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Art: God’s Visible Sermon to the World

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In order that the many-colored wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and the cosmic powers in the heavenly places through the church.
— Ephesians 3:10[1]

Introduction

Throughout much of its history, the church has embraced the arts and shared the gospel story through words, music and images. From the brightly colored mosaics and frescos adorning the floors, walls and ceilings of early churches and catacombs, to its luxuriously illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows, the church once highly valued art and artists. Then, something changed. Religious artistry came under dispute due to the idolatrous abuse and shifting medieval interpretations of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8).[2] Skeptics began removing and destroying art that they felt violated the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue).[3] While these leaders were fighting against the sin of idolatry and were not opposed to the idea of art per se, the lines became blurred, and an imbalanced suspicion toward art in Christendom emerged.

But who hasn’t—in book or in person—admired the beauty of Michelangelo’s David, or been deeply moved by The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or pondered the weighty drama within daVinci’s The Last Supper? Is creating and enjoying such art sinful? Baldly stated, “No!” It is the idolatrous worship of images and icons that Scripture prohibits (e.g., Exodus 32:8; Isaiah 44:17), not the creation and enjoyment of the art.[4] Yet, over the centuries, the term “art” has been misunderstood and grossly neglected in Christ’s church.

In this brief essay, I explain the inclusive nature of the term “art” and argue that God, the divine Artist, created humanity as his co-creators to bring him glory through worshiping him with our entire being—including our imagination and creativity. In doing so, Christians become culture changers—loving, serving and caring for their neighbors’ souls. Thus, art becomes a visible sermon to the world through the conduit of Christ’s church.

Toward an Understanding of “Art”

Aristotle described “art” as technē: that is askill or craft that can be used for good or evil.[5] In Acts 18:3, Paul and Silas were able to support their ministry and others through their “art” of tentmaking. In this sense, the term “art” is not limited to the fine arts, but it also includes any skill or craft that can be used to glorify God by serving him and others. However, the fine arts are also important. In Revelation 18:22,  the absence of music and the visual arts is equated with dystopian judgment. In nuce, arts that glorify God are intentional, generative acts of love that instill flourishing for our neighbors, and, ultimately, glory to God (Isaiah 61:2–3).[6].

Arts that glorify God are intentional, generative acts of love that instill flourishing for our neighbors, and, ultimately, glory to God.

God as Divine Artist

Apathy toward the arts is so unlike the Creator God, who is the divine Artist. God created the heavens and the earth with purpose, complexity, diversity and beauty (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Imagine if God had created a dystopian, monochromatic world where everything was gray—no sun—and always raining. Yet, Jesus explains God’s intentionally beautiful artistry, “Observe the lilies; how do they grow? They neither toil nor spin; but I tell you all, not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these” (Luke 12:27). Moreover, the beauty of God’s creation declares his glory, and shows his loving, grace-filled, generative activity in this fallen world (Psalm 19:1). God’s artistic nature is evidence of his grace to his creation.

Humanity as God’s Co-Creators

We also witness God’s creative genius in the creation of humanity as his image-bearers and co-creators (Genesis 1:26–28).[7] God often infuses mankind with his Spirit to perform certain tasks of artistry, beauty and craftsmanship to promote his glory (e.g., Exodus 31:1–11; 35:30–36). Not only did God give Moses the Decalogue on Sinai, but commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle, which would include almost every form of representational art that humanity had ever known.[8] However, the arts are not just visual, but oral and aural as well—music and singing are an integral part of worship that glorifies God, as the Psalter and other books of the Bible indicate (e.g., Revelation 5:8–14; 15:2–4).

We are to worship God inwardly and outwardly—using our imagination and creativity.

Art as God’s Visible Sermon to the World

In citing Deuteronomy 6:5 and Isaiah 29:13, Jesus explains that humanity is to love and worship God with their entire being—not just their lips (Matthew 15:8; 22:37). We are to worship God inwardly and outwardly—using our imagination and creativity (2 Corinthians 10:3–5; Philippians 4:8). This is a totus corporis (“whole body”) approach to love and worship. Jesus then adds a second command—citing the “law of the neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18)—“[Y]ou shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Love, in this case, is a verb—a generative action.

Generative acts of love are beautiful, visible sermons to a watching world. Such acts break down barriers to the gospel. However, the stresses of life often prohibit our ability to love and serve our neighbors well. Consequently, hope often becomes lost in this fallen world. In his book, Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura explains that food and shelter are not enough for human flourishing; we must also feed our souls and the souls of others.[9] While we may love God supremely, we must confess and repent if we are not loving and caring for our neighbors’ souls.

How Can the Church Recover Art in Its Mission?

Thankfully, there has been a revival in cultural engagement and the arts amongst Evangelicals over the past three decades.[10] As God’s image-bearers, we are all artists in some sense—using our gifts as pastors, teachers, professionals, laborers, parents and students to invest in the lives of those around us.[11] Just as a child brings home their latest crayon “masterpiece” to be proudly displayed on the refrigerator, our imaginitive activity can reveal glory and produce worship to God. But how can Christians use their creativity to instill flourishing to those outside the church? Here are four ideas:

  • Evaluate your skillsets.
  • Learn your neighbors’ needs.
  • Find opportunities to serve your neighbors in realistic, yet meaningful ways.
  • Invite others to join you.

By intentionally serving our neighbors with our various arts, the church cosmically displays God’s many-colored wisdom in a visible sermon of love (Ephesians 3:10).

Gregory E. Lamb is a part of the Center for Faith and Culture’s mentorship program. This year’s theme is faith and the arts.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are author’s original translations from Barbara Aland, et al., eds., Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

[2] The Hebrew terms used in Exod 20:4/Deut 5:8 are “idol” (pesel/פֶּסֶל) and “likeness” (tĕmûnāh/תְּמוּנָה) these terms are translated in the Greek Old Testament as eidōlon/εἴδωλον and homoiōma/ὁμοίωμα respectively.

[3] See Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 11.

[4] Jerram Barrs, Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 46.

[5] H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, “τέχνη,” in LSJ, 1785.

[6] Fujimura, Culture Care, 23–24.

[7] Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 13.

[8] Francis A Schaeffer, Art and the Bible: Two Essays (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 20.

[9] Fujimura, Culture Care, 15–16.

[10] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 14–15.

[11] Fujimura, Culture Care, 12.

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Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory Lamb is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in Biblical Studies (NT) at Southeastern Seminary, where he teaches NT Greek as an adjunct professor, and the pastor of Mays Chapel Baptist Church (founded 1802) of the historic Sandy Creek Baptist Association. He is a regular presenter at academic conferences and has published articles on fatherlessness, wealth and poverty, disability studies/physiognomics, and the technical study of NT Greek. Gregory and his wife, Tamara, live in Sanford, NC where Tamara is a STEM teacher for one of the local public middle schools. They have five children aged 21 to 8 (Austin, Brennan, Caitlyn, David, and Elijah).

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