How important are the arts for our lives?
I mulled that question over this past weekend as I stood in line at the theater – outside the theater actually (I can’t remember the last time that’s happened) – waiting to be one of the untold millions seeing the new Star Wars: The Profits Awaken (er, a…The Force Awakens…sorry, that was what Disney wanted to name it) on its opening weekend.
Christians sadly have a spotty record when it comes to appreciating culture and its art. Back in the mid-20th century when the evangelical Church was in full retreat-mode from culture, many Christians just handed over to the world entire art forms – dance, movies, pop music. They then justified the surrender with bizarre reasoning and quirky proof-texting. “Come out from them and be separate!” the Bible says. “Don’t you know that drums are used to summon demons!” “Play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards, and you’ll hear Led Zeppelin singing ‘Worship Satan!’”
But creating culture and art is deeply imbedded in our humanity, and God – the Master Artist – put it there.
Why is art essential for life? For one thing, creating art is proof that we are made in God’s image. God’s love for creativity and beauty is evident everywhere we look around us. The Bible tells us in Genesis 2:9 that God “…made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” The ‘good for food’ part makes sense, but why the ‘pleasing to the eye’ part? Why does the strawberry come packaged in red splendor rather than a gray blob of mush? Because God’s an artist who loves beauty.
The human genome is 96% similar to that of a chimp, but what a difference that 4% makes. No other creature on all God’s earth creates art. My cats don’t treat their litter box like an etch-a-sketch. I don’t find pretty sand swirls in it when I clean it. Birds ‘sing’ but their harmonies are accidental. I’ve never heard “Yesterday” being whistled by mourning doves. This is something utterly unique to human life, and why not? We alone are created in the image of God.
And another thing: Creating art helps us capture the fullness of human experience. Is it any wonder that after telling us in Genesis 1 that we were made in the image of a creative God, the Bible shows us in Genesis 2 Adam composing the very first poem? A love poem at that, for Eve.
For centuries, artists were the real movers and shakers of society. But then science moved into town and became the neighborhood bully. But science can only take us so far in describing what it means to be human. A biologist once defined a kiss as the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis muscles in a state of contraction. But then one day in the seventh grade I kissed Beverly Christiansen and experienced the power that launched a thousand ships. Orbicularis muscles, my eye. Such wonders can only be consummated by a song, or a poem, or a dance, or a painting.
A third consideration: Creating art deepens our understanding and appreciation of the Beauty and Truth of God. My daughter studied art in college, and a few years ago I stirred up a little hornets’ nest of discussion when I asked her, “Is art all subjective, or is there an objective way to measure art?”
If you say that there is no such thing as Beauty – with a capital B – that there is no way to objectively measure art, that it’s all subjective – then that means you can have no opinion about the music your teenagers listen to or the movies they watch. When Robert Mapplethorp drops a crucifix in a bottle of urine and calls it “Piss Christ” you can’t speak up. When a rap artist writes a song praising the murder of police and the rape of women you have to zip your lip, because he’s just ‘artistically expressing his culture’. One man’s pornography is another man’s art, and who are you to judge it?
If art is all subjective, then this is where we end up. There must be something about art that connects it on some level to an objective reality, an objective measuring stick. And that sense of the objective Beauty allows us to see this movie as Oscar-worthy, and this book as a classic, and this score as a masterpiece.
Of course, Christians know what that objective Beauty is. C.S. Lewis wrote, “An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of the eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”
No wonder when the trumpet fanfare of John William’s score heralded the scrolling of yellow block letters on the movie screen, my wife, daughter and I joined 500 others in the theater and cheered our heads off.