Tag Archives: arts

The Arts, Biblical Theology, and Proof I’m Not a Complete Philistine

My last post generated some helpful feedback about the place of the arts in the Christian life. In that post I took an exegetical approach to the topic, examining one Scripture passage and challenging how it is sometimes used in defense of extravagant artistic investments. But most questions about Christian living are not decided by a solitary Scripture passage—and especially by a passage that isn’t directly about the topic at all, as I argued is the case with the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

So in this post I’d like to begin to set the topic of the arts within a larger biblical framework—thus doing what is often called biblical theology. (And if you persevere to the end, I even have a cute picture to share.)

First, here are some lines from the feedback I received:

Why do we have to have verses to justify everything that we do...

I don’t have a proof text for the arts

I’m not sure that I can supply a Biblical basis in support of the arts…

These comments are quite natural, given the relative silence in the New Testament about the kinds of activities we classify as “the arts.” So I agree: It’s pretty hard to point to one Bible verse, especially any verse written expressly as a directive to Christians, and say that we’ve found “a proof text for the arts.”

I suggest, however, that this lack of a proof text does not leave us entirely free to develop our own philosophical or emotional apology for our personal artistic preferences. Rather, our double task is to trace the big story that God tells us in Scripture and then to accurately understand our time and place within that story. (This is one of the tasks of the discipline of biblical theology—to consider theological themes as unfolding trajectories within the larger biblical narrative, rather than as the isolated observations of textual exegesis or the timeless conclusions of systematic theology.)

Some of the feedback I received hinted in this direction:

I’ve recently been wondering if a negative view of arts is a result of a “leave the earth, God’s going to destroy it anyway” mentality, instead of becoming part of God’s redemptive project on the earth, in which man’s signature counts…that is, he is by virtue of his very nature, his likeness to his Creator, creative

Here we see hints of some key plot developments in the story of our world: restoration (the return of Christ at the end of the age), redemption (God’s plan to rescue from sin), and creation (mankind created in the image of the Creator). And of course redemption reminds us also of the fall. This gives us all four of the plot movements commonly identified by Reformed theologians: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

(See here for verbal and visual explanations of each. And I have suggested that naming the final movement glorification might better reflect the fact that Christ’s return will usher in not merely Eden restored, but a new world where we will realize an eternal consummation of God’s vision beyond anything ever experienced in Eden.)

Another response also pointed to creation:

I would offer a defense based on the nature of man. Artistic expression is a part of every known culture, even cultures that make efforts to eliminate them. I suspect its just a part of who we are, like language. In fact, art IS a language. Attacking artistic expression seems dehumanizing...

Another response complicated these four plot movements a bit by mentioning Israel (as well as restoration):

As I read about the intricacy of the artwork that went into Solomon’s Temple, I have to think that this too was intended to honor and glorify God.
What about some of the scenes involving the musical art in Revelation, what was its prime purpose?

N.T. Wright’s biblical theological scheme might help us here. He suggests that the Bible carries God’s authority by telling the story of the world in five acts. He identifies them as follows:

(1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Cor 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.

As Wright points out, understanding the Bible as a five-act play (or as a four-movement plot, if you prefer the Reformed system) has implications for our hermeneutics (paradigms for how we interpret Scripture and what it says to us today):

The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal—and such an offering!—would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections…

The New Testament is written to be the charter for the people of the creator God in the time between the first and second comings of Jesus; the Old Testament forms the story of the earlier acts, which are (to be sure) vital for understanding why Act 4, and hence Act 5, are what they are, but not at all appropriate to be picked up and hurled forward into Act 5 without more ado. The Old Testament has the authority that an earlier act of the play would have, no more, no less…

The story has to be told as the new covenant story. This is where my five-act model comes to our help again. The earlier parts of the story are to be told precisely as the earlier parts of the story. We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of Exodus, or indeed of the gospels. Nor do we read the gospels us though we were ignorant of the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 to Act 5, the Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and yet obedient, improvisation.

(See here for the source of these quotes and for fascinating suggestions about how God mediates his authority through the story told by the Scriptures.)

So, where are we in the story of biblical theology?

Using the traditional Reformed scheme, we are in the third movement: redemption. God is still busy redeeming this world from sin. We are living after the cross, but before “the time of restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:21).

Using Wright’s scheme, we are in the final act, Act Five. We are no longer living in Acts One through Four. But we are also not yet living in the final scene within Act Five.

So, in either scheme, we are living in some tension, in a partially-redeemed state within a world that is not yet restored. We must not forget God’s creation purposes, yet we cannot simply live as if we are still in Eden. We must lay hold of God’s vision of restoration, yet we cannot live as if we are already on the new earth. This is still the time of spiritual warfare and of Great Commission living.

What does this mean for the place of the arts in the Christian life?

At minimum, this:

  • It means that pointing to our nature as creations who create is crucial, but insufficient.
  • It means that the artistic intricacies of Solomon’s temple are illuminating, but not determinative.
  • It means that the heavenly artistic grandeur described in Revelation awakens our hope, but does not define our current experience.

Artistic delight now is a reminder of Eden and a foretaste of Glory. It is a concert performed for soldiers who are on temporary leave from the front lines, healing their wounds before they return to battle. It is recess between classes at school. It is love-making between the duties of tilling the soil and raising the children.

Consider that last analogy further in light of Scripture. Let’s use the four Reformed movements to examine marriage through the ages:

Creation: God makes humans male and female. He declares “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). The one-flesh union is blessed by God and humans are told to be fruitful and multiply.

Fall: Marriage is deformed in many ways post-fall, with polygamy and divorce permitted thanks to the hardness of man’s heart. Marriage is still the normal state, but normal marriage is not particularly normal. God does strange things like apparently blessing his kings with multiple wives and using a pagan beauty contest (that’s far too mild of a term for what actually happened) to save his people from genocide.

Redemption: God both uses marriage and operates beyond marriage to bring his Son into the world. His Son never marries. He blesses marriage, calling people back to God’s creation purposes. Yet he also blesses celibates—those are “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”—and says “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (See Matt. 19:10-12.)

Paul, likewise, paints a double picture. On the one hand, he paints a glorious picture of marriage as a type of Christ and the church. (See Eph. 5:22-33.) On the other hand, filled with passion “to secure… undivided devotion to the Lord,” Paul says that he wishes all were single as he is. Notice his appeal to our place within the big story that Scripture tells: “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none… For the present form of this world is passing away.” (See 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, 29-38.)

And significantly, both Jesus and Paul suggest that both marriage and celibacy are gifts, given differently to different persons.

Restoration: In words that probably shaped Paul’s vision, Jesus noted that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30). Instead, we have the consummation of the eternal reality toward which earthly marriage points: the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9; 21:2, 9-11).

I think we can see parallels with the arts through the ages. Here are some tentative suggestions—I am certainly moving beyond exegesis into theological deduction:

Creation: I do think that the Bible blesses the image of humans as creations who create. We see hints of this in Adam’s naming of the animals and care of the Garden, or even in his poetic praise of his new bride. Some Anabaptists need to ponder this more. I’m thinking of those who bless quilting bees, agricultural arts, and a cappella four-part harmony but leave little room for photography, literature, or the performing arts.

Fall: The arts certainly go to seed post-fall. Consider idolatrous images, pagan hymns, or even the heavy taxation and slavery used to build Solomon’s temple. The latter example reminds me of how the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages siphoned off the wealth of Europe to build cathedrals and glorify the Vatican. Or consider the star-centered and commercialized nature of so much Christian art today. But should we also consider economic inequalities and indulgences closer to home?

Redemption: Little is said in Scripture about the arts in this movement; hence the need for discussions like this. Based on the marriage analogy, I offer a few suggestions.

Jesus was a carpenter, he told astounding stories, and he did sing hymns. To call him an “artist” might be stretching the evidence, however. There is no suggestion that he spent hours practicing on the harp or even that he led his disciples in multi-part choral works. He didn’t own a home and didn’t seem impressed by the grandeur of the temple, so architecture wasn’t high on his list of active priorities. I don’t think we read anything about him engaging in any visual arts besides writing in the sand. His mud pies were decidedly utilitarian, designed for healing eyes. Even his parables, magnificent as they are, were not staged performances as our artistic endeavors usually are, but rather woven into the fabric of everyday life.

And Paul? While he built tents, there is no indication he saw this as anything besides laborious commercial work. I certainly cannot imagine him investing the proverbial 10,000 hours to become an expert on an instrument such as the flute. He was too bent on the Great Commission to commission any works of art besides offerings for the poor saints in Jerusalem.

Yet the paradigm of “gifts” is also a clue. “Each has his own gift from God,” Paul wrote of marriage and singleness, “one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:7). For over 10 years now, singleness has not been my gift. My prayer before I met my future wife was that God would lead me to someone with whom I could serve him better than how I could serve him alone. I believe God answered that prayer for me, at least for this season of my life.

Similarly, my artistic engagement has varied through seasons of my life. For several years while in college, I often achieved from 3/4 hour to 1-1/2 hours at the piano daily. Now I often play less than that in one week. I confess that, just as I am weak and have felt a “burning” need for marriage (1 Cor. 7:9), so I often feel a great need for the refreshment that is offered by the arts. Accompanying fellow musicians and performing for others has brought moments of ecstasy. Other times the only prayer I have been able to offer is to let my fingers wander over the piano keyboard, searching alone for the groans of the Spirit.

And often this refreshment comes through the artistic gifts God has given to others. When I was a youth, listening to Beethoven taught me on a deep heart level that joy is often found only after great struggle. Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 have been played at high volume to soothe my youthful (and sometimes not so youthful) angst. The poetry and song of Rich Mullins has stirred me to my depths. And Phil Keaggy’s song “Play Through Me” has been my prayer, too:

Up late again tonight,
I feel a song coming on…

Maker of all melody fill my heart with song,
Play how You feel, oh play thru me.
Healing can come through the song
Your own hands upon,
This is for real, no fantasy.

(And since I am “up late again tonight,” too, I better soon wind down the crafting of this post.)

Restoration: Given the symbolic language of much of Revelation, I think we can say little concretely about arts in the world to come. If we take the function of metaphor seriously, however, we must conclude that there is something similar-but-grander in the heavenlies to the very best of earthly art. While I admit the song “The Music of Heaven” is not among my personal favorites, I do anticipate that Jesus’ presence will bring a passion and fulfillment beyond anything I have experienced in the best moments of musical ecstasy here on earth.

So what is the conclusion of the matter? I think in this age of redemption, in these middle scenes of Act 5, we will rightly see traces of God’s good creation purposes among his people. Just as we rightly celebrate Christian marriages, so we can rightly celebrate Christian artists. (I’m not insisting here on a specifically “Christian art”; that is another discussion.) We will see and bless a diversity of both gifts and callings. There must be room for poets and painters and potters in our churches. Even banjo players. Artistic excellence does indeed show something of the glory of God.

But we will also recognize that here we have no abiding symphony. In this world we will have trouble staying on key. More than that, we will weigh our artistic desires, examining our hearts: are we getting “entangled in civilian pursuits” or pleasing “the one who enlisted” us (2 Tim. 2:4). We will remember the Great Commission mission of the church. We will ask ourselves hard questions: Am I worshiping the creature or the Creator? Am I serving God and my neighbor with my approach to art, or am I merely serving myself? (Sometimes our neighbors can best help us answer this question. And who is my neighbor?)

I think my previous post left a few readers worried that I was anti-art. I’m not sure if this post will help or not. In a last-ditch effort to redeem myself, let me sign off with a picture. Hopefully this proves I’m not a total Philistine. Tonight I put my middle daughter to sleep to the sounds of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Schumann. Hopefully she heard a faint echo of her Savior singing over her:

Please forgive the exposed umbilical cord socket.

What do you think? How should we navigate the “already but not yet” tension surrounding the arts? Share your thoughts (preferably in sonnet form) in the comments below.

Save page

The Arts and the Absence of Jesus

I am a house church guy who likes cathedrals. My spiritual forebears in the Reformation include some who smashed statues and images and others who banned organs. My spiritual contemporaries include some who participate in the Anabaptist Orchestra Camp and others who are performing complex choral works tomorrow afternoon by the great Lutheran composer Bach. (If you live near Lancaster, PA, perhaps you can catch this Singet dem Herrn concert, which appears to include a 40-page piece for “double choir and strings with continuo, vocal ensemble and soloists,” complete with “intricate passages of fugue, which is sort of like a round in different keys that expands as it goes.” Good stuff, and definitely not the sort of thing that Conrad Grebel would have approved.)

I am an Anabaptist and, like most Anabaptists, I am somewhat ambivalent about the place of the arts in the Christian life.

When I was a young teen, I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. My father didn’t think this was very practical. He was probably right, though he and I may not fully agree on why. While I have never lost my capacity to delight in the arts, especially the musical ones, I am afraid I would have made a bad concert pianist. I am not sure I believe in the cause strongly enough—even though there are times when I have felt that my soul would surely have shriveled up and died were it not for the beauty of musical (near-)perfection. I have worshiped while listening to Rachmaninoff piano concertos and while listening to Phil Keaggy guitar solos. But if I had attempted the life course of a career concert musician, I am afraid I would have been only an all-round poor imitation of the great Albert Schweitzer, who abandoned a promising musical career to be a medical missionary.

All that for background. This week at work I was blessed to listen to the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew on Tuesday, Mark on Wednesday, and Luke on Thursday. One story that caught my ear was the familiar account of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment. Here is the story as it is told by Matthew:

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:6-13)

You can also find this story in Mark 14:3-9 and in John 12:1-8 (where she is named Mary).

Perhaps you, like me, have sometimes heard people draw implications from this story for our understanding of the arts. I’m quite certain I’ve heard, though I can’t say where, this line of thought suggested: This woman, in a creative and symbolic act, expressed her deep devotion to Jesus. Jesus praised her for this extravagant and apparently wasteful gift. Similarly, Jesus is pleased when we give extravagant and apparently wasteful displays of devotion to him through the creative arts.

Some quick browsing now online confirms to me that something like this kind of thought is sometimes expressed by Christians writing about the arts. For example, read this from Steve Scott (otherwise unknown to me):

Jesus placed a value on signs and sign making that had little to do with the price of the materials involved, and he seemed to show little regard for the social controversy and the lack of immediate graspability that came with the sign. Mary, in some ways, faced the problems that many sign makers and artists face today. They are told their work is an expensive luxury. They are told their work seems controversial, often for the sake of controversy, and they are told their work is obscure, for the sake of obscurity. When Jesus told the other celebrators to leave her alone, he upheld her dignity as a person and gave his support to the dignity of her gesture. He stated that this gesture of hers would be recalled wherever the gospel is told. Jesus reminds his audience—then and now—that images and symbols have value. And those who work with signs, metaphors and images are doing valuable work.1 (emphasis added)

Or consider this footnote find:

Calvin Seerveld makes a compelling case that beautiful works, such as that of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany…, should be allowed a place in the Christian life alongside activities such as evangelism and feeding the poor. Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (Toronto: Piquant, 2000), 1-5.2 (emphasis added)

And there is much of the rub for me: I often find myself identifying more with the disciples (worse, Judas, according to John’s version) than with Mary. I walk into an ornate church or indulge in live musical soundscapes, and I sense that something is profoundly right, and I even find myself drawn to worship the Creator—and then I wonder how we can spend such measureless loose change on such extravagance while God’s children elsewhere are crying for bread.

I do not have a theological resolution for this problem that I can share with you in this post. Rather, I want to share an exegetical observation that occurred to me while listening to the Gospels this week.

One phrase stood out to me. Hear Jesus’ words: “You will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11). Mark includes the same statement (Mk. 14:7). John highlights this thought by placing it at the very end of the story: “You do not always have me” (John 12:8).

What this phrase means, at minimum, is that Mary was doing something for Jesus that she and the disciples would not be able to do later. There would be opportunity later to care for the poor. But there would be no “later” for doing whatever it was that Mary did to Jesus.

What was it that Mary did to Jesus? In Matthew, Jesus explains it like this: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). Mark’s Jesus says, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” John’s Jesus speaks parallel words.

Can you see where my thoughts are headed? Consider R.T. France’s comments on this story:

The woman’s extravagant loyalty offsets the shameful horror of crucifixion. That is why it must always be remembered, not simply as a model for uncalculating devotion (though it certainly is that) but as an affirmation of the value of his death from the point of view of faith.

It is a matter of priorities (cf. the rather different lesson on the priority of the spiritual over the mundane, also set in Bethany, in Luke 10:38-42). A definitive moment is upon them, and even the duty of helping the poor must take second place. Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves. It is because this unnamed woman has seized on that sense of special occasion that her act is to be remembered. Probably without realizing it, she has provided a pointer to the theology of the cross.3

So let me sum up what I’m observing: It seems to me that Jesus very clearly indicates that what Mary did for him was an act specially suited to a unique, non-repeatable opportunity. No Christian artist today has Jesus in the flesh before him or her, on his way to the cross. No one today can anoint Jesus in preparation for his burial, either literally or figuratively.

More than that, listen again to France’s suggestion: “Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves.” In other words, let’s say that Mary owned a second flask of ointment. What would be the right way to use it after Jesus’ death and resurrection had passed? According to Jesus’ words, the right thing for Mary to do with another such flask of ointment, would not be to use it to anoint Jesus. Rather, it would be fitting to use it to care for the poor.

So… my ambivalence about the arts continues. I conclude that we should exercise more care not to take this biblical account out of context as support for our artistic endeavors, especially our expensive ones. I suggest that we will need to look elsewhere if we want to find strong biblical basis for extravagant expense in art or worship.

(Help me out. Do you see a biblical basis somewhere? To be clear, I am not claiming or aiming in this post to deny any such biblical basis for investment in the arts. Rather, my main concern is that we keep our theology tethered to Scripture through careful exegesis.)

And if I were to try to draw any tentative positive lessons for our art from this passage, I might suggest the following:

  1. Our art should be consistent with “a theology of the cross” (to borrow France’s words). This suggests to me that (a) what artistic expressions we do create must be consistent with all that the cross represents, and (b) sometimes the call to bear the cross will be a call to surrender our present artistic desires.
  2. Our art should point us to the day when Jesus will return in the flesh. Yes, Christ is present by his Spirit now. But this is yet the day of the Bridegroom’s absence, when fasting and mourning are still appropriate (Matt. 9:15). Only when he returns will the full consummation of true art be realized. Any artistic perfection now must strengthen our hunger for the perfection of Beauty (Christ and his likeness) then.

This post raises unfinished thoughts. What do you have to add to the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

  1. Steve Scott, Like a House on Fire: Renewal of the Arts in a Postmodern Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 102-103.
  2. Jason S. Hiles, Images in the Service of God’s Word: A Theology for the Christian Use of Visual Images, a dissertation presented to the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest, 2008), 262, fn 75.
  3. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007), 974.

Save page