Soundings

Christians must reflect on meaning, purpose of the arts in human life

Mar 2009    

How should Christians understand and view the arts?

SINCE the Reformation in the 16th century, when leaders of the church destroyed statues and other works of art to stem out and prevent idolatry, Protestant Christianity has always been suspicious of the arts.

It must be clarified that the iconoclasm of the Reformers is not an indication of their opposition to the arts, but only its abuse. But Protestant Christians sometimes fail to understand the difference and therefore continue to hold a negative view of the arts. This is why in comparison to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the Protestant Church has very little use of the visual arts – statutes, icons and religious pictures – in its worship.

Yet, even Christians who are dismissive of the arts cannot do without them altogether. Artistic decisions are made whenever the church composes religious music, designs the architecture of its building, chooses the furniture for its sanctuary, or simply produces a brochure for a youth programme.

The arts are an important aspect of human life and culture. Anthropologists have noted that works of art in one form or another are found in every human community and culture, and throughout the history of human civilisation.

Christians must therefore reflect on the meaning and purpose of the arts in human life and culture. And such reflections must include the use of the arts in Christian life and worship.

What is art? Many attempts have been made to answer this question, all of which have been shown to be inadequate. For the purpose of this article, we may define art as human creations that bring to expression our profound intellectual, spiritual and emotional experience of the world. Art is a human enterprise, and is therefore always bound up with the particularities of history, culture, context, political ideologies, religious sensibilities, etc. Yet art must also be seen as an expression of human transcendence, the human openness to mystery and meaning.

Because art is human activity and product, the best place for the Christian to begin to reflect on its meaning and purpose is the account of the creation of man in the first chapters of Genesis. These chapters, of course, present God as the Creator of the universe. Theologians from Origen to Bonaventure have portrayed God as the Supreme Artist on the basis of these chapters. With His creative powers God brought the world into being, a world characterised by beauty and harmony. But Genesis also describes human beings as created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-28). As bearers of the divine image, human beings are created co-creators, capable of fashioning things that are at once meaningful and useful.

In addition, Genesis 1:28 records what some theologians have described as the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every creature that moves on the ground.” This command reveals the true vocation of human beings as bearers of the divine image and as created co-creators. The command covers a broad spectrum of human activity, including the arts. ON THE basis of this command, the creative arts, insofar as they image the work of the Creator, may be said to be part of the responsibility of man. The Bible therefore has a very positive view of human art in all its diverse forms and expressions.

This positive affirmation of the arts, however, must immediately be qualified. Like all human enterprises, the arts are compromised because of the fallen human condition. Human artistic expressions are therefore tainted by sin and disobedience. This means that there can be no romanticising or idealising of the arts. The arts, like every aspect of human culture, are riddled with paradox and suffer from profound self-contradictions. While they are the expressions of human transcendence, the arts are at the same time crippled by the distortions that result from human sinfulness.

It would therefore be a mistake to think that only cultural Philistines who are incapable of appreciating art are given to the baser passions. As George Steiner pointed out so provocatively, the monsters who ran the infamous Nazi concentration camps with such unspeakable cruelty were “avid connoisseurs and, in some instances, performers of Bach and Mozart”.

Although the Bible is generally positive about human works of art, it is careful to emphasise that not all works of art are pleasing to God. God loves all kinds of art: visual art, poetry, prose, drama, music, etc. But not every expression of art will meet the approval of God. Because God has a very high standard of art, He can never endorse art that is either pornographic or propagandistic, for example.

Any form of art that violates the character of God offends Him. Scripture describes God as good (Ps 107:1; 119:68), as truthful and true (Isa 45:19; 1 Thess 1:9), and as beautiful (Ps 27:4). Art that is truly pleasing to God must therefore display these qualities. In this way, the admonishment of Paul in relation to Christian discipleship in Philippians 4:8 can also serve as the ethical and aesthetic norms for art and for the artist.

This brings us to the question concerning the purpose of art, which has been a subject of considerable debate for centuries. Space does not allow us to discuss this at length. But based on the above reflection, we must conclude that to argue that art serves no higher purpose than art itself (“art for art’s sake”) is mistaken. This is the kind of romanticising of the arts that we have cautioned against. For this understanding of the purpose of art would lead to idolatry.

A Christian theology of the arts must insist that the arts (again like all other human cultural expressions and endeavours) do serve a higher purpose: God. Art is never only for art’s sake. It is always for God’s sake. Art should never be self-indulgent, or self-glorifying. True art should always seek to glorify God!

Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Post-Graduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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