When my wife and I were choosing the music for when she would walk down the aisle at our wedding, we decided to use a portion of the main theme composed by Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For us, the music captured—in ways that words could not—what we felt were themes of hope, beauty, creation, and joy. These were themes we wanted to celebrate through our wedding service. To this day, much to the amusement of my wife, I still get emotional when I hear the music.
God’s desire for us is not only that we would simply know the truth of the gospel intellectually but that we would also experience the beauty of the gospel intimately. Art has the power to draw our hearts and minds into this intimate experience in more ways than mere words. Songs, music, paintings, books, sculptures, movies, photography and the like, can make this intimate experience a reality. Good art ensures we experience the gospel without minimising our understanding of the gospel.
Art and the Story of the Bible
Knowing the place of art in the story of the Bible can help us see how art draws us closer to the heart of God, the great artist. The Bible begins with a beautiful display of artistry. God, in an act of wonderful creativity, imagines and brings forth all creation. The first chapter of Genesis tells us God speaks into existence everything from the galaxies and planets in the heavens, to the plants and creatures on the earth, to the sunrises and sunsets that captivate us daily.
As the apostle Paul tells us, “ For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
In a surprising twist, by making humans in God’s image and very likeness (Gen. 1:26), the great artist gives humans the same gift of creativity (Gen. 1:26). Moreover, God commands and invites humans to not only enjoy the beauty of Eden for themselves but to “go forth” and “fill the earth” with that beauty (Gen. 1:28).
God’s desire for us is not only that we would simply know the truth of the gospel intellectually but that we would also experience the beauty of the gospel intimately.
Unfortunately humans reject this incredible gift and rebel against God. In their self-centered desire, they make God’s “good and pleasing” creation all about themselves (Gen. 3:6). As a result, humans begin using the God-given gift of creativity to worship and satisfy themselves. This problem of self-worship continues even today. Either humans “use” art to further their own agenda, or they “worship” art as an end in itself—forgetting that art is meant to draw us closer to our Creator.
There is good news, however, for the art lovers of the world. Jesus, “for whom and through whom all things have been created” (Col. 1:16), steps in to reverse the effects of human rebellion and restore the work of the great artist. Through Jesus, God was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
“All things” including art are being reconciled to God. In simple words, in Christ, artwork that glorifies God and draws humans closer to God can yet be redeemed.
Ultimately, we can rest assured art and culture will have a place in new creation. As Randy Alcorn aptly puts in his book, Heaven, “Revelation 21:24-26 gives us biblical basis to suppose that the best culture, history, art, music, and the languages of the old Earth will be redeemed, purified, and carried over to the New Earth.”
Even today great art and stories can challenge our idolatry and re-orient our affections to the things that truly matter. Great art and stories can help us acknowledge our broken state and our need for hope, love, and redemption. Ultimately, great art and great stories can remind us of our place in God’s great redemption story. They can help us remember that even when it feels like darkness has the upper hand, there are powerful forces of good at work in our world and they will always have the final word.
“Secular” Art and Common Grace
Of course, knowing the place of art in the Bible story raises the question, “Which art best glorifies God?” Can only art that explicitly mentions or shows Jesus or uses the word gospel be considered good art? What about “secular” art—popular music, blockbuster movies, or contemporary paintings? This is a complex question and there is no easy answer. There is no doubt some forms of human art obscenely glorify violence, sexuality, and crudeness. We must be discerning and wise about how we engage with art.
Either humans “use” art to further their own agenda, or they “worship” art as an end in itself—forgetting that art is meant to draw us closer to our Creator.
The reflections of Dutch theologian and Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper can be incredibly helpful. In his Lectures on Calvinism, he references the fact that the first musicians are actually descendants of the murderer, Cain (Gen. 4:21). Kuyper says, “…God also imparts artistic gifts to whom He will, first even to Cain’s, and not to Abel’s posterity, not as if art was Cainitic [sinful], but in order that he who has sinned away the highest gifts should at least, in the lesser gifts of art have some testimony of the divine bounty”.
Simply put, God gives the gift of art to all humans—whatever pathway of life that person might choose—so that through art all people might perhaps have a chance to experience the beauty and presence of God. Of course, we must be wise and thoughtful, but we must not forget that good art produced by anyone can have value in helping us learn about God and his attributes.
An Invitation to Enjoy Beauty
To best discern and experience God’s presence in art, it is helpful to have a method to use. Even the most trained listeners and readers find it hard to listen for, or to look for God’s presence in a work of art. Here are some questions we can have in the back of our minds as we engage with a song, movie, book, painting, or any work of art.
What can this work of art show me about the truth, goodness, and beauty of God?
What might this work of art reveal about the brokenness and fallenness of humankind?
How might this work of art be pointing to Jesus and the fulfilment Jesus brings?
Why might it be important for followers of Jesus to engage with this work of art?
I have used these questions in engaging with all kinds of art—paintings, movies, music, songs—produced by people from all kinds of backgrounds. While it is not always easy to answer the questions, they have helped me experience the beauty and presence of God through the unlikeliest works of art.
As Kuyper beautifully says, “the world of sounds, the world of forms, the world of colours, and the world of poetry can have no other source than God.”
As we enjoy good art, may God give us eyes and ears to experience the gospel and to experience more fully the beauty, intimacy, and creativity of the great artist, God our Creator.