A HIGH CALLING: CHRISTIANS IN THE ARTS
By Brianna McClean
“The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Francis Schaeffer, Art & the Bible
The importance of pastors and preachers in the church may seem obvious. Teaching and medicine are also heartily embraced as professions worthy of Christians, after all they serve our society so significantly. But, is there a place for the artist? Musician, sculptor, poet, photographer, dancer and actor possibly don’t make your list of “top jobs for Christians”. Yet it is these very professions which so obviously embrace obedience to commands central to the Christian life: cultivation, evangelism, and imagination. It’s a high calling. Do we, as Francis Schaeffer advocates, encourage our brothers and sisters to nurture an imagination which ‘’should fly beyond the stars’’?
As someone to whom creativity is precious and daily, I struggled to see the place for this passion within the church. Growing up, I figured it was okay to pursue creativity as a hobby but if I was to glorify God in my career, I needed to find something practical, and preferably ministry focused. Yet, it was when consuming and creating art that I felt most at home. Could my love of post-modern literature fit with a biblical understanding of truth? What did my desire to write poetry and appreciate beautiful cinematography have to do with my spiritual growth? Were the art galleries I loved so dearly profane or sacred?
The decision to pursue a full-time career as a “creative” was intimidating. It meant that I had to grapple with my identity as a disciple of Jesus in a new way. As I deconstructed my own worldview, I discovered a new freedom. I didn’t have to squeeze God into creative endeavours or justify the way I spent my time—the Creator’s fingerprints became increasingly visible on every element of art-making.
THE GREAT MYTH — A SECULAR-SPIRITUAL DIVIDE
There is an important qualification to make when considering the specific responsibilities and blessings of Christians called into creative fields. There is a myth, dating back to the days of Gnosticism and regaining popularity during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, which says that God is only interested in spiritual activities. According to this myth, Bible teaching matters while garbage collection, or indeed art, is irrelevant or trivial. Now it’s true that there are greater gifts (1 Cor 12:31; 14:5), and that the mission of the church brings a special urgency (1 Cor 7:29-34). But the reformers insisted that all work was spiritual despite these emphases. It’s still true that God has given us a world to live in, enjoy and serve with the various gifts we are appointed. Whether that gift is preaching or dress-making, both glorify God when used to his glory. So let’s be careful not to play into the false dichotomy of a spiritual-secular divide. All vocations are valuable and needed—and, I think, there’s a particular need to encourage the Church to value Christians in the arts.
Steve Turner, in his remarkable book, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, asks:
How much of life is Christ to be Lord over? Is he only interested in that part of life we think of as religious or spiritual? Or is he interested in every facet of our lives—body, soul, mind and spirit?
We would do well to remember these words as we seek to encourage the creation and appreciation of art. Here’s how I’ve made theological sense of living as a Christian and a creative.
“And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it’’’ Genesis 1:28
The first interaction between God and human beings is a command to create. As image bearers of the ultimate Creator, the one who designed molecular structure and composed bird songs, it should be no surprise that we are called to creativity. The creation mandate is one of cultivation and the Arts are fundamental to this. When we are commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it”, this is a task which speaks of order and beauty, two things the Arts epitomise. Art helps us understand the world and add to it in meaningful ways, a noble profession which finds its roots in Genesis. Being “fruitful” is not limited only to the creation of families but extends also to the creation of music, art, theatre and writing.
Being an active Christian in the arts presents extraordinary opportunities to point peers and audiences to Jesus. This is not to say that Christian artists should make only “Christian art”. In fact, the very opposite is true. To quote Schaeffer again, whose legacy in this area of thought is exceptional:
A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.
When an author creates a dynamic character whose broken heart reflects something of the truth of sin, they are pointing to a gospel truth. When a ballet dancer performs a breathtaking pirouette, they speak of the uniqueness of human anatomy and the beauty of a created order. When a musician engages with issues of culture or aesthetics in a fresh, dynamic way, they are modelling their worldview for all to see. As the Holy Spirit makes us a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:15), so too our own creations are made new in the light of Christ’s work in our lives. We cannot help but express our understanding of the world around us in the art we create.
The arts is a sphere in which spiritual, ethical, and philosophical thought is to be encouraged. Art is always at some level a hunger for transcendence and a search for meaning. What better space for a Christian to work in. They are in a position to bear witness to the Creator outside a pulpit. Instead, they adorn God’s general revelation with the work of their hands.
AN IMPORTANT VOICE
If Christians are afraid of creative industries, then the Church misses out. Art is a means not only for the expression of worldviews but also their formation. Literature, music, art and media are foundational to culture. Can Christians really afford not to participate? We must have a place on these platforms if we are to present the gospel, love our neighbours and help cultivate our world in a holistic way. Again, this does not mean that we should participate only in artistic work which directly addresses the traditions or beliefs of Christianity. Rather, we should engage fully, using our God-given gifts for his glory and society’s good.
CREATE FOR YOUR CREATOR
Outside of art’s distinct contribution to evangelism and apologetics, the Christian artist should also be encouraged to pursue their art for its inherent value. We follow a Creator God who created culture. He uses powerful literature to communicate with us. He sent a personal Saviour to redeem the creation he so loves. This Saviour is making all things new and will return again to usher in an age of unblemished beauty. The great, eternal Artist is the ultimate reason why Christians should create. He rejoices when his people use their gifts well. Ephesians 2:10 reminds us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’’.
Doing “good works” is not limited to homeless ministries and overseas mission; it involves doing whatever work God has given you to do, to the best of your ability. For artists, it includes cultivating the imagination for the sake of God-glorifying creativity.
Brianna McClean is a freelance writer and lover of all things literary and theological. Raised in the Blue Mountains and surrounded by Christian family, she came to faith within the Presbyterian church. She loves exploring God’s creation – from Indonesia to Switzerland – and has also completed an internship with London City Mission. Brianna now lives in Sydney and studies Philosophy and Ancient Greek at the University of Sydney. She attends Anchor Church, Sydney.
This article was first published by The Gospel Coalition Australia
More by Brianna McClean: https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/profile/brianna-mcclean