Pastor John Piper, in this podcast, proffers a brief “Theology of Art.” His conclusion is that “Christians have deeper and better foundations for serious art than anybody.” While I agree with Piper, most of the evangelical artists (musicians, novelists, poets, craftspeople, etc.) I run into do not appear to have a well-developed “Theology of Art.” For example, ask the average Christian fiction writer why they write and what they hope to accomplish with their writing, and you’ll typically receive some variation of “I write to glorify God.” A perfectly fine answer… until you start digging into details. Is it possible to “glorify God” in a fictional story? What does it mean to “glorify God” in a novel? How explicit must you be about God and the gospel content in order to truly “glorify God”? And what about those Christians authors who do not write explicitly Christian stuff? Can they also “glorify God” in their writing? Such inspection often reveals shaky theological “foundations.” At least, the absence of a comprehensive view of art and theology.
Dorothy Sayers, in her book Towards a Christian Aesthetic, notes that biblical truth, by its very nature, must embrace and define the Arts.
“If we commit ourselves to saying that the Christian revelation discovers to us the nature of all truth, then it must discover to us the nature of the truth about Art among other things.”
But exactly what truths does the Bible reveal about Art and Artists? Where are the “deeper and better foundations for serious art” that Piper speaks about? Or does the Bible, when speaking about art and aesthetics, simply frame it as a field outside of any clear theological principles?
The graphic below is designed to illustrate three Christian theologies that inform the artist. I developed the following graphic from the essay Should Christians Write Novels, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2. written by Rory Shiner, Pastor of Providence Church in Perth, Australia, which I encourage you to read.
If “evangelical art” — Christian music, Christian fiction, Christian film, etc. — reveals anything, it is a fairly narrow view of any rigorous theological underpinnings. The God’s Not Dead franchise is a good example of how “commercial viability” has distilled an evangelical approach to art into tract-like propaganda pieces that wear their message on their sleeves. Unbeknownst to many Christian consumers are more broad biblical understandings about art and artists.
- Theology of Creation and Covenant — Based on what the Reformed faith calls the “Cultural Mandate,” this approach sees God’s command to Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it” as a “commission” to produce human culture; to import the “image of God” into every possible field we may venture. For the novelist, this frees our work from being, as Shiner puts it, “enlisted in the service of the church for validity.” Rather, writing fiction is part of the larger cultural mandate to advance our God-given talents into and through culture. The Christian writer is not simply a propagandist, but is ultimately advancing God’s reign.
- Theology of Incarnation and Sacrament — Orthodox and Catholic positions frame the arts in terms of sacraments, representations of Truth and Beauty. Just as “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:1, 14), the Christian artists seeks to “flesh out” or embody some form of biblical Truth or Beauty. Or as C.S. Lewis described it, fiction literature is a “little incarnation, giving body to what has been before invisible and inaudible.” In this way, the Christian artist is commissioned to make the intangible real, the subtle profound, and put words and images to the indescribable.
- Theology of Education and Eschatology — In this approach, novels are tools to steer and shape culture, “to enlarge moral sympathies or to commend proper behaviour.” Shiner writes, “A self-conscious agenda to educate is by no means incompatible with great literature. ” While such an approach can be hijacked by those of various ideological persuasions, the believer infuses the “eschatological urgency” of the call to repentance, the fount of forgiveness, the Second Coming, and the Judgment into their art.
Each of these theologies impacts, indeed elevates, our understanding of the artist and novelist.
- Novelist as Worker — The Theology of Creation and Covenant frames the novelist in terms of a worker, using his God-given talents and the Imago Dei to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Whatever cultural sphere he traverses — whether State, Church, Law, Science, Arts, etc. — the Christian worker brings the image of God with him. Thus, the novelist does more than just write Bible tracts. Rather, he is a witness for God and extends His rule through his entire work and life.
- Novelist as Priest — The Theology of Incarnation and Sacrament frames the novelist as a priest, “mediating an experience of beauty and recognition, all of which ultimately finds its ends in God.” Just as Christ made the Father tangible to His listeners, the novelist “fleshes out” biblical truth and beauty his readers.
- Novelist as Herald — The Theology of Education and Eschatology transforms the novelist from simply an “entertainer” who provides escapist literature, to someone who heralds a Moral Universe, affirms a biblical view of the world, and seeds culture with this message. In this sense, the Christian writer is driven by a “cause” and a sense of urgency, compelled by the Gospel, the immanence of Christ’s return, and the judgment to come.
Piper is correct: “Christians [should] have deeper and better foundations for serious art than anybody.” Covenant, Incarnation, and Education are three such foundational theologies that help us understand and approach art from a more rigorous, comprehensive perspective.