Point of Focus
The Nature of Art in Biblical Perspective
Art is everywhere. That much is obvious. No matter where we turn, we find music, painting, literature, architecture, movies, sculpture, creative design, and more. On the whole, human beings spend a considerable amount of time and resources creating, enjoying, discussing, and even purchasing art. And almost all of us can point some kind of experience with art that has led to a deep and lasting impact on our lives.
All this prompts two simple but important questions: (1) why is this the case, and (2) as Christians, what are we supposed to think about it?
Interestingly, we need not go far into the Bible before we encounter foundational teaching regarding creativity and art. In fact, its very first chapter, Genesis 1, supplies us with two particularly vital points:1
1. God himself is the supreme artist.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 is one of the most familiar passages of the Bible. Still, we often fail to the full significance of this verse and those that follow. As the creator of all that is, God has demonstrated unfathomable artistry. The stars and planets, oceans and rivers, mountains and valleys, plants and animals, even mankind itself—all of these show forth the diversity and beauty of God’s creative endeavors.
It’s therefore fitting to find David proclaiming, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psa. 19:1). Likewise, speaking about his own formation at the hands of God, he adds: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psa. 139:14).
But Genesis 1 doesn’t simply demonstrate that God is the artist par excellence. It also shows him taking delight in his work. Intermixed in the account of God’s creative activity is a recurring refrain: “And God saw that it was good.” This appraisal is intensified after his climactic creative effort—human life—when God judges his finished work as “very good” (v. 31). God repeatedly took stock of what he had made, acknowledging its beauty and worth.
Similarly, the author of Psalm 104 says, “May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works.” We can be sure, as a result, that he does. Even further, it’s perhaps instructive to ponder just how many wonders the universe contains that human beings have never seen, and likely never will. Why would these exist? Could it be because God ever delights in his creation?
All of this leads naturally to a second major consideration.
2. Having been created in God’s image, man is also called both to create and enjoy creativity.
One of the most important passages for understanding the nature of man is also found in Genesis 1. Vv. 26-28 tell us:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God made man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
God specifically made human beings—both male and female—to reflect something of who he is. His intention was and is for us to represent or “image” his nature in a special way to the rest of his creation. While a discussion of all this entails is beyond the present scope, one particular point is highly relevant: since God himself is both a creator and someone who finds joy in creativity, it makes sense that one of the ways we’re to reflect or image him is by doing the same.
Francis Schaeffer, one of the few evangelical thinkers in the 20th century to do much thinking about the subject of art, puts it this way:
An art work has value as a creation because man is made in the image of God, and therefore man not only can love and think and feel emotion, but also has the capacity to create. Being in the image of the Creator, we are called upon to have creativity. In fact, it is part of the image of God to be creative, or to have creativity. We never find an animal, non-man, making a work of art. On the other hand, we never find men anywhere in the world or in any culture in the world who do not produce art. Creativity is a part of the distinction between man and non-man. All people are to some degree creative. Creativity is intrinsic to our mannishness. (Art in the Bible, 34)
With this in mind, we understand that man’s artistic efforts are not a cosmic accident. Nor are they something that God is indifferent to or merely tolerates. Rather, the ability to create and enjoy art is something that human beings are actually created for and called to do! These things are good gifts from God, integral to who we are as his image bearers.
One important implication that comes from this: art has value even if it doesn’t have what we might call an overtly religious subject. The act of creating itself—whether it results in Handel’s Messiah or the stick figures of a child—reflects God. For that reason alone, any creative act has at least some worth.2 So while it’s perfectly appropriate for art to engage overtly religious themes, to maintain that it must do so to have value before God is a failure to understand our role as his image bearers.
In fact, creating art is one way in which we fulfill what is often called the “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1, i.e., God’s command to “subdue” the earth. Rightly understood, this command encourages us to take the raw materials of God’s good creation and bring out their potential in various ways. Here again, we evidence of this very early in the biblical story. Of particular interest to the present discussion is this brief but suggestive passage in Genesis 4:
Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron (vv. 20-22).
In a scene that is not far from the opening act of the biblical drama, mankind is doing what he has been created to do: bringing forth the potential of God’s good world, including making music and metalworks.
With above in mind, we’re now in a better position to provide answers to the questions we posed at the outset.
In effect, asking why people are so interested in making and enjoying art is much like asking why a lawnmower cuts grass. In both cases, the answer is the same: it’s what each was designed to do. Artistic creativity and its enjoyment is something that resonates with who we are fundamentally as human beings. Like other good gifts from God, they’re to be appreciated and pursued accordingly.
1The following is indebted to Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands, 1973).
2Though, to be sure, this worth can be and often is obscured by the sin of the artist and/or the observer of a given work.
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