The Brazen Serpent, Part I: Art and THE LAW

Bronze Serpent 2

I have been summarizing the book The Gift of Art, by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (1983). After reviewing how art has been used in religion throughout western history in chapter 5, Veith continues his discussion in chapter 6, “The Brazen Serpent: Art and Evangelism,” with how the work of contemporary artists furthers the cause of Christianity whether or not the artist is a Christian and whether or not the work has an obvious “Christian” motif.

 “Art by Christians does not have to be explicitly ‘about’ Christianity.” All art objects, whether they represent God’s creation or are abstracts, are still new arrangements of line, color, and form (in the case of the visual arts), or of sound, words, and movements (in the case of musical, literary, or theatrical arts). As such they utilize things that God has already created (color, form, sound, etc.) and are therefore dependent upon God’s original creation. In that sense, all art is “under the lordship of Christ (p 79).”

 Nevertheless, for the Christian who chooses to be faithful to their calling, it is not enough to simply rearrange the gifts of God into new creative expressions that are aesthetically pleasing. The Christian calling is specifically to one of evangelism. Evangelism requires us to present both the judgment and redemption of God.

Veith considers the bronze serpent to be the prime biblical example of art fulfilling the evangelistic mission.  From Numbers 21:4-9 we find the Israelites setting out on yet another leg of their wilderness wandering and complaining bitterly about the whole ordeal. They unwisely focus their ire on God’s provision of the manna to which God responds with an infestation of serpents. Terrified by the consequences of their own bad behavior, they go to Moses begging him to intercede on their behalf. God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and fix it to a pole. This is where our modern day medical caduceus comes from. Bronze serpent & medical logoWhen they look upon the bronze serpent, they are healed from the serpents’ venom. The bronze serpent thus becomes an effective art object used as an evangelistic tool:  It both confronts the people with their sin and God’s righteous judgment, and it provides deliverance from that judgment; i.e., redemption.

So why was the bronze serpent necessary to achieve repentance? Why wasn’t the ordeal itself enough to bring the people to repentance? “Scripture here suggests something about how art functions that modern theorists are just noticing. Art is powerful because it heightens perception (p 81).” After all, there were plenty of real live snakes to look at, but there was something about that one on the pole, lifted up and shining in the sun, that allowed the message to penetrate the heart and mind of the observer with meaning.

By lifting a subject out of the ordinariness of life and portraying it in an aesthetically powerful art form we are forced to SEE it – to engage the truth of it. That is the first step of evangelism—to be presented with the truth of God so that we might examine our consciences and repent.   “This is the point at which even art by non-Christians can be related to God’s message and, to a point, to the work of evangelism. Even the most secular art can speak to us of God’s law and our lost condition. Again, the law cannot save; but when a work of art seriously and honestly explores the moral dimensions of life, as great art invariably does, it can be of immeasurable spiritual value (p. 85).”

Some art explores “moral problems and dilemmas with searching urgency. They honestly put forward the facts of human responsibility and the claims moral principles make on us (p 87).” Other art, however, serves the purposes of God by their negative portrayal. “So much of modern art. . . projects a bleak view of the world and the human condition. Ugliness, emptiness and absurdity are nearly obsessions of the contemporary artists (p. 88).” As the contemporary world turns more and more away from God, is modern art with its negative message not an accurate portrayal of the consequence? “Modern art and literature, far from contradicting Scripture. . . actually confirm it. We are often so comfortable in our pleasures that we need to be forced to see the absurdities of our condition according to transcendent standards. And modern art can help us—even make us—do just that (p. 88).”

“In suggesting that secular art can speak to us of law and thus be part of the work of the gospel, some cautions are in order. Not all works of art speak of the law; some openly flout it, promoting immorality or moral relativism. These might be valuable aesthetically, but they can have no spiritual value and may well be idolatrous.  . Some writers in their despair and negativism attack God along with everything else. . . Scripture is the norm by which all moral teachings must be evaluated. Insofar as art by non-Christians agrees with God’s universal law, . . . it can be of enormous spiritual benefit. It can uphold moral values and reprove moral failures. It cannot, however, communicate salvation (p. 89).”

Next week I will continue exploring the role that art can play in evangelism.

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