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Glorifying God through Arts And Culture

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes that “wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master!” (On Christian Doctrine, II.18.28). All truth is God’s truth. The apostle Paul illustrates the point by harkening Athenians to see glimmers of the truth even in their own altar to the unknown god on Mars Hill (see Acts 17:16–34). Paul knew that the Athenian unbelievers had, in their heart of hearts, an awareness of the supreme living God (Rom 1:18–21), so he used this truth hidden among their altars and poets to reveal the truth of God to them.

Christians have a tendency to divide secular and sacred concerns; in fact, everything belongs to the Lord. “All that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours,” writes the author of Chronicles. “Yours is the kingdom, O Lord and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chron 29:11). All aspects of creation—“all that is in the heavens and in the earth”—belong to God.

The twentieth-century apologist, Francis Schaeffer, frequently points out that “true spirituality covers all of reality.” For him, this supremacy of Christ’s lordship was no less significant in the world of arts and culture. He emphasizes this point in his book Art and the Bible: “If Christianity is really true, then it involves the whole man, including his intellect and creativeness” (Art and the Bible, 16). The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms our actions, our hearts and our desires. However, the gospel transforms our intellectual and creative faculties as well. Schaeffer goes on to say, “Christianity is not just ‘dogmatically’ true or ‘doctrinally’ true. Rather, it is true to what is there, true in the whole area of the whole man in all of life.”

Appreciators

This doesn’t mean that all art and all culture are good or worthy of our time. Biblical discretion and Spirit-led discernment are still needed. As Christians, however, we can confidently approach the art and culture of our world because it is under the dominion of Christ. We can appreciate the truth, goodness and beauty that can be found and benefit from it for God’s glory and our enjoyment. In his excellent book on the literary achievements of the classical Greco-Roman world, Peter J. Leithart compares Christians gleaning truth and beauty from “pagan” sources to the Israelites plundering Egypt’s gold during the Exodus. He writes, “It is fully within the rights of Christians, to whom, in Christ, belong ‘all things’ (1 Cor 3:21–23), to plunder these stories and make what use of them we can. Because some treasures of Athens, purged with fire, may, like the gold of Egypt, finally adorn Jerusalem” (Heroes of the City of Man, 38).

Like the “plundered” gold from Egypt, Christians are able to gain wisdom and enjoy much beauty when taking in and engaging with the creative and cultural achievements of humanity. We already do this in other areas of life, such as our appreciation and use of fine clothing, attractive houses, innovative technology and good food. Very few people insist on only wearing the clothes made by Christians or only eating food prepared by members of the church. Good stories, like good dinners, can be enjoyed regardless of who made them; fine artwork, like a well-tailored suit or dress, can bring us much joy and delight whether made by a believer or unbeliever. Our delight in the creative faculties of human beings ultimately brings glory to the One who made humanity in his image. God is a creative being who endowed men and women—his image-bearers—with an ability and desire to create beauty and culture.

Preservers

A challenge to the idea that Christians should enjoy arts and culture may be that so much of it—both inside and outside the church—is terrible. Nowhere is this more evident than in recent decades, especially within the Western world of arts and culture, where there have been few “excellent things” to think on or to appreciate. As Christians living in the twenty-first century, we are feeling the all-encompassing effect of the last 100 years of bizarre cultural achievements lacking truth, beauty and goodness, which is borne out of the prevailing worldviews of despairing modernism, disillusioned postmodernism and discordant post-postmodernism.

Art galleries feel like distant places, containing works of art that seem to have no relation to the things that really matter in life. Good stories have either been supplanted by pessimistic tales and shallow escapism, or they have been spirited away by the morticians of academia to be dissected rather than digested. The beautiful legacy of orchestral and choral music is appreciated by shrinking audiences made up of ageing listeners and a handful of music aficionados. Culture itself has been expropriated by consumer and corporate interests to be repackaged and rebranded for quick sales and easy profit. Film, television and pornography have taken us back to gladiatorial-like arenas, where degrading shock and dehumanizing horror encompass the paltry and unsatisfying range of amusement and entertainment.

Devoid of truth, beauty and goodness, and with so little to appreciate, celebrate or enjoy, shouldn’t Christians just avoid the whole realm of arts and culture, which seems so useless and so corrupt? Gene Edward Veith, Jr. writes, “That the arts can be corrupt does not mean that Christians should abandon them. On the contrary, the corruption of the arts means that Christians dare not abandon them any longer. Art—like all things human—needs to be redeemed” (State of the Arts, xvi).

Christians are called to be “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13–16); there is work to be done in glorifying God in all aspects of this world—social, religious, political, economic, scientific, medical, educational—so also the area of arts and culture. This doesn’t mean that we are called to create a Christian kingdom or political state this side of glory. It does mean, however, that Christians—wherever God has placed them—are to glorify God by bringing to bear biblical truth, God-fearing wisdom and Christian mercy, grace and love. This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than a “call to the unsaved” to be saved: the gospel is about total lives being totally transformed.

The gospel calls us to show how faith redeems not only our spiritual lives but all aspects of our entire being—how we think, what we enjoy, why we create, what we believe, where we live and what we do. Edith Schaeffer, the co-founder of L’Abri, writes, “The whole person is involved in being a Christian. The whole life is involved in living in contact with God” (L’Abri, 157). Not just parts of our lives, but all of our lives—and this includes the arts and culture that surround us.

Makers 

We are also called, as human beings, to be makers of culture. Timothy Keller argues that God’s commission to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—and to Christians today—is a call to be creators of culture (See, for example, chapter 3 of Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor). God placed the first human beings in a garden, not a wilderness. A garden is something that requires design, hard work and care—that is, cultivation. Culture, like a garden, requires cultivators.

We were made to be makers; we were called to be creators. Keller writes about the undeveloped potential of God’s creation: “The pattern of all work…is creative and assertive. It is rearranging the raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish” (Every Good Endeavor, 47).

 


*This is an extract taken (with minor modification) from Jeremy Johnston’s book All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts.

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