Art and the Church: “It’s Complicated!”

“It’s complicated!”  Well, at least that is one of the most common colloquial responses heard when either too many factors are involved in a situation, or when a person really prefers not to talk about it.  While some might define the relationship between art and the church, or art and theology, as a complicated one, the term ‘complex’ might suit it better. Indeed, artistic expression has been present in both Jewish and Christian traditions, but due to varying cultural perceptions, theological interpretations, personal preferences, and even fear, its function has been seriously questioned along the way.  

As a follower of Jesus Christ, and a student of the Bible, the barrier (or the door) to a high regard of artistic value hinged primarily on being convinced through the Scriptures that this form of communication was undeniably esteemed by God.  This question eventually led me to the realization that art is not only present throughout Scripture – a fact that few are likely to deny – but that God Himself, in order to translate His thoughts to humankind, and to reveal Himself, His character, and the story of redemption, used precisely artistic form in many instances to accomplish this communication!  Considering even the following brief definition for ‘art’: “the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, and experiences using skill and imagination,”1 we are able to detect various artistic domains that were used by God for the very act of revelation.

The Psalms, without a doubt, stand out as one of the most prominent art forms found in Scripture.  The Spirit of God, in inspiring men such as King David and others to express their relationship to God through Hebrew poetry, favored the use of artistic form when revealing aspects of the relationship between God and man, as well as numerous prophetic utterances concerning the Messiah.  This poetic form was closely connected with musical expression – although today we are not quite sure what it sounded like – adding another artistic and sensorial dimension to revelatory acts. The Book of Psalms became the very songbook for the people of God.

The call of God to Bezaleel in Exodus 31 (restated in Exodus 35) should not remain unnoticed by the serious Bible student.  This man was filled with the Spirit for the express purpose of creating visual arts, such as architecture and sculpture, for the tabernacle of God.  It was also brought to my attention recently, that Bezaleel is the very first person mentioned in the Bible said to have been ‘filled with the Spirit of God’; and he was filled to create artistic works for God!  Along with him, others were called to assist him in producing an artistic representation of the way to God through sacrifice, the countless artifacts symbolizing various aspects of God and His will, and even the way into the Holy of Holies.  God, in fact, was not simply leading Bezaleel and his colleagues (also called by God) to build a shelter for the ark and a few other items, to keep them from the rain! The tabernacle was a visual communication of the way to encounter the King of kings.

While in captivity, the prophet Ezekiel was also commanded by God to “dramatize” the siege of Jerusalem to the people in captivity.  God had chosen to communicate this sobering reality to His people, not by simply relating it to them in prose (also an artistic form), but by a visual sketch of the serious situation in which the land of Israel found itself.  The oral-verbal arts are also well represented as revelatory instruments in the numerous proverbs written by Solomon and others and in the parables used by Old Testament prophets and Jesus.

Along centuries of Biblical Jewish history, we also find numerous examples of other artistic practices, often incorporating several artistic domains.  Artistic forms played a vital role during celebrations, corporate worship in the temple, as memory devices for later generations, as vehicles of spiritual and emotional healing, and served to express individual and corporate sentiments of repentance, joy, or sadness.  The New Testament also addresses the topic of artistic expression and has crucial directions concerning the function of music among believers. But this we will consider in a later article.

Complex as it is, this relationship between art and the church (or art and theology), is worth pursuing.  These foundations in the revelation of God demonstrated an aspect of mission that I, as many others, had essentially overlooked for decades.  In a recent Ethnoarts workshop in Brazil, where I was addressing a group of about 45 people, the pastor of one of the churches represented stood up after two hours of workshop and asked me permission to say something.  He turned to the students and testified that he had been studying the Bible, preaching, and serving God for over 40 years. This was the first time he had seen these relevant aspects of art in the revelation of God. He encouraged them to ‘sit up and listen’ (which they gladly had been doing already) and to treasure what they were being taught that day.  The week before the writing of this article, I also conversed with two Ethnodoxology colleagues in the Dallas area, who through a series of responses from fellow church members and seminary students, have been finding a noticeable lack of comprehension of the value of arts in the mission of God. They have come to realize even more deeply how crucial it is that a biblical theology of arts be taught and caught.

We will continue this journey.  Continue to come alongside. The field is indeed complex, but not hopelessly entangled.  The views of art in Christian practice may not be easily grasped, but we can remain confident that God will grant wisdom to sift through the opinions of man and to identify His mind.

  1. Boundless, Art History, Volume I: Prehistoric-1400 (Boundless, 2013), 35.  Kindle Edition.

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