Thursday, December 31, 2009

Further Thoughts on Christians and Art

I think there are a few issues that could arise from my previous post that should be addressed for the sake of clarification purposes and a more complete view of the issue.

The main lesson people should take away is the dire need for Christians to pursue excellence in every aspect of their art. If art really is being done for the glory of God, we should not be content to turn out half-baked, low quality, uncreative, cheap, imitations--even if they mention Jesus once or twice. This, I think, captures the root problem with much of Christian art today. Many artists are losing touch with reality and becoming so caught up with getting our "Christian" message across that the quality and originality of the means of communicating this truth is shoved in the backseat. Obviously it is okay, nay, vital to preach Jesus to people and share the gospel through art. What I take issue with is the fact that excellence in one's trade is part of the Christian's personal testimony. Implicit in the command for obedience (and the concept of letting one's "light shine before all men") in the midst of an unbelieving world is the pursuit of excellence. That's what doing all things for the glory of God is about. It's about employees serving their bosses like they were serving the Lord. It's about painters trying to create masterpieces fit for the halls of heaven. It's about musicians making music as if Jesus was in the front row of the audience.

The second question point someone might make arises from secular art. How are we to address masterpieces--brilliant musical compositions, timeless stories, etc.--created by godless heathens? How can we honestly call their art "good" if it was created for completely perverted reasons? The answer, as best I can reason for the time being, is threefold:
1. Art in and of itself is neutral, so we can appreciate when it is done well regardless of the motives, and we can do it whether or not the artist realizes that he is emulating his creator. A professional football player, for instance, may be a godless, selfish jerk. He might even score touchdowns purely for selfish reasons, but that shouldn't stop the Christian football player from appreciating his skill and seeking to emulate the talents he displays on the field.
2. Remember that art is, at its core, imitation. This means that good art will effectively capture reality in some way. Christians are realists--we want to understand things as they really are. Like a good teacher who is an atheist, it is possible to find benefit and appreciation for anything that helps us see the world more clearly for what it is. All truth is God's truth after all, and even though it can be perverted and misused, that doesn't make the claim itself inherently worse. I once heard an analogy comparing the unbelieving world to blind squirrels. Every once in a while, they stumble upon a nut of viable truth. No one is shut off from general revelation, so all men are exposed to and can see the truth to one degree or another.
3. Brilliance in art can give us a glimpse of man before the fall and hence better understand the original goodness of God's creation. Out of the three points, this one is probably the least helpful, but it worth consider nonetheless. Dr. Jack Simons has hypothesized that the fall of creation not only brought sin and suffering into the world, it also damaged our intellect. This means that Adam and Eve were geniuses before the fall, so every instance of genius that we see now--great works of art, people who can multiply huge numbers in their heads, and so on--are actually examples of people breaking through to a certain level of the mind that only existed before sin. In other words, works of genius in the arts are prime examples of my original point about art: man is able to mimic the creative work of God and show us even more vividly the mysterious process that is creating things.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How the Christian Artist Should Approach Art

subtitled: "My Musings on the True Nature of Art"

One quick disclaimer before I attempt to take off: this post represents a theory in progress; I don't think you can find many of these ideas explicitly in Scripture, but as far as I know they are born out of a Christian worldview; please feel free to question, compliment, and/or criticize.

Art. Perhaps in no other area do Christians have a wider spectrum of perspectives, opinions, and rules. You can paint this subject but not that one, you can watch this movie but not that one, you can listen to this band but not that one. It's worth doing, it isn't worth doing. There are cultural anorexics and cultural gluttons in the body of Christ, and it seems everyone is eager to either exercise freedom to do something or to condemn those who partake in certain types of art. Amid all the blurry lines and opinions, it is odd that no one seems to bother defining exactly what art is. What makes some art better than others? What makes it worth pursuing or shunning? I think the answer is quite simple in concept yet wonderfully complex and beautiful in practice. The chief goal of the artist is to "play God" by creating beautiful works of art reflecting His creativity and genius.

It sounds scary at first thought to think of the artist as "playing God." But I think that is the essence of human creativity. We are made in the image of God, meaning our goal is to serve as a mirror for His glory, and art, no matter how creative or original, is always imitation at its core. When the artist paints a picture, composes a song, or writes a story, he is reflecting the creative nature of God. It doesn't necessarily or definitively say exactly who God is, nor does it replace God. However, when a painter works on a painting, he should be able to say "look, this is what God is like when He creates."

Now obviously we humans are limited first by our mere human intellect and even further than that by our sin. It blinds, restricts, and hampers artistic prowess. Moreover, as created beings ourselves, man as an artist is bound within the medium of creation. All we have is what has already been made. God is the only Being capable of creating ex nihilo--out of nothing. Just like everything else, man is merely a tiny, finite, and blurry picture of God, and he is dependent on God's complete and ultimate sufficiency. Nothing can be made or created by man that is 100% new. "Nothing is new under the sun"Solomon observes. The "stuff" we have now is the same core "stuff" we had at Creation, nothing less and nothing more.

Therefore, the artist is presented with one of the grand tasks of man: to emulate Creator God in his craft. This is a sharp distinction, I think, from any other field or specific calling. The biblical scientist seeks to understand how creation works, the godly businessman is able to provide for the Lord's work via funding and influence in high places, the athlete seeks to maximize the body that God has made in His image and use it to achieve remarkable physical feats, and the pastor is charged with the sacred duty of accurately teaching God's word and giving people a true understanding of God and how to obey Him. Unlike all of these, the artist is something else entirely because he is called to powerfully and practically reflect the creative and sovereign brilliance of God. I say "creative brilliance" in that he should seek to create works of beauty and value. Writers, and perhaps composers to an extent, seem to be further charged with emulating God's "sovereign brilliance." That is, telling a story. This takes into account all of the intricacies of human nature, probability and necessity, morality, and perhaps even fantasy.

Let us consider the art of writing as an example, I may be stretching this just a little, but I think a legitimate argument could be made that there exists a parallel between story telling and God soverignly working his will. The correlation isn't exact, of course, but it seems that storytelling gives us as clear of a picture as any. Think about it. For one, there is a certain set of characters with certain distinct dispositions in a story. God has created a lot of people and knows each one of them perfectly, He knows exactly what they are prone to do, and He somehow intertwines His perfect direction and control with the free will of men. The skilled author, on the other hand, creates His own story with certain characters. He knows them perfectly, and is thus able to guide their actions to eventually lead up to a certain conclusion. If the story is a good one, it fits within the laws of probability and necessity, yet still remains under the author's all-powerful hand.

Now I'm not saying that God is bound by any "probability and necessity" laws, but surely He must remain, for one, consistent with His own character. He also tends to keep reality--the laws of nature in creation and the way we experience things--consistent throughout the unfolding of His grand story in creation. Even more intriguing, we find many examples in scripture of God working out His will through very natural, human, means. It is not as if He forcefully pushes everything right into places, but instead creates and (for lack of a better term) manipulates creation in a way that is consistent with itself and Himself.

Now for the upshot of all this. What does it look like in real life? What can artists everywhere take home and apply from this notion of "playing God." Perhaps there is not much specifically. Our cultural standards for beauty and artistic style change. It's also not necessarily wrong to involve and utilize sinful things in our art. Scripture is full of surprisingly explicit wickedness, so it certainly seems possible for a Christian author to include murder scenes or prostitutes in his book and have that be honoring to God. For the time being, let us distill it all down to two working principles of good art.

One, Scripture should be held as the ultimate example of prime literature in the arts. Dr. Jack Simons has made the observation that were the Bible not true, it would instantly become the greatest work of literature in human history. Everyone who has read the bible critically must recognize, to some degree or another, that it is a work surpassing human genius. When God gave us His word, He gave it in a beautiful form, and it is fair to say that Scripture is perfect even in its artistic aspect. One of the reasons the Bible is the world's bestselling book is probably due to its sheer artistic brilliance. As Christians, we can both accept it as truth and embrace it as good art.

Two, the Christian artist ought to be able to present his or her art to God as an act of worship with a clear conscience. Much of art is a conscience issue. Some artists are more free than others to portray certain things or use certain words, and it's okay because of the freedom we have in Christ. That said, I would challenge all Christian artists to consider this: if Jesus were to come back to earth and stand before you, would you honestly be able to present your painting, song, or story to Him and say without hesitation, "Look Lord, see what I have created for You with the gifts you've given me?"

Jerry Bridges defines doing all things for the glory of God as desiring that everything one does be pleasing to God and that it would honor God before other people. Christian artists must not lose focus of this. They need not worry about the specific content so much as what God thinks of it. Show me the piece that truly pleases God and exults him before men through it, and I will show you a piece of truly good art.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Beginning of Wisdom

There's a interesting thing about this whole college experience. The farther and farther along you get, the more you come into contact with professors and students. And the more you come into contact with all of these very smart people, the less and less you realize you know.

It seems the end product of this is, at its core, humility.

Don't mistake this for the postmodern notion of relative truth or the inability to know any sort of ultimate or absolute truth. Rather, diving into the depths of God, reality, and the world we live in definitely brings a lot of hard and fast knowledge, but as you swim deeper and deeper into the sea of God's love, for instance, you start to see that there is whole lot more down there that you still haven't explored.

A wise man once said "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Later on, he wrote about how there is more hope for a fool than a man who is wise in his own eyes. Turns out that the older you get, especially in your relationship with God, the more and more true that becomes.