Art and the Christian

OK, a few qualifications here. I am not an artist. But I do know a bit about Christianity, so I may yet be permitted to speak on this topic. And I am not going to offer here anything deep or meaningful about art itself. This is just a very brief look at a sad but well-known truth, namely that evangelical Christians are not exactly known for their high view of art.

Indeed, many evangelicals do not think much about art at all. They either ignore it, dismiss it, or have little to do with it. There are various possible reasons for this, which I will not here enter into. But let me offer just one example of this.

It has to do with a trip through Europe many years ago. I was in a van with a number of other young evangelicals, travelling from Holland to Spain. While driving through France we were near to the world-famous Chartres Cathedral. This 750-year-old structure, with its glorious flying buttresses and amazing stained glass windows, is one of the great works of art in all of human history.

This magnificent building took some six decades to build, and is one of a number of grand and glorious cathedrals scattered throughout Europe. They are a testimony to an age in which appreciation for spiritual realities was far more pronounced and widespread.

To simply view one of these cathedrals and/or to stroll through one can be a moving religious experience. The grandeur, wonder and glory of these amazing structures say much about the God of beauty and wonder who inspired them.

So to be so close to this world-renowned church was getting me and a few others quite excited. But most of the travelling companions were not in the slightest interested. One of them said words to this effect: “Oh, that’s just some Catholic Church isn’t it?”

This not only displays a bit of sectarian bigotry, but it certainly displays a woeful, philistine attitude. Here we had one of the greatest works of art in human history, and all we got from most of the others in the car were yawns, if not disdain.

So, the result? Sure enough, we kept on driving. So I never did get to see it. One day I will have to go back with those who are a bit more enlightened and culturally savvy. That lot certainly was not. It seems they had zero appreciation for the arts, for culture, for history, or for beauty.

Undoubtedly such horror stories could be repeated time and time again. A more recent example of this concerns a recent piece I wrote on Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in California. This of course is a cathedral of a very different order from those ancient European varieties.

My main point in that piece was to point out a prior spiritual bankruptcy which overshadows their current financial bankruptcy. A debate then ensued in the comments’ section about the merits or otherwise of grandiose places of worship.

Some said they are all a waste of money and have nothing to do with Christianity. I pointed out that we need to be a bit more nuanced here. God himself is the original artist, and he seems to have been quite lavish – and maybe even went overboard – in the beauty and wonder of his created order.

Indeed, our God is a God of beauty, and he has created us to enjoy his beauty. Art and our appreciation of it are among the great gifts God has given to us. Sure, like anything, it can be turned into an idol. But art, beauty, and appreciation for the finer things of culture are all good gifts from a good God.

If the lavish use of time, money and effort in making places of worship was wrong in principle, then we have some real problems here, because it is God himself who has ordered such things. For example, consider all the effort, wealth and attention to artistic detail that went into the construction of the tabernacle (Ex 25-28).

The same can be said about the construction of the temple (1 Kings 5-6). God was the one who told the Israelites to spend lots of money and effort and creativity on creating such beautiful and lavish sanctuaries or places of worship. In these cases this was not waste or extravagance, but the divinely-appointed creation of places worthy of our glorious and beautiful God.

Not that we necessarily have to do the same today, but it is not at all sinful or unbiblical in and of itself. And anyone who knows me will realise I am not arguing for fancy buildings, wasteful excess, and so on. I have often expressed my concerns about megachurches and all the unnecessary trappings that go with them. But my point remains – God himself has allowed for, and at times commanded, lavish, artistic and expensive houses of worship.

So we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Sunsets are probably wasteful and unnecessary as well, but I am very glad that God delights in them and allows us to enjoy them as well. There is a place for art in other words in the Christian life. God is the original artist, and he calls us to image him. That of course is a different matter from obvious waste, self-promotion, and ego trips. But we need to be careful to make clear distinctions here.

When I see the great cathedrals in Europe my heart soars in worship to God, and I am so thankful these marvellous structures were built. They really do reflect the glory of God, and cause many to turn to him. Of course one can worship God in a cave or in a field of mud as well. But that is not the point.

Most of us enjoy the good things God allows us to have. Most of us (at least in the West) probably live in a nice house, drive a nice car, have a nice computer, eat nice food, wear nice clothes, and so on. But does that make us wasteful, sinful, etc? We don’t have to live in drudgery, ugliness and plainness. Making our homes look and feel nice is not wrong in itself.

Sure, going to extreme excess is wrong and unbiblical. We really do not need $10 million dollar mansions, a half dozen plasma TVs, and a fleet of BMWs. We can all get by with less. But as we are wisely told in Proverbs 30:8, “give me neither poverty nor riches”.

Much more can be said about this topic. And many culturally aware Christians have. Let me just draw your attention to two examples of this. Back in 1973 the influential Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer wrote a little booklet entitled Art and the Bible (IVP). In it he argued that we need to thank God for, and learn to enjoy, art as art.

It need not be just used as an evangelistic tool. And religious art need not necessarily just have religious subject matter. Christian art is a far wider concept than many of us think it to be, and Schaeffer laid out some of the ways we can have a greater appreciation for this great gift of God.

And in 1978 H.R. Rookmaaker wrote Art Needs No Justification (IVP). It too was a brief defence of art for art’s sake (both books are just over 60 pages). Rookmaaker was a Dutch art historian who worked with Schaeffer in the 50s and 60s (he died in 1977; Schaeffer in 1984).

In his book he too argues that we need to appreciate art for art’s sake, and see it as part of the good creation which God has blessed us all with. A Christian need not have to seek to justify becoming an artist, or making a living from it. It is just another way we can bring glory to God as we utilise the talents and creativity he has given us.

This short piece has barely scratched the surface of an important topic. But if it can help us to think a bit more carefully and prayerfully about the wonderful world of art, creativity, beauty and imagination, then it will hopefully have achieved some good.

If nothing else, after reading this, if we were to find ourselves driving through northern France together, I expect to hear no more foolishness about a star tourist attraction being just some no-big-deal “Catholic church”.

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