Reclaiming the Arts

Throughout much of history, for good or ill, the church has stood as the champion of the arts. Some of the greatest works of music (think of Handel’s Messiah), painting (Rembrandt’s Head of Christ), and architecture (St. Peter’s Basilica) were created by and for the church. Though some would rightly question the motives behind the creation of many of these types of works, the fact remains that the church once maintained a reputation for valuing and investing in the arts.

Yet today Christian music barely scores a sub-category in an un-aired portion of The Grammy’s. Whether by necessity or neglect, the “art” of the church, even as displayed in our week-to-week worship, often reveals hasty preparation and a lack of craft and careful forethought. Though we often employ the term “worship arts,” many in the secular creative community never think to look to believers for direction or ideas. In the area of the arts, the church has come to follow rather than inspire culture.  

But should the state of the art of the church really concern us? Wouldn’t the pursuit of excellence within our music and visual art inevitably lead to a performance-oriented ministry bent on the glorification of ourselves? Besides, the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) says nothing about the arts. Shouldn’t the church devote the entirety of her resources to the spread of the Gospel story rather than to the arts? Perhaps we will find clarity and inspiration in a reexamination of some familiar Scriptural truths.

The Scope of Redemption

We know well the general contour of the Gospel story. Because of our rebellion against God, the whole of humanity and Creation have been subjected to the curse of sin and death. God’s plan to restore our relationship with him centers on Jesus, God in flesh, and in His death and resurrection. Those who believe in Him are united in both His death and life and have the promise of eternal life with God. 

Yet if we end the story here, it falls far short of the narrative of Scripture. Just as the curse of the Fall extends to all of Creation, so too God’s redemption reaches every corner of existence (Rom. 8:19-21). Just as Jesus’ grace breaks sin’s strangle-hold on men and women, so too His salvation redeems and will eternally restore the entire universe—including the arts. We do injustice to the grace of God by limiting it’s scope to the redemption of souls and bodies. 

As Jesus brought diseased eyes, legs, and spirits back into their intended healthy states, so too the church is called to redeem the arts for the glory of God. As Jesus today gives new life to men and women and shapes them into His own righteous image, He calls believers to reclaim music, painting, drama, and all the arts for Him.

A mark of the in-breaking of Jesus’ kingdom then, is the redemption and restoration of all things—whether the healing of bodies, care for our environment, or the reclaiming of the arts. As those who have been redeemed by Christ, our new life demands that we spread that redemption wherever we go. Being the “hands and feet of Jesus” means that we seek to bring new life to the hurting and the Gospel to the lost, as well as the glory of God to the arts. 

Old Testament Examples

One need only to look as far as the book of Exodus to discover God’s love of all that is beautiful. While establishing the worship of the fledgling nation of Israel, He specifically gifts two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, as artists in the creation of the Tabernacle and her elements (Ex. 35:30-35). They would lead others in the careful crafting of a worship space which was not merely functional, but extravagantly beautiful. Wood overlaid with gold and elaborate linens would frame the tabernacle. The ark of the covenant and altars likewise would be covered with gold. The extensive detail in the priestly garments, specifically the gem-studded breastplate, portrayed not just symbolism but beautiful artistry (Ex. 36-39). Is it possible that God has gifted believers today to use their creative gifts in worship?

Fulfilling the Imago Dei

From the first pages of Scripture, God calls humankind to interact with His world in a way similar to Himself. In Genesis 1 He states that He will make humans in His image and immediately describes what this image means—that men and women will have dominion over all of Creation. Being made in the image of God means that we love the world as God does. We are extensions of His benevolent rule and care. “Image-ing” God well, then, means we seek to bring all things under His gracious leadership—including the arts. 

God Himself acts as the preeminent artist. He paints no ugly sunsets. He has crafted the human body, in all its intricacies, as a functional masterpiece. His world explodes with color in plant and animal life. Technology gives us a glimpse into the mammoth canvas of our universe, where the Creator has painted scenes with galaxies. And in some small way, when you and I employ our God-given creative abilities, we reflect a creating God. As we love a beautiful painting not merely for the message it conveys, but also because it is beautiful, we reveal the image of a God who loves beauty. As God has manifested His existence through what He has made (Romans 1), so His people reflect His nature by their own creativity and love of the arts.

Conclusion

The church’s lackluster attempt at artistry has allowed the world to supplant her as the champion of all that is beautiful. The arts (including the worship arts!) must never be viewed as superfluous or merely auxiliary to the mission of the church. God’s very nature and example as an artist demands His people to invest in, love, and redeem the arts. From our work as musicians serving congregational worship on the weekend to supporting believing artists in the secular community, believers, most of all, should be advocates for all that is beautiful. 

What would happen if the church once again embraced the arts? What would the world think about our God if they viewed the effort and craft that goes into our worship? Perhaps our seeking to redeem all things would reflect to the world the heart of a God who seeks to redeem souls as well as every broken part of what He has made. May our hearts and affections be as broad and deep as our God’s. 

Ethan Weaver