Why the Arts Matter to God

November 13, 2013 // Articles

As a young believer and a cultural separatist in the 80s and 90s, I was pretty sure that “the arts” were very bad in some foreboding but non-specific manner. I wasn’t sure why they were so bad, but it seemed self-evident that I was supposed to be “agin’ it, not fer it.” During my childhood years, I had a rather limited television intake (The Andy Griffith Show was an exception, although the presence of Otis made even this show “iffy”), an almost non-existent movie intake (except for Billy Graham movies), and a zero-calorie music diet (classical music and hymns only; rock music was Satan’s music, and I knew this because Bill Gothard told me so).

Now, don’t get me wrong-I’m happy about the alternatives my parents presented. I read books (lots of them, including biography, history, theology, fiction, etc.), I played sports, and I spent time with my family. But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t sure “what to do with” the arts, including popular art forms like cinema, television, and Top-40 music. I knew that I disagreed with a lot of the messages that were being put forth through those media, but I also knew that some of it was beautiful and that all of it was powerfully influential.

Because of this recognition that I didn’t know what to do with the arts, in my college and early seminary years, I fluctuated between cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony, sometimes within the space of one week. It wasn’t until I discovered L. Russ Bush and Francis Schaeffer that I began to learn “what to do with” the arts. L. Russ Bush was the Academic Dean and Professor of Philosophy at SEBTS. In his introductory philosophy course, he covered the history of philosophy and while doing so illustrated by pointing to movies, music, and television shows which espoused particular philosophical viewpoints. In his Ph.D. Seminar on Christian Faith & the Modern Mind, he surveyed late 20th century art, architecture, cinema, and music, showing the philosophical and religious underpinnings of various artists and works of art.

During Dr. Bush’s courses, he introduced us to Christian art critics such as Hans Rookmaaker (professional art historian and critic) and Francis Schaeffer (Christian theologian and apologist). Schaeffer’s work (which depended in part upon Rookmaaker’s) has been enduringly influential among evangelicals and is crafted for non-specialists, so his work shaped my view of art early on.

In fact, in my recent seminar on Theology & Culture (cross-listed for undergrad and grad students), we read Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible.* This slim little volume provides a handy starting point for a discussion of theology and the arts, so I will mediate a bit of Schaeffer’s thought, in the hopes that this brief blogpost will stimulate further interest in theology and the arts.

At the beginning of the book, Schaeffer makes a biblical-theological argument for the goodness of the arts. He began by arguing for the Lordship of Christ over every realm of culture and specifically over the arts. He continued by giving multiple specific examples of Scripture promoting the arts. He honed in on the art in the tabernacle and Temple, on “secular” art in the Bible, on Jesus’ use of art, on poetry in music in the Bible, on drama and dance in the Bible, and finally on the pervasively “artful” portrayal of heaven’s beauty.

After having built his theological case for the arts, he begins to theologize about the arts. One of the more noteworthy sections is his provision of four standards by which one can judge a work of art. The first standard is technical excellence: a painting, for example, should be judged on its use of color, form, balance, the unity of the canvas, its handling of lines, etc. The second standard is validity: is the artist honest to himself and his worldview (or does he, for example, sell out for money)? The third standard is content: is the artist’s worldview resonant with a Christian worldview? An artist’s body of work reveals his worldview, even though he may not be aware of this. The fourth standard is integration of content and vehicle: does this work of art correlate its content with its style?

Another noteworthy section is Schaeffer’s articulation of four types of artists. The first is the Christian artist who works from within a Christian worldview. The second is the non-Christian who works within a non-Christian worldview. The third is the non-Christian who works with the remnants and residue of a Christian worldview. The fourth is the Christian who does not fully grasp the Christian worldview and therefore works with elements of a non-Christian worldview. The first type of artist is the one Schaeffer considers exemplary.

Schaeffer was not a professional art critic and his work has some flaws. However, he is profoundly right about several things: (1) Christians ought to produce good art, art which arises from within a comprehensive Christian worldview; (2) this art does not have to be explicitly religious (e.g. having manger scene as its subject matter) and in fact is often more powerful when it is not; and (3) Christians ought to be aware of the art arising from their culture because such art makes us aware of the worldviews underlying it, worldviews which are deficient and can be remedied by the gospel and a Christian worldview.

My conviction is that one of the various reasons Christians have an increasingly ineffective witness in the United States is because we have abdicated our responsibility to glorify God within the arts. To the extent that we have involved ourselves in the arts, we have done so by creating music labels and music production companies that produce art that is explicitly about religious characters and often is preachy and not very compelling. In the most influential sectors of American society (Hollywood, New York, etc.) we have fled the premises.

May God grant us young men and women who will view their lives missiologically, and immerse themselves in arts communities in Hollywood, New York, and Nashville, proclaiming and embodying the gospel in ways that are faithful, meaningful, and dialogical for those particular communities.

 

Dr. Bruce Ashford is a directional elder at the Summit and regularly teaches and writes about the relationship between theology and culture.  Some of his work (such as this article here) can be accessed at ‘Between the Times’, a blog featuring articles from faculty members at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC).  At Southeastern, Ashford serves as Provost and Dean of Faculty,  Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, and acts as a fellow for the Bush Center for Faith and Culture.