Sunday, November 2, 2008
A Christian Appreciation of the Arts
My teacher training was secular and at a primary level. I am not an Art practitioner, and have only given Art instruction to students from ages 9 to 12.
As a teacher of the Arts in a Christian school, I have often found myself between a rock and a hard place. I know that there is more to the Arts disciplines than is often tolerated by well-meaning religious people, but at the same time, I am conscious that much of what is offered by our secular colleagues is offensive to the Faith. Are there some guidelines that can enable us to be relevant and Christian?
It seems to me that there are possibly eight broad guidelines that can assist in the task of teaching the Arts in a Christian setting. The guidelines could be equally helpful in choosing literature for study, analysing poetry or considering works of fine art, dance and drama.
This paper has been written with brevity in mind, and several assertions will be made without explanation and qualification. As dialogue over these ideas develops, the gaps can be filled with broader divinitions.
My first assertion is that Christian Art has as its focus, Christ. Christ is both God of very God, and at the same time, Man of very Man. This will mean that Christian Art will celegrate the Deity and glory of God in Christ, and also it will celebrate what it means to be human -- created in the image of God, fallen and living in a fallen universe, but also redeemed with an important part to play in God's ultimate purposes. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth -- and Christian Art will explore both heavenly and earthly themes.
Many have tried to make Art reside under the umbrella of creativity (and creativity has been defined as the making of new combinations out of existing components). However, human depravity can also be creative in the light of this definition. Often the products of such creativity are not acceptable in a Christian context -- when the so-called graffiti artist paints a railway carriage (and in the process destroys the property that belongs to another) he is being creative, but: Is the product of his creativity Art?
It is my contention that the thing that makes Art distinctively Christian is its redemptive quality. Redemptive Art will be creative, but it does not necessarily have to be prepared by Christians. Christ came to redeem the cosmos -- reverse the chaos and disorder that impregnates the created realm as a consequence of sin. Christian Art will contribute, to some extent, to this redemptive process. This process could also be called a beautification process.
As a community becomes saturated in the Word of God, symbols will be used and understood in the process of economical communication. Christian Art will utilize an enormous range of symbols, but through these symbols, and enormous amount will be communicated.
Now, having identified the coordinating principle of redemption as the foundation for defining Art, we can begin to discuss some possible guiding principles for Art from a Christian perspective.
The first of the guidelines relates to the celebration of God's creation. Any expression of the Arts that brings into focus the beauty and wonder of God's creation is valid in a Christian context. Such works need not mention God, Jesus, or have religious themes. God said of His creation, "It is good." As we participate in the redemptive process (or the beautification process) of the created order -- by painting beautiful things, or penning beautiful words, or dancing beautiful dances, or laying out beautiful gardens -- we are mirroring God Himself. Why shouldn't we enjoy God's creation for what it is? He made it for us. God created ex nihilo but we who are made in His image take the details of God's fiat creation and arrange them in new and interesting ways. The second guideline relates to celebration of God's creativity, and His infinite variety of pattern and order. Again, as Christians, we can appreciate the creativity of new word associations, intiricate designs, and complexity of relationship without necessarily requiring religious overtones.
A realith of life is that the sin of Adam has thrust the whole created order into depravity. At every hand there is evidence of the depraved state of the human condition. It is valid, as a Christian, to express and study the depravity of man. This is the third guideline. The point at which we overstep the mark is when we celebrate sin, or make sin appear to be attractive. As Christians we need to agree with the Apostle Paul that sin is exceeding sinful, and Christian involvement with it needs to be on that basis. Anything less is to crucify again the Lord of Glory. This is why Christians can never sanction pornography as Art -- it makes out lust, adultery, and all other perversions to be good. It is sin, and should not be in the repertoire of an Artist who calls himself a Christian.
The world often portrays the human condition, but offers no hope beyond it. A fourth guideline is the celebration of redemption and the hope beyond the fallenness of the created order. We can protray such hope in ways that are not necessarily religious, also. Stories of reconciliation, poems that conclude with a contrasting high point, music that resolves in a major and finished chord, all reflect this reality of redemption.
Having said all the above, the fifth guideline is the acknowledgement of the place for the Arts in Evangelism, the communication of the Gospel and the creating of an atmosphere that enhances -- not mediates -- worship. The making of idols is not permitted (mediation), but using an appropriate colour-scheme in the painting of a church building is essential (atmosphere enhancing). Drama, for instance, is a powerful tool in the presentation of Gospel truth. Those expressions of the Arts that clearly and directly outline the simple message of the Gospel need to find their ways into the classrooms of our Christian schools, and our Christian home schools.
A sixth guideline would be the celebration of covenant community. Relationships, in all their complexities, need to be explored in a Christian context (both thematically, and also structurally in the framework of a composition). The emphasis needs to be on a movement towards the agape that Jesus commmanded of His disciples; the love that would convince the world that the Father sent His Son. Covenant commmunity would also include worship, because the Bible clearly places worship in the context of covenant relationships. The prayers of husbands are not answered if they are out of relationship with their wives; being denied Christian fellowship by Church leaders, is to be handed over for the destruction of the flesh by Satan. The Arts, in a Christian context, need to explore and celebrate these expressions.
God has embellished His Self-revelation with symbolism. Symbols encaptualate vast sweeps of meaning. As we master God's symbols, and symbols of Christian and contemporary culture, we become more efficient in our inter-relational communication. A seventh guideline relates to the development of skills in symbolic communication. Christian schools, and home schools, need to show students how to read religious and cultural symbols in the Arts, and train them in the use of symbolism in their own expression of the Arts.
God created all thing in six literal days, and on the sevent day He rested. An eightth principle relates to the ability to step back and simply enjoy the Art created on the other six days. We need to train our students in the processes of Art appreciation, which will require skills in criticism, historic contextualism, and aesthetic appreciation. Christian Art may cross over into the sphere of Craft, and have a utilitarian purpose -- we can eat off beautifully crafted dinner plates and drink coffee out of beautifully crafted coffee mugs. Chrisitans need to be encouraged to fill their homes and offices with objects of Art. To do so will be a redemptive act -- an act that reflects the purpose for which Christ came.
These guidelines are not presented a an exhaustive discussion on the topic. Perhaps others could take these ideas further, and think through the issues relating to practically applying them in the classroom. Perhaps there are further guidelines that could be suggested. To some extent these guidelines may be incomplete, but I do hope they are useful.