Over the last 10 years, I’ve been in search of the artist’s role within the church and culture. The one thing I have become undeniably certain of is that God is an artist, and he is misunderstood.
In Genesis, God created a beautiful, thriving world full of flourishing life.
What purpose did it serve?
What does the vibrant color of a geranium or the graceful dance of a sparrow on the wind achieve? How about the breathtaking display of Aurora Borealis or the intricate inner weavings of an orb weaver’s web? Couldn’t God have accomplished his plan without any of this?
In the last 100 years, the rise of industry (and subsequent consumerism) has shaped us into a productivity-driven people. We ask, “how can art help us accomplish our goals?” However, in asking this question, we have unknowingly chosen utilitarian pragmatism over human flourishing.
If God didn’t create in order to quicken his redemptive deadline, or multiply his end product, then why did he?
God is an artist. He didn’t just create people to save, but souls and a world to restore. Art, creativity, and beauty are not simply tools in the hand of a redemptive God, but instruments in the hands of a restorative Creator.
So, what does this mean for the role of art in the church?
We see, in Genesis, God create humans for two main purposes—to cultivate his creation, and to delight in his presence.
Often, this call to cultivate is separated from our invitation to delight and dwell with our creator. You see, our mandate is not just productivity, but, as the artist Makoto Fujimura says in Culture Care, “to infuse all of life with Christ’s presence.”(Fujimura, 2014, Called Beyond Utility section para. 13).
When we talk about art, whether song or dance, poetry or painting, design or directing, we are talking about something that can be extremely impactful, and yet is often deeply misunderstood.
Universal – In any given city, art can affect a wide variety of people and cultures in a way nothing else can. Think about an old white man and young black woman sitting in the same theatre, enjoying the same film. Art has the ability to transcend age, race, or experiences, affecting people from all different walks of life in a profound way.
Vehicular – Art can take people to places they never imagined they could go. Think about the way you have felt after hearing a certain song, seeing a certain film, or reading a certain book. The creative work took you somewhere you had never been or took you back to a place or time you had been long before.
Persuasive – C.S. Lewis says that art can “steal past the watchful dragons” of the soul. Art stands at the border and welcomes in those who would normally resist the invitation to engage.
Motivational – We are not simply intellectual creatures, but also emotional beings. Art reveals the heart of any movement and sets people in motion and on mission.
Generous – It provides something beautiful without demanding anything in return.
See how impactful art can be? However, if we view ourselves as merely people of productivity, then all art can be distorted and reduced down to a means to an end.
We can use visual art to advertise our church, musical art to stick catchy phrases into people’s minds, and written art to teach our philosophies—and this type of art is useful. However, if beauty and creativity that transcend utility are seen as wasteful, we end up with an emaciated version.
Beauty is not just a means to an end, it is a pathway to revealing the heart of God.
In the gospel narratives, we are told of a woman who broke a costly bottle of perfume and began to anoint Jesus with it. As the glorious fragrance filled the house, the men who were present began to scold the woman for this reckless and wasteful act. To them, it was completely impractical. Jesus, however, stopped them and said:
“She has done a beautiful thing to me… and wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
– Matthew 26:10, 13
Jesus’ profound statement sheds light into our Creator’s heart. Why did Jesus make such a bold statement about this specific act?
Maybe this act wasn’t practical, but this sacrificial expression of creativity actually best conveyed the heart of the Gospel, and that was beautiful to Jesus.
Perhaps it reminded Jesus of how the Father created a world that he knew would be broken by sin, chose a people to reveal himself to who would reject him, and would give up his one and only son in a seemingly wastefully, but beautiful, creatively sacrificial expression of love, all for the sake of restoring what was once broken into something even more beautiful than it was before.
At first glance, the church needs art in order to be most productive (advertisement, music, design). However, if this is the only reason for art in the church than we have missed who our God is as a creator and reduced him to a CEO.
We would only need a staff of people who are talented instead of a church full of people who are gifted. God doesn’t just use art and beauty to accomplish a task, but for delight, wonder, enjoyment, depth, human flourishing, and ultimately to best exemplify redemption and restoration.
After years of searching, my conclusion is that the church, and culture as a whole, needs art in order to reveal to us the heart of God and the big picture of the Gospel; that Jesus did not come merely to buy us back from sin, but to bring us into flourishing freedom.