What I take from the compost bucket
I’m one of those people who can eat whatever is on my plate even if it looks like it was scraped from the bottom of the compost bucket, and I’ll still enjoy it—as long as it tastes good. I figure it’s only going to look worse in my stomach. Though odd, this trait is a perfect example of one of the greatest truisms of life: it’s what’s on the inside that counts. This is a basic principle we all intuitively know to be true. What’s a box of chocolate without any chocolate inside? Who wants a Valentine’s card that has no mushy sweet-nothings written in it? What’s a Christmas package if it doesn’t contain an ugly sweater that makes you look like a weirdo? Computers matter because of what’s on the hard drive. Houses are important because of those who gather in them. You marry a person not just because of the way he or she looks, but because of the heart and mind that his or her body contains. I think you get the idea.
Nowhere is this belief more firmly held than in the church. The value of a church doesn’t lie in its architectural beauty, the quality of its worship music, or how entertaining its programs are. The value lies within the message itself: the gospel of God’s faithful love for fallen humanity. If there’s ever been a thing in life that has magnetic beauty all its own, it’s the gospel.
Right now your head is probably bobbing like a fishing lure in agreement. You might be murmuring, “Mmhhmm,” the same way you do when you eat a good cookie (a vegan one, if that’s necessary for your imagination). You probably feel great about being a believer in the gospel message, and you should. I do too. Pat on the back for both of us. But I want to take a moment right now to be irritating and poke some holes in this “content-trumps-all” logic. (What can I say? I’m a younger sibling. I was born to be annoying.)
Is it really only what’s inside a thing that matters? What about sewer systems? I’d say that container is much more important than whatever it holds inside. OK, that was a faeces—I mean facetious example. But in all seriousness, are we 100 per cent sure quality content justifies less than quality packaging? What about in the church? Our message is stunningly beautiful, no doubt, so why should we feel the need to prop it up by creating beautiful presentations? Why spend precious means to make sure our fliers are well designed, our music is on par or our programs are topnotch? Why does creative presentation matter at all as long as we’re presenting the gospel? We want people to be attracted to the message itself, right? For sure, yes, amen. I think all of us can agree with those thoughts, but when I read the Bible, I have to wonder if God does. Here’s what I mean.
Not your average sanctuary
After God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, He wanted to be with them. So He commanded the Israelites to build Him a tabernacle. God’s presence was the contents; the sanctuary was the packaging. But when it came to building the tabernacle, God requested something that might be a bit surprising to some of us. He didn’t ask Israel to pull together a modest but functional house since it was obviously His presence that mattered most and nothing on earth can ever compare to His glory. He didn’t find the equivalent of Chip and Joanna Gaines in Israel so they could renovate an old tent for Him on a budget. Instead, He had a talent search. He rallied all the gifted artisans in the nation. He called for all the best materials that could be found. Not only that, but He directly inspired the artisans with His Spirit.
“I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you” (Exodus 31:6).
“All who are gifted artisans among you shall come and make all that the Lord has commanded” (Exodus 35:10).
“All the women who were gifted artisans spun yarn with their hands, and brought what they had spun, of blue, purple, and scarlet, and fine linen” (Exodus 35:25).
“Then all the gifted artisans among them who worked on the tabernacle made ten curtains woven of fine linen, and of blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim they made them” (Exodus 36:8).
And my favourite:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship” (Exodus 31:1-5).
Did you catch that last passage? If not, try reading it again, with your glasses on. God gives Bezalel His Spirit, but the result isn’t a prophecy. Bezalel didn’t speak in tongues, raise the dead or even walk on water, as trendy as that would have been. Instead, Bezalel created a home for God, but it wasn’t just any home. It was a work of art that connected God with His people.
Ellen White puts it like this:
“No language can describe the glory of the scene presented within the sanctuary—the gold-plated walls reflecting the light from the golden candlestick, the brilliant hues of the richly embroidered curtains with their shining angels, the table, and the altar of incense, glittering with gold; beyond the second veil the sacred ark, with its mystic cherubim, and above it the holy Shekinah, the visible manifestation of Jehovah’s presence” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 349).
When I read quotes like this, I get the feeling God wasn’t going to let this be a mediocre production in an outdated style. He laid out every detail for Moses when it came to how this house was going to look, right down to the priests’ clothes (and you thought girls were bad). He wasn’t content to go halfway and say, “Meh, it’s the inside that counts.” I get the feeling God was going for straight up avant-garde. Modern, innovative, original—those are the adjectives I think we would use to describe the sanctuary if you and I were next-door neighbours to Israel.
But it wasn’t beauty for beauty’s sake alone. Everything in the sanctuary, each detail had meaning, including the decor. In Exodus 28:2, God tells Moses to have special clothes made for Aaron, the high priest, and in doing so, God gives us a peek into His thought process: “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.” The aesthetic beauty of the sanctuary pointed to the true beauty of God’s character, His glory. By tying beauty and meaning together in the decor of the sanctuary, God was engaging Israel on all levels. He was using every means He could to reveal Himself to His people.
But this revelation wasn’t meant to be insular and contained within Israel alone. As a new nation with a new culture and a different way of worship, they were to attract all peoples of the world to Jehovah:
“ . . . it was God’s purpose that by the revelation of His character through Israel men should be drawn unto Him. To all the world the gospel invitation was to be given. Through the teaching of the sacrificial service, Christ was to be uplifted before the nations, and all who would look unto Him should live. All who, like Rahab the Canaanite and Ruth the Moabitess, turned from idolatry to the worship of the true God were to unite themselves with His chosen people. As the numbers of Israel increased, they were to enlarge their borders until their kingdom should embrace the world” (Ellen White, Prophets and Kings, p. 19).
In other words, the sanctuary wasn’t meant to speak solely to the hearts of Israel, but also to the hearts of all humankind. We see this attraction taking place at the dedication of Solomon’s temple where “the hosts of Israel, with richly clad representatives from many foreign nations, assembled in the temple courts” and “the scene was one of unusual splendour” (Ellen White, Prophets and Kings, p. 38). When it came to presentation in the temple and sanctuary services, God made sure Israel maximised their creative potential, both as a means of worship and as a witness to the surrounding nations.
Forget the carpet. Let’s do evangelism
So back to our content versus container question. I can’t help but think that if God Himself thought it necessary to make sure that the sanctuary was attractive, maybe we should be utilising the arts more, both as a way of worship and sharing the gospel. I can’t help but think that if God took the time to inspire all the gifted artisans in Israel, He must have a high regard for the creatives in the church. If He cared enough to make sure that each artistic detail of His house spoke to the excellence of His character, then shouldn’t we make sure that, in whatever creative ventures we pursue, we give God our best? Shouldn’t we be mindful of the fact that whatever we do tells a watching world what we think of our heavenly Father? If God cared enough to dedicate entire books in the canon of Scripture to poetry and song; if Jesus cared enough to spend a significant portion of His time on earth to being a storyteller; and if He cared enough to fill His house with colours, music, texture and beauty, then He is a God who values and invests in the arts as a way of telling us and the world who He is. And maybe we should do the same.
But, as I mentioned in the beginning, there’s a false dichotomy between our presentation and the message itself. Some of us feel that we shouldn’t be spending any money on making our churches look nice. “We should be spending money on evangelism.” Even though God commanded “a large amount of the most precious and costly material” for His house (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 343), we think it’s more righteous to let that puke-coloured shag carpet stay for another twenty years. We think people will ignore the Revelation seminar flier that looks like it’s advertising a poorly made horror film or those Bible study guides that look like they came out of a 1990s time capsule.
It’s almost as if we think something is morally wrong with trying to have modern, top-quality design, music, writing or other forms of expression. It’s almost as if we think that if something is older it must be holier, and that by making our presentations the best they can be we’re somehow changing our content. We tell ourselves people will look past the outside. Some do, but most don’t. We say the truth never goes out of style, right? Agreed, but our graphics sure do.
Our natural inclination might be not to “waste” money on the outside stuff and to save it for “evangelism”. But the truth is, art is evangelism. Look around you right now. Yes, right now. Stop reading and look. (Why are you still reading? Look.) Do you see anything that took creative energy to make? Look at the advertisements in magazines and newspapers, the billboards on the side of the road, the music sold on iTunes, the label on your peanut butter jar and the DVDs on your shelf. Art is a language the world speaks. The difference is, the world is using art to preach its own gospel of lies and selfishness and to define our culture. And to be honest, they’re doing quite a good job of it. They’re using cutting edge stuff to get their message across, and it’s working. Why do you think millions of people spend countless hours on Pinterest, YouTube, and Instagram? It’s because the world listens to artists. I know it’s easy to point out what’s wrong with pop culture (and there is a lot wrong with it), but maybe there are a few things we could learn from it, if we had enough humility.
Think about it. Don’t we, as a church, have a much better gospel to offer? If the world can send its message through art, what could the church do? I know today we don’t usually connect things like iambic pentameter, diminished seventh chords (whatever those are; I’m not a musician), or colour schemes with the three angels’ messages or sharing the gospel any more than we connect the first law of thermodynamics with French pastries. But when I look at the God of the Bible, I get the impression that musicians and poets are actually preachers. Writers, designers, photographers, filmmakers—artists—are, in fact, evangelists. Together, the creatives work to form a mosaic, a picture of the character of God that the world might not otherwise see. So we should value them accordingly, not just as a cultural luxury, but as an evangelistic necessity.
Thinking of the arts as a necessity might be a bit difficult for some of us, so let me give an illustration. My little sister, Sarah, is a fabulous baker. If the way to a man’s heart were truly through his stomach, I’m sure she’d have heaps of hopefuls overflowing her kitchen just about every day. One of the things that makes her baking so positively delightful is that not only is the inside of whatever she makes delicious, but the outside makes you want to eat it too. After spending hours poring over food blogs and baking magazines, she knows how to get all the details just right so that when you sit down at her table, you feel like you stepped into a Fall Baking magazine. You find yourself thinking, If it looks this good, how amazing will it taste? And that’s the point. It’s not about changing the content or saying the outside matters more than the inside. It’s about making the outside beautiful precisely because the inside is so beautiful.
And just in case you’re still doubting whether there is a connection between the arts and the gospel, check out this quotation from James Wylie that Ellen White, with her obvious stamp of approval on his thoughts, chose to include in her book The Great Controversy. It’s a description of what France could have been like had she not persecuted the Protestants, who also happened to be topnotch creatives and professionals, during the Reformation:
“‘Scarcely was there a generation of Frenchmen during the long period that did not witness the disciples of the gospel fleeing before the insane fury of the persecutor, and carrying with them the intelligence, the arts, the industry, the order, in which, as a rule, they pre-eminently excelled, to enrich the lands in which they found an asylum. And in proportion as they replenished other countries with these good gifts, did they empty their own of them. If all that was now driven away had been retained in France; if, during these three hundred years, the industrial skill of the exiles had been cultivating her soil; if, during these three hundred years, their artistic bent had been improving her manufactures; if, during these three hundred years, their creative genius and analytic power had been enriching her literature and cultivating her science; if their wisdom had been guiding her councils, their bravery fighting her battles, their equity framing her laws, and the religion of the Bible strengthening the intellect and governing the conscience of her people, what a glory would at this day have encompassed France! What a great, prosperous, and happy country—a pattern to the nations—would she have been!’” (p. 278).
"We say the truth never goes out of style, right? Agreed, but our graphics sure do."
Huh. Sounds kind of like what Israel was supposed to be. It sounds like the reformers’ faith, instead of causing them to neglect the sciences, the arts, academics and industries, actually inspired and spurred them on to excellence in these areas. It was something they were known for and caused the world to come knocking at their doors. Their creativity, imagination, intelligence and drive came as a package deal with their faith.
Imagine what that was like.
Imagine what France would have been, what she could have been known for, if she had valued God’s creatives rather than persecuting them.
Imagine what Israel could have been if, instead of becoming bigoted and shutting the nations out, she had continued to draw the Gentiles in to see the glory of God in His beautiful temple.
Finally, imagine what the church could be if we were to utilise all God’s gifts. Imagine if the church were known for their cutting-edge excellence in creativity and the arts. I’m not saying if you write a haiku on the sea beast of Revelation 13 revival will sweep across the nation and you’ll need to fill up your bathtub so you can keep up with the baptisms. And I’m not saying that the church should trade in all its study guides for kazoos and paint-by-number books. I’m just saying that, in whatever we do, why not strive to make our presentation accurately reflect how awesome our message is? Why not meet people where they’re at and speak their language, becoming “all things to all men, that [we] might by all means save some”? (1 Corinthians 9:22).
If we want God’s kingdom to come, why not use every means we can to spread its culture? People are going to be evangelised one way or another. We might as well be the ones to do it.
In her TEDx Talk titled, “Why Art Is Important”,* internationally respected curator, Katerina Gregos, unwittingly stumbled onto what it means to evangelise when she gave a description of art. She said: “Art thinks about the world in its current state, and it can reimagine the world as it should be.”
May we use all the gifts the great Source of creativity has given us to help humanity see, not only the world as it should be, but to see and prepare for what it one day will be.
This article first appeared on the Lightbearers website and is used by permission.
*Katerina Gregos, “Why art is important,” TEDx Talks, September 2, 2014.