Faith and the Arts: Creativity and the Role of the Artist in the Light of the Scriptures
Faith and the Arts
Creativity and the role of the artist in the light of the Scriptures
In looking at creativity and the role of the artist in the light of the Scriptures, it is not possible here to consider every relevant scripture and issue. We will look at a number of scriptures, however, that directly bear on these matters. No attempt will be made to link the thoughts sequentially. They may best be thought of as starting points for further thought and discussion.
- “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image ... and let them have dominion…’” 1
When Adam and Eve first surveyed their unspoiled environment, they saw at a glance that it was good, beneficial and beautiful. They saw what God Himself was pleased to create – and bestow upon them in love. Appreciation, gratitude and delight were theirs. After the Fall, mankind was still endowed with a sense of the beautiful, as well as having a sensed need for truth and righteousness. There were tasks to perform – to subdue and cultivate the world (i.e. to tame it, to eliminate its unruliness, to order it, and to place their human imprint upon it). And they were held accountable to God for their actions. “Responsible action is the vocation of man, and shalom is his end.” 2To the servants in the parable of the talents, their master’s instruction was, ‘Occupy till I come.’
Dostoevsky was convinced that there was a sublime unspoken connection between goodness, truth and beauty, and should these three be cut off from humanity as a felled tree, beauty would likely to be the first to shoot forth, foreshadowing the return of goodness and truth. With these three things – goodness, truth and beauty – men should occupy themselves.
- “In Christ, all things were created things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible – all things were created through Him and for Him.” 3
The Old Testament speaks of works of art as a part of life – as much a part of life as eating and working. There are countless references to music, poetry, narratives, craftsmanship, embroidery, architecture, engraving, decorating, and so on. Music, sacred and secular, figures in many a historical reference. The visual arts abounded in the Temple: different creations of the human mind. Some are representational, some symbolic and some abstract. All were acceptable in the House of God, and artistic abilities were seen as gifted to man from a generous, life-loving God. Their gifts were given to enrich life and to redound to the glory of God. Biblical life was, and is meant to be, a pattern for work, leisure and worship. Human recreations are capable of echoing the satisfaction and pleasure that God Himself found in creation – found in a creation that was functional, beautiful and good.
It has been said that the sphere of the imagination is as much a part of God’s creation as the sun, moon and stars. Invisible things include the whole realm of ideas and imagination, emotions, instincts, memory, sensitivity, intuition and the ability to dream and fantasize (13. Brand & Solway, Art & Soul). And this capacity to imagine, experiment and make things happen applies to all of life – to education, horticulture, science, home-making, etc. Artists do not have a monopoly on the application of imagination, though for them it is central.
- “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise, think about these things.” 4
This much-quoted verse has far-reaching implications for any artist. These values are to shape the Christian’s thinking and artistic creations. He is called not only to present the noble and the lovely, but also the truth – truth in a fallen, ugly world where it has ugly consequences. In order to recognise what is true and so on, “we need to be able to recognise what is false, ignoble, wrong, impure, unlovely and justly unadmired. But such categories are almost never applied to popular culture – which is why the Grammy Awards in 1989 added a category for heavy metal” (Kenneth A. Myers). Works that are true will plumb the depths of human nature and the human heart. “It will lead to poetry like the Psalms; stories with complex and confusing characters; and painting that depicts decay and chaos, as well as beauty and order.” 5“If you only have the major theme,” as Francis Schaeffer has said, “no one will listen. They will know you are lying.” The skill is in knowing how to present the balance. The temptation for the poorer artist is to wallow in depravity and sentimentality.
- “All things are lawful but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” 6
On the basis of this reference alone, art needs no justification, as Rookmaaker has said; but the artist is called upon to show marked integrity. His integrity is to shine forth in all he creates and in what he refuses to create. His motivation lies beyond pleasing himself or a patron or a buyer: it lies in seeking to please God, doing all that he does to the glory of God, as did J.S. Bach, Dvorak and countless others. Before embarking on any composition, Bach inscribed at the top of each page, “To the glory of God.” While we might not literally do the same before embarking upon a work of art, our attitude and desire should be identical.
- The Christian artist is not to be “acting in worldly fashion; for though we live in the world, we are not carrying on a worldly war ... We take every thought captive to obey Christ.” 7
While every Christian is charged to contend for Christ in the world, the artist is at the forefront of an encounter with worldly culture. Being different from that culture, he will not only be concerned about his message and motivation but he will be careful about the forms and styles he chooses to use. He will seek to speak to this world without being of it, at the same time as he is revealing another, and better, world.
Modern educationalists have done us a real disservice where they have sought to remove historical perspectives from many branches of learning. An over-concentration on the 20th century has robbed us of our roots and the ability to stand on the shoulders of our forebears. How well Colin Brown summed this up in his Christianity and Western Thought:
The history of science reveals a progress of knowledge in which later thought supersedes earlier thought. But theology and philosophy – in common with other liberal arts – is not like science. It is not a case that the discoveries of the present make obsolete the views of the previous generation. The latest play on Broadway or the West End of London does not make the plays of Shakespeare obsolete. Modern verse does not supplant the poetry of Wordsworth or Milton. The music of Bach, Mozart and Brahms is not surpassed by twentieth-century compositions. The present should have its own integrity. But that integrity requires us to listen to what the past has to offer.
- “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” 8
All artists shape and slant truth according to their experiences. They bring works into being from their own inner worlds, and those inner worlds are not blank slates. They are treasure troves where are stored the deepest and most personal experiences, experiences that then shape what they create and bring to light. All artists are, in their way, prophets. Each artist must determine what he treasures in his heart because whatever is there, will be proclaimed. And it is up to each consumer to discern whether the artist he admires and would emulate is true or false. All artists are in the business of seeking to influence, woo and move others. Is it toward truth, meaning, purpose, and delight, or is it not? Each of us must learn to decide, but deciding is not always easy. Here, again, we must remember Calvin’s caution that in a fallen world, truth is not the exclusive property of Christians. Far from it – which is why Christians must not close themselves off completely from unbelievers. God, by common grace, has scattered truth abroad, and we must recognise it as such wherever we find it.
- “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” 9
And so we all struggle in life – struggle with temptations of the mind and the flesh and the world. Those with more sensitive and imaginative dispositions know this most of all. The artist knows what it is to be pressed on every side: to have a burden to give through creating and yet feeling continually frustrated – frustrated by people who don’t understand him, by interruptions and shortage of time, and quietness, and the need for money, supplies and so on. And central to all these matters is the knowledge that he is primarily called to be salt and light. What he is, is more important than what he accomplishes in a visible sense, and this he must always keep in mind. This gives all else perspective.
- The Christian artist, like all struggling believers, must learn to rest content knowing that “in everything God works together for good with those who love him, who are called according to His purpose.” 10
Here the artist must rest his concerns. “In me you have peace,” Christ teaches us. “In the world you will have tribulation.” This is the kind of peace which John Milton, though blind, knew:
Dost God exact day-labour, light denied?’ I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent that murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bears his mild yoke, they serve him best.
There is no substitute for the believer’s close walk with God. In Him, there is peace. His grace is sufficient for all our needs.
Very different is the life of the unbeliever. He knows not that peace which passes understanding. All too often, the frustrations of life bring resentment, cynicism and bitterness.
Think of Wagner who said, “I cannot live the life of a town organist like Master Bach. I must have beauty, splendour, light around me. I am not as others. I have nerves as sensitive as touch. The world owes me a consideration – yes, luxury.”
Note what most highly acclaimed, English painter, Francis Bacon has commented about life: “Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason ... I think of life as meaningless; we create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really ... I work hoping that chance and accident will just run for me.” 11
Think, too, of the anarchist John Cage, who had a marked influence on music education, and who said, “And what is the purpose of writing music? Not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest an improvement in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of the way and let it act of its own accord...I am less and less interested in music – I am interested in revolution.”
Or of D.H. Lawrence’s comment, “My great religion is the belief in the blood, the flesh as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.”
And Stockhausen, German music professor and long-time experimenter in electronic composition: “Reason is just an instrument: nothing more, nothing less. You have to learn when to switch it on and when to switch it off.”
The French painter Paul Gauguin wrote in a letter to a friend near the end of his life, after deserting European society and family responsibilities for life on Pacific islands: “Since my childhood, misfortune has dogged me. Never a chance. Never any happiness. Everything always against me, and I cry out: ‘Oh, God, if you exist, I accuse you of injustice, of malice ... Only crime is logical and makes any sense.”
The secular writer often over-values the role of the artist, as we can see in these words spoken by Orlando, in the novel of the same name, where Virginia Woolf is really speaking for herself. “The poet’s office is the highest of all... His words reach where others fall short. A silly song of Shakespeare has done more for the poor and the wicked, than all the preachers and philanthropists in the world.”
These are statements from artists on the other side of the Christian divide. Many others lie between the specifically Christian and non Christian points, so that it is important to remember Calvin’s advice that one can learn from unbelievers in temporal matters.
More positive remarks – from a range of other artists and writers.
First, from the renowned art critic and prolific author, Herbert Read: “The artist expresses what he perceives ... We see what we learn to see, and vision becomes a habit, a convention, a partial selection of all there is to see... What we want to see is determined ... by the desire to discover or construct a credible world.” 12
The novelist Joseph Conrad has written, “My task is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”
Solzhenitsyn: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” (This was the substance as well as the title of his address given on the occasion of his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.)
The French sculptor, Rodin: “The artist’s task is to reveal the hidden truth beneath appearances.”
Van Gogh: “To try and understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”
The inventor, Thomas Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
The writer of modern hymns and choruses, Graham Kendrick: “Inspiration in my experience does not so much float out of a clear blue sky as gets washed up on the beach in a storm.”
The great hymn writer, Isaac Watts: “It was hard to sink every line to the level of the whole congregation and yet keep it above contempt.”
Let us end this sweep of quotations with two brief ones that dove-tail: one from the writer, Nicholas Wolterstorff and one from the prophet Jeremiah: