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”.
23 Replies to “Art and the Christian”
YES YES YES! Jesus is the King of the skilled builders and craftsmen. He is the King of those skilled at poetry! He is in King David’s line and He is the architect of architects! He moves us with ancient things like hallelujah choruses to even the poppy gospel songs we hear on the radio. Ever brushstroke. Every painter. Every cathedral belongs to him. Most shockingly the thing he finds the biggest masterpiece is us. What a great craftsman and glorious creator we serve!
Ben Mathewson, UK
Bill, good comment.
Would you believe that until the 20th century, the tallest (and probably biggest overall) buildings were places of worship? Mainly the cathedrals built by people with a vision of God’s greatness.
These days the biggest (grossest?) are places of business. An architectural pointer to the spiritual decline of our times.
A must read – “Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning” by Nancy Pearcey.
She has an extensive chapter on Christian art in there. Very informative.
Awesome stuff Bill! Thanks for this article. Also that you mentioned art as a broader concept. Maybe not fully on the same page as your article but I have a great desire in my heart to see the arts (fine arts, film, music, architecture, performing arts, literature, photography, etc) tell the glory of God again as of old.
A friend created a facebook page recently through which a random group of people just share testimonies or whatever is on our hearts. I gave them this article to read (this is where I also heard of Rookmaker the first time):
http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/blog/26159-helping-christian-artists-succeed; and now learned that artists in our church are also gathering to brainstorm and work together to use the arts for God again.
I am of the opinion that the arts as a (natural) category is the greatest influencer of any culture, more so than politics, sport, etc. Prayer meetings are vital and primary, church meetings are necessary but when it comes to interacting with the world on the outside we see the influence of the media and artists everywhere and themes communicating truth are many times absent.
So yes, it is important that we understand it, appreciate it and then apply it, especially in a time when perversion has become an artform in itself.
I will post this article of yours to our thread as well.
I also found this now but haven’t fully read it:
Servaas Hofmeyr, South Africa
PS – Sorry, the above mentioned link seems outdated but it can probably be googled if necessary.
As an untrained calligrapher who keeps a record of our church baptisms and who delights in reproducing Biblical texts with decorative borders and illumination in the style of the ancient scribes, whom would I credit for this gift, if our God has no interest in such abilities? I used to say I was self taught, but now when people ask, I acknowledge that I am blessed to be taught in the school of the greatest creative Master of them all.
God is the only one who truly creates if we understand creating to be forming something from nothing. Artists can only “create” by sourcing inspiration, materials, talents, etc, which have their origin in God in the first instance.
Glad to see you write on art and religion. In 1980 I went on an art and Cathedral tour of Great Britian and in 1982 I did a similar tour of France and Spain over two months. Both tours were of my own design. The experience ignited an abiding interest in the world’s greatest religion and effectively terminated any further engagement in the Secular Humanist movement of my youth, that movement being a desert. The last European church I visited was at Romainmotier in Switzerland in 1987. Interestingly those who took me there were from missionary families but they themselves were no longer practising Christians.
Thanks Kerry (and others)
Yes, Tolkien spoke of us as being simply subcreators.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Anyone who cannot see the obvious justification for the expression of art in the Creator and His creation must ignore the reality that life is as much about the journey, and the emotional experience and expression of it, as the achievement of the destination. Yes, as children of God we will end up with him in paradise, but shouldn’t we exult & explore the glory in Him and in the wonderful world he created for us while we are here?
In 1970 I arrived in Australia as one of the last £10 poms. I was sent into the country to teach art in Young High School N.S.W, where in addition to the practice of painting and drawing etc., I was expected to teach a great deal of art history. A Christian friend had just so happened to give me a copy of Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason. I wish I had had Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of Culture, which I procured a few decades later. Nevertheless both those writers opened up for me – and I hope my pupils – the way the visual arts, combine with all the arts disciplines, such as music and literature, to express the very spirit and psyche of an époque – both in its embryonic, mature and dying phase. Even when a great artist like Picasso is transmitting a nihilistic and ugly message, something of the divine, in spite of his fallen humanity, comes through. I suppose a parallel would be how God’s creative nature is reflected even in those who designed Germany V1 rockets and other weapons of war.
As for Chartres Cathedral, Bill, you missed one of the greatest treasures of Western European Civilisation. Another great Cathedral of the same époque is that of St.Etienne of Bourges, also with its stunning stained glass. A superb guide at Chartres is Malcom Miller, a great scholar who has lived close to the Cathedral ever since he arrived there in 1958.
Here, amidst much mirth, he is demonstrating to students the genius of Gothic engineering.
Forget the Hajj at Mecca, visit Chartres, one of the glories of western civilisation.
David Skinner, UK
If I may take a contrary position.
I can’t consider St Peter’s basilica (for example) without recalling the lies and suffering that raised the funds to build it. Roman Catholic art is closely linked to worldliness and empire building in the church seeing itself and acting as a princedom in the world.
I’m sorry, but I can’t get over that. I see all the gold and I see financial abuse of the faithful and distortion and denial of the gospel.
I would rather no cathedrals were built and the gospel funded and preached instead.
I know it’s not entirely that simple, but that’s why I would say, “another catholic church” and want to move on. I couldn’t bear the heartache of contemplating another town where for still more centuries the gospel was obscured by worldliness.
But I am also a barbarian, which perhaps makes it easier to hold this position. Les Miserable was the only musical I ever enjoyed.
It seems to me we do many things which seem ‘pointless’ on the face of it. Much of scientific investigation seems pointless – why send Hubble into space just to take pictures of stars? Why dig up Egyptian artifacts or dinosaur bones. What was the point of going to the moon, climbing Everest or sailing solo around the world?
To me these questions can be answered by one sentence – “and God created mankind in his image”.
Christians should be prolific in the arts. We need to enjoy them but also create more for the world to experience instead of the growing depravity that the world is pumping out.
David Williams raises an important point and this is that the Protestant church in the Twentieth century has mistakenly and disastrously shunned art, thinking that this a kind of idolatry. This idea goes all the way back to Oliver Cromwell destroying, like the Taliban, medieval stained glass, statuary and paintings in Churches and Cathedrals throughout Britain. But as David says, being creative is part of being made in God’s image.
Michael D O’Brien is both a Roman Catholic writer and painter, whose writings and paintings I recommend.
The Roman Catholic and French stained glass artist and painter, George Rouault is considered by Rookmaaker as being one of the truly great Christian artists of the twentieth century.
David Skinner, UK
Wow! Well this is exactly the position I was arguing in a reponse to your Schuller piece, Bill. Praise God for holy Christian art! C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien argued that the true artist was simply a channel through which God brought beauty/goodness to the world today, and that is exactly right. Many, many artists have said something like “It didn’t seem to be coming from me” “I don’t know where it came from”. And cathedrals don’t have to be old. The Anglican cathedral in Liverpool (UK, of course) was made from 1904-1980, and is one of the most beautiful, holy buildings ever created (well, as I’ve studied and written about it for 30+ years, I’m a bit biased, I must conceed). I’ve never seen Schuller’s building, myself, so I’ll keep an open mind.
John Thomas, UK
I see no comparison between Schuller’s glass cathedral that can apparently be seen from outer space and Chartres Cathedral. The latter was built by an anonymous architect, to the glory of God (though some might argue to the glorification of Mary). It was also a project in which the whole of the surrounding community was involved, physically, financially and spiritually.
Schuller’s building was designed by Phillip Johnson, a practising, fascist, homosexual, who was connected with Andy Warhhol – the very picture of decay and death.
Schuller espoused homosexuality and was reported as saying, “I have a reputation worldwide of being tolerant of all people and their views,” “I’m too well-educated to criticize a certain religion or group of people for what they believe in. It’s called freedom.”
“Well educated!” Sounds like he would join one of those Pride marches.
Well if the Roman Catholics don’t buy it perhaps the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will, unless, that is, the Muslims don’t step up to the plate and convert it into a Mosque.
David Skinner, UK
I was in the Tate Britain art museum yesterday admiring the mystical beauty of “A Hilly Scene” by Samuel Palmer (1828) and James Whistler’s “Nocturne: Blue & Silver, Chelsea (1871) to name but two, and they gave me so much in terms of awe and wonder – the stillness of these 2 paintings spoke eloquently to me. Then I got round to the modern stuff and was just about to leave when the rich and famous Tracy Emin’s effort was drawn to my attention. It was entitled “Berlin the last week in April 1998” it consisted of a watery wash that looked vaguely like a portrait of her and her expensive signature! Her work gave me nothing – it just seemed to say I can do as little as possible and rake in as much money as possible by what I have done – which seems to sum up the ethos of our disastrous profit driven global economy – get as much as you can for as little input and you must be really clever. Palmer was an Anglican but apparently, to quote some art claptrap, “when his religious fervour faded after 1830 the precarious balance between realism and vision was lost”
Art in celebration and praise of Creation is a glorious thing. This is distinct from art as propaganda which tends to be oppressive although may be inspiring to some – certainly not me. I wandered into the Vorticists exhibition which was the modern art of protest of 1912 – 1914, where all the graphic images looked roughly the same and all seemed to precurse the swastika design.
It’s unwise to generalise but for me art as praise or a joyful song or sadness or abhorrence of evil is what I can engage with – at the risk of lapsing into art claptrap myself!
Rachel Smith, UK
Wow, what a topic and what a response in the comments! Art in its true form is definitely a signpost to both how God has created the world and how He will re-create it again.
Michael, I understand your emotional response when you consider the well known, but not always spoken of facts of impoverishment of the people through the sale of indulgences etc. through which St. Peter’s cathedral and many others were financed. But maybe if you consider the also well established fact of the Exodus account of the tabernacle. Whilst it was built in glorious abandon of extravagance in the expression of beauty, remember that none of the children of Israel went without anything they needed. If we take manmade extremes as our example, we end up going into opposite extremes, as the discussed protestant counter response to the catholic excess well illustrates. Somewhere else someone quoted Schaeffer saying in trying to evade the problem facing us we back into a monster behind us. However, if we take God’s instructions as our guide, when we know that both is possible because of who God is, that He takes pleasure in sharing his riches with his creation in general and us in particular, then maybe we can develop a way back where both houses of worship can reflect the beauty of God as well as the people of God not going without the good things they need and which their heavenly father is happy to give them.
Picasso, to use a terrible pun, cannot hold a candle to the experience of standing, bathed in this glorious and heavenly light at the east end of Bourges Cathedral, with its message of hope and tragically for the vast majority of people it remains literally a closed book. For that is what these French Cathedrals are: Biblical commentaries in stone and glass.
David Skinner, UK
Thank you for a post that gets us away from all the evil in this world for a short time, and leads us to all the beauty that is all around us – created by a loving God just for us.
My son, Nathan – a Christian – has just started a photography business. His photos (he calls them “captures”) are indeed art, no matter if they are of the natural world around us or people. The name of his business tells you where he gets his inspiration from: “Inspired By Creation.”
Paul de la Garde, Sydney
And on a completely different matter, for what it is worth, yours is the 25,000th comment to be posted on this website. So take a bow, pat yourself on the back, and go out and buy yourself a six-pack of Krispy Kreme donuts, or some such thing.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Great article Bill. I have been wondering recently if my hobby of painting was perhaps a selfish indulgence. But you have helped me to see the bigger picture.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I am encouraged by this article in one sense. God has gifted me as an artist and yet I have found it is a very lonely place to be as a Christian. As a young 19 year old I also went to teach art in a country town and learned first hand the dangers of using art history books with nudes in them, as a lesson aides. I was an innocent Catholic then and loved to discover for myself what an awesome history the Catholic church has. A new world was opened up to me in the arts, which I was not aware of in my conservative country upbringing in Queensland. Since then I have taken a stand against nudity in art and have possibly been regarded as a phillistine by many. As a result I will not teach Queensland art curriculum. I have forfeited 40yrs of earnings for which I have absolutely no regrets and am just now setting myself up to use my gift, away from the disapproving of both sides of the argument. That’s how artists operate anyway, distinct from opinion not fashioned by a world view which postmodernism would demand.There are many rich treasures in the 1500yrs of Catholic culture which should not be dismissed, but it would be dangerous to forget God’s spirit of holiness in amongst it all to ‘separate the precious from the vile’.