Art in Christian Life (3)
And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. Genesis 2.9
Art all around
One of my favorite paintings by a contemporary Christian artist is Philip R. Jackson’s still life, Party’s Over. Here’s this funny origami bird, perched on a straw, ready to launch from a boat made of a soap dish and a party hat, into the great imagined beyond. Mr. Jackson explains the story this painting tells, but welcomes our own interpretations as well.
Who would think that everyday items like soap dishes, straws, and party hats could be combined to tell a story in art? And of what use is art that takes such items as its subject?
I suspect that most of us don’t think of the arts as having any real use. They simply are. Art is a kind of pastime, an accessory to life, a take-it-or-leave-it fringe or frill that too many of us have chosen, for the most part, to ignore.
But as we have seen, God is very high on the arts – all kinds of arts – and He has made us in His own image so that we might gain the benefit He intends for us from this wondrous area of human cultural endeavor.
Furthermore, God has specific uses in mind for the arts, uses that are important to our development, enjoyment, and prospering in life, and to the progress of God’s purposes among men. The more we understand about the uses of art, the more eager we will be to employ art according to God’s eternal design.
The first use of art, which is foundational to all others, is to bring us delight.
A delight to the eyes
God is no mere utilitarian. He assembles ordinary things in extraordinary ways, and part of His purpose in doing so is to give us delight. When He made the trees, bearing all the wide range of delicious fruit, He didn’t simply make them drab and unappealing. He wanted people to approach them and to harvest the bounty He had provided, and so, to draw them to the trees, God made them pleasant to the sight.
Consider the various factors that go to make a tree a delight to the eyes: shape, size, fullness, color, variation, trunk, limbs, branches, leaves, relation to its environment, and so forth. All these things collaborate to appeal to our aesthetic sense. This is what God intends for the arts as well. They should please and delight us, provide wholesome and even edifying enjoyment, and remind us in some way of the beauty, goodness, and truth of Him Who made us artists all.
The key to art’s ability to delight and please us lies in the peculiar way the artist combines the various elements of his genre and marshals them together before our aesthetic sense. Philip R. Jackson has shown a special knack of staging everyday objects so that they tell stories with eternal significance. A small cluster of grapes represents new life for the world. An onion riding on the back of an origami bird expresses a husband’s sympathy for his pregnant wife. Broken eggshells are assembled to depict the church as the hope of a broken world. Many of Philip R. Jackson’s paintings demonstrate a profound whimsy, and the delight we feel as we study each object keeps us coming back for another viewing – a true measure of beauty, as William Cowper explained in his poem, The Task:
Scenes must be beautiful, which daily view’d
Please daily, and whose novelty survives
Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years; -
Praise justly due to those that I describe.
God wants us to delight
When a composer brings melody, harmony, tone, rhythm, and orchestration together; when a story-teller weaves numerous characters and sub-plots into one grand tale and scheme; or when a poet bends all the devices of his craft to focus our attention, engage our senses, ignite our imagination, and strum the chords of our affections – when such things occur we know pleasure, enjoyment, and wholesome delight. This is precisely according to God’s plan. We cannot read the psalms, with their soaring visions of nations, mountains, fields, and forests celebrating the greatness of God, or their comforting images of shepherds, homes, and a secure city, and not experience delight in praying them.
Art should bring us a measure of delight, even art that troubles us, or causes us dread. The pleasure we experience from paying attention to those aspects of a work of art that appeal to us – sound, color, theme, rhythm, and so forth – can help us appreciate the beauty of even the most disturbing stories or images.
If we want to benefit from this use of art, we should seek out those arts which are most pleasing to us, and study them carefully to understand how they accomplish this God-given function. Then we will enjoy more fully not only art, but Him Who gives us the arts as well. We may grin at the origami bird, launching from the stern of a paper-hat boat, but we will linger there, perhaps asking ourselves, “And what about when the party’s over for me?” And then, perhaps, we will pause to give thanks to our Creator and Redeemer.
1. Think of a song you enjoy, or that you like to sing. What is it about that song that gives you delight? How does the delight of that song affect you?
2. Can you think of a psalm, or other passage of Scripture that you enjoy reading or contemplating? Why do you find this passage especially delightful? Does your enjoyment in reading or meditating on this passage help you in wanting to understand its teaching? Explain.
3. How can art that gives us delight turn our thoughts and contemplations to the Lord?
Next steps – Preparation: Find a favorite psalm or other passage of Scripture. Why is this a favorite? Do you sense a measure of delight reflecting on this passage? How does that sense of delight draw you further into the text? Share your observations with a Christian friend.
T. M. Moore
Watch my Conversations with Philip R. Jackson (click here and here), then download the accompanying brief devotional studies and the more detailed explanation of Mr. Jackson’s work, by clicking the links provided with each Conversation.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.