Idolatry is the difference between walking in the light and creating our own light to walk in. This can happen in four ways. First, instead of faith being its own substance and evidence, faith is misconstrued as leverage for bringing to, or enhancing the substance and evidence of, things that simply are what they are. Second, our works are expected to enhance our faith, in which case legalism and idolatry join forces. Third, perfectly legitimate pursuits can interpose themselves between us and the Lord. Fourth, sin in all its forms is idolatry. Let me make some practical applications to the arts from these four points, particularly the first three.
Whenever we assume that art mediates God's presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun the trek into idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf? Have we come to a place in our practices where God must say to us, "You cannot worship me in that way" (Deut 12:31 NKJV), meaning that music has moved from a place of offering to one of lordship, from servanthood to sovereignty? Or might he be saying, "You shall not worship me in their way" (Deut. 12:31 NIV), meaning that we have adopted a pagan worldview that imputes a causal force to music that it does not properly have? We need to discover the critical theological difference between being merely moved by music and being spiritually changed by it. Yes, music might bring pleasure and change our pulse rates or blood pressure, but so does taking a simple walk in the park.
I know from personal experience how easy it is to draw people into my confidence with music, using it as a means for creating a bridge between them and me, between God and me and between them and God. When we are told by fellow worshipers that our music is actually making God more real, our repentance must be followed by corrective teaching.
Beauty and quality can become idols. I need to be fully understood here. All Christians everywhere should seek to make, to do and to articulate things as beautifully as possible. Christians who play down the importance of beauty and quality as if they were idols in themselves do not understand that nothing is an idol until we make it into one. Furthermore, the neglect of beauty and high quality in many Christian circles is deplorable and can itself be a form of idolatry. Thus when it comes to exemplary artistic stewardship, the body of Christ can leave an all-too-sloppy trail for the world to follow.
We have to realize that our human love for beauty did not come into being just because we are "cultured" or civilized. It is not too much to say that God makes things beautifully, not because he took art appreciation or studied aesthetics but because it is his way of doing things. We freely choose the same word, beautiful, both to describe his handiwork as well as to describe what we think is the best of ours. Why? Because this deep-down search for our versions of beauty is a fundamental part of being created in his image. It is this link, no matter how scarred and confused, that counts, from the cave drawings of millennia past to Renaissance motets and on to Grandma Moses, jazz and ballet. Even though God did not create us to be slaves of his ideas and opinions, he did create us loving what he loves and calling beautiful what he calls good. Even if we say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we still have a world of beholders who in countless ways want to take the next step, even though it may be barely noticeable or prompt catcalls from someone supposedly more sophisticated.
In other words, beauty and quality are not static states or final conditions. In the Christian view of things, they are graduations in a long journey. As such, things of true greatness and nobility are bonded to the lesser, coarser things, and the practitioners of each are one with each other as images of God. Except for the sordid minority of aesthetic sluggards—the artistic Laodiceans of any culture or any age—quality and beauty are commonly desirable. And it is precisely because they are so desirable, even in the least of us, that they can become idols.
Beauty and quality become idols when they become intermediaries and spiritual screening devices, things that interpose themselves in the act of worshiping God through Christ, as if God were more interested in showing himself in a performance of Bach's B Minor Mass than the singing of "Majesty." For us to assume that our versions of beauty, per se, afford quicker access to God is to commit a fatal error. The beauty of holiness is not aesthetic beauty, nor is aesthetic ugliness a sign of ungodliness. God sees every believer, irrespective of personal taste, exactly the same way: in Christ. It is his cleansing, rather than the quality of our art, that makes us presentable. For us to assume that raising standards is directly connected to growing up into personal holiness is to put beauty and truth back into a cause-effect relationship. But the mysterious thing about truth is that it can be deeply understood and radically applied in an aesthetically bumbling way. Likewise, falsehood can be dressed in glorious aesthetic finesse and still be falsehood.
I am slowly discovering how irrelevant artistic choice is as an interpreter of people's standing with Christ. This does not mean love for beauty has been taken from me. Rather, it means I am learning that the pursuit of holiness is of a completely different order than the pursuit of beauty, even though the latter should not be forsaken in pursuit of the former. I am always driven back to this question: is the perfume that I pour over the feet of Jesus the best I can knowingly procure, or is it something less than I am knowingly capable of offering? Notice the word "knowingly," for here is where the secret of pursuing quality lies for the authentic worshiper. When I know the artistic difference between excellence and tawdriness and I refuse this difference for one reason or another, the refusal itself is idolatrous, because it, rather than beauty, has come between me and the Savior.
We can easily make an idol out of the results we want our art to produce. Here is where artistic action and thinned-out versions of evangelization and seeker sensitivity can be such comfortable bedfellows. But I quickly add that popular art forms and careless versions of seeker sensitivity are not the only culprits. Many "fine arts Christians," the classicists, wag their fingers at the seeker-sensitive popularists without realizing that the kind of seeker sensitivity that depends on Bach and Rembrandt rather than Graham Kendrick and Thomas Kinkade is just as flawed. Why? Because in either case, effectiveness is the intermediary. The point I am trying to make is that anyone using any kind of art can compromise the gospel by choosing art primarily for the results it produces, rather than to glorify God. The final dilemma with choosing art on the basis of the audiences it draws is that once the audience is drawn they will assume an equation between what draws them and what keeps them. In this condition change of virtually any kind is impossible. Then we find another idol, that of stasis and sleepy continuity, joining up with the idol of immediacy and results. The body of Christ then finds itself incapable of undaunted creativity and faith-driven change.
Style can be a golden calf. Addiction to a style inevitably leads to a fear of variety. Are we afraid to assume that God is the Lord of continuous variety and first-day newness? "Not in my style, therefore I cannot worship" represents this particular idol. I realize that style is important. I realize further that each local assembly must make conscience-based choices about style. And I ultimately realize that no style can begin to capture the grace and glory of the Subject and Object of its expression. The foolishness of style-centered worship is exposed by the nature of God's creatorhood, namely that he does not confine himself to one vocabulary or one language. If it is true that faithful adventurousness should mark our outpouring, and if it is further true that witness is overheard worship leading to radical decisiveness, why should the Christian be so nervous about style and so obsessed with the idea that it is a crucial door opener and closer?
All the above can be boiled down into a three-part artistic dilemma that has faced the church for centuries. First, if art is beautiful, it has to be used whether it is effective or not. This is the idol of quality. Second, if art is effective, it must be used, irrespective of quality. This is the idol of effectiveness. Third, if art has worked well, don't change it. This is the idol of stasis. There is no church, large or small, rich or poor, ethnically diverse or homogeneous, that will not face one, two or all three of these dilemmas. But it usually works out that the high-culture/high-taste artists face the first idol; the church-growth/seeker-sensitivity leadership, the second; and the traditionalists, the third.
But we can ring the changes on these three dilemmas in another way. We can take the third, the idol of stasis, and apply it to any situation. When something works well and is frozen into its own continuity, we have entered idol territory through an ecclesiastically acceptable door, because we can point to this or that church and say, "Look how God is blessing. Let's change our ways to match theirs so we can expect the same." Here the idol can be described in Pauline terms as the gospel being preached in envy (Phil 1:15). Church growth by envy is only a little better than church growth by compromise, which is only a little better than church shrinkage through snobbery or stasis, because all are idols going by different names.
Idolatry, Babel and Pentecost
Sometimes I cannot help but think that in the present confusion we face—the so-called style and culture wars—the Lord may be reintroducing us to the story of Babel. Here's what I mean. The theological dilemma of Babel lay in human beings trying to reach the heavens by themselves, through artifactual efforts and in their way. God knew how dangerous this was and how blind the people were to the dangers. His solution, for that time, was to confuse and scatter them. Likewise today, when we spend so much time in our ecclesiastical efforts to do the construction from culture upward instead of from kingdom downward, we too can become scattered and irreparably confused. We try this and we try that; we copy here and we "innovate" there. All the while, the Holy Spirit is in a holding pattern until we are willing to re-own the triune God as Author and Finisher.
But Babel did not last forever, nor need it persist with us. It remained for Pentecost to set things right, for Babel is inverted Pentecost and Pentecost is Babel turned right side up. It is so because God takes the initiative and does his building from his throne, at whose right hand the risen and ascended Christ is seated. I think it safe to say that at Pentecost stylistic singularity went out the window and a thousand tongues turned out not to suffice.
"Little children, keep yourselves from idols," says the sweet apostle John (1 Jn 5:21). Carved and crafted things like music and dance? Yes, sometimes. Behaviors like covetousness and pride? Yes, more than we want to admit. Legitimacies, like beauty and quality and results? Yes and yes again, for we seem to have found our own brand of holy water to bless these.
I am not bent on polemics or finger-pointing in any of these observations and questions. The subject must be, for all Christians, deeply personal and thus open only to the probing of the Holy Spirit. It is, in short, a conscience search for everyone in leadership, and no one can do another's work or take another's place in this respect. It is all too easy to look at a particular practice from the outside and form a judgment. I know from experience that when I fall into this behavior, it is about a practice that I do not personally or aesthetically approve of, rather than about the condition of heart, mind and soul with which those practices are being pursued, much less God's own way of accepting us all through Christ. For this I must repent. Yet I must continue to ask the questions and pose the dilemmas, trusting God to work mightily in each continuously outpouring heart, pleading with him to root out the idols, especially those that would cause God to say, "You cannot worship me that way or with such things."
The glorious thing about God's grace is that he can take an idol and, without destroying it, turn it into nothing in order that it can be changed into merely something to be offered back to him through Christ. If music is an idol, God can burn it clean and turn it into a faith-driven offering. If quality is an idol, he can put it in its place, thus stripping it of improper prerogative while preserving its integrity and elegance. If results are the idol, God can show us how he grows a church irrespective of the methodological and stylistic intermediaries we interpose on his behalf. In all cases the Alpha and Omega is the Lord, who is also Means and End. He alone authors and finishes, if we would just throw our idols down at his feet so that he could purge us of our deluded ideas about them and so that he could return them to their place of subordination to his sworn purpose. In this way the arts, along with beauty, quality, variety, results and even continuity, would become one in a radical newness that is always at the ready when God is enthroned over the gods.
There is a fine but absolutely clarified line between authentic and idolatrous worship. The line is not drawn by the things that we use but by what our mind and heart choose to make of them. Our prayer should always be "Search me, not the artifact." There is no need for God to search an artifact, for as Paul says, it is nothing, and there is no truth or falsehood in it (1 Cor. 8:4; 10:19). These lie with us, and it is for us to sort them out under the guidance of the Spirit.
Taken from Unceasing Worship by Harold Best. ©2003 by Harold M. Best. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Unceasing Worship can be purchased at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
See also today's interview with Best about Unceasing Worship.
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