Archives For Why You Should Care About The Arts

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the seriesWhy You Should Care About The Arts

Christians tend to be suspicious of the arts. It hasn’t always been that way, but the Protestant tradition in particular has always had an awkward relationship to artistic expression (as opposed to propositional statements). Some key figures in the Reformation responded to the idolatry they saw in the artistry of the Catholic Church. They weren’t rejecting art as art, just art at that particular moment as an expression of idolatry. Even so, art has remained suspect. We distrust it because it is not propositional.

But art matters. And I’m going to do a series of posts to convince you.

In this post, I want to make a simple point: art is unavoidable. It is all around us. You may not like art, but it is an inescapable part of your life. I’m not necessarily talking about fine art: pretty much everything around you has been designed by someone. For example, take the computer you’re using to read this post. Someone decided on the shape and colors of the physical construction. Someone else designed the menus and interface. They may not have thought of themselves primarily as artists, but they were making artistic decisions as they created your computer. Or consider the clothes you’re wearing. The designer made artistic decisions in cutting and stitching the fabric, and you made an artistic decision in choosing which shirt to wear with which pants and which shoes. The same types of decisions went into every other man-made object around you.

All I’m trying to say here is that we can’t escape aesthetics. Here’s how Makoto Fujimura puts it:

“I encourage people not to segment art into an ‘extra’ sphere of life or to see art as mere decorations. Why? Because art is everywhere and has already taken root in our lives. Therefore, the question is not so much ‘why art?’ but ‘which art?’ In other words, our worlds are filled with art that we have already chosen for our walls, our iPods, and our bookshelves. We become patrons of the arts by going to see movies, plays and concerts or by watching television. We are presented with a choice, and this choice is a responsibility of cultural stewardship.” (Refractions, 111)

Or listen to Leland Ryken:

“People were created by God as aesthetic creatures possessed of a capacity for beauty, craving the expression of their experiences and insights…Everyone in our culture indulges his or her artistic sense, even if it consists simply of painting the walls of a room or listening to popular music or singing hymns. The question is not whether we need the arts but rather what the quality of our artistic experiences will be.” (The Liberated Imagination, 60)

You can’t escape art, so why not give it some thought? Beauty is an intentional part of the world God created, so why would we be suspicious of it? It’s true that art has been used to convey some distorted and evil realities, but does that mean that we should only trust propositions? Have not propositions been put to use for distorted and evil purposes as well?

If this is God’s world, and if He is indeed King over every aspect of our existence, then we should take every aspect of life seriously. That includes art. And as I’ll argue in future posts, art has incredible value—partially because it can be useful, and partially because it can be useless.

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the seriesWhy You Should Care About The Arts

Yesterday I argued that you should care about the arts because art is unavoidable—we can’t escape it, and the way we interact with art matters. In this post, I want to give another important reason for caring about the arts: The arts serve as a cultural barometer.

If you want to find out what’s going on in the world, you check a newspaper or turn on the tv news. If you want to find out what has happened in the past, you read a history book.


It’s true that newspapers and history books tell us about what has taken place. But the arts add an important dimension: They tell us how people feel about the events that occur. The news relays events, but the arts interpret those events.

Leland Ryken says:

“The media claim to tell us what is happening in our culture, but they are terribly superficial. They bombard us with facts but ignore the meaning of those facts. By contrast, the arts lay bare the inner movements of our own time” (The Liberated Imagination, 251).

The arts function as a cultural barometer. They tell us at a deep level what is going on in the thoughts, emotions, and lives of the people around us. Mankind has always used art as a means of dealing with existence. This is where people grapple with reality. So if you want to know what people care about, turn to the movies, songs, paintings, poems, and stories that they create:

“The arts are humankind’s most accurate record of their affirmations and denials, their longings and fears. The arts are a picture of the kind of world people aspire to create and of the fallen realities that keep thwarting those aspirations.” (Ryken, 265)

We can see human depravity in the images of warfare, murder, and scandal that flash across the tv news. But we get a sense of the frustration and fragmentation that this depravity causes when Radiohead sings, “How come I end up where I started? How come I end up where I went wrong? …You used to be all right, what happened? …One by one it comes to us all.”

Some would argue that you can understand humanity better by talking to biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. There is much to be learned in each of these spheres, but we may have more to learn about human nature by watching Spielberg than by reading Freud:

“The arts deal with the same subjects (God, people, and nature) as the natural and social sciences do. But the arts differ from the sciences by focusing on the human response to those subjects. The arts express how the human race has felt about the facts of existence. Art is the record of people’s involvement with life. It deals not simply with the facts of life but with things as they matter to people.” (Ryken, 266)

So if you care about people—if your mission is focused on understanding and speaking into the lives of the people around you—then you should care about the arts.

In the next post, I’ll argue that the arts give us the opportunity to test God’s truth in the real world.

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the seriesWhy You Should Care About The Arts

Why should Christians care about the arts? The two reasons I have already given are that art cannot be avoided, so we should think critically about it, and that the arts serve as a cultural barometer. In this post I will add a third reason: The arts allow us to test God’s truth in the real world.

God’s truth applies to every area of our existence. What God says about Himself, about humanity, and about the world He created holds true when tested against the experiences of our daily lives.

Unfortunately, few Christians intentionally take God’s truth with them into their daily lives. We have been taught to think that “religious truth” (if we can even justify calling it truth) can make us feel happy, fulfilled, and hopeful, but it shouldn’t be literally applied in the real world.

But if the Bible conveys God’s truth, and if we live in a world that was designed and created by the same God who wrote the Bible, why should we think that His truth doesn’t apply to the world He made? It absolutely does. So when Jeremiah tells us that men have wicked hearts, we should expect to be able to walk outside and find that truth confirmed. And we do. When Ecclesiastes tells us that the search for meaning apart from God is futile, we should expect to find real people coming to this same conclusion. And we do.

Rembrandt: "The Artist in His Studio" (1629)

Rembrandt: “The Artist in His Studio” (1629)

Interaction with the arts gives us an excellent opportunity to test God’s truth in these ways. Nowhere does mankind bear his soul and express his struggles, desires, hopes, and fears as openly as in the arts. Mankind grapples with his existence in the arts. By engaging with the arts, we take the truth that God has revealed and learn how it applies to the things that human beings think about, create, and admire.

Grant Horner says:

“We must evaluate, critique, and discern our way through all the elements of this fallen world. To do anything less than this is to dishonor God by ignoring the blessings of his wisdom, to waste the opportunities for learning and discernment he has given us, and finally to lose part of the opportunity we have to be salty in this bland and dying age.” (Meaning at the Movies, 79)

Rather than taking the Bible and hiding out in our spiritual bunkers, we should actively engage the artistic creations of the people around us:

“I contend that Scripture does not call us to evacuate ourselves entirely from the pagan culture that surrounds us, but to use our wise and prudent interaction with that culture to help us grow in our appreciation of God’s grace toward us, to see that what God says about fallen mankind is in fact absolutely accurate (even as found in pagan works), and to better equip us for interaction with the many human beings who do not yet know him.” (Horner, 26)

As Christians, we have every reason to walk fearlessly amidst the cultural productions of our age, knowing that God’s word gives us a foundation and a framework for understanding why people wrestle with their existence in the arts and how the gospel provides the true answers that these artists are searching for (this will be the subject of my next post).

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the seriesWhy You Should Care About The Arts

The arts should matter to Christians. For one thing, art is all around us, and the way we interact with what is around us is important. In addition to that, the arts give us insight into what our culture cares about. And yesterday I argued that the arts give us an opportunity to test God’s truth in the real world. Today I will add a simple point: The arts establish points of contact with the unbelieving world.

Let’s be honest, many Christians have a tendency to withdraw from the culture around them. In many ways, this impulse is understandable. Without a doubt, our culture produces many things that are indisputably evil. Even those cultural productions that aren’t outright wicked often contain destructive, deceptive, and desensitizing elements. So it makes sense that Christians want to avoid being exposed to these things.

While this is a serious concern (one I dealt with a while ago in two posts on “good” movies and “bad” movies), the answer can’t be to simply run from culture. On the one hand, you can’t escape culture—it is an unavoidable byproduct of human interaction. Even those that try to escape from culture (e.g., the Amish) end up creating their own culture. But there’s another important reason not to run from culture. As Calvin Seerveld put it: any arena from which Christians withdraw simply goes to hell. Or to put it positively:

“If Christians are to be a force in shaping the contours of their society and evangelizing people in it, they will have to come to grips with the culture in which they inevitably live and move and have their being.” (Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination, 11)

In part 2, I mentioned the fact that the arts are a helpful catalog of the way that human beings feel about their existence. As Christians, we can gain insight into the way the unbelieving world views the world, including the way it views us as Christians:

“Christians, especially those called to preach or share the word, should take a special interest when those ‘outside’ the faith are drawn to deal with its mysteries and should listen closely when they tell us what our orthodoxy has sounded like to them.” (Malcom Guite in Beholding the Glory, ed. Jeremy Begbie, 30)

“Angela” on The Office may be an unfair caricature of what Christians are really like, but there is value in knowing that we have a tendency to look that way to the non-Christian world.

Add to that the fact that the arts give us opportunities to connect with people. We all know that we need to be evangelizing, but we tend to approach evangelism through an awkward encounter where we try to convince our non-Christian friends to care about some point of Christian doctrine that matters to us, but doesn’t matter to them. As I’ve said before, this is not all bad. But what if we had the opportunity to bring the truth of God’s word to bear on the things that our friends and neighbors already think and care about?

I contend that this is exactly the opportunity the arts give us. When my friends listen to Death Cab for Cutie singing about what comes (or doesn’t come) after death, I get an opportunity to engage them in a conversation on eternity. When a runaway bestseller raises the issue of who human beings are at the core (whether that bestseller is written as fiction or nonfiction), we get the opportunity to bring a biblical worldview into a discussion that our friends and coworkers are already interested in.

By avoiding the arts, we are passing up these opportunities. I think that is a mistake. It doesn’t mean that we should listen to, watch, or read everything on the market. But if your friends are interested in some form of art or culture, take the time to check it out. You might be surprised at how easy it is to talk about God’s truth in the context of the things that people are already thinking through.

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the seriesWhy You Should Care About The Arts

Over the past four posts, I have offered four reasons why Christians should care about the arts. With the exception of my first point, these reasons have focused on the utility of the arts. In other words, I have been arguing that we should care about the arts because of what they can do for us (they teach us about humanity) and how we can use them (they give us the opportunity to test God’s truth and to connect with non-Christians).

But art is not about utility. Art is valuable because of what it is, not just because of what it does. Art is valuable because it is a good gift of God, and we should enjoy it as such.

Francis Schaeffer recognized this in the creativity of art:

“A work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator.” (Art and the Bible in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol 2, 394)

Warner Sallman JesusCan pure creativity really be a good thing in itself? Shouldn’t creativity serve a more useful purpose—like a drama that portrays the gospel or a painting of Jesus? Creativity is great when it is used this way, but we do not have any grounds to say that beauty, creativity, or the arts in general are only valuable if they are useful.

We can take our cue on this point from God. He created a world that was both useful and beautiful: “Out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). A utilitarian God would certainly make trees that were good for food, but pleasant to the sight? Isn’t that a bit extravagant? Or consider the light that God created. God declared the light good, even before there was an eye to see it or a plant to photsynthesize with it. It was just good.

Or take the tabernacle. Without a doubt the tabernacle served many important functions. But God takes up a lot of space in the Pentateuch with describing how the tabernacle should be adorned. Schaeffer brings the implications home:

“Art is not something we merely analyze or value for its intellectual content. It is something to be enjoyed. The Bible says that the art work in the tabernacle and the temple was for beauty.” (394) (For example, see Ex. 28:2.)

Grace Foretold (Fujimura)Not only did God create a beautiful world—a world so beautiful that poets, artists, and ordinary people over the millennia have not been able to help but exult in its beauty—He also created us with the capacity to enjoy it. God didn’t just create sunsets, He gave us eyes that could see them. He didn’t just create sound waves and the physical properties required to create them, He also gave us ears to hear them. He didn’t just give us beauty, He gave us the aesthetic sensibilities to appreciate beauty for what it is. Art can be useful, but it is still valuable even when it doesn’t do anything.

Leland Ryken says it well:

“When we enjoy the colors and design of a painting, the fictional inventiveness of a novel, the harmonious arrangement of a sonata, we are enjoying a quality of which God is the ultimate source and performing an act similar to God’s enjoyment of the beauty of his own creation. We can participate in the arts to the glory of God by enthusiastically enjoying the arts, recognizing God as the ultimate source of the creativity and beauty that we enjoy. If artistic creativity is, as the Bible claims, a gift of God, we can scarcely demonstrate our gratitude for the gift any more adequately than by using and enjoying it.” (The Liberated Imagination, 88)

There are many reasons that Christians should care about art, but ultimately we don’t need more reasons than this: art is a gift from God, and we should enjoy it for His sake.

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