Continuing our review of Chapter 6, “The Brazen Serpent: Art and Evangelism,” from the book The Gift of Art, by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (1983), Veith emphasizes that evangelism involves both the message of judgment as well as that of redemption.
As we discussed in our last posting, the whole world and many art forms almost unwittingly reveal God’s law and the resulting judgment, however, the message of redemption becomes much more specific. It “partakes of what has been called the ‘scandal of particularity.’ Salvation is contingent on faith in the transcendent but also historical Jesus Christ (p.90).” According to Acts 4:12, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
“The gospel is not a vague cosmic optimism, a utopian vision of everyone loving one another, or even a belief in a benevolent deity. It is rather the scandalous message of Christ crucified for sinners (p. 90).” Scripture rightfully predicted in 1 Cor. 1:17-25 that this message would be most scandalous to intellectuals. “Those of us in academia and the arts, who tend to see things in terms of ‘high culture’ and sophisticated intellectualism, need to read 1 Corinthians over and over again. ‘The world did not know God through wisdom,’ nor through the law, nor through art, but only by ‘the word of the cross (p. 91).”
Veith goes on to describe two challenges the Christian intellectual or artistic person has. On the one hand they must fight the temptation to be embarrassed by the message of the cross as they face the world’s scorn. On the other hand they must fight the temptation of snobbism as they face the diversity of the church body. “Such diverse fellowship is important not only to artists spiritually, but also for their art. It protects them from elitism and keeps them sympathetic to ordinary experiences and to the trials of living; it keeps them human (p. 92).”
While an artist is struggling with those temptations, how can he use his art to carry out the mission of conveying the gospel? First, according to Veith, we must remember “that art need not be evangelistic to please God (p.93).” However, if our passion is to convey the gospel as certainly we are called to do, our art “must present directly or indirectly the person and the name of Jesus Christ. An evangelistic work cannot present the gospel by vague intimations or moralizing. It must point explicitly or symbolically, but always clearly, to Jesus of Nazareth and his work. This does in a sense limit the artist who desires to be an evangelist, but this is the same limitation given to any other preacher or witness (p. 93).”
In addition to the need to depict Christ and His work, Veith reminds us of another important aspect to how the gospel is conveyed: “Technically, it is the Word of God which conveys the gospel. Faith comes from hearing, from responding to a message discerned through language. . . This priority of the Word means that, for art to convey the gospel, it must. . .be connected, directly or indirectly, to language (p. 100).” While this certainly seems to make literature, lyrical music, and drama more easily suited to evangelism, it does not mean “that the visual arts cannot convey the propositions of the gospel (p. 101).” Veith cautions, however, that one of the criticisms of medieval art was that the church became dependent on icons and neglected the Word of God. Visual artists must be particularly careful that their work is clearly connecting to scripture.
The power of art is its ability to help us recover meaning. We can become complacent with the gospel message and other truths from scripture so that they scarcely impact us anymore. “Art and its techniques such as symbolism can help recover meaning that has been forgotten or that is so familiar that it tends to be ignored. Just as a picture can illuminate a word, a word can illuminate a visual image and charge it with meaning. The title of a work of art, for example, can be very important (p. 102).”
Veith demonstrates this by describing the two huge bronze pillars which were to adorn the Temple complex (1 Kings 7:15-22). “They were imposing aesthetic objects, but their specific meaning was conveyed by their names: Jachin (‘God establishes’) and Boaz (‘He comes with power’) (p. 102).” Veith’s emphasis on the importance of a title is certainly contrary to the contemporary tendency to minimize and even show contempt for titles.
In closing this chapter, Veith reminds us that “The evangelist’s job is to scatter the gospel like seeds in a field leaving its effect and its increase to the Spirit of God. The gospel does not depend on human eloquence, but God can and does use art to proclaim his law and his gospel (p 106).”