Sunday, December 18, 2005

Why Bother? The Value of Art and Aesthetics for the Christian

I have spent the last eight months writing on various issues in the arts all centered on a Christian response to these issues. The reason that I am writing all this is because I know the arts to be an important aspect of Christian life and I feel that many in the Church have fallen asleep in regard to this. There are many reasons why Christians have failed to fulfill their role has creators in the image of God, but I believe one of them has to do with the idea that art is simply not a valuable use of our time. What I have been proposing over the last year requires Christians to take an active role in art, either in producing and/or appreciating. In both cases it will require more time than the brethren has been devoting. For those who produce, they must rethink what it means to make art for God and where their own aesthetic comes from. For those who appreciate art, they must learn what good redeemed art looks/sounds/feels like and seek out Christian artists who are making that art. But if the days are evil, our time here is short, and many have yet to hear or understand God’s free gift of salvation, how can I ask believers to spend time study or making art?

Over the next few weeks I will be presenting a series of articles arguing why it is important for Christians to take an active role in the arts. I will be doing this series concurrently with the one I have already started on the Sublime. These arguments will not all be my own, instead I will be quoting from Francis Schaeffer, Calvin G. Seerveld, and Hans R. Rookmaaker. My hope, and prayer, is that my writing this many brethren who have viewed art as either entertainment or as a waste of time will become aware of the enormity of the arts and their incredible value for the Christian. I understand that many who will read this will probably be artists themselves, but I am more concerned about those who do not create art themselves.

Art as Communication

Francis Schaeffer, in his short book Escape from Reason, gives an analogy to demonstrate the importance of understanding culture:

"If a man goes overseas for any length of time we would expect him to learn the language of the country to which he is going. More than this is needed, however, if he is really to communicate with the people among whom he is living. He must learn another language—that of the thought-forms of the people to whom he speaks. Only so will he have real communication with them and to them. So it is with the Christian church. Its responsibility is not only to hold to the basic, scriptural principles of the Christian faith, but to communicate these unchanging truths ‘into’ the generation in which it is living."

This is the focus of practically all of Schaeffer’s work: to teach the brethren to communicate to a fallen world. It’s a nice thing to say that all we must do is study the Word and wait for the Holy Spirit to give us the words to say. But in studying the Word we will come across Christ’s law which calls us to love our neighbor. This does not mean that we merely love them abstractly, we must love them as humans. This requires that we know them, their needs, their fears, their concerns, their stumbling blocks, and their desires. Essentially, we must know their worldview. While we never see Christ studying different cultures and worldviews in the Gospels, we do have evidence that He did just that. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, He knows her needs which were specific to her particular cultural and personal situation. The same can be said for Paul, who wrote to the churches concerning their individual needs that were often unique to their culture: some struggled with sexual immorality, others with idolatry, others with love. The apostle also instructed the churches to act in ways that were specific to each culture. Don’t eat food sacrificed to idols in certain places around certain people. This requires a deep knowledge of the belief systems of those around us. It is a historical fact that art is the best, or at least one of the best, ways to know the worldviews of a culture. Those who are in-tune with what a culture’s art is saying, what it is truly saying, will know what that culture believes and therefore how to best speak to them as people. But this is not easy. One cannot simply listen to a Metallica song and decide that all of American culture is really angry. You must learn to discover what a work of art is saying with its form and its themes, and you know whom it is speaking to. This means time and effort. But we have a great motivation for this, for when we genuinely seek to understand the art of the culture around us then we are seriously seeking to know the people around us. This is love. Biblically we know that the world and the people who live in it are fallen and without hope except for Christ, so when we respect and appreciate their art, then we are acknowledging their suffering and their sorrow. And this is important. We must never belittle the evil in this world. I am not suggesting that all good Christians will appreciate good worldly art and agree with all the themes and messages, but no matter had hard the world tries to flee from the Truth, even they cannot find a way of escaping it completely. It is our job to know what they believe that is not Truth, and what they believe that is Truth. No work of art was ever 100% a lie. What the worldly artist (and their fans) gets correct, we need to discuss with them and expound upon. And what they mistake as true, we must inquire about and encourage them to explore.

Art is a type of communication that privileges the critical things in life, the “upper storey” issues as Schaeffer would say. In our current culture, upper storey issues like faith, religion, Truth, absolutes, meaning, value, and universals are all seen as relative beliefs that have no real baring in the real world. Holding a particular faith or philosophy is like cheering for a baseball team: you can wear the shirts and watch the games, but in the end it’s only a sport. This philosophy has led to the death of dialogue throughout our culture. To speak about upper storey issues is to offend someone; therefore beliefs can only be spoken of as relative and personal. But in the arts, these issues are still commonplace since it is the nature of art to speak to the deepest fears, desires, and beliefs of man. The world is speaking, painting, writing, singing, and acting out their great questions and problems, the very problems that Christ died to rectify. In almost every other arena of this life, people have ceased to speak to each other on the important issues, which has left many Christians with little opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission. But in the arts the dialogue is still vibrant. For Christians to retreat from the arts is for them to retreat from the place where they can hear the world crying for answers the clearest. And whenever we fail to support Christian artists who are striving for God’s glory, whenever we fail to be knowledgeable and appreciative of the world’s great artists, then we have retreated.

I will continue to explore various reasons why Christians must take an active role in the arts through the next few weeks, so I encourage those who might feel that the above argument is insufficient to suspend their judgment until I have finished. For now, I would only ask that you consider and pray over these ideas and your response to them.


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