(Updated June 2011)
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters..” – Genesis 1:1-2
“The greatest artist of all, the greatest imaginer of all, is the one who appears at the opening of Genesis. Esthetic has to do with form, design, harmony, beauty. Perhaps the key word is “form.” Now the earth, says Genesis, was without form. God shaped the creation into form… And we are told that he looked up on each thing he had shaped and said that it was good… Even after the fall of man the Bible treats nature as beautiful, with God as its maker and wielder… God did not, as so many of us, think the esthetic was an incident for leisure time.” – Clyde S. Kilby, Ph.D. (1902-1986), Professor of English, Wheaton College
From the very first passage of the Scriptures, we see God as a creative being; indeed, he shows himself to be the ultimate creative being. We behold him establishing the whole created order, including mankind itself. He then lays before us an astounding pronouncement: “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26b ESV). He gives us dominion over the earth. The creator of the entire universe has given us the earth to create from and rule over. Not only does he gives us dominion, but as we shall see, throughout the Scriptures he also calls us to an unquestionable creativity with the resources and talents he has given us.
In Exodus 31, God specifically commissions two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, to be the official artists of Israel. It is interesting to note that Bezalel’s name literally means “in the shadow of God.” These two men created most of the artwork in the wilderness tablernacle. We see in the tabernacle, in the end, the three categories of art: symbolic, representational, and abstract. We also see, by the time Solomon’s temple is finished, every art and craft known in the Mediterranean society and cultures at that time.
Meanwhile, God is also very specific in his call to artistic craftsmanship. He commissions those who play music, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy” (Ps. 33:3). It is important to note that not only are we called to create art, but we are to do it skillfully. Likewise, we see in the tabernacle instructions that it contain artwork of great skill (Ex. 26:1; 28:3). Artists, of whatever breed, should hone their talents and invest in one another for such a purpose, and we should work toward something that is truly creative, truly expressive. This calls us to a greater creativity than much of what has been produced by Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, in at least the last century (with few exceptions). As noted pastor and scholar Philip Graham Ryken comments, “All too often… we gravitate toward what is familiar, popular, or commercial, with little regard for the enduring values of artistic excellence. Sometimes what we produce can be described only as kitsch—tacky artwork of poor quality that appeals to low tastes. The average Christian bookstore is full of the stuff, as the real artists will tell us, if only we will listen.”
Perhaps the greatest example of God inspiring artwork is the Bible itself. Brian Godawa comments in his book Word Pictures, “The Bible is rich with images in its theological method and worship of God. It is filled with imagination and word pictures, overflowing with poetic language and sensate imagery, dominated by narrative or story… If the Bible communicates God and truth (theology) primarily through story, image, symbol, and metaphor, then a theology that neglects those methods is not being strictly biblical in its method.”
As a piece of literary art (or pieces of literary art, if you prefer), the Bible excels to the highest standards. The book of Job is structured very much like a classical play with its introductory prologue between the characters of God and Satan, the long sequences of monologue, and the intervention of the divine, and a conclusion which reconciles disorder. In fact, many such as literary scholars Leland Ryken and Robert Alter consider Job a sort of closet drama (that is, a drama meant to be read, not performed on stage). Meanwhile, referring to himself in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon claims, “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Ecc. 12:9-10 ESV). Solomon wrote, achieving both truthful meaning and beautiful expression in what he wrote, the utmost achievement of any great writer.
The Bible, in the end, establishes for us a theology on which to build a vast creative expression. Not only does it give us the liberty to do so, you might say that it also commissions us to do so. Each of us has been given talents in different areas. For some, it may be that we are drawers, painters, sculptors, photographers, designers, musicians, composers, writers, or poets. For some, it may be that we are gifted in more unexpected areas that typically aren’t classified under the categories of the fine arts. However, this does not detract from our commission any less. God blesses each of us with a variety of gifts, and while they may not be put on display in a gallery, we are nonetheless granted the ability and decree to use them for God’s glory.
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Best, Harold M. Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003. 226 pp.
Dyrness, William A. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Engaging Culture). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001. 189 pp.
Godawa, Brian James. Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story & Imagination. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 208 pp.
Ryken, Leland (ed.). The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing (Writers’ Palette Book). Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw, 2002. 467 pp.
Ryken, Philip Graham. Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006. 64 pp.
Taylor, W. David O. (ed.). For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 204 pp.