There was a time when great Christian art was not an anomaly. Think of the magnificent frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, the sculpted perfection of the David statue, the soaring grandeur of Handel’s Messiah, and the literary achievements of Dante, Milton, and Bunyan. Even in the modern medium of film, recall the Academy Award-winning Ten Commandments (1956) and Chariots of Fire (1981).
Those are examples of when Christian art was second-to-none, innovative and peerless – leading the artistic charge. My, how the times have changed. These days, a common refrain from believers whenever a new faith-based film is released is “they keep getting better with each movie,” which is at best a backhanded compliment. Christian fiction (bonnets required?) is relegated to a niche shelf in the back of your local bookstore. Mainstream Christian music is still catching up to trends that secular music mastered two decades ago.
Here are three reasons why Christian art is important:
In the words of Michael Heiser (2015), we are God’s human “imagers.” We are called to represent God and participate in fulfilling his vision and will on Earth. God is the ultimate creator; he is the greatest artist and author; can anything man-made rival Giant’s Causeway, the Aurora Borealis, the feathers of a peacock? When we humans exercise our uniquely God-given artistic potential and make something new, we are sharing in an ex nihilo-lite act of creation that reflects the image of God within us.
I love the accounts of Bezalel and Oholiab in the book of Exodus:
“Now Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones to fill in, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. And behold, I myself have given with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all who are wise of heart I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded you.” (Exodus 31)
“Then Moses said to the sons of Israel, “See, Yahweh has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And he has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge and in all craftsmanship; to devise designs for working in gold and in silver and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings and in the carving of wood, so as to perform in every inventive work. He also has put in his heart to teach, both he and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with wisdom of heart to perform every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroiderer, in blue and in purple and in scarlet material, and in fine linen, and of a weaver, as performers of every work and makers of designs.” (Exodus 35)
“Now Bezalel and Oholiab, and every man wise of heart in whose heart Yahweh has put wisdom and understanding to know how to perform all the work of the service of the construction of the sanctuary, shall perform in accordance with all that Yahweh has commanded. Then Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every man wise of heart in whom Yahweh had put wisdom, everyone whose heart stirred him, to come to the work to perform it.” (Exodus 36)
God had specifically gifted these men with artistic ability, and was now calling on them to use those talents for his glory and greater purpose. To borrow the words of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, “… God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
A third reason why Christian art must not be neglected is the evangelistic testimony it can provide. Timothy C. Tennent (2009) writes in Theology in the Context of World Christianity that even elements of non-Christian art can be co-opted as a preparatio evangelica, something that prepares the heart to receive the gospel and an opportunity for us to build bridges to non-believers. A classic example of this is Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, when he quotes a pagan poet but immediately uses that illustration to point his hearers to Jesus Christ (see: Acts 17:28).
In our postmodern Western society, the strengthening of explicitly Christian art has never been more important. Will McRaney (2003) says it this way, “Postmodernism has its roots in artwork. Art has increased in value and use in postmodern culture. One way to sum up the modern mind-set is that it is an attempt to know empirically and rationally, to control and engineer reality. This is the work of the scientist. Another way to sum up the postmodern mind-set is that it is an insightful attempt to perceive, imagine, and create reality. This is the work of the artist. Evangelism of the future will look more like an art form than a science formula.”