How can Chinese Christians artists use their gifts to benefit the life of the church? In the following article, Li Jin and Mary Ma discuss common misconceptions about art among Chinese Christians and why art deserves more attention from the church.
How Should Christians View Art?
Art is an integral part of human life. Art conveys our desire for beauty as well as our understanding of the world. But at the same time, within the field of art there exist many cultural aspects of falsehood, ugliness, and wickedness. Sometimes those are contrary to the Bible’s teaching. This has caused many Christians and churches to instinctively reject and deny art.
How then should we view art? How should we understand the tension between and integration of art and the Christian faith?
Many Christians view art in this way: art is fine as a hobby but, if it is held as a profession, it may cause people to become overly invested in art, and they may even fall into a state of idol worship. Even drawings which contain religious symbols may over emphasize the visual effects and sensual understanding, and so are suspected of leading people to idol worship. In addition, art communities must function according to the rules of their profession (seeking endorsements, marketing, etc.), which may be understood to be “secular” ways of doing things. When Christian artists sell their art in “secular” galleries, though the art contains religious symbols, some Christians accuse them of over-simplifying the gospel message.
In short, when many Christians decide what is good art, they apply their own arbitrary theological standards to degrade or even neglect the value of art.
When Christians evaluate art, they often use a utilitarian perspective. For music that can be used in Sunday worship and gatherings, especially classical music and organ performance, some Christians will admire and affirm such art, thinking that this use of art is serving God. But as for art that is rarely or never used in church, such as drawing or photography, Christians often neglect them, or even look on them with contempt. Sometimes even artists who offer much to the church eventually become marginalized in terms of theological and religious recognition.
For those artists who are serious about their faith, this is a difficult, sorrowful experience, which also may affect their investment in artistic expression. Inadvertently, these artists are labeled as secular and impious. Over time, the break between profession and theology causes them to lose their passion for observation and creating.
Even more regrettably, our popular, evangelical theology has not thought deeply about this issue, so it is difficult for the church to pastor such a specially gifted community. This is a loss to the church.
Some deeper questions include: Within the Protestant faith that greatly emphasizes the message through text and preaching, how can artists use colors and other materials to consider and express theological questions of faith and spiritual experience? How can theological reflection help artistic creation go deeper?
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
From a historical perspective, art and the church have always been in some form of tension. This was especially seen in the theological debates about the use of icons in the historic church. In the Protestant tradition following the Reformation, reformers were particularly against the tendency to overuse art and idol worship in the medieval church, and so they deliberately removed the artistic elements of church worship (including visual arts and music).
Following this, the message preached from the pulpit became the center of worship, and text and music became the appropriate fields in which the Protestant faith expressed its creativity, while the visual arts were marginalized.
In reality, if we respect the different traditions of the universal church, we will discover that in the worship of many churches, art is not marginalized (such as the Eastern Orthodox church and the modern charismatic movement). This forces us to reflect and consider, is the neglect of visual arts since the Reformation grounded in the Bible, or merely a response to the problems of the times? If it is the latter, and we are now in a different era, how do we mend the gulf between art and faith?
Even though in the history of the church, icons and the visual arts have been understood to violate the second commandment (Exodus 20:4, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image”), is this commandment for the purpose of separating God from idols, or for separating God from drawings and sculpture? In the history of the church, this has been a controversial question.
It should also be recognized that this ban on carving idols was not an absolute command because, after handing down the Ten Commandments, when giving the law on worship, God ordered that carvings of cherubim be placed in the Tabernacle. Exodus 31:1-11 specifically mentions two designers, Bezalel and Oholiab, artists who helped build the [tabernacle]. This is the first time in the Bible that artists, or craftsmen, are mentioned. It even says that their skillful craft was a special gift from God for the purpose of establishing order in worship.
The Bible (especially the Old Testament) often uses visuals to describe God’s glory. Exodus 24:10, for example, records, “And they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” In the Old Testament, images of God’s glory appear in some of the central themes: creation, the Exodus, the temple, the day of the Lord. In the four Gospels, the key events of Jesus’ teachings and miracles (such as his baptism in the Jordan, the transfiguration, the crucifixion) are filled with various visual symbols and scenes. The final book of the Bible, Revelation, can be said to be a final collection of biblical symbolic imagery, brought together to create a narrative. These passages of Scripture require that the reader have some visual imagination. From this we conclude that the Bible in no way degrades or prohibits visual arts.
There is rich symbolism within the Bible, and this reflects a holistic worldview. Symbols function as a door to a deeper dimension of life. From this perspective, all great art is symbolic, since it opens the window to a transcendental dimension of life, and through this aesthetic experience, it calls for a response, especially when the images contain the mystery of God’s word. This defines the purpose of the Christian artist’s work.
Atoning Sacrifice of Blood by Mainland Christian artist Daozi.
Rupture and Unification
The lives of modern people have been ruptured into several aspects, including economy, politics, culture, religion, etc. Each subculture has its own symbols and rules of speech. But the Bible sees life as a whole. That is, ethics, business, and aesthetics are all woven together. No aspects can be severed from the plan the Creator has for humanity. When God created the world, He blessed humans with a desire and taste for the good and the beautiful. Our artistic pursuits reflect God’s image. Just as [Abraham] Kuyper said when discussing art and religion, there is no art in this world independent of religion, and every kind of art reflects some longing for religion. He said:
If it is to be asked how there can arise a unity of conception embracing [the domains of intellectual, ethical, religious, and aesthetic lives], it constantly appears that in the finite this unity is only found at the point where it springs from the foundation of the Infinite. There is no unity in your thinking save by a well-ordered philosophical system, and there is no system of philosophy which does not ascend to the issues of the Infinite. In the same way there is no unity in your moral existence save by the union of your inner existence with the moral world-order, and there is no moral world-order conceivable but for the impression of an Infinite power that has ordained order in this moral world.
Thus, he continues, “Thus also no unity in the revelation of art is conceivable, except by the art-inspiration of an Eternal Beautiful, which flows from the fountain of the Infinite. Hence no characteristic all-embracing art-style can arise except as a consequence of the peculiar impulse from the Infinite that operates in our inmost being.”
It is foolish to think that a secular, holistic artistic representation can stand independently of religious faith, because only religious faith—not reason, ethics, or art—has the right in our consciousness to communicate with the Eternal One.
In this age, saturated with postmodern and post-postmodern cultural symbols, if the church cannot pastor a community of artists with the gospel, then we lose a great opportunity for the gospel to dialogue with the culture. When the church treats artists with a holy/secular divide, it is the same as withdrawing the Christian soldiers from this cultural sphere, handing over this battlefield to secular forces. This results in the following generation of the church living in an environment enveloped by secular influences. They are attracted by the various forms of art they see on TV, in movies, and on the internet. But they have no theological thinking to help them discern and resist.
So, as a holistic local church, what form and hue should our worship before God take? If there are Christian artists among us, does God not call them to use their gifts as worship for God? What they express by colors and other materials, and what we express by words and song, are the same on a certain level, because art is their language.
The Breadth of the Gospel Mission
The gospel requires that we have a certain theological imagination. It is not flat. It should cause us to realize that humanity is very complex: not only is the corruption after the fall comprehensive, but our need for God is also complex and multi-faceted. What humans see, think, and express, all needs to be renewed by God’s gospel. Therefore, the gospel is also complex, and not flat. The gospel is not only related to the narrow sense of theology and mission, but it has the power to renew our calling in all areas, because God wants his Son to be king over all areas. Just as Kuyper says, there is no domain in the whole world over which Christ does not cry, “Mine!” Domain here can also refer to the various levels in culture. Because without him, nothing was made that has been made; there is nothing that is outside his complete authority.
Our understanding of and faith in the gospel allows us to diligently witness in today’s “culture wars,” instead of withdrawing behind the divide of divine and secular. When the gospel is defined as related to preaching the holy message and mission work, then all other areas are secularized. This reflects a ruptured worldview that awaits unification. The cross is indeed the center of the gospel, but the gospel does not stop there. The gospel is a complete plan of God that spans the entire human history of creation fall, redemption, and restoration, accomplished through Christ and by [the work of the] Holy Spirit. Most importantly, the revelation (including both general revelation and special revelation) of the Triune God is able to complete and fulfill all aspects of human desires. [Herman] Bavinck said that if God was not triune, than creation would not have been possible. For the church influenced by “Christ only” theology, we need to consider more deeply the relationship between the theology of Trinity and this world—how is it expressed through the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration? Often, when we mention “creation,” we attribute it to the First Person. But the theology of a trinity provides us with a toolbox of concepts with which to understand God’s attributes and work.
Of course we must acknowledge that the field of creative art is like any other field, full of the various temptations of “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). But is not this perversion and corruption in cultural phenomenon a unique opportunity for Christians to witness the gospel and train the spiritual man? The world is God’s field of grain, and only he is the Lord that prepares souls for harvest. All things unfold according to his plan, for his glory, and for the hope of his chosen people. In the broad sense, it is the same with art, as well as with other work,—it too prepares for this great harvest.
Li Jin, currently a PhD student at Calvin Seminary. Before 2012 he was a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and he achieved a Masters of Divinity at Calvin Seminary in 2015.
Ma Li, currently a researcher at Henry Institute at Calvin College. In 2003 she achieved a Masters in Sociology of Education at Oxford University. In 2010 she achieved a PhD of sociology at Cornell University. In 2016, she achieved a Masters at Calvin Seminary.
As husband and wife, Li Jin and Ma Li are translators in sociology and theology. Their works include Natural Justice, Tocqueville's Political Economy, Letters to a Young Calvinist, The Intolerance of Tolerance, Think: the Life of Mind and the Love of God, Generous Justice. They are both researchers and authors.
Their Chinese and English academic articles have been published in ChinaSource Quarterly, collected in Christianity in Chinese Public Life (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) and Fieldwork and Beyond: Social Scientific Studies of Religion in Chinese Societies, as well as published in public media such as Caijing, Duan, and Mingpao.
Original Article: 基督徒如何看待艺术？
Header image credit: Public Domain
Text images credits:
1. Rembrandt – 5QFIEhic3owZ-A at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, Link
2. See original article 基督徒如何看待艺术？
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