A Theology of Art in Five Minutes
Pastor John, a listener named Alicia emailed to ask, “What role does the vast field of art play in the church? In a nutshell, can you give a theology of art?”
There are great books on art, and I haven’t read most of them or written any of them, but I will tell you what I think. That is all I can do, and if it gives some help, then I am thankful. The word “art” comes from a Latin word, ars, that means skill or craft or craftsmanship. So here is the way I would define the word.
Art is any effort to make something — and that could be an object or an dancing action or an action in a play or an object like a carving or a painting or a sculpture or a poem — any action to make something that takes a special skill, resulting in something that is not merely utilitarian or pragmatic but moves us more deeply with beauty or wonder or something touching our soul with a sense that life is more than food and drink. That is a long, complicated definition, but basically it is a craft, a skill that aims at an effect that is more than just keeping food on the table.
God Is an Artist
And what makes it Christian, I think — so here is the theology part — is that God is an artist. He made the heavens that are telling something about his glory. In other words, he didn’t just make the heavens to protect us from solar rays. They are not just utilitarian — they are beautiful. They say something about his glory.
The book of Job is just great on this. As you read the last chapters of Job, God is pointing to his artistry all over the place. God is speaking to Job about his life from nature. And Jesus talked about the lilies and the birds and leaven, all of it as being more than utilitarian. So my first way of getting at a theology of art is that God is an artist.
And then, secondly, I would say the Bible writers are artists. Maybe three-fourths of the Bible is crafted in some way linguistically that is poetic or striking or unusual. This obviously evidences some craft that is intended not merely to communicate a raw fact, but to produce a certain kind of effect in us spiritually, which is what artists want to do.
So there are acrostics and parallels and metaphors in the Bible. And these writers clearly are giving artful attention to how they are shaping their words. And they are doing all of this under the inspiration of God.
“Christians have deeper and better foundations for serious art than anybody.”
Maybe one more thing. Paul says, echoing Jesus, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Well, that must mean to take thought in everything you do, making an effort to craft it in such a way that it has an effect that opens the eyes to see beauty — mainly glory, the glory of God, which means there ought to be a way to be eating pizza and drinking soda and doing the laundry and making your bed and making meals and writing reports and driving your car that are not merely, “I have got to get some place,” or, “I have got to get something done,” but rather, “I am meant to do it so that it has an effect beyond the merely utilitarian.”
And Jesus said, “Let your light so shine that men may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven.” There we see we are to take our bodies and our lives and cause them to have a kind of brightness so that when people look at them, they see a kind of artful intentionality that gets people to see something more than a mere body.
So God is the maker, right? And we have the mind of the maker. We talked about this once before in reference to vocation. And therefore it seems to me that Christians have deeper and better foundations for serious art than anybody.