The Lost Arts

Will Christians rediscover the value of creative expression?

By Tamela Baker

Published in Many-to-Many Volume 19, pp. 11 - 13 & 39, 1997

Hanging in my living room is a painting depicting Charleston Harbour during a storm. The sky is dark, palm trees swoon, and waves smash against the seawall that separates the harbour from the antebellum homes on the Battery where Confederate forces ignited the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter. I love that painting for several reasons, not the least of which is that it was a Christmas gift from my brother, who lives in that South Carolina city. I also love the painting for its beauty; the drama of the storm contrasted with the elegant, fragile grace of the buildings. I can get lost in it, and was happily doing so that Christmas morning, when I noticed that among the whitecaps on the furious waves were splashes of yellow and orange. These colours are not immediately noticeable; you have to look closely to see them. Nevertheless, the painting would not be so dramatic without them. It would never occur to me to use yellow and orange to paint a white-capped wave, which is one of a host of reasons I am not a painter.

"Part of being an artist is knowing what to paint and what not to paint," my friend Allyson Good-man said as we stood in front of a painting of a winter scene. Most of the canvas had been left white. In one corner, the artist had painted a red barn and stark black trees. I shivered just looking at it, even though it was mid-June.

Where does the ability to know what to paint - and what not to paint - come from? To use yellow and orange to depict water? To put together a string of notes that become a symphony or to combine words to form a poem? And what role do any of these abilities have in the kingdom of God? There was a time when the church was the major patron of the arts, commissioning and supporting artists. That is not the case today although in some quarters there has been a revival in Christian art.

Christian artists say that among believers there is often skepticism toward the arts. Cynthia Schlabach, director of the Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, believes Christians view with suspicion "anything a little different or dark."

"A lot of artists, when looking inside themselves or around in the world, are being prophets, in a sense, of what is," she says. "Thereís a lot of darkness to portray and to question, and that comes out rather strongly in art. And I think people want to push it aside as not being a good thing."

"One of the greatest frustrations that a Christian artist experiences is social labeling by other Christians - and not usually by the secular world," adds painter Jennifer Goss, who is also a missionary in South Africa. "If you donít have Scripture verses at the bottom of your paintings or pictures of the Last Supper, then you must not be a Christian artist."

A response given to actor Bob Clark on his choice of profession was pretty simple: "Itís bad, because itís bad."

Thereís also a question of whether the arts are a necessity or a luxury in the life of a Christian. "While willing to admit that the arts can even be useful at times (in evangelism, for instance), some do not see them as anything more than frivolous embroidery on the fabric of daily life," observes Terry Glaspey in his recent book, Children of a Greater God. "Be-cause we donít see the arts as import-ant, it is not surprising that much of our ĎChristianí art is of the most shallow and forgettable sort," Glaspey writes. "With this attitude, it is also not surprising that many Christians feel that art needs some sort of justification. Unless it is useful in the task of evangelism, some will say it is ultimately a waste of our time; or even worse.

Another issue is what sometimes passes for art. "Human evil and depravity are one of the leading subjects of art," writes Wheaton College professor Leland Ryken in his book Culture in Christian Perspective. "The fallen nature of people makes it possible for the arts to express falsehood and to have an immoral effect on an audience." Other Christian scholars express concern that our culture is turning people into machines and that various art forms often give no time to thinking - movies and sitcoms seem to be written by formula and even the style of modem music suggests the steady drone of machinery. Such art can demean humanity and seems to scream for the presence of a perfect God.

Christians have shied away from stage productions, Clark says, because of "blatant homosexuality and greed" that often characterize the industry. "Thereís also the feeling that itís not a hard-working profession," he says.

There is a "reality that much of what currently goes by the name of art is vulgar, tasteless, or entirely impenetrable to any but the Ďinitiatedí," Glaspey says. Christians were outraged to learn "art" depicting a crucifix in a bottle of urine had been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts - which raises the question of what defines "art."

Despite this, most Christians would agree that because God created us, any artistic abilities that we have must have come from Him. The Bible says God endows humans with creative abilities. Consider Bezalel and Oholiab. Exodus 31 records that God called these two craftsmen for the task of furnishing the tabernacle:

Then the LORD said to Moses, ĎSee, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts - to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan to help him."

Exodus 31:1-6

Centuries later, King Solomon sent for Huram, a master craftsman from Tyre, to design and make the furnishings for the temple (1 Kings 7:13-51). Many biblical heroes also had an artistic bent. Moses was a writer. David was a musician and poet. Solomon was a writer, as was Paul, who quoted Greek poets before the Areopagus and in Romans used the forms of Stoic argumentation to convey the basic doctrines of Christianity. The Bible, in fact, refers to every art form from music to drama to literature, and records that each was used to Godís glory. Creativity had His blessing; He is, after all, the original artist.

What happened? How did Christians become suspicious of the arts when such expression is a gift from God?

Some say it happened during the Reformation.

Art and faith intertwine

Having survived the demise of the Roman Empire, Christianity became the dominant theme of medieval art. Christian scholars established centers of learning throughout Europe. Wherever Christianity spread, literacy and learning followed.

Christianity was the inspiration for poetry textbooks, morality plays and mystery plays. What the church didnít inspire, it influenced - including secular works such as Geoffrey Chaucerís Canterbury Tales, framed by a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, and Thomas Maloryís Morte díArthur, which includes the search for the cup Jesus used at Passover.

This influence occurred not only in Europe, but also in other regions where Christianity had spread - as is shown by a collection of medieval Ethiopian Christian art recently donated to Howard University in Washington, D.C. That such art was produced in Ethiopia should come as no surprise: an Ethiopian court official was one of the first Christians (Acts 8:26-40).

The church was the major patron of the arts through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, supporting artists from the monks on the Scottish island of Iona to Michelangelo in Rome. Gradually church icons (statues or portraits of Jesus, saints, and other Christian symbols) became as important to some worshipers as prayer and faith - sometimes more so. Holidays and festivals honored a local icon or relic. People prayed to these idols and expected miracles from them.

Lost faith in art

After Martin Luther declared that salvation came from faith rather than works, the wave of Protestantism brought with it a destructive faction - the iconoclasts, or idol-breakers, who destroyed much of the religious artwork. They broke statues, smashed stained glass windows, and in Iona, hurled hundreds of Celtic crosses into the sea.

The focus of many artists changed. Rather than creating images with sacred subjects, they turned their attention to mankind. Their obsession with the glorification of humanity is reflected in the title Kenneth Clark gave to the Renaissance segment of his Civilization series: "Man - the Measure of All Things."

Hadnít God warned about "graven images"? Didnít Paul condemn those who "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles" (Rom. 1:23)?

While not all Christian artwork stopped, attitudes changed. The iconoclasts were right to oppose the worship of images. But they pushed a noble ideal to an extreme. The effect in the years since has been a stifling of creativity in the Christian realm. "For Christians to develop their talent, a lot of times itís to ignore whatís going on in the world," comments Schlabach, "and itís to just concentrate on a clichéd image of whatís beautiful."

"Being a Christian artist is often painful if you believe that what people observe when they see your work is the innermost part of yourself... your private struggles, your past pains," Goss adds. ĎItís not just a pretty picture; when it is, I think you become only someone with artistic ability but not someone who is seeking to minister through his work."

Renewal in the Church

In recent years, however, there has been a renewal of interest in the arts among Christians. Worship services are including more drama, new music, more visual representations of the gospel. The field of Christian music is expanding, as is Christian publishing. Secular recording and publishing companies have taken notice and have developed subsidiaries for Christian markets.

Part of the reason for this renaissance may be the desire for expression that many artists believe God has given each of us. Part of it could be a wave of interest in spirituality - Newsweek recently reported that "millions of Americans are embarking on a search for the sacred in their lives," as baby boomers abandon secular pursuits in favour of spiritual experiences.

Many artists are dealing with secular as well as sacred subjects, finding ways to integrate their art with ministry. "One way is in being involved in my church," Schlabach says. "They have encouraged me to take part in the worship services by creating visual elements for the service. I appreciate that. I hope that churches see people like that as valuable." But she doesnít limit herself to those environs. "I need to be dedicated to developing my artistic skills and imagination. As far as content or the context of where I show the work, itís not particular to a church culture."

While a resurgence of Christian influence in the arts is a good thing, the quest-ion that Christian artists must grapple with is whether the art is dedicated to the glory of God or whether it is purely for entertainment.

Clark is troubled by the Christian arts explosion, especially by the trend toward using drama within worship services. "Drama is a performance art," he says, "and a church service shouldnít be used for performance."

Nevertheless, Clark insists that Christian drama has its place. "Christ was an incredible storyteller. Thatís what drama does. With drama, you can see things happening. Itís a good tool that can be used to get biblical messages across to the audience", he says.

For some Christians, the notion of a "renewed interest" in the arts may come as a surprise. Theyíve been interested all along.

Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., is perhaps better known for its conservative bent than for its devotion to the arts. But the universityís internationally recognized gallery boasts an extensive collection of religious artwork from the Middle Ages onward. About 40 of its Italian paintings are on a national tour in conjunction with the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa.

The universityís fine arts schedule includes an impressive array of concerts and drama, including two Shakespeare productions. The offerings are decidedly classic-al and traditional, but university officials view the schoolís involvement with the arts as an outreach to the community, according to Quality Development Director Bob Jones IV.

To that end, the university has developed a newsletter called SMART (Sharing Masterworks of ART) as a study guide to its productions. For last yearís production of Othello, SMART capitalized on a comparison of the Iago character with Satan, the false accuser. It encouraged readers to visit the university gallery to see artistic representations of Satan, which parallel the imagery Shakespeare associates with Iago in Othello. There is no overt attempt at evangelization in the SMART guide, but program notes and questions prompt readers to think about the need for Jesus Christ.

The universityís emphasis on both secular and sacred arts illustrates the point that, whether secular or sacred, the arts are available as a means for enhancing our lives, for glorifying our Father, and for an evangelistic tool. "Because God knows how fulfilling this process of creating can be," Glaspey writes, "and because in His love He prizes the expressions of our deepest thoughts and feelings and the hard work which it takes to transform them into a work of art, the Bible is full of examples of fine art fashioned for the glory of God."

"Artistic talent should not be hid under a bushel," says evangelical leader Charles Colson, who uses his Break-Point radio commentary to address modern culture. "It is a gift of God, to be cultivated for the service of God and our neighbour. ... We should never let our lives give credence to the criticsí charge that Christians are enemies of culture."