Psalms 33:3 “Sing a new song to Him; play skillfully on the strings, with a joyful shout.”
Fundamental to the creation of any work of art is a unity between the devices employed and the theme(s) of the work. A poem mourning the death of a national hero would not be good if it used light, simplistic rhymes, unless of course the poet was attempting to force the reader/listener to reconsider their conceptions of that “hero”. Likewise, a musician would not write a dark, sorrowful song recounting the joys of his first love, unless he was pointing out that young love is often ill conceived and has a tendency to end over-dramatically. In good art all elements of the work should evoke, in some way, the theme(s) of that work. Sometimes this will lead to extremely complex forms of art as the artistic devices refine theme. It is easy to paint a picture, which exposes the suffering of death, one would only need very simplistic devices to do this; however, if you wish to show how death is a horrible fact of life that points to an innate knowledge in all men that suffering is abnormal, then you must use a very complex web of colors, images, subjects, space, and lighting to reveal this.
For the Christian artist this as often been a difficult lesson to learn. In many worship songs for instance, if one listens only to the lyrics the theme might be our brokenness and the need for repentance; however, the music itself might be similar to a pop-rock or alternative song, with a simple four-chord progression and an uplifting melody line suggesting a theme of unbroken-ness. Esthetically we might say that it is “good” music, because it is similar to what we hear on the radio; it is not old fashioned. But, the question must be raised: “How can one truly worship God, singing of our own brokenness and need for repentance, while the music is the same as a pop song glorifying sensual pleasures in a hopeless world?” That is not to say that we cannot rejoice in the fact that Christ has given us the ability to repent; rather, what I wish to focus on is those particular Christian works of art which:
1. Emulate popular art purely for the sake of appealing to younger generations without any regard to the appropriateness of the artistic devices they employ. (This has been supported by some based on 1 Cor. 9:22 “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.” But Paul does not mean that we should blindly do what “all men” do; rather, we should understand what, why, and how the world makes art so that we can know when it is wise to emulate them and when it would be a stumbling block.)
2. Are done in a style that is completely ignorant of modern art forms. If Christian art ignores the particular problems of modern man, than it has nothing to say to either the believer or the unbeliever, for all men are subject to the sufferings of this life.
3. Are created with cliché elements, language, chord patterns, colors, melodies, images, lighting, narratives, or themes. Why is it that an unbelieving artist will spend weeks to years perfecting a work but a worship song will use simplistic language devoid of genuine emotion or worship? (I do not mean to suggest that all Christian art is like this, however we must be honest and admit that in some cases this is true.) If, in the case of worship songs, we are creating a work specifically for the glory and worship of our Lord and Savior, then how can we create poor art? And by extension, if we cannot make good art when the explicit purpose is to worship God, how can we possibly create good art in general?
4. Confuses the old for the sacred. This problem is similar to the second one I have already listed.
The question then is how can a Christian artist overcome these issues to create works which both glorify God and edify humanity. In response to the first issue I have listed, I believe that the Christian artist should be aware of what each element they use in their work denotes and connotes. If we keep the second and forth issue in mind, this becomes difficult: we cannot simply copy what others are doing, because our understanding of life, suffering, and the world is different and therefore demands an art which reflects that difference. (This is no different than the situation with any other artist. The Buddhist musician makes music which speaks specifically from his/her worldview, shouldn’t we?). What we must do then is be aware of the current artistic movements, understand what they mean, how they work, their ideologies, and their roots. We must understand the specific dilemmas facing humanity in our times and that does not exclusively refer to politics and war, but also philosophy, science, religion, culture, etc… We should create art that is conscious of these elements but with a fundamental difference; and that difference should come from our worldview as Christians. In practice this should mean that a worship song could incorporate some movements and structures that are similar to what might be heard on the radio; however, the fundamental difference should be such that no one listening to the song would confuse the themes of that song with those of the pop song. If the modern artistic elements add to the themes of a work of art, they must and should (moral imperative) be used. When, however, they distract, dilute, or hinder the themes, they should not be used. Therefore, it is fine to use an electric guitar in a worship song as a melody which adds to the dynamics, but if that guitar melody becomes a bombastic, flashy solo, distracting from the spirit of worship, we should question its value. And likewise, a heavy metal song about the joy of salvation would be a poor work of art because the music devices work against the message.
As for the third issue I raise, perhaps the best thing a Christian artist can do is be conscious of the fact that our creative ability comes from God, it is unique and important. If we look out into creation we can clearly see that God Himself was and is concerned with beauty, complexity, themes (does not all of creation speak to the struggles and suffering of life? The sorrow of death, the wonder of birth, the infinite and vast beauty of the sky, the sea, space, do not all these things speak to what humanity is confronted with in life?), and skill. Therefore, we also should treat the creation of art as something extremely serious and worthwhile. As David tells us, we should “Sing a new song to Him; play skillfully on the strings, with a joyful shout.” Notice that David says a “new song”, and that there is an emphasis on skill here. We are called to innovate, and to do so skillfully.
In the next post, I will address how Christians can, and should understand artistic movements and how we should properly incorporate them into our own art.