Art For God's Sake
I have quite a collection of books on the arts from a Christian perspective, but I was so eager for Dr. Ryken's new book, that I have had it on backorder since last December. The subtitle of the book is A Call to Recover the Arts. In some ways it is frustrating that a book like this is necessary since the Church still does not seem to know what to do with the arts. The continuum in evangelical circles is everything from ignoring the arts to giving them full and inappropriate expression. Ryken calls for a balanced, biblical approach in order to encourage artists and to stimulate the Church to consider the arts in a right manner. He does an excellent job of providing a biblical foundation and introducing the various areas where the Church needs to wrestle with ideas while validating artists.
Ryken defines the role of the best art as a means to "satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God has made for his glory" (Ryken 8). As such, he challenges the Church to consider the importance of art as a reflection of the character of God. "The question becomes, therefore, not whether as Christians we will aspire to high aesthetic standards. All too often we settle for something that is functional, but not beautiful. We gravitate toward what is familiar, popular, or commercial, with little regard for the enduring values of artistic excellence...Ultimately this kind of art dishonors God because it is not in keeping with the truth and beauty of his character" (14). He makes the point that artistic choices are inexplicably part of life--from the color we paint walls, to the way we design churches or structure worship services. The issue becomes the underlying rationale and purpose for those decisions. Is it biblical or secular or just ignorance?
The passage in the book cited from Exodus 31 outlines God's call on the lives of Bezalel and Oholiab, the craftsmen of the tabernacle, and provides a great foundation for discussing the attributes of Godly art and artists. God gifted these men with skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship. In addition to Ryken's discussion is the additional gift of the ability to teach. The significance of this attribute lies in its intergenerational approach of passing on the artistic craft. A good teacher desires for his students to surpass him in ability and knowledge. Equipping the subsequent generations with all of the accumulated wisdom of their craft removes any ego from the creative process. If the true desire is for God's glory and not your own, then passing the "secrets of the trade" becomes an essential legacy. Too many artists struggle for a secular concept of originality, instead of biblical craftsmanship, and desire to keep their methods a secret.
Ryken also affirms God's pleasure in a wide variety of art and art forms. The consistent element is the reliance on a biblical standard and the application of these objective, absolute standards of beauty, truth, and goodness. He adeptly points out that an over-reliance on any of these three creates warped art. Art that is primarily pretty fails to deal with the reality of the truth of the world. Art that seeks to show the world in its sin fails to consider God's goodness. Untempered goodness denies the fallen state of life. True beauty, truth, and goodness reflect the nature and character of God and the reality of a fallen world but also the great hope of the redemptive, transforming gospel. Biblically grounded art has the power to depict this ultimate reality.
Ryken writes, "God wants all of the arts to flourish in all the fullness of their artistic potential, so that we may discover the inherent possibilities of creation and thereby come to a deeper knowledge of our Creator" (35). Implied in this statement in the concept of the arts fulfilling the creation mandate to subdue the earth and take dominion. Subduing the earth means more than planting gardens. Through the arts, we take dominion over sound, movement, language and words, color, time, and space. What else is music and dance, poetry and painting, drama and sculpture but exercising control over the natural world that has been left in our care? Being an artist is a serious business.
One unfortunate omission is a more clear definition of "art for art's sake." Ryken leaves the impression that this is a universally positive concept that upholds the notion that beauty does not have to be pragmatic. While that fact is true, a more full explanation of the term in its modernist context includes the secular desire for the artistic freedom to throw off any sort of meaning, moral, or message in art. As philosophy incarnate, art necessarily carries a moral component; however, as Christ made clear, beauty is an appropriate end unto itself as long as it is true beauty.
Overall, this is a great primer and discussion starter. Highly readable and understandable for laymen, this will be a useful tool to start people to think about the arts from a more Christian perspective. Because the book is only about sixty pages in length, it should have a greater appeal for non-artists who might not consider a longer work on the arts. However, the general unfamiliarity of thinking about the arts from a truly biblical perspective should promote conversation and wrestling with these ideas. One of Ryken's goals is to provide a book that artists could give their non-artist friends to help them start to think biblically about the arts. In this he succeeds greatly. The included Further Reading Sections provides a great basis for continuing the discussion.
The importance of this work and others like it cannot be understated. We take the arts for granted only at our spiritual peril. In Ryken's words, "when we settle for trivial expressions of the truth in worship and art, we ourselves are diminished, as we suffer a loss of transcendence" (14-15).
Philip Ryken - Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006
Review by Greg Wilbur, Coordinator of Fine Arts and Choir, Christ Community Church.