Toward a Christian aesthetic for the arts

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The Christian legacy in the arts is unrivalled. Architecture, music, painting, sculpture, drama, poetry and prose literature have been cultivated by Christianity. However, artistic innovation has been taken over by secular culture, and many Christians ignore or even fear the arts. It began with some Puritans who rejected everything that smacked of Catholicism, even throwing out church organs and singing in harmony as being evil practices. Protestants, as champions of the Word, have sometimes struggled to understand the role of non-verbal arts. But Christianity needs to reclaim a gift that speaks richly of God’s character.

“The Truth” is something which is close to the Adventist heart, and is best explored through theology, under the branch of philosophy called epistemology. The ultimate Truth is not a set of doctrines, but a Person. Yet Jesus proclaimed Himself to be more than just Truth. He said He was also the Way and the Life (John 14: 6). Metaphysics, the study of reality (the domain of the sciences), might well be equated to the Way, and axiology, the study of value, might be equated to the Life. Axiology has two parts: ethics, the study of right and wrong, and aesthetics, the study of what is beautiful. Adventists have a well-developed biblical theology, and take a strongly biblical approach to the sciences and to ethics. However, when it comes to aesthetics, we tend to respond to the arts not from a biblical aesthetic but rather from a biblical epistemology.
 

But it is the task of preachers to preach truth; artists testify to the wonder and beauty of God.



However, while theology, the sciences and even ethics deal largely with binary opposites—right and wrong, black and white—aesthetics does not follow the same process. We need to approach each discipline according to its own principles. For example, neither the existence of God nor His character can be proved by science. Not because believing in God is unscientific, but because He is bigger than the scientific method. To find the truth about God we must use the methods of theology. To find material reality we use the scientific method. If we want to know about gravity, we ask a scientific rather than a theological question. Similarly, we cannot judge beauty by the rules for determining truth. We must use aesthetic principles to judge aesthetic concerns. 

C S Kilby writes, “Our excuse for our aesthetic failure has often been that we must be about the Lord’s business, the assumption being that the Lord’s business is never aesthetic.”1 Artist Jo Darby2 notes that the first biblical mention of the gift of the Holy Spirit is in endowing Bezaleel with artistic skill (Exodus 31:2-3). Creation is also linked to the Holy Spirit; hence creativity is an inherently spiritual activity.

The first biblical principle of aesthetics is that to be creative is to reflect the image of God. When God said, “Let us make man in our own image” (Genesis 1:26), He was Himself undertaking a great creative task. John Oswalt writes, “We are most fully human, most fully experiencing our uniqueness, when we are being most creative.”3 To be creative is to make a statement about the character of God, one that is different from those that theology or science make about Him. 

The second biblical principle is the wholeness of humanity—mind, body and soul. One of Adventism’s great strengths is the health message—that God wishes to restore our whole being, not just the ‘spiritual’ parts. Creativity is also a God-given quality that needs restoring.

The Bible also promotes a variety of art forms. While the First Commandment forbids images, the tabernacle and temple were full of them, from cherubim and carvings to oxen holding up the laver. 2 Chronicles 3:6 (KJV) reads, “And [Solomon] garnished the house with precious stones for beauty.” Jesus used parables, including the fictional story of Lazarus and Abraham (Luke 16:19-31). Poetry, dance and music are all recorded in the Bible, used both positively and negatively, showing that art forms and instruments are not inherently moral, but rather it’s how they are used that matters.

Biblical art suggests that art should have an artistic end, not just an epistemological one. Some psalms for example describe God as uncaring, sentiments which are theologically inaccurate. Psalm 137 blesses those who in vengeance dash Babylonian babies against the rocks. Psalm 88 is a lament that offers no hope of rescue or salvation. The function of these psalms isn’t to hold up a pure theology but to accurately represent our limited human perspectives. God so approves of this kind of honesty that He inspired their composition and then preserved them in His divine songbook. Similarly, the sensual language of Song of Songs is an artistic celebration of love. It does not describe love theologically, as perhaps 1 Corinthians 13 or 1 John might, or scientifically (say in terms of hormonal activities), but its artistic description reveals love experientially and emotionally, which are such vital dimensions of love. By allowing its aesthetic to speak, we are led back to truth as we enter the beauty of love, and therefore of God. 

There may of course be crossover: 1 Corinthians 13 is a masterpiece of language and a profound theological statement, and much of the Bible is literary art. The best art often carries powerful statements on truth and reality; but it doesn’t have to. Solomon placed precious stones on the temple walls not for their religious symbolism, but for their beauty. That made its own statement about a beautiful God. However, art often leads us to truth and reality. Studying the Bible as Literature4 has shed new insight into the truths of the Bible for many students, and refreshed their desire for the Word.

Approaching art from a theological perspective leads to confusion. Should a Christian artist only make religious art? What of other professions: should Christian builders only build churches, or Christian mechanics only repair the pastor’s car? Our confusion stems from seeing Christian art as purely evangelistic, that is, epistemologically, for spreading truth. But it is the task of preachers to preach truth; artists testify to the wonder and beauty of God. In doing so, they may in fact ‘preach’ as powerfully as any evangelist, but through a different avenue. As Ellen White notes, artistic expression “is one of the most effective means of impressing the heart with spiritual truth”.5

Because art involves taste, it creates a problem for binary theological or scientific thinking. We should learn to appreciate art as much as possible, that is to understand and value the quality of form and content, but we need only like what we like. Liking or not liking is not a matter of good and bad: it is entirely acceptable not to like a piece of good art, but we should learn as best we can to appreciate it. For example, I don’t particularly like Dickens, but I can appreciate what makes him a good writer.

Jesus is the Way (reality), the Truth (doctrine) and the Life (beauty). As we respect each of these avenues to understanding God, our love and knowledge of Him will grow. Theology testifies to His truth, science to the realities He made, and aesthetics to His awe, beauty and wonder.
 

1 C S Kilby, The Christian Imagination. L Ryken ed, 44
2 Manifest Awards speech, 31 March 2012, Avondale College
3 John Oswalt, The Leisure Crisis, 89
4 Available by Distance Education
5 Ellen G White, Education, 167

Daniel Reynaud is faculty dean of Humanities and Creative Arts at Avondale College of Higher Education.