What’s the Use? Christians and the Arts

Art For Goodness Sake
This post, over at Cranach (weblog of Gene Edward Veith), discussed the value of poetry. Actually, it discussed the “use” of studying poetry. I love Veith’s reaction to the discussion by a postmodern critic regarding the uses of poetry.

“But what he is no longer able to do, given his postmodernist worldview–which makes him have to explain everything in terms of a “community of discourse”–is to use classical, Aristotelian analysis, whereby some things, such as a poem and studying a poem, are good IN THEMSELVES. Not everything HAS to be “useful” (good because it leads to other goods). The pursuit of things good in themselves was also the hallmark of a classical, liberal arts education (as Cardinal Newman explains).”
-G. E. Veith

I think this is an ESSENTIAL point, and one that I long to hear conveyed more. Art does not have to have any “practical” utility to be of value. If it is good, it has value that need not be “useful.” And I mean useful in a practical way. To a large degree Christian artists have become utilitarians, seeing art as merely a vehicle for transmitting a message. And that is not the sole purpose of art. I won’t say that art cannot be a medium for a message, but I believe this very often serves to cheapen the art and the message it is presenting, usually in an ungainly way.

But aren’t we to live and breath for the glory of God?


The Tree Illustration
When explaining my view on this, I often resort to “The Tree Illustration.” I am fond of trees, even with an amazing deficiency of botanical understanding (there’s something in that, I suppose).

Imagine the most beautiful tree you have ever seen. What beauty, what serenity, what transcendence it conveys. It speaks plainly of the glory of the Creator. Now imagine that same tree, but with “John 3:16” crudely spray-painted on the trunk. Now this tree, already displaying its God-given purpose, becomes polluted by being transformed into a mere medium for a message.

The Word of God and the Gospel of Christ
Now, hold on. I hear you. I know that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. That’s a fact. I am one who does not buy into the idea (attributed, I believe erroneously, to St. Francis of Assisi) that we ought to “Preach the Gospel, and if possible use words.” The Gospel is conveyed by words. God loves Words so much that he has chosen to communicate to man primarily through words, his Word, and most profoundly through his Son, referred to in Scripture as “the Word.” So words matter, the Gospel matters, and it must be preached using words. But that does not require that we put Bible verses on the Mona Lisa. That doesn’t help either the message of the cross, or the art done to the glory of God (or art that necessarily glorifies God by it’s sub-creative worth).

“Is that Christian Music?”
I believe that engaging in art, be it writing a novel, painting a canvas, composing music, sketching a tree, writing poetry, etc., has value. It has value even without a “conversion scene”, or an “allegory of Christ”, or “Bible verses above the lyrics”, or a “quota of Jesus references in a song.” It has value because it is part of the order of God to convey the beauty of the common, and the thrill of the transcendent in his world through every noble facet of our imaginations. Imagination is crucial to the Christian, it is where the Lordship of Christ is established and his reign issues in our lives. If he is not Lord there, then where? And I do not mean, by imagination, the unreal. But the most real. The place of the soul…our very selves. As C.S. Lewis said: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

This is not a definitive treatment of the subject, but merely a window into my thinking on it, which is always growing and (I hope) conforming to the truth of God. I think we ought to engage in art to the Glory of God, and that leads us necessarily to art that expresses Beauty and Goodness.

Semi-concise Pseudo Summary

Here’s my semi-concise pseudo-summary:

We are either engaging in art for goodness’ sake, or we are forsaking good art.

Rembrandt Philosopher in Meditation

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