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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Christianity and high art

Warning! This is longer than a Twitter tweet!

My Sunday School quarterly for next Sunday includes the following questions: "Why do you think many Christians have no time for or interest in higher forms of artistic expression? Should they?"*

I shall not attempt to define "higher forms." Here are my answers to the first question.

1) The most obvious answer is that Christians reflect their culture. Most people in North America in the 21st century have very little interest in, say, opera, or the poetry of Keats. So it is not surprising that Christians don't, either.

a) One reason for this is that most "higher art" is from the past. We don't pay much attention to history, or fashion, or even politics or religion from the past, except to mock it. "New" is probably the most common title of advertisements. It's also probably the most common word in names of churches begun within the last fifteen years.

b) Another reason is our short attention span, often disguised as multi-tasking, and evidenced by twitter, Facebook, etc. Even motion pictures are seldom longer than about two hours. Most literature, and much music and painting from the past, requires that we pay attention to it for an extended period, in order to appreciate it.

2) We are afraid of being contaminated. Many conservative Christians are suspicious of artistic expression, unless it is specifically designed for them. They will read the "Left Behind" series, for example, but not the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize winners. They listen to, or sing, contemporary Christian music, but not the latest hits. They will see Fireproof, or Soul Surfer, but not The King's Speech. Why is this? There are several reasons. Secular literature and music may be written  or performed by atheists, pagans, adulterers, fornicators, people with drug habits, and the like. Movies, painting and sculpture may show such ways of life, or be created or performed by actors who practice such. Sinful ideas may rub off on us if we watch or listen to such things. We may become contaminated.

3) Conservative Christians are often anti-intellectual. We aren't the only ones -- see 1) above. But, again, we fear contamination. We are taught, and believe, that the Bible is more important than any other book. Thus, we tend to reject other books, even non-fiction books. We are probably less inclined to take up new ideas than our contemporaries are. Many of us educate our children at home, or in Christian schools, in part so that they are not exposed to some ideas that some Christians consider anti-Biblical. (Again, fear of contamination.) The Ten Commandments include a commandment against making "graven images" (King James language). Isn't this a prohibition against sculpture, and perhaps painting?

Here's my answer to the second question.

Yes, we should!

Why do I say so? There are three Biblical reasons. In John 17:5, Jesus said "I pray not that you would take them from the world, but that you would keep them from the evil one." (I'm quoting from the World English Bible, which is public domain.) This implies that we are to engage the world. Carefully, but we are to engage it. We aren't going to be able to minister effectively to those around us if we don't have much in common. Although the world at large is anti-intellectual, there are some people who produce, or treasure, "high art," even in 2011. It is often people who are going to be among those who have the greatest influence.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul gave a commandment. He wrote, in Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things." Much "high art" is worthy of praise, and being paid attention to. Work of the past, such as the music of Bach and Handel, specifically magnified Christ. Works that have won awards in our own day sometimes do, too, or at least they portray Biblical ideas.

God apparently likes high art -- the Bible describes the plan for the building of the tabernacle in considerable detail. It seems clear that God called craftspeople of great skill to lead this project. It is also clear that God demanded beauty in the construction of the tabernacle, and in its furnishings. An entire book -- the longest one -- in the Bible consists of nothing but poetry.

A final thought -- surely, even in the 21st century, God has equipped some Christians to participate, even be leaders, in the production and performance of the "high arts," just as He did during the Exodus, and since.

Much more could, and should, be said about these questions.

*Wesley Adult Bible Studies, 122:4, June-August 2011, "Songs of Praise for Every Generation," by Barbara Hilton, pp. 3-9. Quotation is from p. 7.

Thanks for reading!


atlibertytosay said...

I like the example of God liking high art.

I consider God the greatest painter The skies, the stars, a rainbow, sculptor (man from the dirt), and even Clinker (wooden boat builder).

I think it could be argued that a lot of "art & design" comes from God - because God IS a creator, is creative, and his creation has had this passed on through its own procreation.

On a different tangent … I think we have arrived at a time when not a whole lot hasn't been done - artistically or otherwise.

One thing I find interesting about your thesis here is:

Is nudity high art? Such as Playboy. I'd argue that it is because the human body is probably single greatest artistic, creative, and infinitely complex art EVER created. It is to be admired, studied, and critiqued.

As a man, I would posit that God made the woman's natural healthy shape as art for the man.

I'd like to add that I'm not a subscriber to Playboy or pornography, but I'm not sure Playboy IS pornography - and I see no diffrence between it and older paintings depicting nude women - they just didn't have cameras.

Martin LaBar said...

Well, I didn't define high art, and I'm not going to try to define pornography.

I don't read or see Playboy either, so I can't specifically comment on it. But it seems to me that purpose is important here. If most men of our time looked at photos or videos of nude women, they wouldn't be looking at them for their artistic value, or to magnify God's glory, but to titillate their lust. And some photographers, film-makers, and, I suppose, painters of previous eras, have produced such works with that in mind. There's also the question of whether the female models are exploited. But, yes, it's possible to look at such items with good motives. I'm not sure I can do it.

Also, it seems to me that the naked human form is not generally meant to be shared with anyone but a spouse.

Yes, God is an artist. He invented beauty, of all kinds.

As to "not a whole lot hasn't been done . . ." Perhaps. I'm no expert. But I believe some architecture, and some graphic art using computers, to cite two examples, are helping some humans to create some works that have features that were not possible in the past. And just because something has been written, or painted, or sung, doesn't mean that it's a mistake to do something that resembles it, even mimics it. There's probably no new sunset.

Thanks a lot!

FancyHorse said...

Interesting thoughts, and I hadn't really considered them before.

Regarding 1 b (short attention span), I can see that that's a possibility. I like to read some of the classics, and it does take more time and patience to read Jane Austen and Victor Hugo, for example, than Francine Rivers and Maeve Binchy. The latter are two excellent writers of our time, and in their books, the reader gets involved in the plot and interested in the characters much more quickly than in the 19th century works. In fact, I started Anna Karenina three times before I finally "got into" it and perservered to the end!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, FancyHorse.

You have demonstrated, by your experience, what I thought was true -- modern authors don't have as much time to get our attention.