Art For the Glory of God, Part 1

At our last Birmingham Sputnik hub gathering, we had the pleasure of a visit from Ally Gordon. Ally is a highly respected contemporary artist and the co-founder of Morphe Arts and after an invigorating afternoon, I instantly wanted to share his wisdom to a wider group than those who could fit into the Wilsons’ living room! This article seemed like a good place to start- originally posted on the Evangelical Alliance website a few years back, and reproduced (and very slightly abridged) with permission…

The story of art is rich with those who have glorified God through excellent art from the painterly genius of Rembrandt and Cranach the Elder to the musical magnificence of Mendelssohn and Bach. There is no shortage of believers who wrestled with the significance of what they made before the glory of their Creator yet today there are few Christians of evangelical faith on the national arts platform. One can’t help but ask why?

James Elkins, professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art writes, “contemporary art is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been and that might be its most singular achievement.” Why do so few Christians enter the arts today? Why don’t artists like coming to church? Perhaps we are still experiencing a cultural hangover from the Enlightenment or still working out our reformed theology of images. As people of God’s Word we might feel a bit sheepish when it comes to pictures. We value clarity, especially in preaching, but art is anything but clear, often mysterious and at times a bit emotive.

The Dutch art historian and jazz critic, Hans Rookmaaker, suggested two possibilities in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (pub. IVP 1946), “The artist who is a Christian struggles with great tensions. An artist is expected to work from his own convictions but these may be seen by his atheist contemporaries as ultra-conservative if not totally passé. On top of this he often lacks the support of his own community, his church and family.”

Rookmaaker wrote over half a century ago but his words are still prophetic to our times. Since artists often find themselves on the cutting edge of philosophical and critical thought, those who confess faith in Christ swim dangerously against the tides of prevailing worldviews in mainstream society, perhaps most severely against the thinking of militant atheists such as Dawkins and Jonathan Miller whose influence is felt as sharply (if indirectly) in the arts as it is in the sciences. At the same time, many artists feel unsupported or unappreciated by their church family. Art is sometimes considered to be an unnecessary decadence or indulgence. One art student told me her pastor asked how she would feel if Jesus came back to find her painting pictures of daisies – what, after all, is the value in a painting of flowers when there are millions yet to hear about the gospel? In my experience, such extreme discouragement for young Christian artists is rare these days but there is still a great need for encouragement.

God’s Word is rich in its instruction and example to those who make art. In the broadest sense of ‘art’, the bible is a magnificent artistry in its own right, bringing together creative writing from a plethora of writers, each bringing their own style yet representing generations of culture and historical insight. The bible is unique art in being rendered by human hands yet divinely inspired (breathed-out) by God’s Spirit (2 Tim 3:16). Consider the great art in the erotic poetry of Song of Songs, the captivating stories told by the prophets and Christ himself or the apocalyptic imagery of John’s Revelation: images of catastrophe to rival any Hollywood epic. Think of the deep poetic despair and joyful elevation expressed by the Psalms and lyrics that inspired Bono of U2 to describe David as “the greatest blues writer of all time”.

In the bible, creativity is the first thing God chooses to record about his character, “In the beginning God created” (Gen 1:1). God’s creation was “good’ and “very good”. From the beginning God is interested in the aesthetic dimensions of living, declaring that the trees are not only “good for food” but first, “pleasing to the eye”(Gen2:9). As those made in God’s image the act of good creativity is merely a very human experience and the artist should not feel a need to justify his art by scribbling bible verses in the bottom right hand corner of her painting or crow-barring a gospel message into his script. Biblical artists such as Bezalel and the Psalmist David were recognised by God for their artistic excellence and Bezalel being chosen by God for his “skill, craft and knowledge” (Ex 31:3) in design.

The Christian is free to make art in whichever discipline, medium or genre he chooses and there really is no such thing as “Christian art” just as there is no such thing as ‘Christian medicine’, ‘Christian food’ or ‘Christian plumbing’ for “the earth is the Lords and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1) The diversity of subject matter available to the Christian is as rainbow rich as the creation itself. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected” (2 Tim 4:4). There may not be “Christian art” but there are Christian approaches to making art. A good starting point is the question, “how does art function in the Kingdom of God?”

And that will lead us nicely into our next post…

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