Art and Christianity
Francis Schaeffer wrote Art and the Bible in response to an attitude running through the church that troubled him: Christians were shying away from the arts.
There were other things, too: pastors preaching to their congregations in King James English. Christians certain that rock music and abstract art were less holy styles than the music and paintings of the past. Concerns that an emphasis on beauty was shallow or that artistic pieces could fuel idolatry.
His response: a tiny little book (or a long, thorough essay, depending on how you look at it) that offers a philosophy of aesthetics for the Christian life. How are the arts presented in the Scriptures? How should Christians respond to secular art or art from a non-Christian worldview? Are some art forms and styles more worthy than others? What is the greatest work of art that every Christian should be intent on designing?
Schaeffer’s essay includes a review of the arts in Scripture. God gave very specific instructions, for example, on the design of the High Priest’s robes, and the Bible contains very specific details on the layout and décor of the Temple of Solomon. God instructed that the very best craftsmen be employed in the construction of the Tabernacle. A verse Schaeffer highlights is 2 Chronicles 2:6: “And he garnished the house [that is, the Temple] with precious stones for beauty . . .”
God was interested in the beauty of His Temple. Schaeffer writes, “Fixed down in our hearts is a failure to understand that beauty should be to the praise of God. But here in the temple which Solomon built under the leadership of God himself, beauty was given an important place” (26).
That’s the summary of Schaeffer’s book: beauty, pursued through the arts, is a powerful and wonderful means of bringing glory to God. In The Rock, T. S. Eliot poetically argued the same point:
“LORD, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order,
And intellectual pleasures of the senses?
The LORD who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creation.”
Schaeffer was very inclusive in his description of the arts:
“Art, as I am using the word, does not include just ‘high art,’ that is, painting, sculpture, poetry, classical music, but also the more popular expressions – the novel, the theater, the cinema, popular music and rock.” (49)
He also argued that the Christian life itself was a piece of art – one that every Christian should creatively design. If art brings praise to God, the greatest praise we can offer Him is the very way in which we live our lives.
This is not to say that all art is inherently good; as Christians, we must be able to discern the worthy from the unworthy, the Christian from the non-Christian, the authentic from the attention-seeking. And so he presented a list of eleven points by which Christians should evaluate and create art.
4. Subject to Truth
5. Four Basic Standards
7. Style: Plasticity
8. Style: Worth
9. Christian Themes
10. Religious and Secular
11. Individual and Collection
Value: “A work of art has value in itself.” (pg. 50)
In the verse from 2 Chronicles above, what purpose did the jewels and precious stones have? Well, none, really. Their job was to please the eye. Schaeffer insists that art does not need to exist for any intellectual or practical purpose. While art can have function beyond being a thing to be enjoyed, we must remember that creativity and creation are things to be valued in and of themselves. After all, God is the ultimate Creator, and we are made in His image. His creativity should inspire us to be creative as well. We certainly admire things God created for their beauty – a sweeping panorama, a butterfly’s wing – so why not allow for the same in mans’ creations?
Intellectually, I could construct a scientific argument for the incredible design of the butterfly's wing, or a rational argument about how the order of it is evidence for an orderly universe created by an orderly God. But if I presumed that God created this butterfly solely to be used for apologetics purposes, I would be missing the point. There is another dimension here: God created the world to be beautiful, for our enjoyment. There is intellectual richness in creation, but there is also aesthetic richness, which is no less valuable.
To avoid misunderstandings, Schaeffer details three perspectives of approaching art: art for art’s sake, art as a medium of a message, and art as a body of work portrays world view. The first are two ends of extremes: art for art’s sake implies that art has no intellectual background whatsoever, but all art does start with a person with a world view, and will, to one degree or another, reflect that world view. The second implies that art is only a medium, only a means by which to present a world view. But art is more than something merely intellectual.
So Schaeffer sees art as an individual and as a body of work. One piece of artwork cannot give us the creator’s complete world view, but the collection of art that creator has made can. The art has both aesthetic value and, as a whole, presents a necessary intellectual component that stems from the artist’s own philosophy.
Worldview: “Art forms add strength to the world view which shows through, no matter what the world view is or whether the world view is true or false.” (pg. 57)
Since art does possess something of the artist’s world view, it has the power to present that world view in powerful, perhaps unexpected, ways. In this sense, art can be used as a weapon. The pen is mightier than the sword.
Schaeffer later uses the example of Zen art to further this point. “In Zen,” he writes, “the world is nothing, man is nothing, everything is nothing, but Zen poetry says it beautifully” (67). And that beauty by which Zen presents its message adds strength to its otherwise rather depressing world view.
Syntax: “[I]t takes a tremendous difference whether there is a continuity or a discontinuity with the normal definitions of . . . syntax.” (pg. 58)
If I write a novella without using normal syntax, or if I use words with meanings they don’t have, no one is going to understand me. Schaeffer argues that a parallel may be used in other art forms, such as painting. Since abstract art doesn’t use any images that we are familiar with, but instead lines, shapes, and splatters, it is very difficult for us to understand the perspective, or what the painting is supposed to show. We may hear art experts discuss how a painting of a big red dot symbolizes the human condition, but how much do we really know about what the artist was trying to say?
Schaeffer doesn’t think that going out of syntax is ‘wrong’ in art. Instead, he argues it puts an emotional disconnect between artist and viewer that must be considered. Obviously, taking this into art forms like music or dance becomes much more abstract, but perhaps John Cage’s 4’33’’ is an example of leaving ‘musical syntax’ out of the equation.
Subject to Truth: “The fact that something is a work of art does not make it sacred.” (pg. 61)
Schaeffer mentions this to make a brief point: art’s world view and art’s technical excellence are two totally different things. As Christians, if we watch an outstanding theatrical performance but realize that it is presenting a world view antithetical to our own, we do not need to dismiss the play as bad on account of its world view. We are free judge the play’s excellence and the play’s world view separately. Just because we say that play is excellent doesn’t mean that we think it is morally or religiously true.
Four Basic Standards: “There are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle.” (pg. 62)
The first standard is obvious. We can easily tell if a word usage is clever, if a sculpture was deftly carved, or if a song is wonderfully composed (and executed). Technical excellence is an important criterion for Christian and non-Christian artwork.
By validity, Schaeffer asks the question, Is the artist creating to meet a quota, match a standard, make a dime? There was a time in the Middle Ages when artists could be hired to produce artwork under the criteria of their employers. Today, art studios may be picky and artists may warp their own creative intuitions to try to get their artwork accepted into them. Musicians and moviemakers are known for producing songs and shows that are most likely to bring in sizable revenue. Dancers in the New York City Ballet may be swayed by the opinions of the critics. And pastors may be pressured to fashion their sermons to soothe itching ears. Schaeffer insists that an artist must produce work that is true to what the artist is trying to portray.
The next standard, the content standard, allows the nerdy Christians like me to jump in and analyze from a world view perspective. What world view does this piece of art convey? Is it godly or ungodly? Moral or immoral? Is it a message I can accept or reject?
The final standard asks the question, “Is the vehicle suited to the message?” Schaeffer uses the example of T. S. Eliot. His original poems presented a vapid world view, and were written with fragmented images and an atmosphere of brokenness. Then Eliot became a Christian, and his style – while still remaining true to the style he had personally developed – became less fragmented and more optimistic. The ‘vehicle,’ or style of his poetry, had to be changed to match his new message.
In the world of paintings, one can see the more orderly world of the Renaissance humanists become the modernism expressed by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali through the history of art. As messages and world views of artists changed throughout, so did their ‘vehicles.’
Message: “Art forms can be used for any type of message from pure fantasy to detailed history.” (pg. 71)
The artist has the freedom to be fantastic and wildly creative, or to use his creativity to artistically present factual information or accounts. From C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, to political cartoonists’ depictions of current events, to David McCullough’s Pulitzer-prize winning historical biographies, artists are free to use their creativity on any subject they choose.
Style: Plasticity: “Styles of art form change and there is nothing wrong with this.” (pg. 73)
Schaeffer saw no good coming from pastors who preached while speaking like King James (as apparently common in his time). He saw some Christians skeptical of modern art forms and clinging to past styles. To prove his point, Schaeffer suggests what we would think of changing currently common poetry styles (e.g., lots of free verse) to an older style. But Schaeffer doesn’t go back to the old style of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Merrie Olde England’s ballads. He goes all the way back to Hebrew poetry. Do we think that all poetry should fit the structure of a Hebrew poem? Of course not. Styles change with time, and that’s okay. Schaeffer even goes so far to say that a Christian should not try to create art in an outdated method.
“Christian art today should be twentieth-century art. Art changes. Language changes. The preacher’s preaching today must be twentieth-century language communication, or there will be an obstacle to being understood. And if a Christian’s art is not twentieth-century art, it is an obstacle to his being heard. It makes him different in a way in which there is no necessity for difference. A Christian should not, therefore, strive to copy Rembrandt or Browning.” (75)
[But . . . but . . . I love Browning. *sniff*]
Schaeffer extends the topic to include differences in style due to culture. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with an art style that is African or Japanese. He argues that the Christian artist should create his art within the framework of his time and culture. In a way similar to using the accepted syntax for an art form, using the general style of your culture increases your chance of being heard and understood as an artist.
Style: Worth: “There is no such thing as a godly style or ungodly style.” (pg. 76)
Schaeffer knew scholars of Sanskrit, a language associated with Hinduism, who said it was impossible to preach Christianity in the Sanskrit language. The language, its words and their meanings, are much better suited to expressing the beliefs of Hinduism. The Japanese language has similar obstacles; for example, their word for ‘guilt’ has to do with ceremonial uncleanness.
Schaeffer’s point is that when we use a style that has stemmed from a different world view, we need to be careful in how we use it to present our Christian world view. The Christian must be careful to define what he means by 'guilt' before a Japanese audience; the Christian must also be careful to adapt his artwork to a style designed for a different world view. Eliot’s free verse subtly changed after he converted to Christianity. Free verse was still his style of choice, but it had to be adapted. Schaeffer also takes this opportunity to mention rock music. Do audiences listen to your songs and hear your world view, or do they only hear the music they are so accustomed to, well, rocking out to? The fact that it is a style so associated with non-Christian world views means that any Christian message (or lyrics from a Christian perspective) may end up being muted by the style.
As such, the Christian has a duty to exercise wisdom when choosing a style, and pay careful attention to how he uses it. It's not that some styles are ungodly; they just require extra attention when used by someone whose world view differs from the one that style was designed for.
Christian Themes: “The Christian world view can be divided into a major and a minor theme.” (pg. 83)
This is probably my favorite point in the book, because it can applied to art and beyond. Schaeffer’s idea of a major theme and minor theme can be used to discern between Christian messages and false gospels, for example.
The minor theme is the human condition. We are sinners, and left to our own devices, every human being would be destined for Hell. Furthermore, even in our own, redeemed, Christian lives, we are bound to make mistakes in this life.
The major theme is the greatness of God. Life is purposeful, life is meaningful, because God gives it purpose and meaning. He has not left us hopelessly alone; He stepped into creation to save us from our sins. God is merciful, good, and full of love. God loves us! Christ is risen!
Some artists may be inclined to lean towards expressing one theme rather than the other in his work, but good Christian art – or rather, a collection of art from a Christian artist – should contain at least hints of each. We cannot be focused on presenting a message of condemnation and depravity in the world. Contrariwise, we cannot focus on presenting a message of sheer optimism. Each is a necessary half of the Christian message. Both God’s love and man’s brokenness have a place to be expressed in Christian art.
Religious and Secular: “Christian art is by no means always religious art, that is, art that deals with religious themes.” (pg. 88)
Some of the songs in the historical biblical accounts described battles. The Song of Songs is a poem on the subject of marital love. The brilliant craftsmanship that went into the Temple of Solomon was echoed in his palace.
In other words, when a Christian produces art, that art does not have to be on a religious subject; non-religious themes are just as worthy subjects. After all, all creation falls under the lordship of Christ, so if the artist decides to dramatize a scene in human life, paint a landscape of a mountain, or write a poem about love, he is still creating things in God’s creation. And if he is a Christian, his artwork will show his world view based on the way he approaches his subject. If an artist wishes to compose music to bring God glory, he is free to compose for a church service or for a square dance. His lyrics do not need to be specifically religious in order to be considered Christian. After all, watch any contemporary movie today and figure out what it's world view is. Chances are, the movie was not made for the purpose of being religious or philosophical. It was just produced by people with religions and philosophies. Whether it tries to deal with those themes are not, a world view will always be present in a movie - or any other art form.
Individual and Collection: “Every artist has the problem of making an individual work of art and, as well, building up a total body of work.” (pg. 92)
The Christian artist should be concerned with two things: the work of art he is presently working on, and the body of art his life’s work shall become. Each poem is an individual work of art; each collection of poems by that artist should show, in a beautiful, artistic way, the work that Christ has done in that poet’s life.
The same goes for every musician’s compilations of songs, every novelist’s collection of books, every dancer’s set of performances, every director’s compilation of films. The Christian artist has the double challenge of creating each individual piece and creating a symphony of artworks that result from an anthology of works.
What if Christian filmmakers approached their movies this way – knowing that technical excellence is as God-honoring as the material in it? What if they brainstormed new material knowing it does not have to deal with overtly religious themes?
What if poets and lyricists wrote songs that glorified God by their excellence and proper application of the Bible to various themes in life? What if Jesus wasn't always specifically named in them, but always assumed behind them, always reflected through them?
What if Christians approached the arts as seriously about the art itself as they were about using it as a tool for evangelizing the culture? What if art isn’t just a means of showing others Christ, but also a means of pursuing beauty and capturing God’s image in ourselves with the creativity and pursuit of excellence in our work?
This is a high standard of art. While flexible and broad in its approach to content and style, it is demanding on creativity and skill. It calls us to press always upward, to realize that our works are heard or seen by God Himself. But if He is concerned with every detail of our lives, why wouldn't that include the art we produce? This aesthetic is merely applied theology - 'merely' in the most understated possible way.
And whatsoever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.
- Colossians 3:23