Sunday, May 9, 2010

Art for God's Sake (Part I)

A dear friend has graciously lent me a book entitled Art for God's Sake, by Philip Graham Ryken. It is a short book which briefly discusses some of the theology of why Christians value and create art. It was helpful to think about how the close ties between human art and very character of God. It also provides a vision for the possibilities of art made by followers of Christ.

As I wrote this post, I found myself writing in three categories: A Call to the Church, A Theology of Art, and A Vision for "Christian" Art. I have decided to post the first topic today, and the other two next week.

A Call to the Church
This book is clearly addressed to those in the church. Although Ryken reveals himself to be more of a theologian than an artist, his intent to build up the church is clear, and I think it is worth listening to what he has to say.

Ryken first addresses why the church in general has been skeptical of, and even at times rejected, the arts. I found the following to be a good insight:
More recently, many Christians have objected to art on the grounds that it is dominated by an anti-Christian view of the world. They rightly perceive that over the last century or more many artists, writers, and musicians have become increasingly cynical about the possibility of knowing truth. [...] Art has also suffered a tragic loss of sacred beauty, as many modern and postmodern artists have been attracted instead to absurdity, irrationality, and even cruelty. [...] a good deal of contemporary art is the art of alienation, which, if it is true at all, is true only about the disorder of a world damaged by our depravity. God can use transgressive art to awaken the conscience and arouse a desire for a better world. But as a general rule, such artwork does not reveal the redemptive possibilities of a world that, although fallen, has been visited by God and is destined for his glory.

The church must acknowledge this, but not assume that the art of followers of Christ must be like this. The implication is that there is hope - yes, even need- for art. We must develop and embrace a vision for Christian art.

Ryken also points out the need for Christians to value good art, warning us of some of the grievous consequences when we don't.
All too often we settle for something that is functional, but not beautiful. [...] Ultimately this kind of art dishonors God because it is not in keeping with the truth and beauty of his character. It also undermines the church's gospel message of salvation in Christ. [...] Furthermore, when we settle for trivial expressions of the truth in worship and art, we ourselves are diminished, as we suffer a loss of transcendence.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, art is a part of our churches and our lives. The question is, does it reflect who God is and bring glory to him? We must be thoughtful and careful with our art, striving for excellence and for art that comes out of a true understanding of who God is and his workings in our world. This is something I think is too often excused: we do not feel comfortable excusing our ignorance about God – why would we with art? Ryken cautions:
The problem with some modern and postmodern art is that it seeks to offer truth at the expense of beauty. It tells the truth only about ugliness and alienation, leaving out the beauty of creation and redemption. A good deal of so-called Christian art tends to have the opposite problem. It tries to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false. Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall, or the light, cheery melodies that characterize the Christian life as one of undiminished happiness. Such a world may be nice to imagine, but it is not the world God sent his Son to save.
As a church we must be more intentional with respect to the arts. Next week I will write on a more hopeful note, about a better theology of and vision for Christian art.

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