The Forgotten Gifts of the Holy Spirit Creative Arts
Leland Ryken introduces the theme of his book The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1989) with three examples of the role which the creative arts have had in sustaining Christians in trouble:
- Missionary Bruce Hunt composing hymn verses in a Manchurian prison;
- Missionary Debbie Dortzbach composing poems, drawing plants, and embroidering Bible verses while a hostage of Ethiopian terrorists;
- and Corrie ten Boom, arrested for harboring Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, drawing encouragement from the beauty of God's world even amid the misery of a concentration camp.
Most readers of his book will recognize only the third name, I suspect. But the first two strike a resounding chord for OPCers. Debbie's needlework during her captivity in Eritrea and Rev. Hunt's hymnody during his imprisonment in Manchuria remind us of the ways in which God strengthens his children through the creative arts by which we who are created in God's image can, in a miniature and dependent way, imitate his infinitely creative imagination and skill.
But is it legitimate to call such arts – drawing, painting, sculpture, the composition and performance of music, poetry and novels – spiritual gifts? Should we pay attention to how such skills can be used in the life of the church, or should we go on forgetting them? After all, it is among Cain's descendants that we first hear the music of the harp and flute in Scripture (Genesis 4:21); and the second commandment forbids making images to worship.
But God's Word teaches that such gifts find their source in God the Creator, that they are part of what it means for us to be created in God's image, and that they can only reach their divinely purposed goals through the renewing, recreating work of the Holy Spirit.
To start at the beginning, in Genesis 1:1-2 we are told that God created. Involved in that creation is the Spirit of God "hovering over the waters," bringing life and order and light out of what had been dead, formless, and dark. Moreover, God took delight in what he had made. Then we read (Genesis 1:25-27) that God created human beings as replicas of himself. In that way are we like our creator. Later we learn in the Bible that the image of God included knowing God truly, righteous behavior, and holy dedication to God. But at this point in Genesis we would conclude that being like God must include our being able to plan and speak, to exercise authority over the created world under God's comprehensive sovereignty, and to create (though not from nothing as God did) and enjoy what is beautiful. With this background in mind we will not be surprised to find the Spirit of God associated with gifts of visual, musical and literary arts throughout the Bible.
The second time in the Bible that the Spirit of God is said to impart special abilities to humans the "gifts" are the creative arts, particularly the visual arts employed to create the tent of God. Then the Lord said to Moses,
"See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you." Exodus 31:1-6; see also Exodus 35:30-36:1
Here are spiritual gifts that include architecture, sculpture, woodworking, interior design and embroidery (Exodus 35:35). God gives the wisdom-skill which enables Israelite artists to create an earthly replica of his heavenly sanctuary. Since God had created the universe as a home and temple in which Adam and Eve could serve God and commune with him as priests, the Spirit-gifted Israelite artists and artisans were imitating God's first creation as his image-bearers, creating a beautiful home (now in the midst of a fallen and damaged world) in which priests could serve and commune with God.
Now, of course, there is a tremendously important reason that the abilities to sculpt in wood and precious metals, to design architecture, to weave luxuriant fabrics, and all the rest do not have the same centrality in worship now that Christ has come: Bezalel and Oholiab, and those trained and supervised by them were empowered and "enskilled" by the Spirit to create an earthly and visible copy of the heavenly, eternal reality. But since Jesus has come, no mere physical building can fulfill that role. Hebrews teaches us that now we do not worship in an earthly copy; rather, by faith we have entered the true, heavenly sanctuary through the blood of Christ. The "sanctuary" on earth now is not a dead building of wood, gold, stone, or stucco; the sanctuary is a living temple – people! The gold-overlaid altar, the table, the laver, the curtains marking off the Most Holy Place – all these, despite their beauty, were only faint, flawed, fragile replicas of the abiding glory of Christ, Immanuel, the temple of God who has come among us.
During and after the Reformation, Calvinistic Christians, particularly the Puritans who framed the Westminster Standards, were rightly alarmed at the way that the medieval church masked the absence of gospel truth behind a preoccupation with superficial beauty – cathedral architecture, sculpture and painting, elaborate liturgy, music, and drama. They saw that new covenant worship, as it is described and regulated in the New Testament, is simpler than the form of old covenant worship. Since the reality has come, the "trimmings" must not distract our attention from the beauty of Christ himself.
But these legitimate and biblical concerns and cautions can be taken to an unbiblical extreme in which we forget that order and beauty are reflections of the wisdom of God and can be used in our service of God. Do we have biblical reasons for believing that the Spirit no longer gives people skills in the visual arts? That in this age of the Spirit's fullness these gifts have been withdrawn from the church? To be sure, it's hard to draw a line between the skill which a Christian artist may have through common grace and that which is the result of the Spirit's redemptive grace. But since artistic skill seems to be one type of "wisdom" in the Bible, the Christian can produce art for God's glory only if he or she depends on the Spirit who gives us wisdom.
Shouldn't we recognize the artists, writers and composers among us as bearers of gifts bestowed by the Creator-Spirit for the building up of the new sanctuary, the spiritual house composed of living stones? Shouldn't we encourage the custodians of these creative gifts and think with them about the ways in which their abilities to reflect the Creator and his beauty can be used for God's glory in the growth of Christ's body? Certainly we must guard against the danger of letting lovely outward forms displace the reality of fellowship with God. But we should also be thinking together about how the artists among us can employ their gifts for the building up of Christ's body and the glory of God.
The musical arts are not quite as forgotten as the visual arts in the church today. We recognize the important role of song in worship and mutual instruction and encouragement. Most Reformed churches recognize that musical instruments may legitimately be used to guide and enrich our sung praises to the Lord. We sing portions of Scripture itself–not only the biblical psalms, but also the later New Testament songs which celebrate the fulfillment of God's redemptive plan in Christ. And we sing songs which later Christians have composed to express the truths of God's Word in new ways.
In 1 Corinthians 14:15, 26 Paul speaks of those in the church at Corinth who sing by the Spirit and who add their hymns to the Spirit-gifted worship of the church. Perhaps not every congregation will be like Corinth, having members gifted to compose songs of praise by the Spirit. But here, surely, is one place in which we experience how spiritual gifts can transcend our congregational boundaries. Believers in other places and times still serve us as their words and music enable us to lift our praises to God.
There is more to the gift of music than the composition of new songs, of course. There are the gifts of creating the sounds themselves, whether through voice or instrument. Certainly, instrumental music was a prominent element of Old Testament worship in the temple, as we can see from Psalm 150. It's as though the psalmist were saying, "Anything you can find to create sounds that praise God, search it out, tune it up, and use it."
How can we recognize our musicians and encourage them to develop and use their gifts for the glory of Christ? Here, as with the visual arts, we want to avoid the danger of fixing our attention on the performance or the performer rather than the One who is the true Audience of our worship and the true Object of our admiration. But as we continue to struggle to keep our motives straight, we also need to consider how we can heed the Bible's instruction to place all of our musical resources in the service of the King.
Perhaps we have not forgotten quite so much the literary arts, the skill of creating with words. This artistry, after all, may yield stories to illustrate our sermons and poems to conclude them. We have not forgotten, I hope, the powerful portrait of divine grace which a John Bunyan could paint in words of allegorical fiction, Pilgrim's Progress. But have we considered the ability to work with words, telling stories, crafting poems that give new voice to the depths of pain or to the heights of joy, as a gift of the Spirit?
In the Bible, God-given wisdom often manifests itself in the combination of three abilities:
- the ability to observe the ways of animals, humans, and God in the world,
- the ability to discern patterns and draw lessons from what you observe,
- and the ability to communicate the fruit of this insightful observation in memorable, well-crafted, sometimes tantalizing words.
This is the process that produces parables.
God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt… He spoke 3,000 proverbs and his songs numbered 1,005. He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish (1 Kings 4:29-34).
Science and art, which often seem so far apart today, were combined in the wisdom that God gave to Solomon: he studied animals and spoke proverbs.
In Isaiah we see that this extraordinary wisdom of Solomon was a preview of the Messiah, who would be anointed with the Spirit of wisdom:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding… Isaiah 11:1-2
So it is not surprising that there is a line in the Bible which runs from Solomon's wisdom with words (his parables and proverbs) through Psalm 78:2 ("I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things") to the teaching style of Jesus:
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; He did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world." Matthew 13:35
Jesus' fictional parables combine the elements of comparison and obliqueness. "The kingdom of heaven is like a sower, a dragnet, a pinch of yeast, a seed." But how is the kingdom like these everyday things? The listener has to work at it, to invest effort to try to understand the point. "I am the door of the sheep." "I am the genuine vine." What is Jesus telling us about himself in these metaphors and symbols? Jesus' parables require his hearers and readers to invest energy and thought to get the point, to look at reality and themselves in a new way:
"The one who has ears, let him listen!"
If such skill with words characterized the One who is the Wisdom of God, to whom the Father gave the Spirit of wisdom without limit, should we not also recognize that fellow-believers who can use words in powerful and beautiful ways can use that ability through the Spirit's empowering?
The Bible is full of vivid imagery, words well chosen and powerfully used. There are acrostic poems in the Psalms, Lamentations, and elsewhere. Vivid portrayals of spiritual warfare in terms you can see and feel and hear and smell in Revelation and some of the Old Testament prophets.
The Spirit gives wisdom, including wisdom in the use of words.
Can there be a place in our congregations for concerts, art exhibits, poetry readings, story nights – not as replacements for public worship, Bible studies, or prayer groups, but as enrichments to the life of the Body of Christ, leading us to praise our Creator and Redeemer for his beauty, wisdom, and truth?