Start with a 400-year-old translation of the four gospels (KJV), add some great contemporary art (Makoto Fujimura), and you end up with this: The Four Holy Gospels, a new project from Crossway Bibles (Jan. 31, 2011). For more info, check out this new video (8 min.):
Thank you to everyone who has passed along an email or a kind comment about yesterday’s post. I appreciate that you take the time to read this little blog.
A few times I’ve been asked about the origin of this topic and whether the blog post was a sneak peak into my book project. And the answer to that question is no. In the process of research for my book I did read four books that touched on the topic of art, but my book is mostly unrelated to the topic of art. The article had a different origin.
The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates. And I apply this to many of the assumptions I have in my life, at lest the ones I can see. Unexamined assumptions, when I do see them (or when they are pointed out to me), require some level of investigation and reflection. And one of these assumptions has haunted me for some time now.
When I can find the time in my schedule I like to get away for a day at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. (even better if it’s a date with my wife). The museum is only a short trip from where my hat hangs. The museum architecture is stunning, and the collection features works by many of the world’s greatest painters and sculptors including Picasso, van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Cranach. Every time I leave the NGA I leave with a worshipful heart, grateful to God for all the artistic talent he has given and aware of his kindness. But is there a theological footing for this assumption? Can I honor God by delighting in art even if I am unsure of the artist’s spiritual condition and motive for painting?
Eventually questions like these will pile up in my mind and they will press me on to do some investigative work. And once I begin investigating I typically don’t stop until I find clarity on my question and examine my assumptions by the light of God’s word and by the theologians he has given to the Church. All this to say that it was personal inquiry that planted the seeds of thought that later became my article on art.
Speaking of the book, later in the summer I hope to introduce you to the topic and the broad outline of my project. By God’s grace the book seems to be progressing well. The first round of edits are now under way and I hope to have them completed by the arrival of summer. A second round of edits will begin sometime in August. Hopefully by the end of October I’ll be done. In general I think the project is developing better than I had hoped and the feedback so far has been good. But much work is yet undone. Thanks for your encouragement and prayers.
[Note: Due to the length of this article you may find it easier to read/print as a PDF document. You can do this by clicking here. -Tony]
Does God delight in non-Christian art?
This is a whale of a question, but let’s begin with a few basic points.
(1) The origin of the human artistic impulse cannot be humanly explained. In comparing theories on the origin of art 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, “today there are just as many divergent ideas as there were in earlier days: one person explains art from play, another from sexual desire, a third from rhythm, a fourth from feelings and actions that also occur with animals, and so forth. But more and more the conviction is gaining ground that with art, just as with religion, we must accept an original human impulse and an urge that we cannot explain from other inclinations or activities” (Essays, page 252-253). Exactly. There are many factors that influence the artists, but nothing can explain the origin of the artistic impulse. We are born with it.
(2) The artistic impulse is spiritual. Again Bavinck writes, “with the sense of beauty, we are dealing with a phenomenon that is part of human nature: a predisposition and susceptibility of the soul to find pleasure and to enjoy oneself in things that fulfill certain conditions” (Essays, page 251). Exactly. The artistic impulse is a spiritual reality. And by “spiritual” Bavinck does not mean to say that art can save sinners from their sin. Art has no salvific influence, apart from an understanding of Christ and the gospel. It is only in light of the gospel that art has any salvific power like, for example, in the dramatic testimony of Peter Hitchens.
(3) The artistic expression of man is a reflection of God’s artistic expression in this world. Quite famously, Abraham Kuyper has written, “The world of sounds, the world of forms, the world of tints, and the world of poetic ideas, can have no other source than God; and it is our privilege as bearers of his image, to have a perception of this beautiful world, artistically to reproduce it, and humanly to enjoy it” (Lectures, 156-157). The world is populated by artists because God is The Artist.
Let me add one important qualification before we get to the question. In this short blog post I cannot begin to define what constitutes “true” art, and what does not. Obviously by “art” I do not mean art that seeks to glorify evil (i.e. pornography). Without going into the whole structure of beauty, that would be another post altogether, I am referring to good-natured beauty, the kind of beauty displayed in the riff of a skilled jazz band, or in the brush strokes of a 17th century French painter, or in the heart-exposing prose of a 19th century Russian novelist. To some degree I think this all qualifies as art. For the sake of brevity I am assuming that we are talking about “good-natured art.”
And thus we arrive to the meat of the question: Does God delight in art even if it’s performed, written, or painted by a non-Christian? Or to put the question in another way, Does the fact that a sinner who is unredeemed and under the wrath of God make his or her art repulsive to God?
It was in reading He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace Richard Mouw that I first came across this discussion. Mouw says that God can—and does—delight in non-Christian art. He writes:
I think God takes delight in Benjamin Franklin’s wit and in Tiger Wood’s putts and in some well-crafted narrative paragraphs in a Salman Rushdie novel, even if these accomplishments are in fact achieved by non-Christian people. And I am convinced that God’s delight in these phenomena does not come because they bring the elect to glory and the non-elect to eternal separation from the divine presence. I think God enjoys these things for their own sakes.
Here is the crux of his reasoning:
The above examples of God’s delight do not necessarily involve moral approval of the ‘inner’ lives of non-elect people. When an unbelieving poet makes use of an apt metaphor, or when a foul-mouthed major league outfielder leaps high into the air to make a stunning catch, we can think of God as enjoying the event without necessarily approving of anything in the agents involved—just as we might give high marks to a rhetorical flourish by a politician whose views on public policy we despise.
But how can this be true? What proof can we find in scripture and theology?
I asked a friend of mine—a sturdy Calvinist finishing up a dissertation on a preeminent Puritan theologian—to explain this concept a little further. He agrees with Mouw because this view is based upon the understanding that all men are made in God’s image. This means that, to some degree, all men reflect God’s image. In an email he explained it like this:
The central idea here, I think, surrounds the imago dei. God is the most perfect lover of his image. The image resides within humanity in the substantial human soul. Accordingly, it coruscates [glitters] in culture in infinitely different ways. It is impossible that God should see such reflections of his glory and not find himself wrapped in cognitive delights. He thinks most highly of his own image. He delights in it most profoundly.
So in some way art is the reflection of God’s image in man. And where God’s image glitters in society we can logically assume that this brings delight to the One who treasures His own image. It is something of a Self-reflection.
Thus Mouw can argue at length that the foundation of this delight is not found in the inherent greatness of the athlete, the painter, the poet, or the novelist. In fact we have an impulse to glorify the human artist rather than the ultimate Artist. It’s much more likely that we will be tempted to praise the greatness of the small-a artist. Rather, Mouw teaches us an important lesson. The foundation for God’s delight in non-Christian art is that it’s a reflection of Himself.
To understand this we must comprehend this dignity of man alongside his wretchedness. Somehow—mysteriously it seems to me—man can continue to reflect God’s image although that image is now “frightfully deformed” (Calvin) because of sin. Spiritual death cannot fully erase the imago dei. In fact it’s hard to miss the irony of the fact that each of us possesses a hateful and debased tongue that we use to curse our fellow image bearers (James 3:9). Man is both wicked and splendid. The wickedness is never more evident than when we spew hate towards a fellow image bearer. It is the splendor of man’s gifts that make his sin so scandalous. So in some way, unredeemed men can be both frightfully deformed and yet a reflection of the Creator. That is a mystery, but I see it in Scripture.
In his book The Road from Eden: Studies in Christianity and Culture, John Barber makes a number of adjustments to the Kuyper/Mouw position and many of them are helpful (pgs 445–460). For example, Barber disagrees with Mouw that God maintains “multiple divine purposes;” one purpose established for the Church before the fall, and another purpose established for creation after the fall.
Yet despite his disagreements, when it comes to the question of whether God delights in non-Christian art, Barber agrees with Mouw:
…because the cultural labor of unregenerate men is vitally important to the forward progress of the world, and to God’s long-range redemptive scheme, and because that labor stems from gifts that God has given, the product of unregenerate culture is pleasing to God. However, these observations do not lessen the “antithesis” Kuyper spoke of—the fact that there is, and always shall be, a fundamental difference between the Christian and the non-Christian cultural agent by virtue of the Cross. (453)
So God does in fact delight in certain non-Christian art, Barber argues. Yet if you are reading carefully you can hear in these words a caution. That is because the artistic skill of non-Christian artists is limited by sin. In regards to Pablo Picasso, for example, Barber writes, “While from a human perspective, his life-production may be considered ‘great,’ sin had reduced him to a mere vestige of the image of God, meaning that his work never reached its full potential” (452). That full potential requires an artist living under the Lordship of Christ and developing works that seek to glorify God.
Yet despite this lack of reaching full potential, the artistic gifting of Picasso finds its origin in God. Non-Christian artists show us, in Calvin’s words, “how widely the rays of divine light have shone” and reveals to us “the excellent gifts of the Spirit that are diffused through the whole human race” (Commentary on Gen. 4:20).
The implications of all this is explained in the words of Anthony Hoekema in Created in God’s Image:
We as Christian believers, therefore, may learn much from great works of literature written by unbelievers, even though we do not share their ultimate commitment. We may appreciate what has been produced by non-Christians in such areas of artistic endeavor as architecture, sculpture, painting, and music, since their gifts are from God. We may therefore enjoy the cultural products of non-Christians in such a was as to glorify God through them—even though such praise of God was not part of the conscious intent of these artists.
What makes it possible for Christians to delight in the artistic gifts of non-Christians is an understanding of where those gifts originate. They are from God. They reflect the character of God. And who better to recognize the origin of artistic gifts in non-Christians than God?
Christian artists should seek to use their artistic gifting to serve the Church. But this does not mean that art disconnected from the life of the church is not God-reflecting. It can be. And this is why we ourselves can delight in the beautiful artistic expressions of non-Christian artists because, as I have tried to show from reliable theologians, that is in fact what God himself does. Like God, we can separate the reflected gift from the depravity of the mirror, we can look beyond the wicked tongue and the wicked heart and still recognize God’s character in the reflection of beauty.
It seems to me that until we are open to this idea that God delights in the display of beautiful art by the non-Christian, we will find it difficult to glorify God through the art we see. This is specially true in the artisans who are not Christians, who bear the marks of their Creator while remaining under the guilt of their sin, and who are in desperate need of a Savior.
So here’s a brief summary of what I have learned over the months in reading on this topic:
- The artistic gift in man is intrinsic.
- The artistic creativity of God is on display in his creation.
- The human artistic impulse is, at least in part, a reflection of God’s image.
- God delights in Himself and therefore delights in the reflection of his own character, artistic beauty being one reflection of Him in our culture.
- Non-Christian artists, while remaining in a state of enmity with God, will never achieve their fullest artistic potential.
This perspective offers the Christian a wide foundation for the appreciation of non-Christian art in these ways:
- It will open our eyes to God’s common grace in the art around us.
- It will remind us that in every gifted artist we see a reflection of The Artist, the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty.
- It will help us appreciate the gifts of non-Christian artists and the beauty of non-Christian art.
- It will protect us from glorifying the glittering mirrors rather than the Sun.
- It will remind us that the artistic potential of non-Christians, no matter how great, is tragically limited.
- It will remind us that while there is beauty in non-Christian art to be enjoyed, art is not a “neutral territory” that should be pursued without a concern for God and truth.
- Finally, it will remind us that God’s highest purpose for art is beautiful work that flows from an artist who lives and works under the fear of God and under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and expresses that artistic talent with the goal of bringing glory to The Artist.
Here is a very helpful and balanced perspective on literature and aesthetics from a paper by C. S. Lewis published the book Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967) page 10:
“The Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan: he will feel less uneasy with a purely hedonistic standard for at least many kinds of work. The unbeliever is always apt to make a kind of religion of his aesthetic experiences; he feels ethically irresponsible, perhaps, but he braces his strength to receive responsibilities of another kind which seem to the Christian quite illusory. He has to be ‘creative’; he has to obey a mystical amoral law called his artistic conscience; and he commonly wishes to maintain his superiority to the great mass of mankind who turn to books for mere recreation. But the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world …
It thus may come about that Christian views on literature will strike the world as shallow and flippant; but the world must not misunderstand. When Christian work is done on a serious subject there is no gravity and no sublimity it cannot attain. But they will belong to the theme. That is why they will be real and lasting—mighty nouns with which literature, an adjectival thing, is here united, far over-topping the fussy and ridiculous claims of literature that tries to be important simply as literature.
And a posteriori it is not hard to argue that all the greatest poems have been made by men who valued something else much more than poetry… The real frivolity, the solemn vacuity, is all with those who make literature a self-existent thing to be valued for its own sake.”
Puritan fashion is hot! No kidding. A top designer recently announced the resurgence of the Puritan doily! Yes, that white thing around Richard Sibbes’ neck is coming back. [Once for a college video project to portray John Winthrop I cut a neck hole in a table doily. Yes, there are pictures of me sportin’ the thing. No, you’ll never see them.]
There is more to the Puritans than hip doily fashion. So who were they? This question receives a great deal of answers but one book relinquishes definition of Puritan culture to the words of the Puritans. The book is titled The Puritans: A Sourcebook of their Writings (Dover: 2001) edited by Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson.
Perry Miller (1905-1963) was a professor at Harvard and is remembered as a fine Puritan scholar and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Narrowed specifically on the American Puritans, this 1,000 book is loaded with original source writings and helpful introductions covering the true Puritan in their manners, customs, behaviors, poetry and their thoughts on art, education, politiks and science. It provides a fascinating background in the search to understand true Puritan culture.
Here are a few choice cuts from the intro:
“Without some understanding of Puritanism, it may be safely said, there is no understanding of America … In the mood of revolt against the ideals of previous generations which has swept over our period, Puritanism has become a shining target for many sorts of marksmen. Confusion becomes worse confounded if we attempt to correlate modern usages with anything that can be proved pertinent to the original Puritans themselves. To seek no further, it was the habit of proponents for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment during the 1920’s to dub Prohibitionists ‘Puritans,’ and the cartoonists made the nation familiar with an image of the Puritan: a gaunt, lank-haired kill-joy, wearing a black steeple hat and compounding for sins he was inclined to by damning those to which he had no mind. Yet any acquaintance with the Puritans of the seventeenth century will reveal at once, not only that they did not wear such hats, but also that they attired themselves in all the hues of the rainbow, and furthermore that in their daily life they imbibed what seem to us prodigious quantities of alcoholic beverages, with never the slightest inkling that they were doing anything sinful. … if first of all we wish to take Puritan culture as a whole, we shall find, let us say, that about ninety per cent of the intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices, was that of all Englishmen … They were not unique or extreme in thinking that religion was the primary and all-engrossing business of man, or that all human though and action should tend to the glory of God.”
This book is not Cross-centered but very useful in illustrating the Puritan Cross-centered spirituality existed within a cultural sensitivity to art, politiks, education, science and the world around them. Very useful to confront the caricature that the Puritans were dry, culturally withdrawn and excessive zealots.
TSS Podcast #1 (July 7, 2007)
Interview with Thomas Fluharty
Artist and blogger Thomas Fluharty is the busiest person I know, so when an opportunity opened to interview him this past Saturday morning I grabbed my microphone and met him at a local restaurant. Fluharty is known around the world for his illustrations and especially his editorial caricatures. His award-winning “Sir Hillary Poised for a Takeover” painting is one example. But my personal favorite will always be “Master and Commander,” a painting that caught my attention as a Weekly Standard subscriber long before I paid any attention to its artist. But more amazing than his illustrations is Tom’s personal testimony of God’s sovereign grace. Saturday was his 23rd anniversary of being saved on a street corner in New York City. Tom reminds us, in his own words, that being a Christian is not synonymous with being an American — but a radical experience where a sinful, idol-worshiping soul is unveiled to the infinite joy in Christ. The interview provided us a great excuse to launch the inaugural TSS podcast.
TSS Podcast #1 (July 7, 2007) 26.5 MB, 46:17
download or listen [you are free to download, burn and share this podcast]