The following summary is from the final week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.
Can the arts be understood as having any positive place in God’s continuing engagement with nature and history? How do you respond to the suggestion that they might make a “redemptive” contribution?
Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.
Art can reinforce our engagement with God, His creation, and church history. Religious art is useful for paying homage and for memorializing. Moreover, religious works of art can preserve and it can present. Thousands of works of art have been used over the centuries to depict events and doctrine, and have developed into a rich and long-lasting tradition in Christianity. Jacques Maritian said, art is “…where the maker of works especially becomes an imitator of God, where the virtue of art approaches the nobility of things absolute and self-sufficient, is in that family of arts which by itself alone constitutes a whole spiritual world, namely the fine arts” (1). Thomas Aquinas embraced beauty as a transcendent property of being.
Most of his life C.S. Lewis believed that aesthetic and intellectual endeavors were “very good for [their] own sake… good for the man” (2). Lewis says man has frequently shown an inordinate esteem (obsession, perhaps?) with culture. One benefit of preoccupation with aesthetics is that works of art are a “ready-made” outlet for promoting biblical truths. Certainly, illustrations must present doctrine accurately to serve as appropriate “visual text.” According to Michael Peterson, C.S. Lewis “…largely agreed with Platonic aesthetics in holding that higher truths must be conveyed symbolically in myths as because they cannot be conveyed literally” (3).
Wolterstorff says there is an inherent similarity worth noting between aesthetic and mystical contemplation. This is possible because the artist (like the mystic) turns away from the common everyday and gets caught in a rapture of contemplation (4). Max Weber warned “[when]…art becomes a cosmos of more and more consciously grasped independent values that exist in their own right [then] art takes over the function of a this-worldly salvation” (5). Art serves primarily, in this scenario, as salvation from the routine of everyday life. The artist must not achieve status of maker of the gods. Society must never become worshipers of the artist. If we fall into this trap, we tend to supplant the creation of art with the use of art, which often gives it purpose the artist did not intend.
Christoforo Landino was among the first to compare the artist (the creature as creator) to God the Creator. A work of art has no creative properties: it cannot bring into existence that which it depicts. At risk here is “artist as creator” becoming impious. Taken literally, the image of God as Creator can unwittingly become limited in our minds to only being able to create using preexisting space and material. Plato held the mistaken opinion that God was thusly limited, based on The Forms noted in Greek philosophy. We know God creates ex nihilo, i.e., “out of nothing. He created matter and time simultaneously and without limitation. We expect nothing less considering His aseity (i.e., “from self”), sovereignty, and immanence. He is the self-existing Creator of all that exists. There are no other gods (except what might “exist” in man’s mind through erroneous thinking). Everything created was created by God through the Word who became flesh.
We long to capture God’s truth and beauty through art—painting, sculpture, crafts, drawings, visual arts, and architecture. These aspects of aesthetics are a proper discipline for such expression. We are made in God’s image. Our innate ability and desire to create is part of that image. Christian art holds an intrinsic redemptive quality in that it participates with the Creator to express His redemptive plan. Further, art serves as a means of illustrating God’s ongoing restoration? Religious works of art can contribute to bringing God’s creation back into harmony.
We are reconciled to the Father through the Son. We have been delivered from darkness and grafted into the Kingdom of God (see Col. 1:13). We move into the light with God. As Matt Chandler puts it, “We stand as part of God’s restoring of all things, and we are brought into the missional witness to God’s restorative gospel, the body of Christ” (6). Chandler adds, “Thinking about gospel reconciliation in concentric circles, we are reconciled first to God in Christ, then to one another in covenant community, and third to what God is doing in the renewal of all creation” (7). Because art has the specific function of “bribing” us to pay attention, ensnaring us to “look, listen, and contemplate,” I believe we are reoriented by religious works of art toward something other than our empirical surroundings. Moreover, we are commanded to tame the world; subdue it, eliminate chaos, bring order and meaning to it, and place our mark on it. One way we can accomplish this is through aesthetics.
How does this relate to art making a redemptive contribution? First, we are to be responsible stewards of God’s creation. Second, we are to showcase what Christ has done to redeem and restore us. Third, we must promote redemption and restoration through our writings, drawings, paintings, sculpture, mosaics, collages, and ceramics. Nearly any artistic medium can be used to communicate our restoration. It is paramount that our illustrations (even our lifestyle) mirror God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, wrath, judgment, peace, sovereignty, and almighty power. Further, we must promulgate the delight, joy, exaltation, rejoicing, and celebration we experience when we walk in the Spirit and are able to enter the presence of God.
As Wolterstorff states, “Our sensory delight can be a threat to one’s obedience to God. It can function as a distraction… worse, it can function as a surrogate God.” For a work of art to have a redemptive or restorative function, I believe it should show “the real real” behind the work (8). Christian art should express the convictions and concerns belonging to the world behind the art in a manner that accounts for the artist’s making the work. To function effectively as a Christian work of art it must adhere to established doctrine.
(1) Jacques Maritian, “An Essay on Art,” In Art and Scholasticism (London: Sheed and Ward, 1934), 123-39.
(2) C.S. Lewis, in Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories (London: HarperCollins, 1939/2000), 168.
(3) Michael L. Peterson, C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 11.
(4) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1980), 49.
(5) Ibid., 49.
(6) Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 143.
(7) Ibid., 144.
(8) Wolterstorff, 88.