The Bible and Art as Symbolism and a Reflection of Culture

This week I am concluding a review of Chapter 4 from the book, The Gift of Art¸ written by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (1983).

After concluding his discussion of abstract and representational art which I shared with you last week, Veith turns our attention to the idea that art can be used to teach by incorporating symbolism. As examples, he presents the Ark of the Covenant, the Priest’s breastplate, and the bronze serpent staff as examples from Exodus of biblically prescribed uses of symbolic art objects. Each of these objects symbolized abstract truths about God that the people were to remember and embrace.

“Art has the capacity. . . to render ideas and in doing so to communicate them powerfully and richly. . . To be sure, the symbolism can go awry; it can communicate false messages as well as true” (p. 55). The message must be tested by whether it conforms to the Word of God. “Nevertheless, the symbolic dimension of art is a profound and God-established means of communication” (p. 55-56).

I find that my own art probably falls more into this category as I use shapes, colors, and textures to represent abstract ideas. This approach has allowed me to use my artistic efforts to record my reactions to the culture around me. You may want to look at the post that I put up in late August 2013 regarding the Civil Rights era as an example.

ART AND CULTURE

Veith points out that art is part of the culture and the times in which it exists. As an example he points out that excavators have found similarities between the pyramids of Egypt and the plans for the tabernacle in Exodus. Likewise, when Solomon built the temple he went to the Phoenicians for their skills and materials. Even though the Egyptians and Phoenicians were pagan people, the Israelites were impacted by their culture and God allowed for and was pleased to sanction those influences (p. 56-58).

“This point is important for Christians involved in the arts. (Just) Because a painter is not a Christian, . . . does not mean that his paintings cannot be enjoyed or even imitated by Christians. To be sure, any thematic content must be scrutinized very critically through the lens of Scripture, but art as art is essentially neutral. That Picasso was not a Christian does not mean that he was not a great artist, nor does it mean that Christians are not free to appreciate or emulate his works” (p. 58).

Art is a function of human culture. While it might reflect an awareness of God, it is not, in and of itself, a product of divine revelation. No particular style or type of art ought to be made sacred or considered an absolute. Just as cultures change through the impact of changing technology and social conditions, “art must be in a continuous state of change for it to remain alive and effective” (p. 59).

“Christians need not be overly scrupulous in regard to types of art. Abstract, representational and symbolic art are all given prominence in the Scriptures. Certainly the content of art, the underlying assumptions and messages that are conveyed, must be examined with wariness and scriptural discernment. Antiscriptural content is not always merely an intellectual idea that can be analyzed and dismissed. Scorn for ‘ordinary people,’ moral permissiveness, the habit of mockery, self-pity, voyeurism, the sense of how terrible life is—all these attitudes and feelings can be more spiritually poisonous than any propositional statement, and they can be absorbed easily through art” (p. 59).

In conclusion, then, “Christian artists should be aware of the contemporary context of their work. To be deliberately old-fashioned, simply reworking earlier styles that seem ‘more Christian,’ is an empty gesture. . . the result is to make ones work irrelevant and, worse, to imply that Christianity is outdated, a nineteenth- or sixteenth-century religion which some reactionaries stubbornly cling to, faith that has nothing to say to the twentieth-century imagination. Throughout the Psalms it is a new song that is to be offered to the Lord” (p. 60).

Next week I will begin sharing excerpts from Chapter 5 which reviews the history of art.

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