Faith with art is dead. Why? Here’s a fourth reason.
Creating art deepens our understanding and appreciation of Beauty and Truth.
I stirred up a hornet’s nest with my daughter a few years ago when she was an art student by asking, “Is art all subjective, or is there an objective way to measure art?” The discussion began when I was trying to make the case that November is a pretty dismal month (in Connecticut) what with its empty trees, gray skies and dead lawns. How could November objectively hold a candle to May? My daughter though stood up for lousy November by saying that it had nothing to apologize to May for, when it came to beauty, for beauty was definitively subjective.
This question is not unimportant. If you say that there is no such thing as Beauty – 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. 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. If beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, then art can mean anything, and for that reason, then art means nothing.
Now of course, there is much about art that is very subjective. but there must be something about art that connects it on some level to an objective reality, an objective measuring stick, by which we can then say, “This song is Grammy-worthy, this movie is an Oscar-contender, this composition is a masterpiece.”
For Christians, that objective reality is God, who embodies for us and defines for us what Beauty – capital B is, and Truth – capital T is. And so art when it functions the way God intended, will deepen in some way our understanding and appreciation of the Beauty and Truth of God.
In Exodus 28:2 God instructs Moses to “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor.” (The King James Version says, “to give him glory and beauty.”) Art which functions the way God intended will magnify these things: dignity, honor, glory and beauty. It will ennoble us, will enrich us, will inspire us, will move us closer in some way to Beauty and to Truth.
- Art when it functions the way God intended, will deepen in some way our understanding and appreciation of the Beauty and Truth of God.
This doesn’t mean that art needs to be religious to be good art. Were the trees in the Garden of Eden which were pleasing to the eye religious trees? No; these were trees, and God made them so their beauty could be enjoyed. Nature should rightfully be celebrated in art. A song does not need to be written about God to be written for God. Adam’s love poem for Eve honored God who made human love possible but it doesn’t specifically mention God. A novel does not have to have Christians in it to talk about Christian themes.
This doesn’t mean that art needs to be created by a Christian to be good art. Mozart wrote heaven’s music even if he never bowed the knee to heaven. Ansel Adam’s photography is no less stunning whether he went to church or not. The poetry of Robert Frost is no less worthy of praise because he kept God at arm’s length. It makes it twice the tragedy when a person spends so much time contemplating creation and fails to see the Creator, but their art is still good art. Their craft is still God-given, and God’s people can enjoy it.
This doesn’t mean that art needs to always “put on a happy face” to be good art. Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” are not filled with beauty but depict the ugliness of humanity at its worst. But in their truth-telling, these movies force us to examine the world we live in, and examine ourselves – and in that journey we step closer to beauty and truth. Art should never be afraid to wrestle with the great Biblical themes of Creation, Fall and Redemption. This sets such art apart from the sadistic rap song which shows us the ugliness of life and then stays there, wallowing in it, rubbing our faces in it.
This doesn’t mean that because something is religious it is automatically good art. Slapping God into a bad song’s lyrics doesn’t make it a good song. Just because the “Left Behind” series has sold millions of copies doesn’t mean it’s good art. Christian filmmaking is getting there, but artistically most of it is still a step or two behind today’s masters. There is a craft and depth to true art which must be mastered, which itself reflects the artistry which God himself has placed in creation.
This does mean that Christians need to get in the game and start bringing their gifts and passions to bear in every artistic field. Because if art in the end is about deepening our understanding and appreciation of the Beauty and Truth of God, then who better to be leading the way? In the end, the best songs are echoes of heaven’s music, the best paintings and pictures are reflections of eternity’s majesty, and the best stories are patterned off the Great Story of creation, fall and redemption. This doesn’t mean we get to take shortcuts in the pursuit of excellence. But it ought to, in a fashion, give us a creative edge.
My daughter and I never fully settled our debate, but I think we’re closer for the discussion. And I’ll be darned, if some November days I can see real beauty.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.