What is Art to Christianity?
It’s a loaded question. One could seriously talk for days on end about the issue and only brush the surface, so I feel that an introductory blog post can be only that… introductory. However, more disturbing than the simplicity of this overview is the fact that Protestant Christians have, by and large, totally been oblivious to the fact that art is an issue for the Church at all. When one walks into the majority of our chapels, they see our bare, whitewashed walls and solid-colored carpet, a solitary cross perhaps being the lone sign of some sort of artistic imagery. We stand in a long line of churchgoers influenced by the iconoclastic tendencies of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. As much as we appreciate the theology that these men brought to the Church during a crucial time, they sadly set in course actions that would put a wedge in the worlds of visual art and Protestant Christianity for the next four centuries.
However, the Scriptures point to a high view of the arts, indeed. Indeed, the arts are a sacred form of worship. We see very early that God gave mankind his blessing to subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Genesis 1:28). This does not speak explicitly of art, but it would be inclusive of art if this subduing is done for the sake of God’s glory. It should be no surprise that God would bless our artistic endeavors. We are created, after all, in God’s image… and in that image, we carry the trait of God’s creative nature.
If not just for the fact that they are a way of mankind reflecting God’s glory by expressing our inherited creativity, God seems pleased to desire the creative arts specifically in his worship. If we examine the wilderness tabernacle of the Pentateuch, we see that it included a full multi-sensory experience. The Ark of the Covenant itself had marvelous metalwork, with sculptures of heavenly beings bowing their wings over its corners. When we move to the Temple built by Solomon, we encounter no less than every known art form of the civilized world at that time. Every one. From painting to sculpture, carving, woodwork, metalwork, fabric design, and more, both abstract and representational art, realistic and fantastic, the Temple was an experience to overwhelm the senses, and it was done for God’s glory. Indeed, under his distinct and precise commands. If we look at the Bible as a whole, we suddenly see that the Bible itself is a plethora of art forms. The Psalms are music and poetry. Job is what is known as a “closet drama” (that is, a play meant to be be read, not performed). The very text of the Bible itself is artistically magnificent.
Thus, art is sacred. Thomas Merton, the Catholic spiritualist, stated:
“Unless man fulfills his vocation as artist, technology will tend to blind him to the things of God. By artistic and creative insight, man rises above the material elements and outer appearance of things and sees into their nature. By the disciplined exercise of his art he is enabled to draw forth the glory of God that is hidden in created beauty and make it manifest in the world.”
The early Church made heavy use of art. We see remnants paintings of Biblical scenes within the first century of the Church’s existence, as well as a thorough iconography, and by the third century A.D., Christianity had developed fully-fledged art forms. Sculptures and paintings typically represented Christ as a shepherd, and stories of the canon and apocryphal Christian tales were represented on the walls of early church facilities.
Art is not merely a form of personal expression, but can be an expression of the Gospel like none other. Art can communicate truth in ways that speech alone is limited. Martin Luther recognized this and battled against those reformers who sought to erase art from church buildings. He actually utilized art in both his biblical teaching and in his other work. His friendship with the artist Lucas Cranach was legendary. In fact, it is said that the Reformation might not have taken place without Cranach because of both his illustrations of Luther’s work (including Luther’s German Bible) and Cranach’s earnings actually paid for Luther’s continued efforts.
So we have a Biblical basis for art and a history of art’s use in the Church, yes. But what is the good of the Church engaging art? I think Francis Schaeffer said it best when he remarked that art is how culture is defined. Art shapes culture. Art is a telling sign of a culture’s philosophy. In many ways, art tends to show us where the culture is headed. If we are to be ministers to the world around us, it is our responsibility to be aware of the art around us.
Finally, in this primer of a post (I still lament its brevity), we have a unique perspective as Christians to engage and analyze the arts. We, of all people, know who we are as creators made in the image of the Creator. We, of all people, know what beauty is, because we know that beauty is a reflection of God’s glory. We, of all people, should be the ones most engaged in the art and the ones producing the greatest art. It is unfortunate that in the last century the most well-known works of “Christian” art have been the kitsch paintings of Thomas Kinkade and Warner Sallman. Of course, there are the more expressive but less syrupy works of George Rouault – your local corner “Christian store” doesn’t care as much for that style. It is too deep, too thoughtful. However, Thomas Merton said it best when he noted, “I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure, or, at best, to stir up the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.”
The church produced the greatest movements of all time in the arts… and Kinkade is what we are known for now?
My challenge for you, Christians: become the creative beings that God created us to be. He has revealed himself to his Church in a unique and special way. We, of all people, have something to communicate through the arts. We are the ones who have the greatest ability to be achievers in the arts. Why must we settle for this sugary, lukewarm emission we’ve so regularly become accustomed to? No less that our identity in Christ calls us to so much more.