmed up on the relationship of Christians to the arts. Art was given its independence from being an audio-visual aid for ecclesiastical worship, but Christians still wanted art not to contradict biblical truth. Art was to be (2) autonomous but bound to the general norms of beauty, truth, and goodness of humanity and God’s natural world.

The idea that art had its own inviolate realm separate from explicit Christian indoctrination meant art became somewhat secularized. Fifteenth-century frescoes of Bible stories on inner church walls gave way to sixteenth-century portraits of wealthy people for their homes. The change from devotional poetry, which one could use like prayer beads, to medieval romances, like Roman de la Rose and Dante’s Divine Comedy, continued. The tale remained devout, like Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, especially in its allegorical dimension, but the story was one of human love and ordinary experience that had no Bible story prototype. Morality plays in the churchyard gradually turned into the enormously rich dramas of Shakespeare in the playhouse. Many Christians felt comfortable with the theater, painting, and poetry as they were developing, and let it be whatever it was so long as it did not undercut their Christian beliefs.

Another position taken by Christians on the arts is the one that art is normally (3) a sensuous temptation that is dangerous to faith. This view has inhibited followers of Christ from participation in the arts. If one believes that composing, performing, or viewing art is playing with fire, then one withdraws from that kind of activity. Sometimes only certain arts have been prohibited—like theater, painting, and dance—while others—like song, music, and poetry—are permitted. The first are considered earthbound and physical while the others are more spiritual in nature.

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Christian iconoclasts of the eighth century A.D. destroyed thousands and thousands of sculptures, paintings, frescoes, mosaics, and illustrated manuscripts because the pictured images had occasioned a cult of icon worshipers and misled the populace into trusting such images as if they were akin to miracle-working relics. English Puritans destroyed art in churches during the seventeenth century in the fervor of ecclesiastical politics, but also because they did not believe sensible art could lead one to spiritual realities. Eighteenth-century European pietism tended to be restrictive toward art for similar reasons. Pietistic Christians are hesitant about imagination and are fundamentally distrustful of artistic illusion because it seems to be deceptive rather than straightforwardly true.

One final, important way Christians have viewed art in history is the way of accepting it as (4) a God-given mouthpiece for human witness of the Lord’s great works, or for cursing our existence. This position, which the historic Protestant Reformation set in motion, believes that for art to be Christian, art does not need to be narrowly liturgical. Art is also not intrinsically normative nor is it intrinsically more seductive than any other human activity. Art is simply a certain kind of cultural calling that has its own legitimacy as a sensible, crafted, allusively symbolic artifact. And art can be a vehicle of insight thanking God for his mercies in our sin-torn world or a vehicle of hate and blasphemy, no matter how expertly done, depending upon the spirit it embodies.

John Donne’s amorous sonnets or poem on “The Will” (1633) treat human passion with large, redemptive horizons. Rembrandt’s Flayed Ox (1655) depicts the stunning glory of ordinary meat hanging in a butcher shop. The Well-tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach (1723) presents keyboard music that resounds with toccata-like joy and intricate contrapuntal rhythms that celebrate a creaturely rich world. Such poetry, painting, and music exemplify the way Christians can witness of our redeeming Creator’s handiwork within the very artistic idiom, irrespective of the “topic.”

These four basic positions in history, on how Christians should best conceive, practice, and relate to the arts, represent roughly the major groupings within the worldwide Christian communion today. Each position shows certain strengths and weaknesses as we all try to face the overriding issue of our age with respect to the arts: How do Christians most responsibly come to terms with the utter secularization of the arts, without trying to set back history? If Christians stay away from the arts (position 3), godless people have undisputed control of the arts media and can expand their hard-core secularization. If Christians adopt the best artistic forms current (position 2) or try to utilize professional, secular artistry without much conversion, in the church’s missionary outreach (position 1), Christians may be co-opted and adulterated in their cultural expression. If the Christian community tries to develop its own particular style of art (position 4), it runs the risk of being permanently odd, amateurish, and obscurantic.

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But the deep secularization of modern art is a fact. Surrealistic painting, by and large, calls into question the sanity of ordinary life and most traditional values. Salvador Dali (born 1904) posited a Freudian universe and painted everything he treated into an erotic, hallucinatory vortex—even when he took biblical themes. The canvases of René Magritte (1898–1967) are fascinating artistic achievements which juxtapose objects in a way as disturbing as the unanswerable koans of Zen Buddhism. Martha Graham’s choreography is also rigorously erotic, reaching for a new dance idiom of mythic power that repudiates the aristocratic niceties and elegant pirouettes of classical ballet. Many great innovators in modern art have been intensely self-conscious of their rejection of a bourgeois, Victorian world view and their commitment to a non-Christian primitivism.

Much contemporary architecture, painting, and instrumental music rightly give Christians pause today, too, because of their hard-bitten secularity. It became possible around 1900 to use concrete and reinforced cement to construct buildings. Under the influence of the Bauhaus and architect LeCorbusier (1887–1965), large buildings of all sorts became standardized into functional shells with unobstructed interior spaces (e.g., movable partitions for walls); practical metals like aluminum, nickel, and chrome intensified the feel of cold brightness inside such structures already occasioned by the profusion of physical and electric light. In effect, office buildings, classrooms, and homes took on the aspect of being factories, which quite naturally provide little personal and private space. Painters like Malevich (1878–1935), late Mondrian (c. 1917–1944), and Josef Albers (1888–1976) use a very restricted alphabet of forms to construct what look like geometric blueprints in paint, and they do it with repetitive ingenuity and tenacity. Serious music, too, builds sounds around a flexible grid of 12 tones that forces imaginative rhythms and resonances back to a kind of mathematical universality. Such rigorous, purist art has a tendency to sterilize life.

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An additional complication to the problem of how Christians are to confront both sexually aggressive art and the dehumanizing technocratic style around us is the fact that so much art today is mass produced and mass consumed. A futuristic novel like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) sells hundreds of thousands of copies. A brilliant portrayal of aimless violence as a way of life and death, like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1972), is seen by millions of people. Self-righteous pornography like Oh! Calcutta runs for years onstage in London and New York. Mindless entertainment, pop star culture, and films interrupted by paid advertisements train children from youth up on TV. Superb means of mass communication rain secular art upon the earth with an almost brain-washing effect.

Christian families are called upon to face the secularized arts today in the strength of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13) and to show themselves approved of God (2 Tim. 2:15–16). But how can we do that with respect to the arts? The answer is that Christians must first of all become deeply rooted biblically, so that their faith life flowers as a rich plant unafraid in God’s world, rather than as a poor, undernourished stick in the mud. Second, they must study both the nature and the history of art, so they will not be fooled into approving or judging the wrong things.

Let me mention a few examples. The “subject matter” or “topic” of a novel or film provides little clue as to its worth or insight. Seduction can be graphically portrayed by Proverbs 7:6–23, to our edification, or twisted into a scene that dirties and bores our sensibility, as in Last Tango in Paris. It is also a mistake to demand “beauty” and “harmony” from painting and music as if distortion and dissonance violated artistic norms. Grünewald’s famous Isenheim altarpiece of Christ’s crucifixion (c. 1510–1515) is grotesque and unpleasant, but an impressive presentation of our Lord’s agony. Schönberg’s atonal Variations for Orchestra (1928) is important music that wakes a listener up musically to the important tensions we really know in our day. “Creativity,” too, is more often a slogan than a sound idea for helping us to judge whether a given painting is truly art or bogus: “creative” can mean gifted men are like God (Gen. 3:4–5!) or the idolization of frenzied experimentation (as certain paint-dripping canvases by disciples of abstract expressionism). If one thinks of art as “creative,” and if “creativity” is colored by the romantic adoration of “artistic genius,” so that the necessary element of craftsmanship in art is neglected, one goes wrong in approaching art.

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The most important thing for Christians to understand is that the arts are skillful and thoughtful man-made objects characterized by allusiveness. All the arts—music and sculpture as well as drama and poetry—present an artist’s religious perspective in ambiguity. Art is not by nature a confused matter, but art is by nature a fused presentation of knowledge necessarily rich in suggestion. It is both normal and normative for the arts to be oblique and symbolical in the way they bring things to our attention as spectators, readers, or audience.

If poetry tries to be as straightforward as a roadway sign, it will be poor poetry. If poetry or painting is overly complicated, like a crossword puzzle, it will also be defective. But poetic, painterly, and musical knowledge is not at core “verbal” or “propositional.” Poetry, painting, music, and all the arts present knowledge which can certainly be talked about and analyzed, but the final character of artistic knowledge is that it is nuanceful knowledge.

Calvin Seerveld is senior member in aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His book, Rainbows for the Fallen World, was just published by Tuppence Press.

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