Theology and the Arts in the Biblical Worldview
By: T.M. Moore|Published: March 10, 2009 2:22 PM
This article appeared in BreakPoint's Findings Journal.
Contrary to what some may have heard, reports of the death of the arts in the Christian community have been, to recall Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. The arts are alive and well in the Church of Jesus Christ, even though the vast majority of church members may be completely unaware. The evidence is abundant: new books just about every season; lovely and insightful journals and periodicals; conferences, seminars, and workshops all around the country and throughout the year; poets, painters, musicians, sculptors, theater troupes, and novelists seeing more and more of their productions come to light; important Christian artists publishing and exhibiting their work in secular venues and teaching in secular institutions. While the vast majority of the followers of Christ continue to prefer the kitsch of Christian pop culture, a serious movement is underway to revive interest in and funnel creative energy through the traditional disciplines of the fine arts.
This is good news indeed, for it means that Christian artists are taking up the challenge of the postmodern window of opportunity in the arts to re-establish a presence and reconnect with a heritage that was largely ignored or overlooked during the modern period (roughly, the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries). It is heartening indeed to see the poetry of Scott Cairns and Dana Gioia on the shelves of local bookstores, to see a posting for an Edward Knippers exhibition at a suburban gallery, or to hear a major symphony orchestra performing a work by a contemporary Christian composer. The arts are an important part of what it means to be a human being; that they are beginning to flourish again within the Christian community reminds us of what previous generations of Christians knew all too well, that the arts are also an important part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
My particular interest in the arts in this context relates to the question of how these traditional disciplines interface and interact with the disciplines of formal theology, which is also flourishing again in Christian circles, and has been for almost a generation now. Each of these has an important role to play in the formation of a biblical worldview and the work of the Kingdom of God. My burden at present is to argue that those roles could be greatly enhanced if ways could be found to promote more engagement and dialogue between these two traditional pillars of biblical worldview thinking. At present, although the situation may be changing, formal theology seems to have but little use for the arts; with some notable exceptions, most theological work is still done almost exclusively through the cognitively exacting processes of exegesis and rational analysis. At the same time, many Christian artists demonstrate a want of theological expertise that, in my opinion, at least, causes their work to suffer. In what follows I want to show something of the biblical basis for and importance of the arts' being more a part of the work of formal theology, and of formal theology's having a more informative role in the arts. My objective is to encourage practitioners of each, and readers of this journal, to a more wholesome and consistent engagement and dialogue between these two crucial areas of worldview thinking.
The Biblical Imperative of the Arts in the Program of Theology
Second, Scripture itself is a work of art, an anthology of literary forms and genre designed to appeal as widely as possible to the aesthetic sensibilities of the image-bearers of God. There is nothing in ancient literature—or even since then—to match the exquisite beauty of Song of Songs, the poetic power of the psalms, the astonishing imagery of portions of the prophets and Revelation, or the conciseness and literary genius of the Gospels. In giving His Word to us, God made use of virtually every available literary genre and device, knowing that this would ensure the widest possible receptivity of His self-revelation among His fallen image-bearers. If God, in giving instruction concerning Himself, determined to do so through a volume that is itself a work of art, ought not those engaged in the disciplines of formal theology express greater readiness to dialogue with and make use of all forms of art in their program?
Third, Scripture is clear that God Himself endows artists with their skills. This is true not only of such devoted followers of the Lord as Bezalel and Oholiab (Exod. 36:1), but even among the devotees of pagan religion, such as Huramabi of Tyre (2 Chron. 2:12-14). Indeed, the Scriptures teach that whatever good gifts are distributed among the people of the earth, they come from the Father of Lights (James 1:17), including, we must suppose, those artistic endowments allotted to unbelievers (Ps. 68:18). God gives the gifts of the arts to people, and He intends them to be used to make Him known (Ps. 68:18b). Theologians—whether teachers, writers, or preachers—who ignore God's lavish endowment of the arts and artistic sensibility deprive themselves of a means of carrying out their program, a means that God Himself has indicated is important to the task.
Fourth, God commissioned artists to aid the people of God in drawing near to Him. We have already mentioned Bezalel and Oholiab, whose gifting and mandate was not only to work in the arts but to teach them as well. God also established musicians and choirs in Israel to prophesy and to proclaim His Word to the people (1 Chron. 25:1), and He inspired scores of songs to be used for the instruction of His people. He raised up and inspired a contingent of writers in a wide range of genres and appointed them to render His revelation in permanent form—not only literary genres but even such contemporary forms as performance art (think of some of the things Ezekiel was required to do). If God considered that artists could play an important role in the training and worship of His people during the period of the giving of biblical revelation, we should consider that such is still the case today.
These four reasons, here but briefly developed, should be sufficient to convince us that the program of formal theology could be greatly enhanced and aided by a deeper interaction with the arts. Some theologians—notably Jaroslav Pelikan, Jeremy Begbie, and Alister McGrath—have already begun to explore the use of the arts in the work of theology. We can only hope that more theologians will follow the trail they and others are blazing and bring this important area of human character and interest into the task of making God known among men.
THE BIBLICAL IMPERATIVE OF THEOLOGY IN THE PROGRAM OF THE ARTS
First, there is always the danger that sincere, well-meaning artists can, for one reason or another, find themselves producing art that is actually harmful to the faithful. Just ask Aaron (Exodus 32). Not for a moment did Israel's first high priest consider that what he led the people to do in crafting the golden calf was somehow inappropriate. In fact, he thought he was helping to maintain order, preserve the essentials of the faith, keep the people together, and give them some outlet for their religious zeal. In fact, his lack of conviction and susceptibility to public pressure caused him to lead Israel astray. I don't mean to suggest that any contemporary Christian artists are doing the same; I merely wish to point out that the pressures of the "market" and the temper of the times must not be allowed to overrule theological fidelity when it comes to the making of art. The more Christian artists devote themselves to the study of theology, the less likely it will be that they will unknowingly misrepresent the Lord in their labors.
Second, for the Christian artist, his or her work is a Kingdom calling. Which means that everything he or she does must be with a view to advancing the righteousness and glory of God (Matt. 6:33; 1 Cor. 10:31). The glory of Christian art consists in the artist's ability to bend his or her craft to the service of God, not as a tool of evangelism, necessarily, but as a thing of beauty, goodness, and truth, expressive of the character and purposes of the Lord, and of a biblical worldview. Here is not the place to discuss such notions in detail; rather, I simply want to insist that no genuinely Christian understanding of these ideas can be attained apart from involvement in theological study. Beauty, goodness, and truth—contrary to the view of postmodern artists—are not standards that are, in the first place, subjectively defined. Rather, since only God is good, since He inhabits the perfection of beauty, and since He alone is truth (Mark 10:18; Ps. 50:2; John 14:6), no one can hope to produce art reflective of His character and purposes without investing time and effort in the study of God as He is revealed in His Word. The better an artist understands the mysteries of God as revealed through the disciplines of formal theological study, the more that will affect his ability to fulfill his calling as a true citizen of the heavenly Kingdom.
Third—and somewhat related to where this section began—Christian artists should give themselves more diligently to the study of theology for the simple reason that everything they produce will be theological in nature, since every one of us is, to a greater or lesser degree, a theologian. There is no escaping the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18-21). Everything we do responds to what we know of God, either in thanksgiving and praise to Him, or in idolatry and separation (Rom. 1:22-32). Art that is not consciously and consistently offered to God as a reflection of His character and purposes runs the risk of being diverted to secondary purposes, such as mere self-expression, faddishness, or the whims of the artistic atmosphere or market. Or it is in danger of misrepresenting the very God it wishes to serve. Certainly there is a place for self-expression, working in contemporary forms and styles, and responding to the market and artistic trends. But even these must be circumscribed by love for God and true knowledge of Him. And without knowing Him—without a growing theological understanding of His character and purposes—how shall artists ensure that their works do not fail the test of orthodoxy? After all, the Gnostic writers of the second century produced some truly fascinating and widely read works about Jesus and the apostles. But because these "works of art" were informed by wrongheaded theology, they were ultimately condemned by the Church. And who reads them today?
Finally, artists should be more engaged with theology because of the moment of opportunity that postmodernism presents the Christian artist. In a day when anything goes as art, Christian artists must make the most of the opportunity to ensure that their art goes as far as possible toward the advancement of God's Kingdom (Eph. 5:15-17). This window may not stay open for long. When it closes, will Christian art be inside the house, dialoguing with the other artistic schools and pointing the way to true beauty, goodness, and truth as an accepted partner in the ongoing development of the arts? Or will we be shut out again, as during the period of modernism? Either way, we owe it to our fellow artists—and to our calling in God's Kingdom—to ensure that, as long as we have this open window, we will fill it with art expressive of the true character and purposes of God. And for this, artists will require more careful consideration of the disciplines of formal theology.
Artists can expect that their work will proceed on a firmer foundation if they can find the time to invest in theological study as part of their own development. No serious artist does anything mindlessly, or without careful thought about what he or she wants to say or express. The more an artist's mind and thoughts are filled with true knowledge of God, the greater is the likelihood his or her art will express ideas, motifs, and themes that are consistent with the pattern of sound words found in Scripture. And the greater will be his or her confidence of having served the purposes of God's glory, and of being able to hear "well done" at the end of the day.
PROMOTING THE DIALOGUE BETWEEN THEOLOGY AND THE ARTS
T. M. Moore is pastor of teaching ministries at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tenn. His most recent books include Preparing Your Church for Revival (Christian Focus) and I Will Be Your God (P & R Publishers).