The Cruciform Heart of the Arts

beretPart of the challenge of addressing the topic of Christians and the Arts is that Art and Beauty are some of the biggest idols in our day. Consider the fashion industry, movies, video games, theater, and popular music. Even sports have enormous aesthetic angles with their paraphernalia and nicknacks. You can tell the gods a culture worships by the cathedrals it builds. We build stadiums and shopping malls. What are the stadiums for? For fashion galas, concerts, games, various sorts of artistic events most of them thoroughly sexualized and commoditized to serve our modern Aphrodites and Mammons. What are the shopping malls for? For outfitting our idolatries, for imitating and serving the gods.

And at the same time, there’s nothing whatever wrong or evil with making beautiful clothing, stunning movies, inspiring plays, or fun music. Nor is there anything sinful about building indoor, climate controlled markets to buy and sell in. Three cheers for stadiums and shopping malls. And so you see part of the challenge.

Add to this the fact that if kids grow up on the standard cultural catechism, they grow up venerating the pantheon of cultural icons: Hannah Montana, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, and marinating in the general cinematic milieu. And then comes along a guy in the youth group who tells you he wants to be rock star when he grows up. His favorite band is Imagine Dragons, and he can play a few old Aerosmith riffs on the guitar his grandmother bought him. His favorite movie is Transformers 3. Or the college girl who wants to be a theater major. She’s done Shakespeare a few times in high school, and Michelle Pfeiffer is a real inspiration. Or maybe it’s the guy who’s studied the work of the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and he can talk story telling and camera angles and green screens. He’s following some no-name indie guys too. They’ve got something coming up at Cannes next May. He smokes cigarettes so you know he’s really sincere. You might even say authentic.

Now here’s the thing. We live in this world. We eat and sleep and breathe here. And it’s this world that Jesus came to save. He came to put this world back together, and somehow Gucci and Gap, John Wayne and Gwyneth Paltrow, Martin Scorcese and Wes Anderson, John Fogerty and Ralph Vaughn Williams are all part of that story to greater or lesser degrees. But from the moment God took on flesh in the incarnation, He began a radical conquest of this world. Of course, God chose to work with the world as it was. He stuck with the human body He originally created. He didn’t genetically modify the body of Christ. And Jesus worked with the world as it was in first century Galilee. He didn’t whip out an iPhone and blow the Sanhedrin’s mind. He worked within the story, within the cultural milieu. But the gospels are filled with Jesus constantly at work, constantly critiquing or healing or denouncing or freeing. Jesus isn’t ever just a consumer. He no doubt consumed. He ate and drank. He attended parties and celebrations and feasts. But He always attended, always participated as a creator, as the Creator, and, for the fallen world, playing a decidedly redemptive role. Sometimes He would do miracles and let them hang in the air and walk away. Sometimes He would tell stories that made people mad, and he’d disappear back into the crowds. Jesus was there to accomplish the work His Father had given Him. Ultimately that task was to claim for Himself the accusations, the lies, the shame, the guilt, the penalty due for sin and crush it all in His own body on the tree. Jesus, the greater Samson, laid hold of this world with His arms outstretched and pulled it all down to destroy His enemies and to remake it all.

In other words, if the incarnation in general and the cross in particular represent a distinctively Christian approach to the arts, then we have to recognize that Jesus embodies both a negative and positive stance toward the world. As unfashionable as it is, Christians must be clearly against certain things and for other things. Though certain ideological romantics would prefer to only be “for” certain things and either avoid being against or else downplay it significantly, Jesus was clearly against many things and people. He was for the restoration of the true world and true men and women, but because of that, He was also against lies, against false men, against the curse of sin and death. And this brings us back to the cross.

This is the center of all art, all beauty, all glory. Here, the Lord of Glory was lifted up to reverse the curse and draw all men to Himself. Here is the greatest work of art, our redemption, the place where the dissonance of sin and death begins to be overtaken by the harmony of peace and justice. The cross is where God once and for all takes hold of this broken world, condemns all evil, and by His sacrifice begins to restore what is good, true, and beautiful. This is what Christian art does. Christian art is redemptive not because it has a fish thingy in the corner or a Bible verse embossed on the back or Christian lyrics. Christian art grabs hold of this cursed world and lifts it up to be healed.

Now back to the people in the Church who want to be artists. Of course on the one hand we say that this is wonderful. God is an artist. He is THE ARTIST. When we say that God created the heavens and the earth, we are saying that God is the most brilliant painter, artist, inventor, composer, choreographer, engineer in all of existence. To want to paint, to photograph, to draw, to sculpt, to mimic, to delight, to inspire is to want to imitate the glory of God. The Trinity is the original heart of the arts. That’s where all the arts flow from. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Jesus. All the good and perfect gifts come down from the Father of Lights. He with the Son and the Spirit forever delight in beauty and glory, and the world God has made reflects that love. So the Church, as the location where God’s presence and glory has taken up residence, must be a place, a community that loves beauty, that loves art and music and dance and stories. If the cross is the most beautiful work of art in the history of the world, we of all people should be committed to excellence and skill and creativity. But where shall we start?

Pulling a bunch of this together, let’s start with three things.

First, because we love Jesus, and He is our only God, we hate idols and we love to knock them down. This means that a Christian artist must be committed to idol demolition. We are against them. As it turns out, artists who serve the true God and artists who serve their own bellies use similar materials. And it’s always been this way. The gold that was plundered from Egypt was used for a golden calf and the Ark of the Covenant. Graven images are ichabod, but those who serve the Lord must carve the right sort of images for the glory of God. But no Christian artist can pretend to exist in some kind of idol-free zone. You don’t get to opt out of this war just because your medium is pastels or ballet. If you want to make art in this world, and you love Jesus, then you are on a collision course with the gods of this age. Which idols are you aiming for? And giving the old people in church fits doesn’t count. If you play rock music in your garage, which norms are you defying? Which of the gods are you mocking? Are you just busy aping the Philistines with your tattoos and piercings? If you aren’t making some pagan deity mad, you aren’t doing it right. If you tell stories on a stage, are you bowing and kissing the shrine of Broadway, or are you thoughtfully planning the subversion of their folly?

Second, all art is something of a story told visually or sonically or both. It communicates about the world, God, human experience, history by pointing, insinuating, implying, proclaiming the glory of God, and like prayer, liturgy, traditions, it works on people in different ways at different times. To insist that Christian artists be idol destroyers is not to insist that art simply be reduced to mini-sermons or morality plays. No, art communicates in its own way. The heavens declare the glory of God in their own tongues, in their own ways. Night unto night declares the truth about God but in the way the earth spins, in the way the shadows rise and fall, in the colors streaked across the sky, weaving through the clouds. But this isn’t some kind of loophole absolving Christian artists of responsibility. Far too many artists justify nonsense and trash with similar arguments. “You can’t call these paint splatters worthless because it expresses my feelings of ennui and last night’s mushroom pizza.” Or the Christian version: “This toilet seat represents my life before I met Christ.” Nice. We are so blessed. Art communicates differently. We understand that. We accept that. But that doesn’t justify your see-through blouse and the watch-me-bend-over-mini-skirt and the trailer trash mascara.

Lastly, a lot of young aspiring artists need to have their dreams crushed. They need to be told to get a real job, stop wasting money on stupid movies and music, and quit dressing up like the gods and goddesses on the big screen. The Church will never be the heart of the arts, a place of real creativity and beauty and glory when we’re like the Canaanite Bargain Boutique minus the full frontal nudity. The problem with most Christian artists is that they have a lust problem: a lust for fame, a lust for popularity, a lust to be thought cool in the world’s eyes. But a truly Christian artist is somebody bearing a cross, despising the shame, chasing the glory of Jesus, full of joy and peace and all the fruits of the Spirit. A truly Christian artist would start by seeking to serve, seeking humble opportunities to give, to sacrifice, but far too many artists don the French beret and cop a whiny, defensive attitude, carrying on about being misunderstood. Yeah, you and every other artist wannabe. Go try McDonalds. Idolatry is always fundamentally the desire for power on the cheap, an attempt to short circuit the world God made. But you have no innate right to be heard, to be paid, to be appreciated. The way to find your life is to lose it. Work hard. Sleep less. Get married. Have children. Change diapers. Make dinner. Clean up puke. Coach Little League. Mow the lawn. Love your neighbor. Give yourself away. Only then, when men and woman gladly offer their bodies as living sacrifices, will true beauty rise from their ashes.

A Christian is someone who has met the Most Creative Person in the Universe. A Christian is someone who has received His Spirit and been adopted into the most creative Community that has ever existed. And this world is His stage, His canvas, His symphony, His clay. This world is His megaphone shouting glory: glory to the Lamb that was slain. That is the true heart of every art. It’s a heart that has died and now lives again, trying to beat out a rhythm of praise.

  1. Matt Bryant May 30

    This is way to solid and good. I feel like I’m one of the ghost in the “Great Divorce”, trying to walk on the blades of grass along with other ghosts trying to become more real. Thanks for helping myself and others in heading further up and further in.

  2. WOW! My first thought was, I wish I’d written that! But then that undoubtedly came from my idol-loving self.

    You really said what needed to be said, I think, on a number of levels:

    *The problem with most Christian artists is that they have a lust problem: a lust for fame, a lust for popularity, a lust to be thought cool in the world’s eyes.

    *A truly Christian artist would start by seeking to serve, seeking humble opportunities to give, to sacrifice, but far too many artists don the French beret and cop a whiny, defensive attitude, carrying on about being misunderstood.

    *if the incarnation in general and the cross in particular represent a distinctively Christian approach to the arts, then we have to recognize that Jesus embodies both a negative and positive stance toward the world. As unfashionable as it is, Christians must be clearly against certain things and for other things.

    *This is the center of all art, all beauty, all glory. Here, the Lord of Glory was lifted up to reverse the curse and draw all men to Himself. Here is the greatest work of art, our redemption, the place where the dissonance of sin and death begins to be overtaken by the harmony of peace and justice. The cross is where God once and for all takes hold of this broken world, condemns all evil, and by His sacrifice begins to restore what is good, true, and beautiful. This is what Christian art does.

    *This means that a Christian artist must be committed to idol demolition.

    *The Church will never be the heart of the arts, a place of real creativity and beauty and glory when we’re like the Canaanite Bargain Boutique minus the full frontal nudity.

    Well, goodness. I could just quote the whole article back to you. There are SO MANY good lines, insightful thoughts, truthful principles.

    Thank you so much.

    My one small critique is of the idea that Art and Beauty are some of our biggest idols. I tend to think the real idol is Self, our worship of it is expressed in hedonism, and Art and Beauty are simply its servants. But that’s not radically different from what you said.

    Again, thanks for a Biblical approach to this topic.

    Becky

  3. Steve Turner May 30

    Very insightful. I particularly like your challenge re. which Pagan gods are we unsettling. I tried to tackle many of these issues in my book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (IVP).

  4. Ver nicely put. I’m glad Becky pointed me in this direction. Of course, I’ve read your stuff before, Toby, so I knew already how thoughtful you are.

  5. Anne Robinson June 5

    I want to thank you so much for this post — truly excellent. As a Christian pursuing music at conservatory, I do encounter hostility from my pagan classmates but mostly I receive it from my Christian brothers and sisters who firmly believe I’m in it for the fame. It’s an ugly world right now. Thanks for the encouragement.

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