Speaker: Steve Baarandse (professor of English and Humantities, Columbia International University)
Session: Two-ism in Art and Literature
Huxley’s Brave New World foresaw our technology-driven world. J. Gresham Machen said the same thing:
“The improvement appears in the physical conditions of life, but in the spiritual realm there is a corresponding loss. The loss is clearest, perhaps, in the realm of art. Despite the mighty revolution which has been produced in the external conditions of life, no great poet is now living to celebrate the change; humanity has suddenly become dumb. Gone, too, are the great painters and the great musicians and the great sculptors. The art that still subsists is largely imitative, and where it is not imitative it is usually bizarre. Even the appreciation of the glories of the past is gradually being lost, under the influence of a utilitarian education that concerns itself only with the production of physical well-being.
This unprecedented decline in literature and art is only one manifestation of a more far-reaching phenomenon; it is only one instance of that narrowing of the range of personality which has been going on in the modern world.”
1. The Biblical foundation for art
God is the first artist and first art critic. He creates without a brush or tool. He creates with His voice. He declares what He creates as good. God’s creative act is two-ist. He creates and creation happens in, through, and because of Him. Calvin: “The universe is the most beautiful theatre that displays God’s glory.”
God creates with order, distinction, variety, and beauty. The world around us is the work of a creative genius. Moreover, God created Adam and Eve as the crown of His creative work. Tolkien: “We make by the law by which we made.” It is interesting that God gave Adam the task of naming animals. This is an expression of creativity and dominion. Adam and Eve’s work of tending was also an extension of their creativity. God’s creative work continues in the world around us, from forming babies to making lightening bolts fall.
The Bible is a creative work—a rich bouquet of historic narrative, lyric, poem, sermon, parable, tragedy, letter, etc. Moreover, God did not eliminate the human element of its authorship. Is there a greater lyric poem than Psalm 23? Is there a more sustained argument than the book of Romans? The Bible could have been written in technical language, instead it uses every literary tool.
2. Why Christians should care about art and literature
We are made in the image of God. In other words, we are made to appreciate art and beauty. Literature and art are enjoyable recreation. Literature are also useful. Reading literature helps us be more astute readers of the Word of God. Let us not forget that we are people of the book.
Literature also nurtures our love for story, leading to a greater appreciating the overall story of the Bible. Art always takes us out of ourselves and has us interact with another. Imagination needs to work itself out or it atrophies. Many people have exchanged books and literature with flat screens in their living rooms. GK Chesterton: “the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open.” One-ism focuses inward, while Two-ism focuses outward.
C.S. Lewis has a wonderful essay on reading old books:
“None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
Literature and art also have a warning function. The Holy Spirit can use a work of art to turn from sin. I can think of a number of books on my shelves that have reminded me of the wickedness of sin. We can also see beauty. We are drawn to stories of good, courage, and self-sacrifice.
If we put this all together, art and literature can even equip us for ministry. Careful writing and observation are key to the ministry of preaching. Quaint Thomas Fuller says, “reasons are the pillars of the fabric of a sermon; but similitudes are the windows which give the best lights.”
3. Cautions for Christians in the arts
Paul: “Everything created by God is good.” We praise God for the good gifts of the arts that He has lavished upon us. However…
First caution: Do not pretend that art is not important. This downplays the glory of God as creator.
Second caution: Do not make too much of art. Do not worship beauty instead of the God of beauty. C.S. Lewis: “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.” The second commandment warns against this.
Third caution: Do not underestimate the power of the human imagination for good or evil. Christians of all people should not have limited imaginations. We are invited to use our imaginations and set our minds on the things above. However, some imaginary worlds are not helpful to enter but harmful. Beware.
Fourth caution: Do not equate beauty with sacramentalism. There’s a huge market in sentimentality because we want beauty to be easy. Flannery O’Connor called this emotional pornography. It cheapens grace because it ignores the cost of our salvation. However, beware of focusing on evil too.
4. Jesus is the one beauty points to
I want to say a few things about the end of beauty and creativity. You’ll notice I haven’t defined beauty. That is because, often, beauty cannot be defined.
Jesus Christ is the end of our imaginations. Christians should be especially attuned to beauty because they are connected to the source of all beauty. Union with Christ is the gateway to true beauty. The Son shines brighter than the sun. We will spend eternity relishing the beauty of the Bridegroom. Nature is the creative expression of the Galilean carpenter. Even the ugliness of Jesus’ crucifixion leads us to the beauty of His redemption. Finally, the image of the marriage supper of the Lamb is one of inexpressible delight.
Art is a good gift of the Creator to be cultivated for His glory.
“Heav’n above is softer blue, Earth around is sweeter green!
Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen;
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know, I am His, and He is mine.”
The best art can do: reminds us that we were made for more.