The metropolitan museum of art in New York has restored on its grounds an ancient Egyptian temple. Walking through it, thinking about Moses and the Israelites, I noticed with a thrill of recognition that this temple, built to a pagan god, consists of three inner chambers—exactly like the tabernacle and the Jerusalem temple. The temple structure was, in fact, common in the ancient world, as were portable “arks,” tents of worship, certain details of ritual, and even what seem to be figures of cherubim. Archaeological research and Old Testament scholarship have uncovered many parallels in Hebrew life and worship to Egyptian, Syrian, and Canaanite practices. Liberal theologians sometimes make much of these connections, using them to minimize the uniqueness of God’s special revelation and relationship to the Jews. The point here is the relationship between art, culture, and religion.
Art, by its very nature, is open to and a function of human culture: sacred truths can be expressed through a wide variety of culturally conditioned art forms. Artifacts are made by and for human beings and will accord with the assumptions and imagination of the people who use them. When the Hebrews thought of a temple, then, they thought of the three-part divisions they had seen in all other temples. They could not have built a Gothic cathedral; they had neither the technology nor the culture for it. And they would not have understood it. Gothic cathedrals are not sacred—although again, God can use them to make himself known. In the biblical view, since God alone is sacred, there is a certain sense in which the special places and styles of art do not matter.
Thus, when the temple was to be built, Solomon turned to the best artists he knew, the Phoenicians. He sent to Hiram, the king of Tyre, asking for material and workmen. Notice that Solomon, wishing to glorify God, was concerned first with excellence, not doctrinal purity in the artists. And though complimentary about Israel’s God, Hiram was not one of God’s chosen people, and almost certainly not a believer. The actual craftsman he sent was part Hebrew on his mother’s side, and no doubt a believer in the God of Israel (2 Chron. 2:13–14) despite his pagan environment. Nevertheless, the art of the temple likely was Phoenician in accordance with his training. Scripture specifically says that Solomon set the aliens to work on the temple, both as laborers and overseers (2 Chron. 2:17–18). As Canaanite remnants, they definitely were not believers. The art of the temple, open to the culture of its day, was probably similar to buildings of the Phoenicians and other peoples of the land. Nevertheless, the temple and its art pleased God and was made an instrument of his purpose (2 Chron. 7:12–16).
This point is important for Christians involved in the arts. Because a painter is not a Christian does not mean his paintings cannot be enjoyed or even imitated by Christians. To be sure, any thematic content must be critically scrutinized through the lens of Scripture, but art as art is essentially neutral. That Picasso was not a Christian does not mean he was not a great artist nor that Christians are not free to appreciate or emulate his works. To think otherwise may be to overvalue or sacralize art, to ascribe to it a significance it must not assume.
Was the person who made my shoes or cooked for me in a restaurant a Christian? Or the scientist who discovered penicillin? Or Beethoven? I can never know; I should pray so for the sake of the person. But even if that one was not a Christian, I am not harmed spiritually by my clothing or my meal, or by receiving my medicine or listening to a symphony. Art is part of human life like food, clothing, politics, scientific knowledge, and social customs. All are valuable gifts of God, essential parts of our humanity, created by sinners in need of Christ’s redemption who may or may not know him. For aesthetics, although not for theology, a Christian may “go to the Sidonians.”
Always a function of human culture rather than divine revelation, no particular style or type of art ought to be sacralized or made into an absolute. The history of art shows continuous change, because cultures change. It follows that Christians need not be overly scrupulous in regard to types of art. Abstract, representational, and symbolic arts are all given prominence in Scripture. Certainly the content of art, its underlying assumptions and messages, must be examined with wariness and scriptural discernment.
But questions of form are basically indifferent. Christians are free to pursue any formal mode of art they find congenial. It is the secular aesthetes who take artistic movements and manifestoes with such dogmatic seriousness. Classical, romantic, and realistic styles are all suited to Christian literature. Christian painters can work with abstract art if they want to (actually, it is probably the safest for those who fear offending the second commandment), or they can be photographic realists or expressionists—whatever fits their talents and inclinations.
Since art is a function of history and culture, Christian artists should be aware of the contemporary context of their work. To be deliberately old-fashioned, simply reworking earlier styles that seem “more Christian,” is an empty gesture. One style is not “more Christian” than any other; the result is to make one’s work irrelevant and, worse, to imply that Christianity is outdated, a nineteenth- or sixteenth-century religion that some reactionaries stubbornly cling to, faith that has nothing to say to the twentieth-century imagination. Throughout the Psalms it is a new song that is to be offered to the Lord.
Dr. Veith teaches English at Northeastern Oklahoma A & M College, Miami, Oklahoma. His article is adapted from his book, The Gift of Art, ©1984 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the USA. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 60515.
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