Cover Story


"STEALING BEAUTY" Continued...

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

For the Greeks and other ancient pagans, art was seen as "mimetic," an imitation of the external world. Art without likenesses, though, could instead be "creative."

The kind of art favored by the ancient Hebrews-as we see in their pottery and artifacts-could be described as abstract. Intersecting lines, geometric forms, swirling colors, and interlocking shapes depicted no "likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth." It was nonrepresentational, a rendition of pure form.

Art that is nonrepresentational includes also music-universally praised in the Scriptures-and what would later develop as fiction and fantasy.

What was problematic was art that pretended to be true when it was not, art that presented itself as a sacred object, conveying a meaning that brought people away from the true God into a domesticated, pleasurable, man-made kind of spirituality that was a counterfeit for the real thing. The artfulness of art, though-the product of skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship that was for glory and beauty-was not problematic at all.

Nor was the problem in a particular work of art. One of the objets d'art cited in the Bible is the brazen serpent, an artifact made to communicate God's judgment against sin and to prophesy the cross of Jesus Christ (Numbers 21:4-9; John 12:31-32). When the children of Israel plagued by poisonous snakes looked to the brass snake lifted up by Moses, they were healed, a type of the Atonement, when Christ would be "lifted up," bearing in His body the sins of the world. Later, this great evangelistic work of art would be turned into an idol, its gospel-bearing meaning effaced by those who would superstitiously turn it into a cult object, and it would be destroyed in the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-4). The point is, the danger comes not from the art but how it is used.

But looking at art for its form and its beauty, rather than as a cult object, was made possible by the Bible. The early Christians rejected the religious content of Greek mythology and its mimetic artistic tradition, and what was left was aesthetics. According to historian Werner Jaeger, "It was the Christians who finally taught men to appraise poetry by a purely aesthetic standard-a standard which enabled them to reject most of the moral and religious teaching of the classical poets as false and ungodly, while accepting the formal elements in their work as instructive and aesthetically delightful."

The biblical heritage of the arts is, perhaps ironically, not one of preaching or moralizing, as is often thought both by the critics of Christianity and by many Christian artists. Although art can indeed preach and moralize-as with the brazen serpent-it does not have to and can become problematic when it does. Art, above all, is to be artful.

Far from mandating that all art must be religious art, the Bible tends to be suspicious of religious art. Art that is "secular" is almost safer. The Tabernacle and the Temple were adorned not with images of deities but with depictions of nature-pomegranates, palm trees, lions-not as beings to be worshipped as in the pagan temples, but as beings that have been created.

The Bible liberates art. It no longer has to be narrowly "religious," though it would be more accurate to say that ostensibly secular subject matter-portraits of individuals and families, natural landscapes, nonrepresentational abstractions-is actually religious after all, in that it all testifies to its Creator and Lord.

Creative stewardship

The conceptual framework for a biblical view of the arts and aesthetics is the doctrine of creation. God created the universe ex nihilo. He did not imitate preexisting ideal forms, as in the classical tradition, nor did He rearrange existing matter, as in the pagan creation myths. Rather, He created everything that exists. God, therefore, is the ultimate artist. The universe is God's work of art.

Not only the physical creation but its underlying laws and properties-including the aesthetic dimension of life and the human ability to perceive it-are the work of the Creator.

Human beings were created in His image, which means, among other things, that we too are creative. Adam was given dominion over what God had made, which includes the obligation to work in and with the created order. He was given the capacity to "name" what God has created (Genesis 2:19). Although the Fall ruined and corrupted human nature, traces of this creative stewardship remain. We make our living, according to the old theologians, by the interaction of "art" and "nature," applying the human "art" of farming to the natural order and thereby growing our bread. Every creative human activity, from shoemaking to medicine, is an "art" by which human beings make their living and serve one another in vocation.


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