Art and the Bible
Francis A Schaeffer edited from “Some Perspectives on Art”
As Christians we know why a work of art has value. Why? First, because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator. The first sentence in the Bible declares “In the beginning God created the heaves and the earth”.
Second, an art work has value as a creation because human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore we not only can love and feel emotion, but we also have the capacity to create. In fact it is part of the image of God to be creative, or to have creativity. We never find an animal, non-human, making a work of art. On the other hand, we never find people anywhere in the world or in any culture in the world who do not product art. Creativity is intrinsic to our humanness. (Though the Old Testament forbids the making of “graven images” used in idolatry, it uses art and craftsmen in the making of God’s true worship, Exodus 20:4; Exodus 25:18; 2 Chronicles 3:6, 7 etc).
The nature of Art
There are, I believe, three basic possibilities concerning the nature of a work of art. The first view is the relatively modern view of art for art’s sake. This is the notion that art is just there and that’s all there is to it. You can’t talk about a message in it, you can’t analyze it, it doesn’t say anything. This view is, I think, quite misguided. For one thing, no great artist functions on the level of art for art’s sake alone. Think for example of the high Renaissance, beginning with Cimabue (c.1240-1302) and leading up to Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Leonardo (1452-1519). All these artists worked from one of two viewpoints, and sometimes there was a confusion between the two. They worked either from their notion of Christianity or from a Renaissance form of humanism. Florence, for example, where so many excellent works of art were produced was a centre for the study of Neoplatonism. Some of the artists studied under Ficino (1433-99), perhaps the greatest of neoplatonists and influential throughout Europe. These artists showed their point of view in their art.
The second view is that art is only an embodiment of a message, a vehicle for the propagation of a particular message about the world or the artist or human beings or whatever. This view has been held by both Christians as well as non-Christians, the difference between the two versions being the nature of the message which the art embodies. But this view reduces the art to merely an intellectual statement and the work of art as a work of art disappears.
The third basic notion of the nature of art – the one I think is right, the one that produces great art and the possibility of great art – is that the artists make a work of art, and that then the body of his work reflects his world view. No one, for example, who understands Michelangelo or Leonardo can look at their work without understanding something of their respective worldviews. Nonetheless, these artists began by making works of art, and then their worldviews showed through the body of their work.
I emphasize the body of an artist’s work because it is impossible for any single painting, for example, to reflect the totality of an artist’s view of reality. But when we see a collection of an artist’s paintings or a series of a poet’s poems or a number of a novelist’s novels, both the outline and some of the details of the artist’s conception of life shine through.
Split mindedness between the “sacred” and the “secular” is thinking which is foreign to the Bible. Christ is Lord of all.
The early Puritan William Perkins, defined vocation as “a certain kind of life ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good”.
The Call of God
There are two profound strands woven into the idea of calling.
Salvation. The Bible tells us that our conversion to Christ comes about by the call of God to our hearts. John 5:24; 2 Timothy 1:9.
What makes us respond to the gospel cannot ultimately be explained in terms of our circumstances, intelligence or personality, but only in terms of God.
But then the timing and network of circumstances and personal relationships in which God chose to bring us to himself are not accidental. We are to look upon them as a divine calling. This is spelled out for us specifically in 1 Corinthians 7.
Unless God calls us to take another direction, or the occupation in which we were employed when we were converted is one which is in itself wrong (thief?), then generally it is God’s will for us to be content to serve him in that situation. This is not to be equated with the Victorian idea of everybody “knowing their place”, nor does it mean that we may never change our situation, v21. But it does assure us that, whatever our circumstances, we can please God in them. This covers all of life, including our employment. It brings “sacred” and “secular” together under God.
The Social Significance of Calling
The idea of calling has brought profound benefits historically. Max Weber and R H Tawney have proposed that Biblical Christianity through the Protestant Reformation created the conditions for the emergence of the modern industrial world through the Bible’s emphasis on the worthiness of our “secular” calling, and the individual’s responsibility to use their calling well.
Before 1500 AD this emphasis is almost entirely missing. The church was dominated by ideas that holy callings to be a priest, a monk or a nun were somehow the only way to really please God. Luther and Calvin opposed this. William Tyndale the chief shaper of the English Bible wrote, “Between the washing of dishes and the preaching of the Word there is a difference, (but) concerning pleasing God there is no difference at all”.
This idea of serving God in our calling brought along with it the idea that the purpose of our work was also a service to our fellow human beings in the community, Mark 12:28-31. Because all vocations are morally equal before God and contribute to the good of society, we are to look upon each other as brothers and sisters. Society becomes a family. As modern society becomes secularized this is an idea which is fading rapidly.
Personal Implications of Calling
The idea of calling means that our lives have a fundamental seriousness. This does not mean gloominess! But it does mean that each of us are stewards of God’s gifts and calling to us and we are individually responsible to him, Matthew 25:14-30. We cannot focus on the life to come in a way which implies that this life does not matter.
The idea of calling means that we should reject all pressures from either inside or outside the church to make all of us conform to one particular psychological or sociological pattern. We are all different, and as Christians, within the loving boundaries of God’s commands, we are free to be different, indeed to be ourselves.
“A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and everyone by means of his own work and office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as the members of a body serve one another”.
Martin Luther: An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German National concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.
Chertsey Street Baptist Church – U.K.
Circa – 2002