Why does it matter? Who cares if the artistic efforts of Christians are stripped down to the basest levels and marketed to the lowest common denominator? I think God cares. Therefore, it matters. I think that our culture not only needs us to rise above a watered down approach to art – but demands that we do.
If a society is defined by the art it produces, what does the current state of modern sacred art say about us? If we worship the maker of heaven and earth – the God who is the most creative being ever – why are we not living creatively? Why are we not producing masterpieces that reflect the depth, magnitude and originality of the God who we believe formed us from the dust of the ground? Why do we insist on making art that is lifeless when we believe our God is the source of life?
True artistry matters. Art can teach, it can heal emotional wounds, it can build unity, and it can inspire new ideas. When it is entwined in the divine it pushes us beyond ourselves, it points us to our Creator, and it shines light in the darkest places.
I don’t know who Paul Martin is. Googling his name yielded several possibilities, but I don’t know if any of those search results pointed to the Paul Martin I was looking for. I mention this ambiguity for one reason. It doesn’t really matter who he is, his words are true. Truth is important, regardless of its source. He said, “The possibility of depicting creation knowing God is dwelling in it: this is so incredible that it ought to change the world. If the most holy person in the world could depict the most concentrated, redeemed image, not only would sin be suspended but people would be moved to see the truth of their human condition and perceive God. All the artist can do is strive for that ideal.”
That is what we should be doing. We ought to be striving for the ideal that our art could suspend sin, that it would point people to truth, and our audience would recognize their humanity and see God. As Corrie Haluga at Relevant wrote in a recent column, “A new anthem can break speed limits. An interesting article can change a lifestyle. And sharing those moments can form a connection with friends, family and humanity in general.”
We must believe that art can change the world. And that should be the reason for it all.
I want to see more Christian artists take a stand like Kemper Crabb, artists who just prefer to be who they are. I want to see more Christian artists like Matt Wignall, artists who are brave enough to defy popular trends. I want to see more Christian artists like Michael Gungor, artists who take their art seriously. I want to see artists like Bezalel and Oholiab, artists with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, skill, and the ability to teach.
Of course, there should be limits. There should be a boundary within which we can work – a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Thankfully, I don’t have to invent these contours. I don’t have to dispense this as advice of my own invention. They have existed for a very long time. These rules do more than govern the Christian life; they are a blueprint for the Christian artist.
1. “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” (Psalm 33:3 NIV)
2. “Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful.” (Jeremiah 31:4 NIV)
3. “The answer is, if you eat or drink, or if you do anything, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31 NCV)
4. “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” (Colossians 3:17 NASB)
5. “Let the teaching of Christ live in you richly. Use all wisdom to teach and instruct each other by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16 NCV)
6. “Speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord. Always give thanks to God the Father for everything.” (Ephesians 5:19-20 NCV)
7. “(He) was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it.” (1 Chronicles 15:22 NIV)
This should be our guide. That we engage in something new with skill and joy. We do all things for the glory of God. We give thanks. Music is essential in teaching and instruction. Art demands the use of wisdom. It is our responsibility to utilize our talents.
You will note that none of those verses require a checklist of catchphrases that must be used. There is no edict to use Christianese. There is no demand that Jesus’ name should be used a certain number of times as if our art is nothing more than a tool to reach an oddly specific quota.
Yes, there is the verse that instructs us to “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It’s tempting to want to read our own edit as if it says “do all with name of the Lord Jesus.” We feel like every song we write must be about Him. We feel like every fictional story must end with the hero either becoming a Christian, or leading a new believer to Christ. We feel like every dance must be an interpretation of the gospel story. Every photo that’s taken, every picture that’s painted, every story that’s told.
That’s not what the Bible says. We’re commanded to work in God’s name, not with His name. If I wrote a love song for my wife, I can do it in God’s name without ever mentioning God. In fact, that is the essence of the Song of Songs. It is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t directly reference God. It is a sensual poem of romance, love, intimacy, and adoration of the female form. In fact the book is so steamy that some Jewish rabbis have suggested that people under a certain age shouldn’t read it. There’s nothing overtly religious about it. But there isn’t anything sacrilegious about it either. The most common interpretation (aside from the literal account from courtship to consummation) is an allegorical depiction of God’s love for his people. No matter how you view Song of Songs, it demonstrates how religious art can glorify God without using His name.
Personally, I prefer the literal interpretation.