“All Art is quite useless.”
These famous words by poet and playwright Oscar Wilde lead down a road Christians are often hesitant to follow. As an artist himself, Wilde was obviously not declaring that Art was without value. He was asserting that its value doesn’t come from any utilitarian function or pragmatic purpose, but simply by it being Art.
Yet, there’s oftentimes a sense among Christians that art needs justification. That Art must serve some quantitative function or purpose to be worth creating or experiencing. When approaching a work of art, the initial question is frequently: “what does it mean?” For this reason, the Church has historically been extremely skeptical of abstract art, with its seemingly arbitrary shapes and colors. Art must have a meaning or a message—and the less ambiguous the better.
Thus, most Christian films hit theaters along with with supplemental bible study material—the film acting more as the conversation starter than the conversation itself. Christian books are infused with religious symbolism or allegory—some clever and thought-provoking, others with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And if dance is tolerated at all, it’s primarily in the form of “dance sign language” (as one commenter from a previous blog aptly put it). It’s not uncommon for these dancers to sport signs—“lust”, “greed”, “despair”—to remove any doubt of the message the choreographed movements are communicating.
As a result, many Christians are left unsure of what to do with Art that doesn’t conform to these functions. A significant burden is placed upon Christian artists to justify their Art. If they’re unable to attach a theological of evangelistic application to their artistic creation, they often fall back on an apologetic promise that their Art “builds bridges” and “open doors” with unbelievers. This is, of course, a wonderful purpose. It’s just not an essential one.
Art can be its own justification.
The Bible makes clear that the beauty and sublimity of nature proclaim the glory of God (Psalm 19; Romans 1). Did God infused nature with countless religious forms and shapes, like the images below?
Of course not. Does a shapeless cluster of clouds display God’s glory any less than clouds in the shape of a cross? No. All clouds declare God’s glory because they’re beautiful, and beauty belongs to God alone. Likewise, must a majestic mountain range be grouped into sets of 12—to represent the 12 tribes of Israel— in order to declare God’s sovereignty? I remember several years ago with preacher Louie Giglio caused a stir by demonstrating that the laminin protein in the human body is in the miraculously form of a cross.
Wow! Many people celebrated and declared this as proof of God’s dominion over all creation…as if that wasn’t already abundantly clear by the protein being an irreducibly complex biological phenomena that defies any naturalistic explanation. If nature must appear in the form of a religious symbol in order for us to be impressed by God’s handiwork, then we might need invest in a new pair of glasses.
The same is true with Art.
Art doesn’t need a religious form in order to glorify God or be worthy of creation and appreciation. Art doesn’t have to mean anything. Art doesn’t have to say anything. Art doesn’t require any recognizable forms. Art needs no justification beyond its existence as an expression and celebration of our God-given ability to create it.
I think because Art can preach and be used as a tool for evangelistic purposes, we mistakenly conclude that it must. In doing so, we hold Art to a separate standard than most everything else in life. Consider the following experiences:
Who, upon hearing about a friend’s weekend hike through the mountains, asks, “what was the point of that?” Do we need a deeper reason to delight in the beauty of nature other than the fact that it’s beautiful and gives us delight?
Who, while sitting in a buzzing baseball stadium after the center fielder has just made a leaping catch to rob the visiting team of a home run, asks, “what did I learn from that?” Any contrived application about human nature or parallels to Paul’s “run the race” verses in Scripture would only seem to cheapen the moment.
Who, after savoring the last bite of a juicy steak, asks “what truth about the Kingdom of God was revealed through that experience?” If God didn’t want us to enjoy delicious food then He wouldn’t have given us taste buds.
Lastly, what father, after riding a roller coaster with his children for the first time (as I recently did), huddles them together for a quick bible study on the various usages of the Greek word for “fear” in the New Testament? We don’t share the thrill of a terrifying amusement park ride with them because it’s a bridge for a theological discussion. We do so simply because it’s a part of growing up and being alive.
The experiences above are not for us to learn about life. They’re for us to experience that life to the fullest. God has given us an amazingly vast capacity for emotional and sensory experiences. He designed a world full of vibrant colors, enticing smells, mouthwatering flavors, and delightful tonal harmonies—then set humans loose like kids in a candy store to explore and experience all the wonders His creation has to offer.
To conflate art with a sermon or message is to ultimately render Art obsolete. If we approach Art only as a philosophical exercise—mercilessly dissecting it for its worldviews implications or theological teachings—then we’re missing out on the real beauty and power of Art.
We create music, not just to proclaim lyrical gospel truths, but because a world without music is a far less joyous place to live. We paint, not just to give visual representation to biblical narratives, but because God created a world full of brilliant colors rather than one in mundane shades of gray. We dance, not just to to transpose a sermon into an artistic form, but because God gifted us with marvelous bodies capable of exquisite grace and beauty rather than making us as stiff and clunky robots.
In short, we create Art because God has given us the ability and impulse to do so. We need no justification other than that.