In season 3 episode 4 of the Eudo Podcast, Dr. Paul M. Gould explores the purpose of art. What is it for? How can Christians use art? How does art uniquely point to God? Listen to find out.
Art can and does point to the divine. God can use art to witness to reality, including the divine reality. We don’t want to fall into the habit of merely “using” or “making” art only for evangelism. To do so is to commodify art, to fall into propaganda, and its likely that we’ll fail in both making good art and in doing evangelism well.
All of life is art; God is the supreme artist and the gospel story is the true story of the world. When we make art in the derivative mode, we are imaging the divine artist—and that will be a powerful witness for Christ. But we don’t want to reduce art to propaganda—it is valuable both in itself and for what it brings.
How Does Art Uniquely Point to God?
- Art has Disclosive power. Art grants us epistemic access to realities beyond what can be captured in language and so art enlarges and enriches our perception of those realities. Metaphors and stories help us understand, at the level of our imagination what the Christian story means. This is the disclosive power of art.
- Art is Irreducible. Art cannot be “translated” into nonartistic terms without a loss of revelatory power. When someone, for example asked a composer what his piece meant, he simply played his piece again. The meaning of a piece of art is giving in the engagement with it—the hearing of a son, the witnessing of a play, etc., and so cannot be neatly distilled from it. The point for our purposes now is this: you can’t reduce the magic of a performance like stomp to its non-descript and mundane parts. Art is irreducible.
- Art is Inexhaustibly Evocative (and Boundlessly Allusive)
Was Jesus an Artist?
First, the Eternal Logos, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, is described in Scripture as an artist, a creator.
Second, the human Jesus, is described in the gospels as a carpenter, that is a craftsman, or artist. There are two passages in the gospels that are relevant here.
Here are two interesting speculations about Jesus the carpenter from Scholars.
- First, some scholars speculate that Jesus may have helped in the reconstruction in the town of Sepphoris, the provincial capital of Galilee only four miles from Nazareth.
- Second, there is a tradition that extends into the second century, that Jesus was famous in the region for his yokes, and people took pride in owning one. In the second century, the Christian Apologist Justin Martyr, who grew up not far from Galilee, wrote that it was still common to see farmers using plows made by Jesus.
Now—think about this—if true—this speaks to the quality of Jesus’ craftsmanship and his ability to use tools to transfigure matter and reveal its deep beauty. In short, this reveals Jesus—the human and divine Jesus—as an artist!
What is the Vocation of the Artist?
Lewis understood that our longing for beauty is an expression of our longing for that “far off country” and I believe this is the intuition that drives our work as artists: we long for that far off country, home, and art is a means to help us connect with this deep longing of the human heart. As Tim Keller describes it, “a good artist will reveal something about the greater reality in an indefinable but inescapable way.”
So, what is the vocation of the artist? The artist peals back the curtain to reality, and helps us catch a glimpse of reality as it is, a sacrament, a participation in the divine, a gift from a God who lovingly creates, sustains, and calls us to perfection. Artist remind us of our status as pilgrims on the way to God and they help sustain us through encounters with beauty which give us hope and power to continue on the way.
- Tim Keller, “Why We Need Artists,” in It Was Good
- Janine Langan, “The Christian Imagination,” in The Christian Imagination
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
- Mary McCleary, “Craftmanship,” in It Was Good