The Bible and the Misuse of the Arts

I am enjoying reading and sharing with you nuggets from the book The Gift of Art, by Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

While previously presenting art as a gift of God to mankind, in Chapter 3 Veith uses the incident with the Golden Calf to unwrap how art can be misused. He reminds us of Exodus 35:4-9 and Exodus 36:3-7 where we see the people who generously gave their possessions for the adornment of the tabernacle turn around and bring them for the casting of an idol. Not only that, but Aaron uses his eloquent gifts of speech to proclaim the worship of a god he had made. In addition to a misuse of the visual arts and the gift of language, music, singing, and dancing are also corrupted. The scene is a picture of offerings, ceremonies, and art all misdirected” (p 30-31).

From Romans 1:25 (“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator”), Veith asserts that anytime we allow anything to usurp the Creator’s place in our lives or ascribe attributes of deity to the physical universe we are in danger of idolatry (p31).

So, Veith questions, “What is it to worship art?” (p33). As subtle examples of people inadvertently worshipping art, he presents commonplace attitudes heard in academic and artistic circles:
• “’Art is the means of giving order to the chaos of experience.’
• ‘Art represents the source of human values,’
• ‘Art gives meaning to life.’

These statements, of course, reflect the modern existentialist assumption that meaning is something bestowed or imposed by the individual on a meaningless world.” Such attitudes “place art and the artist squarely in the position of God” (p 34).

Not only is art raised to a mystic level with such religious terms as ‘inspiration,’ ‘vision,’ and ‘creation,’ but the artist is often presented as a person endowed with mystical powers and set aside from society and common life, and his or her work is “treated as an oracular utterance of inexhaustible depth, an authoritative guide to life” (p34).

For the Christian artist, however “Art does not have to bear the burden of ‘giving meaning to life.’ It can fulfill its own nature rather than the very different nature of religion.” Although art does possess intrinsic values and might even be related to the religious experience, it is not the same. Veith says that he agrees “with the Neo-Platonists that earthly beauty—the grandeur of nature, a sublime poem, a glorious symphony—is a participation in the divine beauty that is its source and can elevate the consciousness to a realization of God” (p36). The potential for art or nature to be “awe-inspiring, mysterious, peaceful and prophetic” is the result of God revealing His qualities through these things. The art objects are not the source of these qualities nor are the artists who made them. Rather, all of these are tools that God uses to reveal Himself.

Veith asserts that “art is generally pleasurable, while true religion frequently is not. The splendor of the golden calf was very different from the splendor that was breaking out on Mr. Sinai, terrifying the people (Ex 20:18).” Veith goes on to say, “The living God does not exist to gratify people. Art, of course, does” (p 37).

How, then, does one balance the aesthetic experiences related to the arts and a genuine religious experience? Veith borrows from Kierkegaard’s three spheres to present some very clear distinctions:

1. In the aesthetic sphere one lives for oneself and one’s own pleasures whether sensual or highly refined. “Many devote themselves completely to this ego-centered quest for personal pleasure; ultimately, though the aesthetic realm alone proves unsatisfying and leads to despair” (p 38).

2. In the ethical sphere one lives completely for others always putting the pleasure of other’s before their own. “However noble life is in the ethical realm, this too, followed honestly, ends in despair. Living for the other person involves contradictions, impossibilities and failures. In other words, human beings cannot perfectly fulfill the moral law” (p 38).

3. Finally, in the religious sphere one lives in dependence on the grace of God. Here one is free to enjoy pleasure and encouraged to good works of service to others without being in bondage to either.

Veith summarizes from Kierkegaard that, “the gospel, does not deny the aesthetic realm any more than it denies the ethical realm. . . Each has its place in God’s will—personal pleasure no less than moral action—but apart from God’s will they can result in the tyrannies of egoism, sensuality or legalism. The religious sphere gives each its place as long as the three are not confused with each other” (pp 38-39).

Veith offers one final word of caution: “Often artists find themselves pressured by their audience to create works that will be misused, testifying to a world view or a way of life that from the Christian perspective is false, sinful or idolatrous. This pressure may come from artistic peers, teachers, publishers or exhibitors, or, what is worse, the ‘paying public’ who will only buy or support what they find congenial. In a non-Christian world there is not always a market for art that does not conform to the prevailing intellectual trends, as Christianity, indeed, must not” (p 41).

We are reminded of the sad picture of Aaron, the man of faith, chosen and called by God to be His spokesman but ending up instead as the creator of the golden calf. “How did he become party to apostasy? The answer is simple: As an artist, he pandered to his audience” (p 41-42).

In this day of the “obligatory sex scene” and when nihilism (the belief that nothing has any meaning or value) has become the accepted worldview, “those who seek to portray some other values, some other world view, often feel either that they must remain unpublished or unknown, or that they must compromise, giving the audience what it wants.” The Christian artist must care enough about other people that he refuses to produce art that will contribute to mankind’s degradation. “Christian artists should pursue aesthetic goals and test their message and its effect by the “Word of God.”

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