One day I was sitting in the lunchroom where I worked, thoroughly engaged in reading a novel by Kurt Vonnegut. His books have always made me laugh even as they challenged my thinking, and it must have been the snort of mirth I released that made Carl determine that this would be a good time to interrupt me.
“Whatcha reading?” he asked, gently closing the Bible that sat on the table in front of him as a sign he wanted to chat. Honestly, I didn’t want to talk right then, as I was kind of lost in my book, but I knew the polite response would be to answer him. So, I did.
“It’s a really great novel by Kurt Vonnegut,” I answered, holding it up so he could see the cover.
“Hmmm,” was his only response, and I detected a disapproving tone in it.
“Yeah, Vonnegut is so creative and such a great cultural critic,” I offered.
“Have you read any of his books?” I asked, thinking it likely that he had at least been assigned Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five at some point.
“Nope. I don’t really have time for reading fiction,” he explained. “I mostly just want to read books that will help me in my life or help me grow closer to God. Life is too short to read about things that never really happened. I figure that if I mostly just read the Bible, I am going to learn everything I need to know.” He knew that I was a Christian, so I imagine he thought I would find this convicting somehow.
As we chatted further, I learned that he also didn’t go see movies unless they had a strong Christian message (or at least no swearing or dirty bits), that he rarely listened to anything other than worship music, and that, outside the Bible, his reading was pretty much limited to popular faith-based books about how he could be a better Christian or how he could overcome certain sinful tendencies that he struggled with. Carl felt that it was dangerous to pay too much attention to art and culture, as it might cause a person to doubt or your choices might cause others to stumble.
He was completely sincere, and I knew him to be a person who tried to walk out the implications of his faith. I understood his passion to place every area of his life under the lordship of Jesus. But I found his thoughts to be a little shortsighted and actually not in line with what the Bible teaches or with what Christians have believed down through time.
Such thinking, I suggested, could actually cut him off from tools that God might want to use to help him in his spiritual growth. After some back and forth, I could tell he had decided I was a lost cause on this issue, at least until he could gather some more ammunition for arguing his views. So he suggested we agree to disagree, and he let me go back to wasting my time with my book. I gladly did so.
There have always been Christians who were suspicious about the value of the arts. It is a conversation that Christians have been having since the early days of the church.
Some early leaders suggested that any focus on the visual instead of the verbal or written was potentially dangerous, and, quoting the second commandment, they warned against making any “graven image” (Ex. 20:4–5, KJV). While that passage is focused on forbidding idolatry, some were concerned that a revered piece of art might easily become an idol. Such fears arose again during the Reformation, based on a concern about the excesses of previous centuries; their artistic creations may have, at times, brought people perilously close to confusing the divine with a human creation.
In some cases, these artistic artifacts were believed to have spiritual powers as direct connections with the divine. Some thought, for example, that touching a statue of the Virgin or of a revered saint could heal them of their diseases.
In response, some of the Reformers took a hard line and stripped their churches of all adornments, even to the point of busting statues, whitewashing over frescoes, melting down
gold furnishings, and destroying religious paintings.
Martin Luther, however, suggested a different approach. He was open to the arts as long as it was clear that they were only symbols of divine truth and not actually direct channels of any divine power. He saw that art and music could help people understand the new Reformation theology. He even collaborated with his friend, painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, to create new altarpieces with a more distinctly Protestant message to replace the previous Catholic ones.
And outside the walls of the church buildings, Reformation polemics on all sides were often carried out by the popular media of broadsheets, paintings, and prints, made possible by the new technology of printing and distributed to the common folk as visual tracts. Or art could be useful for explaining the meaning of the new Protestant theology in simple terms, as in this wonderfully didactic picture by Lucas Cranach. Such work was art as instruction.
Art as a helpful tool. Art as a dangerous temptation. Both views of art survive into our own time. While some remain cautious, others have seen the great power of the arts to move the human soul and assist believers along their spiritual journey.
The Bible does not forbid using art as part of religious practice. In fact, it encourages it. The prohibition against graven images, writes Francis Schaeffer, “does not forbid the making of representational art, but rather the worship of it.”
Artists are free to exercise their creativity but must never confuse the work of art with that which it points toward.
The tabernacle and then later the temple were places where worship took place for the ancient Israelites. As we read their descriptions in the pages of the Old Testament, we discover that each was a work of architectural artistry and each was embellished with elaborate ornamentation. When God gave directions for what he wanted these buildings to look like, he did not order up a straightforward or simple design, nor did he instruct the craftspeople to only create the expected religious imagery. Instead he had them use images of natural objects such as flowers, trees, and animals. When building God’s temple, King Solomon called for the walls to be encrusted with precious stones. The purpose of such ornamentation was not utilitarian. Its purpose was that it be beautiful (2 Chron. 3:6).
The designs for the tabernacle and the temple are a good reminder that God, the one who created everything, delights in creativity and sees it as a way of pointing toward his truth. And God takes art so seriously that he handpicked a man named Bezalel to undertake this work of creativity and filled him “with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts” (Ex. 31:3–5). It was not enough, in God’s eyes, to create something functional; he wanted something that was exquisitely artful.
Art has been part of the Christian heritage from the earliest days. Deep in the catacombs of Rome, early believers left behind images that reflected their faith and their struggles against persecution. It is really a miracle that any early Christian art still exists today, but some has survived the persecution of the faith, the ravages of time, and the suspicion of some early church leaders about the appropriateness of representing the sacred in a visual form.
In the early days, there were no public places (no church buildings) to display art and, for the first few centuries, scant financial resources in the churches to patronize artists. With all the challenges, art went underground. Literally. Creative believers left behind their pictures in these burial chambers to celebrate the new faith.
Many of these images focused on Old Testament stories of deliverance, such as the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, Noah and the ark, Daniel in the lion’s den, and Jonah, whose three days in the belly of a whale was a prefiguration of the three days Jesus spent in the tomb before his resurrection.
Other images illustrate stories of Jesus’ miraculous healings or celebrate him as the Good Shepherd. There are, in fact, more than 120 instances of the Good Shepherd image in the catacombs. This image was never intended to be a literal portrait of Jesus, but it was a potent symbol of his love and care.
As early as A.D. 215, the church father Hippolytus allowed new believers to become or remain artists as long as they didn’t make idols. By the time of Gregory the Great (A.D. 600), a tradition of valuing the arts as a way of communicating truth had become generally accepted, though there would still be a drawn-out iconoclastic controversy, which ultimately had as much to do with political motivations as religious ones. Finally, when the rhetoric cooled and the dust settled, the church came down on the side of embracing the value of images.
Gregory famously wrote, “Pictorial representation is made use of in churches for this reason: that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books.” He saw the arts as a way to educate the largely illiterate population of his time in theology and spirituality. This perspective was responsible for an explosion of visual art, sculpture, mosaics, and church architecture in the centuries that followed.
The views of such thinkers might be encapsulated in this quote from Robin Margaret Jensen, a prominent historian of early church art:
Art crystalizes, or perhaps materializes, certain points of doctrine which, while based on scripture, are sometimes more often encountered in theological arguments than in ordinary daily experience. Images can make the bridge between the material and the intellectual. . . . Visual images also speak directly and clearly, even to the simplest believer.
So artistic images continue to speak to us today, as well as other art forms that comment on the Scripture text, reinforcing Scripture’s power and bringing it to life with dramatic effect. They help us understand the complexities of theology and of life and awaken our spirits to the wonder of God’s Word and God’s world.
Music found an easier acceptance in the church because of its connection with worship in ancient Israel. From the song of Moses (Ex. 15) to the poetic expression of the Psalms, there is a strong tradition of valuing music in the Bible.
The New Testament records that Jesus and the apostles sang a hymn after celebrating the last supper (Mark 14:26), Paul and Silas sang in prison (Acts 16:25), and singing was part of the early gatherings of the church (Acts 2:46–47). In Ephesians 5:19, Paul celebrates “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (ESV). Many scholars even suggest that several Pauline passages may be quotes from hymns of his day, such as 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Timothy 2:11–13, which were used as quick summaries of key doctrinal beliefs.
Then there is the book of Revelation, which is filled with instances of worship and singing. Singing, it seems to imply, is nothing less than a foretaste of heaven.
Luther was a proponent of the great value of music in the church. He recognized its ability to communicate the truths of Scripture in a way that could stir the hearts of every man and woman. In fact, he wrote that “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” He wrote at least 36 hymns and made music and singing a centerpiece of worship. He reveled in the joy that music could bring to the human heart, and memorably said:
This precious gift has been bestowed on men to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord … one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in this wonderful work of music, where one voice takes a simple part and round it sing three, four, or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a folk dance in heaven with friendly bows, embracing, and hearty swinging of partners. He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod.
Each of the artistic disciplines—visual art, music, literature, poetry, architecture, filmmaking, photography, and more—can be not only a source of enjoyment but also a tool for spiritual growth and formation. The arts can change and transform us within, which is why they are indispensable for our lives. And hey, you don’t want to be a “clod,” do you?
Adapted from Discovering God Through the Arts: How We Can Grow Closer to God by Appreciating Beauty & Creativity by Terry Glaspey (©2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.
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