The Value of Good Christian Visual Art
CORB H. FELGENHOUR
Even though aesthetic decisions are made every day in all that we do, in many cases the church has virtually surrendered this God-given craft over to culture, by withdrawing from the funding and the creation of good art. Without even realizing it, the church has also abandoned their artists, showing little desire to shepherd and encourage them to go farther in their God-gifted language and craft. The Church oftentimes views art as too volatile a medium for any significant place in corporate worship. Some fear that the love of art crosses the line into idol worship. Some have feared that you can’t control the artist because they may say or do something inappropriate. Some fear that art is too ambiguous to mean anything since most art doesn’t use words, and people question how truth can be communicated without words. Furthermore, art is perceived by the Church to have no functional value. The perception is that the art was only created for its own sake, falling under the category of “quaint” or “neat…if you like that sort of thing”. Therefore, says the church skeptic, since art could be idolatrous, it doesn’t say anything specific, and art has no apparent function, the logic follows: why should the pay for it or put in the man-hours to make it right? It turns into a stewardship issue.
A Brief Historical Summary
But there was a time when the church sponsored all sorts of art projects, commissioning professional artists to create incredible sacred pieces. Michelangelo is one of the most recognized for his mural in the Sistine Chapel or his iconic David statue. Unfortunately, however, many times art was funded by indulgences, a practice where people literally paid money, for the forgiveness of their sins. This inappropriate and theologically warped practice cast significant doubt over art in the church. Sacred art became a symbol of the early Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Over the next several centuries a shift began where fine art was funded more by secular sources than by the church. Artful composers like Beethoven began to emerge outside the umbrella of the church and secular entertainment became more influential on culture with little to no church affiliation or accountability. Fast forward to our post-modern culture today. Clearly the church has little influence in the entertainment industry and, as far as the arts are concerned, what is more often produced is art with little intention to be God-honoring. In this post-modern culture where truth is dictated by the whims of anyone’s perception rather than fact created by God, our culture produces art void of a sense of greater heavenly calling.
Since the evangelical church has virtually given up its influence over the arts, it follows that too few churches utilize the talents and gifts of their own artists. But should the church support artists? Is there a role that art can play in our evangelical churches? Why should the church embrace good art that is Christian? Why should the church put resources against a craft that has seemingly gone off-the-deep-end, a trades-skill that, at first blush, does not contribute to a furtherance of the Gospel or to the magnification of God?
There are many reasons why the church should support good Christian art. I have chosen to focus on five:
1. God values beauty –God makes beauty a part of His creation. Minutely microscopic life systems to the vast infinitude of awe-inspiring space, all with their varying color, power and complexity, bring Him glory. Psalm 8:3-4 says:
3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
Within Scripture, God reveals His liking of beautiful things. He says He will surround Himself with beautiful things like jasper, carnelian, and rainbows in Revelation 4. Sometimes these beautiful things He chooses have a particular function with a purpose to communicate or represent something. Other times it has no other purpose than to just be beautiful because God commanded it to be that way. In his book, Art in the Bible, Francis Schaeffer makes an excellent point:
Scripture does not contradict itself. This is why it is important to note that on Mount Sinai God simultaneously gave the Ten Commandments and commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle in a way which would involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever known…God himself showed Moses the pattern of the tabernacle…Over and over in the account of how the tabernacle is to be made, this phrase appears: ‘And thou shalt make…’ That is, God told Moses what to do in detail. (Schaeffer, 1973, 20-21)
God makes many commands like this throughout Exodus 25-30. God required items in the tabernacle to be adorned with sculptures of angels and cherubim and other “religious” imagery, which we would expect from our heavenly God. But as Schaeffer later points out, God commanded some pieces of art in the Tabernacle to be covered with images of nature (ex. Ex. 25:31-33). He even commanded that certain fruit be colored with unnatural colors, like the pomegranates in Exodus 28:33. God wanted them to be blue, scarlet, and purple. Scarlet would be a natural color of a pomegranate, and so could purple, assuming the fruit was maturing. However, a pomegranate would never naturally appear blue, yet God commands that it be depicted that way. This too was pleasing to him. He wanted both exact replicas found in nature and those not found in nature. God wanted it to go beyond nature’s normal, abstract from His own created order.
Schaeffer also points out that God even commanded items in the temple to be crafted that serve no functional purpose except to be beautiful. He wanted beautiful, precious stones in the Temple. Those stones had no practical significance other than to be beautiful. Similarly, in 2 Chronicles 3:16-17 God commanded that:
‘He [Moses] set up the pillars before the temple, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.’ Here are two free-standing columns. They supported no architectural weight and had no utilitarian engineering significance. They were there only because God said they should be there as a thing of beauty. (Schaeffer, 1973, 27)
2. Beauty reinforces God’s truth – God is a redemptive God. He is a God of truth and beauty. Beauty synthesizes with truth giving greater palatability to many Godly truths. Beauty aids and supports the revealing of His own identity. His beauty shows an order to all things. The complexity of this order evinces the fact that it was made; the world in all its splendor did not get here by chance. God uses beauty in His creation to reveal a part of Himself to the world. This is His General Revelation. So effectual is it, in fact, that all men have been, and are now, without excuse regarding the blatancy of God’s existence. Ultimately, because of that, all men bear the responsibility for not receiving Him if they so choose since God has revealed His invisible attributes in the things that He has made (Rom. 1).
In John 17 Christ prays for unity of true followers by God’s truth. Beauty is a part of God’s truth. Beauty is just as much a part of God’s truth as His created order is a part of His truth. The fact, 2 plus 2 equals 4, is His truth; He made it that way. It is just as much a part of God’s truth as the fact that Christ’s blood atoned for the sins of His saints because He made it that way. All things, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely (beautiful), whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…(Phil. 4:8)”, whether created by God directly or indirectly through man, bring honor to the One who ultimately made it that way.
3. Creating is modeling the Creator – All men are image-bearers of God. C.S. Lewis wrote of how inanimate objects glorify God by displaying God’s power and design within the object. An inanimate object merely exists; it sits there…doing nothing. Yet by analyzing the cellular make-up and the complexity of the atomic bonds within the object, testimony is given to God’s awesomeness and skill in creating. Living beings are the same. C.S. Lewis said:
On that level our wicked actions, in so far as they exhibit our skill and strength, may be said to glorify God, as well as our good actions. An excellently performed piece of music . . . will thus always glorify God whatever the intentions of the performer may be. (Lewis, 1994, 98)
Granted, the results of someone’s creativity may not be glorifying to God, but their act of creating does glorify God. We were made in God’s image. God created. Within the constructs of His design, we emulate God by trying to do the same as He: to create. God instills His image onto all His image-bearers. This not only includes aspects of how God looks on the outside, but also includes the same innate desire to be creative, making things with form and a function. As God created all things from nothing, we have the innate drive to take things of little value and combine them to make something worthwhile. Even those who are not setting out to honor God still bring glory to Him, inadvertently, when they emulate the nature of their Creator. How much more then it is to create with an intent to bring glory to God, pointing people to His greatness, and proclaiming His saving Gospel through our words and our works, even our art.
4. Art can transcend words—A picture is worth a thousand words. Art can sometimes say something quickly or more completely that may take thousands of words to communicate. This can arouse in us a God-honoring emotion and heightened sense of truth that could not be achieved by just mere words. If it was not sung, but read, the great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a powerful text, loaded with so much meaning. But once that text is set to its familiar tune and orchestrated skillfully performed inside a castle-like cathedral, the truths within the text are magnified exponentially. We must consider the breadth of beauty and depth of truth that can be communicated in one well-performed painting or sculpture let alone the potential of a culture penetrated by good art infused with a Christian worldview. A well-done picture IS worth a thousand words and can go far to bring greater glory to God and the work of His Gospel. The church should embrace those people that are called and gifted by God with the skill and talents to produce gospel-oriented art to point our post-modern culture back to God.
Obviously words make things specific and clearly delineate meaning. And God chose words to reveal himself specifically to the world—His Special Revelation—Jesus Christ, the Word. The scriptures are the authoritative Word, not beauty. But beauty, a major component of God’s General Revelation works along with His Word, His Special Revelation, to culminate in the present revelation of God that we currently understand until He reveals Himself fully in glory. At that point His revelation will be complete.
Good sacred art points people to God, telling the entire story of the Gospel within a lifetime of an artist’s work. It is impossible for one piece of art to contain all that is necessary to give a full picture of who God is and his Gospel just like it is impossible for one sermon or one song to contain all of the truths of God. But over the course of an artist’s lifetime one should be able to see a fuller picture of a Christian worldview. Schaeffer rightly distinguishes between a proper proportion of the “minor theme”—the gross depravity of man, and the “major theme”—God’s glory and His redemption of man. Often times artists disproportionately focus on the minor theme sometimes even doing it inaccurately by exaggerating it untruthfully, and the artist completely forgets about the beauty and goodness of the major theme. These two themes should be in proper contexts and be proportionately represented over an artist’s lifetime of work. (Schaeffer, 1973, 84)
Not all art created by Christ-followers must be religiously themed. Meaning, not all art needs to have a cross in it or an empty tomb to be considered “Christian”. It also doesn’t have to be photographic in the sense of it being exact replicas of the original (see point # 1 above referring to Ex 28 and the color of pomegranates). Phil. 4:8 is a good guide: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” An artist that is Christian is responsible, over the course of their lifetime, to make art that makes much of God. These artists should be missional in their mindset. They should be intentional regarding the messages they portray and balanced in the themes they convey to their viewers. This is Gospel-art. I cannot claim the creative rights to putting those two words together—Gospel and art. I heard Karen W. Bell, a talented artist from the Lansing, Michigan area, coin that term a few months ago. I thought it was so appropriate and captured the essence of what should be achieved by artists who are Christian (I also agreed to give her a buck every time I use her phrase). Creating Gospel-art means: infusing God’s truth and His message with the vehicle of visual art over the course of an artist’s lifetime. Again, no artist can say everything that should be said about God in one piece just like a preacher can’t say everything that should be said about God in one sermon. But over the entirety of an artist’s lifetime the Gospel should be seen and be accurately portrayed.
5. Gospel-Art works together with the Great Commission and Great Commandment - I’ve heard it said that artists speak a different language. People joke about it. “I don’t know what goes on in that person’s creative mind,” we might say. I know some folks become frustrated with “artist-types” because they feel they can’t speak an artist’s language or they think artists don’t communicate well. But what is ironically the case, is that a “normal” (so called) person who might not be able to relate to an artist directly, will be able to relate to the beauty and execution of a well-performed art piece. This “normal” person may be even moved to tears by a meaningful, skillfully executed piece of art. What a powerful way to heighten someone’s worship of God. Well-performed beauty can stir the inner emotion of man, searing God’s truth into their hearts in a way they will never forget. At that moment God is glorified and the artist has given back to those who first came to simply observe.
The great commission in Matthew 28 calls us to make disciples of all nations. We should be making disciples out of the nation of artists that are in our midst. And in return they can use their talents to preach the Gospel through their language of the visual. There are still many that need to hear the Gospel, so we need to translate it into every language; that includes the arts. If visual art speaks to certain individuals and communicates to a lost people group then let’s inject the Gospel into that communication vehicle and ask the Holy Spirit to use it for His purposes.
As part of the great commission and the great commandment we should be making disciples out of our artists and shepherding them towards utilizing their talents to glorify God and making this translation happen. That is our church’s call from God: making disciples and encouraging them to serve others through their gifts and talents. That includes art. We must nurture and encourage these people in their skill and in the messages their art conveys. We should not avoid the topic and exclude artists by giving the impression that they need to either justify their calling as an artist or to seek validation in the secular world. Philip Graham Ryken says:
The true purpose of art is the same as the true purpose of anything: it is not for our own self-expression, but for the service of others and the glory of God. Or to put all of this another way, making art is an expression of our love--love of God and love for our neighbor. (Ryken, 2006, 50)
That is the greatest commandment given to us by Jesus himself from Matthew 22, to love God and love other people.
Measuring style/quality of Gospel-art
In case you are wondering if my advocacy of visual art is self-serving in any way, I can assure youI am a horrible artist. Once my 5-year-old son asked me to draw him a picture of a bear. After I finished drawing a bear he looked at it with a puzzled look as if studying it for a moment, cocked his head, then looked at me again, then back to the “bear.” Then, without hesitating, turned to his mother and said, “Mommy, can you draw me a bear instead?”
If you are like me, the encouraging thing is that you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate artistic quality, and you don’t have to be a good artist to shepherd one regarding the message they convey. Operating with love and respect, a non-artistic shepherd has the potential to spur real artists to higher levels of their craft by helping them to move from making art for art’s sake, to performing art that is for the kingdom’s sake, for God’s sake alone. Again, Gospel-art.
When discussing a piece of art with its creator it may be difficult to separate your own personal tastes from the desired meaning of the artist. How do you evaluate what they have done? The following is a tool or guide to give you a place to start when discussing someone’s piece. The last thing you want to do is discourage an artist by confusing your taste with actual truth, etc. This tool puts breaks the discussion down into four spectrums of every piece of art:
1) Representational Quality
2) Load of Meaning
3) Literary Style
4) The Glory Factor
The first two spectrum are almost taken exactly from Hans Rookmaaker’s, Art Needs No Justification and address the form and function of the art created. The latter are my own. These spectrum help us to distinguish between form and message. Form definitely impacts the message, but all forms of art are valid and could glorify the Lord if the message is properly received and understood through quality execution. “Really great art often ‘works’ on several levels at the same time (Rookmaaker, 1978, 54)”. We must shepherd our artists to create the kind of art that is needed to permeate our culture. But we need to discern through their language so we can best shepherd them in a way that honors the Lord and helps them in their walk with Him.
I would start with the first of these four spectrum, working through each one in order. This will help you in discerning the artist’s intentions and might help you to appreciate the heart and effort behind each piece. They don’t call it a “work” of art for nothing. Every piece is a work of art whether or not it exudes the finest of quality; if an artist is willing to show a piece to you then chances are high that they worked hard to get it to the place where they wanted to show it. If the artist’s skill is low, then encourage him or her to be tutored by other skilled artists. But no matter how skilled they are, the potential is there to help artists understand the value of submitting their talents to God, moving them toward creating Gospel-art.
1. Representational Quality- Under “Form”, the first spectrum, one must discern the representational quality. There is a degree of naturalness to a picture. On one end of the spectrum a picture might be trying to imitate the real scene or object, literally, like a photograph (Ansel Adams). This would be a completely natural representation. On the other side of the spectrum would be the abstract representation, containing less detail, seemingly simpler, containing no resemblance to the real object (Kandinsky). And then you have everything in-between.
2. Load of Meaning- For the second spectrum one must discern the quantity or load of meaning contained within a piece of art. On one side you may have a piece that is low in content like a decorative landscape similar to a painting by Thomas Kinkade. The landscape may represent beauty to its fullest extent but it may not mean much more than that. It’s meaning is simpler. On the other side you might have a piece with high iconic value where it represents something greater than the piece itself. Like for example, the idol calf made by the Israelites (Exodus 32). I’m sure it was made quite well but God destroyed it because it had so much iconic meaning representing the worship of other Gods and the rebellious Israelites. That is a high load of meaning.
3. Literary Style-The third spectrum begins to plunge into the message and what is being communicated by a piece of art. This spectrum addresses the style of how the message is portrayed, the vehicle for which the truth is conveyed to the observer. On one side it may be very allegorical or anagogical conveying a principle or a moral. Using a literary example, C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia”, you would not use that to teach systematic theology in a Master of Divinity program, but reading it one can learn deep principled truths of God. Opposite that, on the other side of the spectrum, would be the more axiomatic, systematic, statements of fact like say a well-sculpted plaque of the 10-Commandments. There is no poetry in it. It is what it is. And then you have everything in-between. Does one side have more value than the other? No…not for the sake of this discussion. Both art styles are valid.
4. The Glory Factor -The above three spectrum ultimately feed into this fourth spectrum, the Glory Factor. Who is receiving the glory? Is what is being produced honoring and glorifying the Lord or not? On one side of the spectrum, a piece could edify an observer by properly and appropriately leading them to an accurate truth or conclusion about God. It would be a biblical conclusion. It supports absolute truth—God’s truth. On the flip side a piece may be deceptive, intentionally leading people to a wrong conclusion about God. It may be done to antagonize the Gospel or to be anti-biblical. Maybe the piece is more relative in regards to truth or tears down a person inaccurately. One might say that there is not anything in-between on this spectrum and for the most part I would agree. I could see an argument being made for an a-moral or an a-biblical aspect of a message, either for God or against Him. In mentoring this artist, the shepherd must first ask, is the artist intentionally communicating a-biblical or anti-biblical message? Meaning, are they intentionally leading their audience down the wrong path or are they just not communicating accurately? Either way the shepherd must step in to help guide the Christ-following artists. In those instances let discernment and reason reign. The main point of this spectrum is to discern whether the piece, ultimately, is God-glorifying or not.
A call to Christian post-modern artists
I realize that much of what I have said in this article goes against a typical post-modern artist’s training. A post-modern artist might begin a project by creating something and then leave the interpretation to the viewer. A post-modernist may even validate this by saying that’s the beauty of it…letting viewers walk away with various interpretations from each other. The end result is divergent, contradictory conclusions. These various conclusions would all be considered desirable to a post-modernist. In music, I have been trained in the same way. Aren’t we supposed to let the viewer come to his or her own conclusions? The answer is “yes” and “no”.
Please understand that I would never want to discourage a viewer from trying to interpret a piece; On the contrary, I encourage it. Most certainly that is an aspect of art. Art moves us on an emotional level and can heighten our awareness to things that we were unaware of before. However, if we as artists stop there and stay ambiguous in our intent, relying solely on the viewer’s opinion to impute meaning, then that seems to be a passive way out for the artist, and it most certainly enables an artist to not take responsibility for what he or she produces. This is especially true for a Christian artist whose ultimate calling in life is to bring glory to God, to proclaim the Gospel, and to make disciples of all nations. We must keep post-modernism in perspective. It is a blip on the historical radar screen of all created art. Become so talented at your craft that viewers can’t miss what you are trying to say. But also, go farther with your intent then the non-believer and purposefully let them see God working in you. Show them what God is teaching you. Teach people the things of God through your art and through your testimony, and seek to edify those who view it. Christian artists: Time is short. Purposefully say something in your art, and let it be effectively communicated by the quality execution of your craft.
We must continue to teach our artists as well as our non-artists the value good Christian art, and we should strive to utilize every communication vehicle available to proclaim the message of the Gospel to a lost world. God values the use of beauty. He uses it to support His truth. When we create beauty we emulate our Creator. Art can transcend words and using it wisely and appropriately can help to expand the reach of the Gospel to those that may not have heard it before. And that is what we are ultimately called to do: Preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations.
I trust that this gives you some serious food for thought. There are many saints out there who may be too quick to shut down any attempt to move this intention forward. To this, Rookmaaker says that “Art has …its own meaning as God’s creation; it does not need justification. Its justification is its being a God-given possibility” (Rookmaaker, 1978, 39). Be encouraged to use art as another way to further God’s purposes by encouraging and shepherding those artists around you in your fold.
So to you, pastors, I say, keep shepherding your people. Think on this and prayerfully consider how this type of ministry might start at your church. And to Karen W. Bell, for the use of your term Gospel-art, I owe you at least 5 bucks.
Corb H. Felgenhour lives with his wife and three children and is Pastor of Worship Ministries at South Church, Lansing, MI. Felgenhour has two degrees in music composition, the latter from the University of Southern California, and was credentialed in ministry by the Evangelical Free Church of America. www.colossians316.org
Schaeffer, Francis A. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973.
Ryken, Philip Graham. Art for God’s Sake. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2006.
Rookmaaker, Hans R. Art Needs No Justification. Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1978.
Lewis, C.S. Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.
theme: visual art