A Theology of Art

creation

by John Ellis

Within the Church, artists often feel like islands unto themselves, particularly among many conservative Evangelical churches. Which is unfortunate, especially considering that the first time God introduces Himself in the Bible it’s as an artist[1]. It’s also unfortunate because it means that brothers and sisters in Christ are then tempted to find community elsewhere. And considering that many in the broader artistic community are antagonistic towards the Christian faith, Christian artists run the risk of feeling like they have to choose between their church and their art.

Unfortunately, I have several artist friends who have reached the mistaken conclusion that they are best served by living out their faith apart from the Church. They are wrong; and, by God’s grace, when the opportunity appropriately presents itself, I lovingly (hopefully) admonish them for their unhealthy and contra-Biblical rejection of Christ’s Bride, of which they claim to be included. However, my concern in this article is directed in a different direction than that of the poor ecclesiology of some of my artist brothers and sisters in Christ. My objective is to confront the broader Church, specifically conservative Evangelicals (a sub-group of which I am a member), with the reality that their poor theology of art is often a discouragement to fellow Believers who are artists. And, more importantly, their poor theology of art fails to acknowledge and give due glory to an aspect of our Creator God.

(In 2013, Philip Ryken wrote an excellent article for The Gospel Coalition that details some ways in which the Church can and does discourage artists. You can read that article here.)

I’m afraid that many conservative Evangelicals will read my claim that “Christian artists run the risk of feeling like they have to choose between their church and their art,” and quickly yet adamantly respond, “The choice is a no-brainer, THE CHURCH!” That’s an unfortunate response because it reflects a major error in conservative Evangelical thought. It reflects the wrong-headed embrace of a false-dichotomy created by a poor theology of art. Artists shouldn’t have to choose.

It’s not that conservative Evangelicals shun art. The reality is that there is a very lucrative entertainment industry that caters to the tastes and desires of the conservative Evangelical market. Unfortunately, most of the Christian art/entertainment consumed by conservative Evangelicals is, well, bad.

To make matters worse, when knowledgeable Christians point out specific ways in which the Christian art/entertainment industry is making bad art, the response from other Christians is often dismissive, uncharitable, and downright demeaning. In the issue of full disclosure, this is not an impersonal topic for me. Beyond the many ways in which I, as a theatre artist, have been actively discouraged by fellow Christians in my own making of art[2], I have been publicly and privately reviled for writing, among other things, a negative review of the popular Christian movie War Room.

The thing is, my experience is not unique. Friends and new acquaintances[3] alike have shared their learned reticence at expressing their opinions about art when asked. People mostly want their artist friends and family members to affirm their entertainment choices; they don’t actually want honesty. However, if art is important to God, and I firmly believe that it is, then correction from knowledgeable artists should be interacted with graciously, at the least. For example, I didn’t expect fans of War Room to alter their opinions of the movie based solely on my review. I did, however, expect people, especially those who know me, to engage my arguments in a manner of respect that over two decades of experience, exploration of, and commitment to the art and craft of storytelling should’ve earned. The pejoratives directed at me aside, the dismissal by fellow Christians and their refusal to even consider my opinions speaks to my concern that has prompted me to write this article[4].

God does care about art. If His role as the Sovereign Artist over all creation doesn’t convince you of that, what about the story of the Bible? I mean, God chose to reveal Himself in a beautifully rendered piece of art that expertly weaves together a variety of genres. Not to mention the fact that God also reveals Himself through His own artistic expression – the universe and everything in it. And if God cares about art, so should His people. Art is, after all, part of the Christian’s birthright.

Bad art trades that birthright for a pot of porridge, because bad art lies in at least two ways: 1. Bad art lies about who God is. 2. Bad art lies about the nature of reality.

As already mentioned, God is an artist, and artistic expressions reflect who He is; artistic expressions reflect God’s attribute as Creator and His love of beauty. Art that tells us that God doesn’t care about excellence in form is bad art. Art that presents a picture of a God who is unconcerned with the act of creation is bad art. Bad art lies about God.

Recounting the creation story, the writer of Genesis tells the reader that God saw that “it was good” six times during His creative act, culminating in “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”[5]. Moving ahead in the Bible to the construction of the Tabernacle, Exodus 31:1-10 and 35:4 – 40:33  reveals that God not only loves art, He also loves a variety of art and lots of it. And He loves art that is rendered in an excellent manner. In fact, whenever I read God’s instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, I sometimes wonder how those who complain about the costly church buildings of today would respond to the costly “excesses” commanded by God for the building of the Tabernacle.

Recognizing God as the Sovereign Creator and the myriad artistic ways in which He reveals Himself, it’s hard to see how any Christian could deny that God is concerned about art. To be fair, I don’t think that many Christians would flat out say that He isn’t. But their own interactions (or lack of interactions) with art and artists paints a different picture of the perspective of many conservative Evangelicals. That may partly be caused by a lack of understanding of the role of artists.

An important function of the artist is to reflect God as Creator. To do this demands a striving for excellence in form. Someone who creates bad art is not fulfilling that function. And that, by no means, requires perfection. Image Bearers are not the Image. Humans will always be finite, even after King Jesus returns. But Creator God creates excellent things, and humans who have been gifted in ways that reflect that aspect of His character should do everything in their power to create excellence, too. Of course, that raises the question, how do we know if art is bad or good?

Art has objective standards; there are rules in art. Two quick examples : this first example is very obvious and well-known – writers are not supposed to mix metaphors. In Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale put mixed metaphors in the mouth of Biff, the villain. The film’s writers intentionally break that rule for comedic and character purposes, and it works. When Biff declares, “Let’s make like a tree and get out of here,” the audience, through knowing laughter, is allowed to see Biff as the cartoonish buffoon that the writers want him to be. It works because the rule matters.

The second example is a rule that drove much of my instruction while teaching acting classes. In theatre there’s a rule that states that there is no such thing as nothing. What that means is that because the stories on stage are heightened reality (and this is extended to film and TV, too), every moment and every line contributes to moving the story forward. When a character says something, it matters. One of the actor’s jobs is to uncover why the character is saying what he or she is saying. That’s most often referred to as the character’s objectives. In other words, the actor needs to ask, “What does the character want?”

When I’m watching a play, and an actor gives an otherwise good performance but one line delivery lands with the dull slap that is the product of strained credulity, I can almost guarantee what the problem is. Asking the actor afterwards to explain the purpose of that line, to tell me why the writer put that line into the mouth of his or her character, the actor will most likely respond with some version of, “I don’t know.” That actor failed in that moment as an actor because he or she failed to adhere to the rule that on stage there is no such thing as nothing.

Art has rules; there is a reason that people are required to take Art Appreciation classes as underclassmen. However, it’s not necessary (or really possible) for audience members to be able to articulate every objective standard that helps determine good art from bad art[6], but most Image Bearers understand that art has objective standards. And most people engage with art in a discriminatory manner that reveals that understanding. Unfortunately, many conservative Evangelicals are very quick to dismiss or overlook art’s failure to adhere to the discipline’s objective standards. Especially if the work of art has the adjective “Christian” attached to it. And in doing so, they fail to truthfully reflect who God is.

When a Christian embraces movies, music, books, et al. that fall woefully short of art’s objective standards[7], that Christian is not only believing a lie about God, but is also revealing that he or she believes that the plow that God has ordained for their artist brothers and sisters in Christ to work with is a plow that is worthy of contempt. As pointed out in the Ryken article, when churches treat artistic expressions within the life of the Church as the purview of the untrained and/or untalented, and as an unimportant vehicle for the dissemination of the all-important function, those churches run the risk of alienating Christians who are artists.

Besides lying about who God is, bad art also lies about the nature of reality. God created everything good, but humans broke everything. Because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, what God created “good” became placed under a curse. Thankfully, within that curse, God promised that a seed of the woman would come along to “bruise your [serpent] head”[8]. That “seed of the woman” was revealed to be Jesus Christ who crushed the head of the serpent by living the perfect life which none of us are capable of living, died on the cross as punishment for sins that He did not commit, and then rose from the dead. One day, King Jesus is going to return to finalize His victory over sin and death, and to restore God’s good creation back to good. But, until that longed for day, the world is broken. Pain and suffering characterize life, and, unless King Jesus returns first, every single human being will taste death.

Everyone lives in the tragedy of a broken world. Christians live in that tragedy, too, but Christians have the advantage of knowing the ending – King Jesus is going to make everything right for those who have placed their faith in Him. But that hasn’t happened yet. We all still sin. Loved ones still suffer. Strangers still suffer, for that matter. Pain and heartbreak characterize the reality of the world. And one of the roles of the artist is to display the tension between the beautiful and the broken.

Every artist’s perspective[9] influences how that tension is balanced within their creations. For example, my favorite album of 2015, Holding Hands With Jamie, is from the post-punk band Girl Band. I understand that the specific form “post-punk” is a form that not everyone has learned to appreciate. That’s fine. But, for the record, that form has objective rules, too (whether or not you understand or are even aware of those rules). Because Girl Band is compromised of artists who are not Christians, their perspective lacks a clear view of the ending. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t aware of the beautiful nature of God as evidenced in His creation. Swirling throughout the distorted post-punk of Holding Hands With Jamie are beautiful melodies and harmonies. The untrained ear and the ear that has yet to be initiated into the form of post-punk may miss that beauty; I get that. But beauty that reflects the nature of God and the fact that He originally created all things good is there. But the artists in Girl Band are painfully aware that that beauty is distorted; that that beauty is broken. Something isn’t right with the world, and Girl Band feels that deeply and communicates that with their music. That honest understanding and reflection of reality displayed through the art of Holding Hands With Jamie confronts me with how my own sinful heart distorts my ability to image God, my need for the saving grace found through faith in Christ Jesus, and causes me to long for the return of King Jesus.

On the opposite side of that artistic perspective is the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” composed by Philip Bliss. That beautiful hymn is a thrilling reflection that the ending is already determined by the work of King Jesus. But Bliss also composed a hymn that runs deep with pain, loss, and helplessness (for the record, I’m referencing the music and not Horatio Spafford’s lyrics – although, I love the lyrics!). Bliss created an artistic expression that doesn’t deny that the world is broken but his music also demonstrates that he lives in the light that the deformed beauty around him will one day be reformed in order to perfectly reflect who God is.

Both Girl Band and Philip Bliss have created music that is an honest reflection of reality – the world is broken and beautiful. The difference of perspectives is born out in their respective emphasis. But the tension of beauty vs. broken exists in both.

Bad art refuses to recognize and display that tension. Entertainment marketed to conservative Evangelicals is often guilty of ignoring the world’s brokenness. In the words of my filmmaker friend Chris White, much of Evangelical art is guilty of “unearned sentimentality.” It presents a sanitized reality that is divorced from the Gospel. Without the Fall (sin), the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has zero meaning. God’s story (the Gospel) includes brokenness. Any artistic expression that dilutes the immense pain and ugly that is around all of us is a lie. Art that makes you feel better without confronting you with your desperate need for the return of King Jesus is bad art.

None of this is a clarion call to only read Shakespeare and to only listen to Bach, but I do hope that more of my fellow conservative Evangelicals will begin to interact with art in robust and God-honoring ways. In doing so, not only will our churches begin to enjoy God in a more holistic manner, but Christian artists will be encouraged and blessed by their fellow Christians, and, in turn, will return blessings and encouragements within the life of the Church .

On the day of King Jesus’ return, the Church will fully reclaim her artistic birthright. My prayer is that before that glorious day, Christians will begin to give back the cold, empty porridge of bad art that promises a lie, and, instead, embrace art that seeks to be honest about who God is and about the reality of the world in which He has called us to serve Him.

Soli Deo glorio


 

[1] “In the beginning, God CREATED.” Genesis 1:1

[2] After my theatre closed, a very painful time for me, a member of my church, and a friend, told me, with a straight face, “Good! Now you’ll stop bugging me with invitations to your theatre.” And that’s the tip of a very sharp iceberg.

[3] It speaks volumes that this very topic is often broached when Christian artists first meet.

[4] Years ago, I read a review of Facing the Giants written by a Christian lady. She opened her review by lamenting the fact that her editor had assigned her the movie. From a human standpoint, reviewing Facing the Giants was a no-win proposition for her. If, on one hand, she honored God by doing her job well by pointing out the myriad ways in which Facing the Giants is very bad art, she ran the risk that fellow Christians, including, sadly, friends and family, would accuse her of hating God. If, on the other hand, she ignored what she knew to be true about a movie that was a fan favorite among many conservative Evangelicals, she would be dishonoring God by lying and by not doing her job well. She panned the movie, and was rewarded in the comment section, at least, by angry invectives from offended Christians.

[5] Genesis 1:31, ESV … fyi – function is also folded into God’s declaration of “good.” But, for the record, form and function are inextricably connected.

[6] For the record, anyone who claims that art is purely subjective is flatly contradicting who God is. Not to mention that precious few of the post-modern egghead academics who make such nonsensical claims actually practice what they preach. In my experience, the people I’ve know who make that claim are some of the biggest art snobs I’ve ever met. I mean, if someone makes that claim within your earshot, ask them what they think about Nickelback.

[7] Unfortunately the vast majority of the entertainment options marketed to the Church fall woefully short of art’s objective standards. By stating that, I’m not denying anyone’s subjective response to any specific movie, music, or book, but an individual’s subjective response isn’t what determines truth.

[8] Genesis 3:15, ESV.

[9] e.g. – living a life of rebellion against their Creator or being part of the Creator’s family through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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15 thoughts on “A Theology of Art

  1. Good post, John.

    I’m sorry that you were unwelcomed by the Body. I hope that has changed (or is changing), and I hope that you would continue to help the rest of us understand how to love the artists among us in better ways.

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      • Yes, “unwelcomed by some in the Body.” In fact, overall, I’ve been blessed over the last ten years to be covenanted with Believers who, even if they don’t understand all of my concerns/priorities, go to great lengths to serve and love me. Hopefully, and by God’s grace, they can say the same thing about me.

        That being said, many Christian artists that I know are unable to say the same thing. And, in my personal experience and interactions, Christians who aren’t part of my church are frequently characterized by my concerns in this post. It is an unfortunate issue in much of my circle (conservative Evangelicalism), as I’m sure you’ve seen, too.

        As always, thank you for reading and commenting, Lori.

        Like

  2. Part of the problem is that many wrongly view art as the domain of modern secularists, or worse, the Catholic Church.

    Add to this the fact that they saw a Christian movie and they liked it so much that they are convinced that this must be the path forward and anyone who likes different movies than them is a sinner and/or a snob.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Is this any different than any other vocation or calling? Wouldn’t the same thing apply for someone who is a plumber? Doing plumbing work of a low quality would deny the reality of who God is. My question is where do you draw the line between bad art and art that is lower quality based on the abilities of the artist? I accept your rules about art that denies the reality of a fallen world or God’s beauty, however there is going to always be someone better than you who in comparison to your work is not excellent. For example, almost all sixth grade Sunday school teachers are not excellent story tellers, but that doesn’t mean that sixth grade Sunday school teachers should not tell stories. I’m not arguing that there is not definitively excellent art, but the artists who produced it likely produced some bad art in getting to the good stuff. Can excellence be a barrier to entry or a source of pride and snobbery if taken too far? If someone is honest about the conflict between beauty and fallen nature and is working to the best of their abilities, is that excellence?

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    • “Is this any different than any other vocation or calling?” Well, no, but I don’t necessarily have the requisite knowledge of other disciplines to proper delineate the “why’s” and how’s.”

      “Wouldn’t the same thing apply for someone who is a plumber? Doing plumbing work of a low quality would deny the reality of who God is.” Of course. But I don’t know enough about plumbing to even begin the process of determining what that looks like. Well, I guess if a plumber installs a tub and the tub leaks because of poor installation, I’m willing to declare that’s bad plumbing.

      Where do I draw the line between bad art and art that is lower that is lower quality based on the abilities of the artist? I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking. Take one of my final paragraphs where I wrote, “None of this is a clarion call to only read Shakespeare and to only listen to Bach.” I mean, do I believe that Shakespeare is a better artist/playwright than Henrik Ibsen? Yes. Does that mean that Ibsen wrote bad plays? Absolutely not! Granted, the level where I’ve chosen to place my examples is much easier to declare. On the other end, it becomes much trickier, and I get that. Which is where listening to what knowledgeable people in the respective fields have to say becomes important. As I wrote, no art is perfect; no art produced by Image Bearers will ever be perfect. But there are standards to which there is a consensus among people in the respective disciplines. And, if you notice, outside of War Room (and Facing the Giants in a footnote), I didn’t give any specific examples. I have zero desire to be the arbiter of which art/entertainment fellow Believers can and cannot engage with. I do have the desire for fellow Believers to think more critically (at least a little bit) about the art/entertainment they are engaging with. And to that end, I’m happy to add my voice/opinion to the mix to help give guidance. The fact is, that many Believers have outright dismissed my overall concern, much less the validity of my opinions of art. Many (if not, most) of those Believers have told me (and others) that the form/artistic standards do not matter as long as the function adheres to their respective theological nuances. In other words, many Believers, while not necessarily articulating it within this post’s framework, will not tolerate plumbing work that is dishonoring to God, but willfully and joyfully embrace art that does not.

      But I’m not sure if that actually answers your question. I would say that someone who doesn’t have the ability to teach should NOT be teaching Sunday School. Even if that means that the church has to combine ages. Same thing applies to theatre, for example. Just because a kid or adult wants to be involved, if they don’t have the talent, well, nope. Not if I have anything to say about it. And, I think you would agree with this – I have the knowledge base to make that determination. I don’t take that lightly – on either side of it. So, in reference to artists producing bad art before they can produce good art – yes. But, apprentices and students generally make that bad art inside protected confines. Movies that are playing in the same Cineplex as movies directed by Colin Treverrow are not operating inside protected confines. Those movies are not claiming to be the creation of novices, students, or apprentices. I happily engage with the work of talented artists who are learning, even if they have a LOT still to learn. But I do so on those terms. Unfortunately, many churches treat programs with the flippancy that comes from believing that the form doesn’t matter. A skit or play at church (and, for the record, I’m adamantly opposed to those things on the Lord’s Day, no matter how well done. But that’s another concern altogether.) … a skit or play at church should not include people who don’t have the talent, no matter how much the parents and grandparents want to see their child pretending to be a shepherd. And most churches do not put the requisite time needed to produce a good performance to begin with.

      This is long, so, to close, I have zero desire to create a list of movies, music, books, et al. that good Christians can engage with. My desire is for more of my fellow Believers to take art seriously. If that happens, lists won’t really be needed. And, Christian artists will, as a whole, be less discouraged within the life of the Church.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Joel.

      Like

      • Thanks for the long answer. I agree with you. I don’t think that anybody who walks in off the street should be cast in a performance. And I am coming in with the perspective of someone outside of the artist community. Perhaps some of the reactions you and other artists have experienced is due to a lack of understanding of art. If you have never tasted a good burger, McDonald’s tastes good.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I forgot … “If someone is honest about the conflict between beauty and fallen nature and is working to the best of their abilities, is that excellence?” Are we assuming that “their abilities” include talent? If so, then I would alter it a bit to state “pursuing excellence.” What they produce, of course, will still be open to critique based upon the discipline’s standards and taking into account the venue. I mean, is it the work of a student or a professional?

      If however, talent isn’t assumed, then my answer is, “No.”

      And, yes, pride is a pitfall for all Image Bearers in all things.

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      • But talent comes in different quantities. Also, there are huge differences in taste and preference. For example, my informal research tells me that 75% of people will not like Iris Dement’s voice. I think it is excellent, but most people wouldn’t.

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      • That’s true. (For the record, count me among the 25% in your highly scientific poll of those who like Iris Dement’s voice). Talking about talent, the role of talent, how much talent is needed, is there such a thing as talent, etc. is an intramural argument that is based on the understanding that there is something that separates the good from the bad.

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  4. To be honest, I don’t really think of you outside the artistic community, Joel. I mean, you may not make music, but you sure have discerning taste.

    And, yes, some of the reaction is due to a lack of understanding of art. The problem, though, is that the vast majority of those people don’t want to recognize that. They want their opinions about art to be just as valid as the opinions of artists.

    Like

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