Having been raised in a pietistic Fundamentalist home, my first art history class in college providentially became one of the defining moments of my spiritual pilgrimage. I had been taught that art is worldly, an unnecessary distraction in a world doomed to judgment. Yet, as I sat looking at slide after slide of works of art spanning the centuries, I was overcome by the beauty of what had been produced. How could such creativity be anything but glorious? Slowly, as my sense of wonder increased, that wonder raised nagging doubts about my faith. After all, finding myself attracted to what is worldly and condemned to the fire of God’s wrath is hardly reassuring, especially when I realized that the art seemed to be resonating more deeply in my soul than anything my church offered up on Sundays.
Doubt can harden into unbelief, of course, which is a reason it must be taken seriously. It can also, however, prompt the doubter to reexamine things. Thankfully, by this time, I had been introduced to L’Abri, a community of God’s people where doubters are welcomed. There I learned that art needs no justification because we are made in the image of the Creator, and therefore called to creativity. Or as Francis Schaeffer put it in a sentence that is burned into my memory, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper said “the beautiful is not the product of our own fantasy, nor of our subjective perception, but has an objective existence, being itself the expression of a Divine perfection.” Our heavenly Father is the infinitely glorious One in whom all beauty has both its source and ultimate fulfillment. This is the reason why beauty can not be separated from truth and morality, and why art is essential to human life. “For as God is infinitely the greatest Being,” Jonathan Edwards said, “so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory; God…is the foundation and fountain of all being and beauty.” Or, to use the words of the psalmist, “The Mighty One, God, the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:1-2).
Good books on art from a Christian perspective are relatively rare, and so it is a real delight to be able to call attention to It was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God from Square Halo Books. This is a very good book, and I hope it is read widely both within the church and without. A thoughtful collection of thirteen essays by different authors, It was Good is a demonstration of what it means to think and live faithfully regarding the arts. Illustrated throughout with black and white reproductions, the book is further enhanced with thirteen color reproductions on eight plates of glossy paper in the center of the book.
What is more, It was Good was published with the realization—so important, though so rarely comprehended by Christians today—that there is a pre-evangelistic significance to art for Christians living in a pluralistic, postmodern world. The book was published, editor Ned Bustard writes in the Introduction, to “offer both theoretical and practical insights into the making of art from a biblical perspective. And this is crucially important in our age since the area of Beauty is the only point of connection with society since the bridges of Truth and Goodness have been burned.”
In other words, we can not expect non-Christians in our image-soaked culture to find plausible a faith that claims to be good news but is devoid of the winsomeness of art. Claiming to know the Creator as Father is implausible when creativity is absent in our lives, homes, churches, and conversation. A gospel that speaks to the mind but not to the heart and imagination is not the gospel of Jesus. He is the one who told stories, parables so cunningly crafted that they continue to capture hearts two thousand years later. But note: it is not that we must be interested in art because beauty and creativity has significance in our pre-evangelism (though it does). Rather we must be interested in art, whether we are artists or not, because Christ is the King of glory, to whom and for whom all glory is due. And as we are faithful, exhibiting creativity in speech and life, we will also be effective ambassadors bringing a message of glory to a dark and troubled world.
Though It was Good consists of thirteen chapters by thirteen authors, it is more than simply a compilation of essays that happen to be on art from a Christian perspective. Carefully developed, the book covers a thoughtful variety of topics designed to give an expansive overview of art and creativity. Each essay can be read on its own, yet the entire volume ends up being more than simply the sum of its parts. But let me note merely a few of the chapters that stimulated my thinking.
Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan lists three contributions that artists bring to the church in “Why We Need Artists.” Artists are needed to equip the people of God for worship, thanksgiving, and praise, and artists are essential for evangelism, “because without art,” Rev. Keller insists, “we cannot reach the world.” Artists are also needed within the Christian community, Keller says, because “reason tells me about the truth, but I really cannot grasp what it means; I can’t understand truth without art.” I suspect that Keller’s argument may surprise many evangelicals. They might respond that though they have no interest in art, they understand the truth just fine, thank you very much. And sadly, it is difficult to convince them otherwise, since this Enlightenment view of truth being purely rational has infiltrated the people of God like a virus, silent but deadly. But Keller is correct, and buttresses his case by drawing on the work of Jonathan Edwards. “Edwards said that unless you use imagination, unless you take a truth and you image it—which of course is art—you don’t know what it means. If you cannot visualize it, you don’t have a sense of it in your heart.”
William Edgar, professor of apologetics at Westminster Seminary and jazz pianist, writes about pessimism and optimism in “Why is Light Given to the Miserable?” He argues Christians must be people of hope rather than pessimists or optimists, and then he explores the life and music of Johannes Brahms to show how hope can be expressed gloriously in music. “Here is the crux of the matter,” Dr. Edgar says. “How does one describe a world in which God’s good creation has been spoiled by sin, but is being redeemed by His grace? Brahms could be our model. Often in art that claims to be Christian, the balance is wrong.”
And there is so much more. Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, explores “Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture.” Krystyna Sanderson, a New York photographer, writes about light, darkness, and her photographs in “A Sense of Permanence.” Edward Knippers, a powerful and thoughtful painter who expresses in his artwork the narrative of Scripture, explores subject and theme in “The Old, Old Story.” Theodore Prescott, sculptor and professor at Messiah College, writes “Who Do You Say I Am? Artist and Christian: Two Identities, One Person?”
Since Square Halo Books is hardly well known (yet), their statement of purpose is worth noting: “In Christian art, the square halo identified a living person presumed to be a saint. Square Halo Books is devoted to publishing works that present contextually sensitive biblical studies, and practical instruction consistent with the Doctrines of the Reformation. The goal of Square Halo Books is to provide materials useful for encouraging and equipping the saints.”
We recommend It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God to you. It will help you think Christianly about art, stimulate you to be creative for God’s glory, introduce you to some artists who are seeking to glorify God in their work, and if you are like me, cause you to stop and worship the One whose glory is beautiful beyond all our imagining.