Reclaiming the Arts

Throughout much of history, for better or worse, the church has stood as the champion of the arts. Some of the greatest works of music (think of Handel’s Messiah), painting (Rembrandt’s Head of Christ), and architecture (St. Peter’s Basilica) were created by and for the church. Though some would rightly question the motives behind the creation of many of these types of works, the fact remains that the church once maintained a reputation for valuing and investing in the arts.

Yet today, Christian music barely scores a sub-category in an un-aired portion of The Grammy’s. Though we often employ the term “worship arts,” many in the secular creative community never think to look to believers for direction or ideas. In the area of the arts, the church has often come to follow rather than inspire culture.

But should the state of the art of the church really concern us? Wouldn’t the pursuit of excellence in this area inevitably lead to a performance-oriented ministry bent on the glorification of ourselves? Besides, the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) says nothing about the arts. Shouldn’t the church instead devote herself entirely to spreading the Gospel story rather than to the arts? Perhaps we will find clarity and inspiration in a reexamination of some familiar Scriptural truths.

We know well the general contour of the Gospel story. Because of our rebellion against God, the whole of humanity and Creation have been subjected to the curse of sin and death. God’s plan to restore our relationship with him centers on Jesus, God in flesh, and in His death and resurrection. Those who believe in Him are united in both His death and life and have the promise of eternal life with God.

Yet if we conclude the story here, it falls far short of the narrative of Scripture. Just as the curse of the Fall extends to all of Creation, so too God’s redemption reaches every corner of existence (Rom. 8:19-21). Just as Jesus’ grace breaks sin’s strangle-hold on men and women, so too His salvation redeems and will eternally restore the entire universe—including the arts. We do injustice to the grace of God by limiting its scope to the redemption of souls and bodies—He will make all things new!

A mark of the in-breaking of Jesus’ kingdom, then, is the redemption and restoration of everything in our world—whether the healing of bodies, care for our environment, or the reclaiming of the arts. As those who have been redeemed by Christ, our new life demands that we spread that redemption wherever we go. Being the “hands and feet of Jesus” means that we seek to bring new life to the hurting and the Gospel to the lost, as well as the glory of God to the arts.

One need only to look as far as the book of Exodus to discover God’s love of all that is beautiful. While establishing the worship of the fledgling nation of Israel, He specifically gifts two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, as artists in the creation of the Tabernacle and her elements (Ex. 35:30-35). They lead others in carefully crafting a worship space which was not merely functional, but extravagantly beautiful. Wood overlaid with gold and elaborate linens framed the tabernacle. The ark of the covenant and altars likewise were covered with gold. The extensive detail in the priestly garments, specifically the gem-studded breastplate, portrayed not just symbolism but beautiful artistry (Ex. 36-39). Is it possible that God has gifted believers today to use their creative gifts in worship?

We find evidence of God’s love for creativity even earlier in the Bible. From the first pages of Scripture, God Himself acts as the preeminent artist. He paints no ugly sunsets. He has crafted the human body, in all its intricacies, as a functional masterpiece. His world explodes with color in plant and animal life. Technology gives us a glimpse into the mammoth canvas of our universe, where the Creator has painted scenes with galaxies. And in some small way, when you and I employ our God-given creative abilities, we reflect a creating God. As God has manifested His existence through what He has made (Romans 1), so His people help reveal His nature by their own creativity and love of the arts.

The arts (including the worship arts!) must never be viewed as outside the mission of the church. God’s very nature and example as an artist demands His people to invest in, love, and redeem the arts. Whether we are musicians and artists serving congregational worship on the weekend, those who support the arts in our churches, or those who champion the cause of believing artists in a secular world, the church should be the advocate for all that is beautiful.

What would happen if the church once again embraced the arts? What would the world think about our God if they viewed the effort and craft that goes into our worship? Perhaps our seeking to redeem all things would reflect to the world the heart of a God who seeks to redeem souls as well as every broken part of Creation. May our hearts and affections be as broad and deep as our God’s.