Results tagged “Art” from Reformation21 Blog

Dogmatic Art


As I've been reading through G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics, I was interested to happen upon his treatment of dogmatism and the arts. Reflecting on his consideration of the life and work of Rudyard Kipling, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, Chesterton wrote:

"The fiercest dogmatists can make the best artists. In the fin de siecle atmosphere every one was crying out that literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds. Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories. And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists. The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism. All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a byproduct of propaganda.

The reason, indeed, is very simple. A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it."1

The simple profundity of this observation ought not be missed. While many of us have bought into a late-modern narrative that the art world is essentially subjective, visual and feeling-driven, we should remember that--as Chesterton noted--"the fiercest dogmatists" have made the best artists. There is something deeply philosophical, ethical and thought-provoking about the most renown art. Which, if I have understood the point correctly, means that when Christians engage in the world of artistic workmanship, there ought to be a transcendent excellence to what they produce. After all, theology is nothing other than divinely inspired philosophy--enabling us to rightly interpret and portray the world and its inhabitants as God intended. 

1. G.K. Chesterton Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1905) pp. 288-289

Critiquing Art and Music


In Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer offered four necessary categories that we need to consider if we are seeking to adequately critique a work of art. He wrote:

"What kind of judgment does one apply, then, to a work of art? I believe that there are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle."1

Schaeffer employed the idea of form and content as a means of artistic understanding and critique. However, when utilized with songs, lack of musical understanding generally applies this grid insufficiently and erroneously. Too often music is thought about as if the notes are the form and the lyrics are the content. In actuality, the lyrics have form and content, the music has form and content, and the marriage of text and notes have another layer of form and content.

For example, when thinking about music for worship services, do we give due attention and diligence to both the lyrics and the music? When we consider the text, do we evaluate not only its expression of truth, but how artfully it expresses that truth? Is it possible that awkward wording, intentional misuse of grammar for rhyming purposes, a series of non-sequitur allusions, and empty syllables of "yeah," "hallelujah," and "glory" actually work against the meaning and truth of the text?

To use Schaeffer's categories, does the composition of the lyrics exhibit technical excellence? With regards to validity, not only should the content be theologically accurate, but is it internally consistent and are the scriptural allusions used correctly with the context and intent of the biblical original? Does the literary vehicle integrate with the content? For example, while not technically impossible, it is unlikely that the form and meter of a limerick is a suitable structure to discuss the doctrine of the atonement--the lightness of the form crumples beneath the weightiness of the content.

Let's turn our attention to music. When was the last time you heard someone talk about a song by saying that the lyrics were filled with biblical truth, but because of the lack of beauty, truth, or goodness in the music it ought not to be sung or used in congregational worship? It might have a place in other arenas of Church life, but Lord's Day worship is not one of them. When making musical selections, is the music critiqued for its excellence, its ability to be sung by a congregation, its goodness and truth?

This is where a degree of musical knowledge becomes important in evaluating compositions on something other than emotional reaction or popularity (either nostalgia or current trends). Using Shaeffer's standards again, does the music evidence technical excellence, validity, and intellectual content? In other words, well-crafted music has a sense of repetition and variety, melodic contour, harmonic interest, an accessible excellence, a worship aesthetic, a congregational understanding, a successful development of the inherent musical qualities of the source material.

The final piece of this puzzle is the combination of the text and the music. These elements should match in tone and form, in weight and character, in beauty and longevity. What we sing and how we sing it has a formative role in developing the affections and spiritual life of a congregation. This aspect of spiritual formation goes beyond the intellectual assent to the truthfulness of lyrics but rather holistically weaves a slow-working miracle of redemptive transformation of our heart's desires and rightly ordered loves.

1. Francis Schaeffer Art and the Bible (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 62

Truth in Minor Keys


At the risk of being labeled a musical snob, I venture a comment or two on one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year--Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975). He is to music what Alexander Solzhenitsyn is to Soviet literature. Finding early success with an internationally received symphony (No. 1) at 19, his career fell foul of accepted standards ten years later when Pravda severely criticized his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Thereby began twenty years of artistry aimed ostensibly at pacifying the communist regime and Stalin in particular, but now understood as filled with subtlety and irony. The War Symphonies"--Symphonies Four through Nine (he wrote fifteen in all) delve into the harrowing subject of Stalin's bloody purge on Russia and Shostakovich's musical counterattack. The fourth had to wait twenty-five years for it to be played fearing that its form would bring further criticism.

These symphonies, written between 1936 and 1945, are the composer's weapons against Stalin's rampant bloodletting. Shostakovich called them, his "tombstones." Of these six symphonies, the Fifth is the best known and the most easily accessible. I heard a live performance of it when I was a teenager. My physics teacher, who introduced me to the twentieth century music of Sibelius, Mahler and Shostakovich, gave me tickets to hear the Halle orchestra play in the Great Hall in Aberystwyth, Wales. The breathtaking ending of the symphony, a sustained pulsing energy rising to a climactic finish is guaranteed to excite even the near-comatose!

The Year 1905

The seventh is epic in proportion describing the siege of Leningrad. It is the eighth that is the most harrowing--the most graphic musical depiction of war that I know. Nothing can be compared to the metallic sound Shostakovich creates. My favorite Shostakovich symphony is the eleventh, describing another memorable year in Soviet history, "The Year 1905." It begins quietly and hauntingly mesmeric and ends in a blaze of mechanical intensity. In between come some of the most vividly brutal passages of music I know, music that evokes the horrors of war and death, of political regimes that bully artists into an arbitrary mold.

What makes great art is difficult to define at the best of times.

We might be forgiven after a quick reading of the New Testament to conclude that Paul was culturally grey! Paul's concern for unity and equality in Christ--the Galatians 3:28 point-of-view of there being neither Jew nor Greek...for we are all one in Christ--seems to be a cultural bulldozer, leveling all considerations of ethnic, civilizing distinctiveness so beloved by novelists, the BBC and cultural aficionados.

Paul and culture

One might think Paul was as content to eat porridge as haut cuisine. The gospel is the great leveler. It shows no interest at all in whether I'm "Essex man" or a son of Glyndwr, of whether I studied at a comprehensive in Lampeter or Eton college, or if I have an identifiable accent that is redolent of sophistication or conjures up thoughts of plebeian roots. But, as these exchanges show all too clearly, being a Christian does not erase all identity markers (English, Welsh, Laplander) any more that Paul's insistence that there is "neither male nor female" reduce us all to androgynous beings (despite a clearly discernible trend to do just that in our modern world). Vive la difference.

Paul can, however, discern what is true and honorable and lovely and excellent (Phil. 4:8) which makes one think that it is right to speak of arts and fine arts. We recognize them instinctively and put greater value (lasting value) on the poetry of Dante, Donne, Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Hopkins, Eliot, and the music of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Bruckner, or the writings of Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Defoe, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. But what we have done is singled out artists with Christian leanings one way or another and there's nothing (or so it seems to me) that suggests that good art only comes from the minds and emotions of Christians.

On the contrary Christians are capable of appallingly bad judgments and poorly expressed artistic productions. Deliver us from the tyranny that suggests "Christian" art is good, "Non-Christian" art is bad. Who knows what we mean when we apply such labels. For good or ill (and it is often more ill than good), the doctrine of common grace frees us into perceiving "the good" (the noble, the enduring) in Mozart or Debussy, John Lennon, or Eric Clapton. It always catches me off-guard when I read Kuyper's tirade against the music of Claude Debussy (in the "Lectures on Calvinism"), as though impressionism were redolent of all that is wrong with the modern world! It is easy so why someone might make that case (the lack of clarity suggesting moral uncertainty, or something of the kind). But it is breathtakingly naïve. I remember listening to a lecture/sermon once given by a renowned twentieth century preacher (now deceased) in which he argued that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was "Christian" on the basis that it contained no discord. The idea of harmony suggested gospel creation as it should be, as God intended, and elements of discord suggested sin. The nonsense of such an analysis need not detain us now, but something of the same finds its way into many a Christian discussion where arbitrary factors suggest more or less Christian ideas.

Sarcasm and grotesquery

Listening to Shostakovich's symphonies is not easy to do, wrapped as his music is in emotional baggage that can quite literally drain the life away. As one reviewer said following a series of concerts given recently in commemoration of Shostakovich's centenary in which all his symphonies were played: "he wrote works in which sarcasm and grotesquery are hard to separate from nobility and pathos, base materials difficult to tell from the sublime; and the more keenly he felt political pressure -- Stalin's dirty thumb -- the more assiduously he doubled his meanings, put in jokes and let irony engulf all. His harmonies can be absurdly pert, his rhythms merely capricious and his melodies are more like deceptive simulacrums of a tune than the thing itself. One can feel it is only the architectonic aspect of composing that for him is not debased" (Paul Driver, "Maddened in Manchester" The Sunday Times, February 19, 2006).

Not all of Shostakovich's music is good. It can occasionally sound quite banal. Nor should we think of him as a hero of the dissident movement against socialist realism. He was a loyal patriot and Presidium member during the Brezhnev era. His struggles are just as much with himself as with Stalin's oppressive regime. He writes a mea culpato Stalin in the Tenth Symphony. And he dies wearing all his State medals. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich went on to create one of his most important works - Symphony No. 13, Babi-Yar, for bass, bass chorus and orchestra. Written in 1962, this devastating critique of the Soviet system is based on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was the Khrushchev era and many had envisioned a different era had arrived rather than the Cold War which ensued.

Felix culpa!

Something essentially biblical and puritan emerges in Shostakovich: a sense of the brutality of this world. There is nothing saccharin about Shostakovich. Socialist realism was not an issue to trifle with. Life is hard and unrelentingly hostile to those whose point of view differs from the establishment. Like the puritans whose conscience forbade them the luxury of conformity, Shostakovich (while seeming to comply) wrote in irony much the same way as one imagines John did in writing the Apocalypse.

Out of the most brutal circumstance extraordinary good can emerge. Great literature, great art, great music! And therein lies a great lesson that the Bible reinforces again and again. That spiritual growth and vitality--the best things we ever do and say, emerge from the crucible of suffering and trial. The puritans knew this lesson well and often preached and wrote about it. Wrote John Geree, a seventeenth century English puritan, in his tract "The Character of an Old English Puritane or Noncomformist (1646)": "His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears. The Crosse his Banner and his word [motto] Vincit qui patitur[he who suffers conquers]."

"Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice" C. S. Lewis wrote, and Christians of the past were not afraid to be reminded of it so long as it drew to live out-and-out for God as a consequence. I've no idea where Shostakovich stood spiritually, but his music reminds me of the frailty of this life and the need to live for Christ in a brutal, fallen world.

North American Christianity anesthetizes itself with promises of ease and comfort for the faithful. Too much Christianity is concerned with personal pleasure where soothing syrup from preachers mollycoddles over-indulged Christians to expect the wrong things. Instead of preparing them for battle against the world, the flesh and evil, they are hoodwinked into the belief that pain and deprivation are the greatest obstacles to Christian vitality and growth. Nothing could be further from the truth: God tries us "in the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10).

James MacMillan, one of today's leading Scottish composers, said back in the year 2000 (at a twenty-fifth commemoration of Shostakovich's death) referred to Shostakovich as "the public atheist who provides us with a scorching vision of the human soul." Pointing to the composer's "extraordinary double vision," MacMillan outlined a music that simultaneously embraces "the lyric and the grotesque, joy and irony, hope and despair; a music which holds a mirror up to the human condition" (See, Michael Tumelty, "At last, the score is settled" in Glasgow Herald October 30, 2000). Like the music of Shostakovich, some truths can only be heard in minor keys.

*This post was originally published at Ref21 in September of 2005.

It's well known that Calvin frowned upon religious images in churches and the use of musical instruments to accompany singing in the corporate worship of God. Religious artwork in churches served, he believed, to distract worshipers from those "pictures" of Christ and his redeeming work which God himself had placed in worship (that is, baptism and the Lord's Supper) and from the sermon, which in his view should set Christ crucified before the eyes of worshipers more vividly than any painting possibly could (cf. Gal. 3.1). His distaste for musical instruments in worship stemmed from his conviction that corporate singing is essentially an act of prayer; musical instruments, he believed, could only distract worshipers from that act, drawing their thoughts away from the Person to whom they were praying to the sounds and melodies emitted by whatever instrument -- in his day, the organ -- was employed to accompany the singing.

It is sometimes assumed that Calvin's reticence regarding artwork and musical instruments in churches reflected reservation on his part regarding the arts more generally. Not so. In his chapter on religious images in the Institutes Calvin unabashedly insisted that "sculpture and painting are gifts of God." Though ill-suited to capture "God's majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes," these "gifts" undoubtedly serve "a pure and legitimate use." Calvin actually identified two discrete uses for artwork depicting "histories"/"events" and simple "images"/"forms of bodies" respectively: a didactic use ("teaching and admonition") and that quite simply of affording "pleasure" to the beholders. Significantly, he condemns neither use of art outside of worship.

Calvin's comments on the "legitimate use" of artwork in the Institutes find a parallel in remarks he makes regarding music and musical instruments in his commentary on Gen. 4.21. These remarks occur within a broader consideration of the "preeminent endowments" which God has entrusted to the unbelieving persons in Cain's lineage (Gen 4.20-23). Calvin has no doubt that persons in Seth's lineage were likewise busy in the "invention and cultivation of arts;" that Cain's descendants are specifically singled out for their artistic skills reflects God's enduring benevolence specifically to them. Calvin does, however, believe that "the heathen" have generally outstripped the church in the cultivation of "the liberal arts and sciences." Indeed, "we are... compelled to acknowledge that we have received astronomy, and the other parts of philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government, from them."

The benefits to all men of these named sciences cultivated by "the heathen," as well as more practical skills like "the art of the carpenter," are deemed fairly obvious by Calvin. But what benefit is gained by "the invention of the harp" and "similar instruments"? Musical instruments (and, by implication, the music performed on them), he suggests, "minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity."

This is no word of censure on Calvin's part. Human pleasure "is not to be thought altogether superfluous; much less does it deserve, in itself, to be condemned." But Calvin is concerned to carefully qualify his approval of an art which primarily serves the end of pleasure. He acknowledges that lawful pleasure can become "foolish delight;" that is, a kind of unconstrained and selfish pleasure which ultimately "seduces men from better employments, and occupies them in vanity." What is ultimately required, then, is that the pleasure we derive from music be "combined with fear of God."

Calvin's point is not that any pleasure we derive from music ought to be mitigated by a certain anxiety about enjoying music too much; that is not what is meant by "fear of God" in this (or any) context. Calvin's point, rather, is that we should acknowledge God's incredible benevolence, even to those who spurn him, as we find pleasure in music (and every other good gift). In other words, the pleasure which music affords should lead us to God rather than from him. "Such is the nature of music," then, "that it can be adapted to the offices of religion, and made profitable to men." When Calvin speaks of "religion" here he means not corporate worship, but the entire life of a man or woman lived in concrete relationship to the Triune God. Music can, in short, serve -- that is, enhance -- that relationship.

There are echoes here of a distinction which St. Augustine drew centuries before Calvin between the enjoyment of something as an end in itself (frui; diligere propter se) and the enjoyment of something in relation to something greater than itself (uti; diligere propter aliud). Only God, according to Augustine (and, I think, Calvin) is meant to be enjoyed in and for himself. All other realities should be enjoyed because of the relation that they sustain to him. If we seek to enjoy other realities apart from God (i.e., without any sense for how they relate to him), our affections have become disordered; we have become idolaters.

The irony of this truth is that when we seek to enjoy music or any other reality which potentially brings us pleasure in conscience relation to God, our enjoyment of that reality is heightened, not decreased. Who, after all, enjoys a diamond ring more: the man who stumbles across it on the beach with the aid of his metal detector? Or the girl who receives it from the boy who loves her as a token of his affections and intention to marry her? Obviously the latter. For the girl, the ring points to a reality -- a value -- greater than the ring itself (someone's love for her), and this increases her enjoyment of the ring (which sustains the same exact monetary value in each scenario).

So too with music or any other gift that comes from God. When we acknowledge a fine musical instrument or the songs produced on it (or them) as gifts ultimately from God, who has entrusted to all men creative abilities of remarkable proportions, the pleasure we gain from the same increases. Every beautiful song, like every breathtaking piece of art, becomes a token of divine love and generosity, pointing us towards the Creator whose creative abilities men merely image, and his astounding affection for all men, especially his adopted children (to whom even greater gifts are given).

Calvin, then, hardly turns out to be the enemy of the arts, or for that matter pleasure, he is sometimes taken for. Indeed, he provides for us a method of hearing and enjoying music, or feasting our eyes upon the visual arts, that will maximize pleasure, insofar as he provides for us a method for enjoying the arts that will not distract us from God, but draw us directly into contemplation of God's staggering generosity to us.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.