A Trip to the Art Museum for a Richer Apologetic

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This article is part of a series called Art Month. We'll highlight more on the intersection of faith and art during December.

I still remember a particular apologetic encounter I had with some students in my residence hall last year. A friend had invited me to join him in answering some questions these students had about a passage in Matthew. With zealous confidence born out of my two years of Greek study, I marched into the fray, ready to field their objections with reasonable, winsome answers. Instead, as the conversation progressed, I found myself more and more frustrated by their callous and skeptical attitude. For all my bravado, my combative apologetic mindset really originated in fear. I was afraid that I would lose the argument and fail to defend the faith.

Looking back, I wonder what it would have looked like for me to approach that conversation not with a taut, defensive posture of fear but a receptive, hospitable posture of openness. What would have changed if I didn’t see those students as enemies but as partners, fellow pilgrims on a road towards restoration and redemption? And how could I have cultivated that sort of perspective in my heart?

I propose that we can use our interaction with art as a sounding board to help us navigate these questions. By picturing what it looks like to receive art as a gift, an open dialogue between artist and audience, we might be able to reconfigure our approach to apologetic conversations as well.

Visiting the Art Museum

For a moment, imagine with me a quaint, historic art museum, located in the heart of your local downtown. As you enter the lobby, the doors creak behind you, stifling the droning commotion of Wednesday afternoon city life. You mumble a polite greeting to the curator and step into the first exhibit where you’re met with an open, empty space. Crumbling alabaster walls and warm, glowing spotlights draw your attention to the first painting to your right, a simple, unassuming oil-on-canvas composition accompanied by a small nameplate.

As your footsteps squeak on the rustic hardwood floors, you slowly approach the frame. There’s no rush, no confrontation, no tense showdown; it’s just you and the art in front of you, eye-to-eye. At first, you feel that the work is a little too abstract. You can’t really tell what the artist was thinking. And yet, instead of feeling frustrated, you feel intrigued—a little curious.

Why not paint a traditional landscape? What’s up with the texture of these brushstrokes? Why did the artist choose those particular colors? Maybe you excitedly scan the description close by, eager for clues.

What would have changed if I didn’t see those students as enemies but as partners, fellow pilgrims on a road towards restoration and redemption?

As you continue to reflect in silence, the painting becomes more than just another suspended canvas. It becomes the work of a person, a treasure they’ve left for you to unfold. Perhaps you never quite reach a full understanding of the painting. You might still have questions—disagreements, even. But you leave the encounter grateful that you came.

Art requires an attitude of openness and patient generosity, an eagerness to uncover the gift hidden within the work. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” When we converse with a painting, we must be excited to hear its story, curious about its details, invested in it more than ourselves.

What would it look like to treat our conversation partners in apologetic encounters this way? What if we viewed their attention, their presence, and their time as gifts to us? What if we invested ourselves in the winding threads of their story so that we could present the gospel as it weaves through those threads and binds them together?

Overcoming Condemnation and Laboring in Conversation

Of course, the gospel will clash with the worlds of those who do not believe. There will always be points of tension. As Paul reminds us, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). We must acknowledge the tension; we must never shy away from it.

Still, there is a difference between rejecting aspects—even fundamental ones!—of a culture and tossing it out wholesale. Andy Crouch warns of the dangers of adopting a posture of condemnation towards culture:

  • Having condemnation as our posture makes it almost impossible for us to reflect the image of a God who called the creation “very good” and, even in the wake of the profound cultural breakdown that led to the Flood, promised never to utterly destroy humankind and human culture again. If we are known mostly for our ability to poke holes in every human project, we will probably not be known as people who bear the hope and mercy of God.

Instead, while we do present the counter-cultural message of the gospel, we do so from “a posture of purposeful work,” as Crouch puts it. We approach the art piece that is our skeptical friend’s life not simply to tear it apart through critique and argumentation but primarily to labor in immersive attention to their story as heralds of the grace and love of God. We enter their narrative with patient curiosity.

Why did you leave your traditional Christian family? What’s up with your interest in social justice? Why did you choose this particular city to make your home?

As you continue to converse and ask questions, your conversation partner becomes more than just another unbeliever. Instead, this person becomes a treasure: a gift given to you by God so that you both might come to know him more fully. Perhaps you might not come to a full understanding between yourselves by the end of the conversation. You might still have questions—disagreements, even. But you leave the encounter grateful that you came.

And that makes all the difference.

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Dennis Nicholson

Dennis Nicholson

Dennis Nicholson is an M.Div. student at Liberty University. He serves as a teacher’s assistant at Liberty’s University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement and the assistant editor of the journal Eleutheria. Apart from his life’s mission to read through all the works of Augustine, Dennis enjoys long conversations about mathematics and theology, late night FaceTime calls, and efficient blocks of code.

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