- Reformation of the Arts and Music

Artistic Expression in God's Laworder
© 1997 by Kevin Swanson

The best Art expresses truth at varying levels of understanding, and speaks through multiple generations, whereas bad artistic expression communicates lies and deceit.

On the surface, it would appear that Christianity has lost significant influence in the area of culture and the arts. But we must remember that Jesus has redeemed this area of art and culture from the curse of sin, and there would not have been a Bach, a Michelangelo, or a Rembrandt if it was not for Jesus' victorious death and 2000 years of his kingly reign.

My intentions in this short article on artistic expression are only two. Firstly, I would that my readers be more discerning. There is a humorous tome that splits human society into three groups: - "There are those who watch things happen, make things happen, and wonder what happened." I would at least hope that my readers not be within the group of those who wondered what happened. I would also that my readers be encouraged to take dominion in this area of arts, to be those who make things happen, those who influence society, those who set the trends. There are opportunities everywhere to occupy territory within the devil's shrinking camp. It's time to get involved. Exercise yourself at least a little bit in each area of life for the glory of God and the extension of His kingdom, including this area of life we call art.

Artistic expression

I would define artistic expression in its broadest sense as any human expression at all. True artistic expression is the expression of truth. This may include Art, Music, Theatre, Photography, Literature, Speaking - indeed, any sort of human conversation.

Basic assertions

1. Every artistic expression lies somewhere on the continuum of truth, although some may be pleasing to God and others may not. On the one hand, we see that all of human efforts are tainted in someway by sin. (Isaiah 64:6. But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags..)

On the other hand, it is possible for our communication to be pleasing to God and profitable for man, though fraught with our own human frailty. (1 Thes 2:4. But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as [pleasing] men, but God...")

2. All expression has moral implications. All of man's actions, words, and thoughts bear moral implications. Either we are aligning ourselves with God's laws or we are opposing them. (Genesis 6:5. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.)

3. Artistic expression is supported by Biblical example

  • Music is used in public worship.
  • Sculpture is used for representations of angels, plants, and animals.
  • Dance is used in times of joy.
  • Theatrical re-productions are used such as in Festival of Booths.
  • Fictional stories called parables create pictures.
  • God uses artistic literary forms as a vehicle for His Divine Revelation. These forms include various types of prose, poetry, fictional allegories and so forth.

4. Artistic expression is part of God's purpose for man when He created him for knowledge, righteousness, and dominion. (Gen 2:20. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field...) This naming of the animals involved observation and discovery, it was an act of dominion and creativity.

5. Good art exemplifies creativity. Artistic expression is creativity. "Man cannot create ex-nihilo; his artistic productions do not come out of nothing, but presuppose existing material." (David Estrada, Chalcedon Report, Feb 1996, p. 21). Human creativity is really discovery - discovery of God's established order and the clear communication of the same. (Proverbs 25:2. It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.)

Creative expressions explore the depths of God's created order. There must be understanding in order for there to be communication, and often the communication of a thing can aid in the understanding of it. There is tremendous active mental effort in the constructing of any artistic expression.

6. Bad artistic expression destroys creativity. These are the destructive norms that we have increasingly experienced in our culture today. "Books that are morally bad will tend to be aesthetically bad as well. Great works of literature may not always articulate an explicitly Christian worldview but they will still usually be worth reading for their intrinsic merit and will often given unwitting testimony to God's sovereignty over all of life." (Dr. Gene Edward Veith, Reading Between the Lines, Crossway Books).

Sin is Limiting

Sin is more limiting than righteousness. We deduce this principle from the number of trees in the forest which God had forbidden. (Gen 2:16-17. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.)

1. Sin brings about the bondage and limitations of addictions. (2 Peter 2:14. Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children:) These addictions are irrational, limiting, and destructive. These addictions cannot help but affect the mental capacity and the creative capacity. God gives us a forest of trees in which to discover, and yet man inevitably wants to crawl around in the single tree which He has forbidden. Creating outside of God's laworder is effectively impossible. Sin limits us, enslaves us, and destroys our ability to create.

2. Sin limits are perceptions and shortens our insight. Sin cripples our ability to discover God's world, limiting man's ability to know himself, true reality, the natural world, God, and truth. (Isaiah 42:16. And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.)

R.J. Rushdoony writes on knowledge in Revolt Against Maturity (Ross House Books): "To attempt the interpretation of anything without God is to attempt the impossible. The unbeliever, seeking knowledge, if he is faithful to his premises, can know nothing, because he has denied any purpose, order, or meaning in the universe by denying God... Because man is created in the image of God, it is suicidal for man to try to escape from the knowledge of God. Man is drawn to knowledge as a plant towards the sun; if the plant turns from the sun, it is wilting and will die. Thus, an aspect of man's revolt against maturity and against life is his revolt against knowledge. Whereas the natural man may seek knowledge as a substitute for God, and as a means of becoming God, he soon turns from Knowledge itself because it is inescapably revelational of God."

Sinful artists, therefore have two options. They can admit God's created order, borrow from Christian presuppositions, and create good art. Or they can deny God, deny knowledge, progressively degrade their art into lower and lower forms until there is nothing. They turn from the sun of knowledge, wilt and die. We find that when the brilliant artists turn away repeatedly from the truth they seek, they eventually become suicidal and self-destructive. Examples are plentiful: Ernest Hemingway, Emerson, Percy Shelley, and others.

Defining Good Art

1. Good Art expresses truth; that is, God's defined law-order.

  • God defines truth at the most basic level in the Bible.
  • God's law defines morals, an aspect of truth.
  • God is immanent and transcendent, inferring his justice and his judgement.
  • Man is fallen creature, yet morally responsible to God.

2. Good Art expresses truth clearly. When one views the canvas, reads the story, or watches the screenplay, he should not mistake the truth for falsehood. The truth of David and Bathsheba is the truth of the story, and the truth of reality, and the truth of God, His justice and His law. Sin is punished.

3. The best art expresses truth at varying levels of understanding. This is the nature of God's Word, offering both the "milk" and "meat" of God's revelation. (Heb 5:12-14) A child reads John 3:16 and understands that "Jesus died for me." An adult may read the same passage and plumb the depths of Biblical doctrines of atonement, justification, eternity of the human soul, and the trinity. The best art reaches all ages. A young observer with simple understanding sees the art or hears the message and he understands in simple fashion, what a more mature mind can see in more depth and breadth.

4. The best art speaks through multiple generations. Examples are plentiful: J.S. Bach, Daniel Defoe, Bunyan, Milton, and many others. Fads fade fast. One of the reasons why the best art survives generations is because it is good art. It is art that adequately reflects truth about who we are and who God is. The truth is true throughout all generations and when man finds ways to communicate it clearly in living color, that message is useful to many generations. Bad art or deceitful messages are useless to the next generations. That is because, each generation has its own sins and does not buy into the deceit of the previous generation.

Bad Artistic Expression

1. Bad artistic expression is art that communicates lies and deceit. Common lies used today include the following examples:

  • There is no meaning.
  • There is no order and purpose, and cause and effect relationships cannot be certain.
  • There are no absolutes.
  • Sin is acceptable. This is the most common lie, art that controverts God's laws. This message may be implied by the exhibition of sin without it's attendant punishments or in the use of invitations to vicarious experiences. Obviously these lies may be communicated with varying levels of subtlety.

2. Bad artistic expression does not express truth clearly. It will bear with it contradicting themes. It may use its methods to contradict the message. Some art allows for widely varying interpretations. One picture may illicit an interpretation of a family praying together at thanksgiving time. Another person may see it as simply a family praying prior to a dinner. These differing interpretations are not alarming. On the other hand, another picture may elicit one interpretation of a rape while another sees the picture as a representation of conjugal love. It is very common today for today's artists to present contradictions in order to confuse. It communicates to us a central message of confusion and tells the audience that there is no absolute truth.

Analyzing Artistic Expression

Here are several tools to use in order to interpret art. It is possible to tell whether art is good or bad, for the better or worse.

1. Look at both the method and the message. You cannot divorce the two. Every word, every nuance, every scene, and every paint stroke contributes to the force of the message. A single scene can mar an entire screen play and detract from the message that was intended. A single word can lead an audience astray and communicate a false message that was not intended.

The screenplay of David and Bathsheba could have missed the mark, if a steamy jacuzzi scene is thrown in like a black streak on a beautiful landscape. Even Nathan the prophet, in the last scene, may not be able to correct for the damage that was done in the prior scene. There is meaning communicated in each scene, each brush stroke, each nuance within every monologue. Does this meaning in any way contradict the message of the presentation? For example, would you say that lusting and nudity is acceptable, but the act of adultery is not? Some scenes can be overwhelmingly powerful in their message, to drown out all other messages you were trying to communicate. Not only are you opposing truth by contradicting messages and methods, but you are also breaking down the art form itself.

The Greeks were careful not to use extreme violence in plays as it would only produce aesthetic distraction, depending on how the violence is portrayed and what effect it has on the audience.

2. Do not neglect to consider the context of culture. It is important to analyze art in terms of how it is received. We need to be sensitive to our audience. What is the effect of the art on ourselves? You cannot divorce the context of culture, the psychology of the audience, the nature of man from the art. The culture is part of the presentation.

3. Motivations are important. This is obviously a matter of personal interpretation, although it can apply to both the artist and his audience. If our motivations in art are self-glorification, the appeasement of lustful desires, or the like, then in the analysis of the art, we must believe that the art is less than godly or a true expression of good art. If our motivations are to glorify God, the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Redeemer, then we begin to construct a backdrop for excellence in our art.

4. There is always a central theme. What is it? It is important to identify the central theme, the underlying message that the artist is trying to communicate. Often, this is the best way to analyze the art. Is the artist glorifying in evil, proudly declaring human autonomy, emphasizing mis-oriented sexual desires, exalting rebellion to authority...or is the artist expressing a respect for God's law, God's sovereignty, the divine order of family, respect for civil government, etc. Chariots of Fire is a screenplay that emphasizes the sovereignty of God and the hierarchy of His law over kings, honor, and wealth.

We must always be cognizant of our central theme. Although secondary issues may detract from the central theme, if they do not detract such that they dominate and blur the central theme, then the secondary items are in the proper place. The secondary messages, the backdrops, the methods, should buttress or coordinate the central theme.

This is where we determine where we are on the continuum of truth. If the central theme comes through clearly as representing a matter of truth, then it may be of positive value to us and may be art that is both glorifying to God and profitable for man.

Reprinted by permission from Mayflower Chronicles, Feb 1997

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum