By David Feddes
A man takes a glass container, fills it with urine, and dumps a cross into it. He calls it art, gives it a title, and displays it in an art gallery. In fact, this so-called “art” ends up getting displayed in galleries all over the place.
Someone else make a strange picture of a woman’s face. Among the materials he uses to make her face are elephant dung and clippings from pornographic magazines. The maker of this mess declares the portrait to be the Virgin Mary and manages to get it displayed in a prominent art gallery funded by taxpayers.
Another would-be artist paints a copy of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” but he finishes the painting by putting a mustache and goatee on the woman’s face. He thinks he has made a profound artistic statement and manages to get his work displayed.
When lovely and precious things are handled in a disgusting way, the word for it is not art but vandalism. All too often, modern art finds itself unable to do anything but to produce trash and to trash anything beautiful from the past.
Perhaps these “artists” have talent of a sort, and perhaps they are showing their own feelings, but whatever can be said about their “art,” it cannot be called beautiful. It is ugly and absurd. I’m not insulting the artists by saying that; they want their art to be ugly and absurd because they think life is ugly and absurd. Many artists have surrendered to ugliness. Their work displays only the disgust and despair they feel inside. They don’t believe in beauty or in their ability to portray it.
But there have also been artists who do believe in a mysterious beauty from which other things get their beauty. They have sought as artists to produce hints and glimpses of transcendent beauty. Art doesn’t have to be ugly, and it hasn’t always been ugly. Throughout history there have been paintings and sculptures of astounding splendor and beauty. Much of the most beautiful art was prompted by reverence for Jesus Christ and dealt with themes from the Bible. And even when art didn’t have a biblical theme and only portrayed landscapes or people or scenes from everyday life, there was often a sense of beauty that flowed from Christian appreciation of beauty.
Jesus Christ is the central figure in the history of art. Much of the greatest art has been prompted by faith in Christ as the beautiful Savior. Even when some of today’s ugliest art tries to trash Jesus and anything associated with him, this ugly rebellion, in its own strange way, recognizes the defining power of Jesus in the artistic realm. When the masters of ugly want to shock us or show us how ugly the world seems to them, what do they do? They try to vandalize Jesus in some way. In so doing, they acknowledge in their own warped way that the supreme beauty—which they refuse to accept—is found in Jesus Christ.
Perfect in Beauty
When we think of Jesus, we may think of many things, but how often do we think of beauty? We may think of goodness or kindness or truthfulness, but how often do we think of Jesus as beautiful? Well, for starters, goodness, kindness and truthfulness are beautiful, more beautiful than any work of art. The character of Christ is not just duty but beauty. This inner, spiritual, personal beauty can’t be fully portrayed through paint, words, or music. This beauty is the beauty of holiness and love. We should never think that art is somehow better than divine reality.
Still, just because the spiritual beauty of Christ can’t be reduced to paint, words, or music doesn’t mean that painters, poets, and musicians shouldn’t try to give at least a hint of such beauty. The Lord didn’t just make an inner, spiritual world. He also created the physical world of sights, words, and sounds, and he hinted at the infinite inner beauty of the Creator through the finite outer beauty of created things. He also reveals his beauty through soul-stirring acts of salvation that have inspired marvelous music, literature, and visual arts. At its best, art not only portrays the human condition but also points beyond itself to a beauty that surpasses human limits. The most splendid paintings, sculptures, and architecture, the greatest literature, and the best music have power to stir the spirit with a sense of beauty beyond the artist’s work, a longing for beauty beyond description. Because Jesus is the source of that supreme, supernatural beauty, he has done more to awaken artistic beauty than anyone who ever lived.
This doesn’t mean artistic excellence is limited to Christian people. God is so generous with his gifts that even people without Christ are often blessed with splendid artistic gifts. In earth’s early history, the godless line of Cain produced some of the first musicians and architects. Throughout history non-Christian cultures have produced some splendid works of art. Just as God showers food and sunshine and other good gifts on those who don’t honor him, he also showers sparks of creativity and beauty on them. But even in non-Christian cultures, all true beauty has its secret source in Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made and in whom is God’s fullness of beauty and wisdom. And although God doesn’t hide all hints of beauty from non-Christians, beauty in art and architecture, literature and music, has reached its fullest flowering among people who know and love Christ and seek to express his beauty.
Before we look at various ways Christ has brought beauty to the arts, let’s first see what God’s book, the Bible, says about the beauty of the Lord himself.
A biblical poet says, “Perfect in beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2). Another biblical poet says he wants only one thing in life: “to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). In speaking of Jesus the Messiah, the Bible promises, “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty” (Isaiah 33:17).
Scripture speaks not only of God’s beauty but of the beauty that becomes ours when we worship him, are saved and loved by him, and are adorned with his beauty. Scripture says, “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness” (1 Chronicles 16:29; Psalm 29:2; Psalm 96:9). One benefit of salvation in Christ, says the Bible, is that God’s people receive “a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3). “In that day the Lord Almighty will be a glorious crown, a splendid wreath for the remnant of his people” (Isaiah 28:5). God will be their crown of beauty, and they will be jewels in his crown. “The Lord their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people. They will sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown. How attractive and beautiful they will be!” (Zechariah 9:16-17). Meanwhile, until that day of perfect beauty comes, God instructs us, “Whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
These biblical statements and others like them make it clear that beauty isn’t just a minor footnote; beauty is essential to God’s being, and to know God is to enjoy beauty and to become more beautiful. The gospel isn’t just true; it’s beautiful and attractive. “Sound theology always leads to a love of beauty,” writes Douglas Wilson. “When there is no love of beauty … there is no sound theology… A love for the triune and holy God is the foundation of any true love for beauty. Like the seraphim, we do not see this beauty directly, for our faces, like theirs, are of necessity covered. But the fact that this beauty is infinitely there means that other entities in this created world can reflect it, and we have the privilege to behold the beauty of the Lord in them.”
The gospel of Christ focuses far more on the salvation and transformation of persons than on cultural splendor. The soul of just one uneducated, unsophisticated person living in poverty is worth more than all the most magnificent paintings, statues, buildings, poems, novels, and musical compositions combined. Let’s never forget this, even as we look at Christ’s impact on the arts. At the same time, though, part of giving Christ his due is recognizing that beauty is often a product of salvation and that artistic beauty can be used by God to draw people out of themselves and toward the beautiful Savior.
Art and Architecture
Christ has had a powerful impact in art and architecture. In the earliest years of the church, Christians didn’t have the freedom or the finances to construct buildings or create much art. Because of persecution, they worshiped secretly, in homes and underground tunnels and other places the authorities would be less likely to find them. Faith was very much alive, but it was hard for art and architecture to develop. But when the church was legally recognized, Christian builders began to construct churches, and Christian artists began to produce more art. Like a plant that remains dormant in harsh winter weather and then blossoms in sunshine, Christian art and architecture was mostly dormant during persecution but then blossomed when the opportunity came.
Christians were among the first people to use mosaics made of glass pieces, and they also used colored glass to make magnificent stained glass windows. Honoring Jesus as the light of the world, they used light and color in beautiful ways.
Christian architects, most of their names unknown to us, designed splendid cathedrals with arches and spires that soared toward the heavens, drawing people’s eyes and hearts heavenward. Some of these buildings still stand today as stunning testimonies to the beauty and grandeur of the Lord. Not every place of worship was an architectural marvel, of course, but some were. And even the more modest structures were designed to cultivate reverence and joy in God Most High. Churches were not just warehouses or boxes full of seats; they were places to celebrate the beauty of the Lord and to worship him in the beauty of his holiness.
I am not an artist or an expert in art history, but it is safe to say that Christianity’s impact on art has been enormous. Without the Bible, Michelangelo’s sculptures of Moses and David would not exist, nor would his splendid paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Without Christ, Leonardo would never have produced “The Last Supper,” one of the supreme artistic achievements in the world. Without Christ, we would not have the paintings of Raphael and Rembrandt and countless other artists. Sometimes humanism was mingled with Christianity in the work of some artists, but the fact remains that the influence of Christ and the Bible produced art more beautiful than ever before. This beauty was seen not just in paintings of sacred subjects but in the way Christian artists dealt with other themes.
Back when God first asked Moses to build a place of worship, he called for skilled artists and craftsmen to make the tabernacle, the furnishings, and the ark of the covenant very beautiful. Later, King Solomon constructed a temple of astonishing splendor. Art and architecture were to honor the Lord, while never trying to capture God himself in an image or thinking a building could contain the Lord. Solomon said, “I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you” (1 Kings 8:13) but went on to acknowledge that even such a magnificent temple could not capture or contain God’s full magnificence. “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you,” exclaimed Solomon. “How much less this temple I have built.” Christian artists and architects throughout the centuries have tried to give hints of Christ’s beauty, while humbly recognizing that the beautiful Savior far surpasses art and architecture.
Today, some non-Christians admire the artistic achievements of Christians but still reject Christianity. But love of art for art’s sake is idol worship. Art can point to Christ but cannot replace him, and it cannot replace the Bible. When churches are better at pictures than preaching, when people depend more on visual aids than on the written Word of God, there is a drift away from true Christianity. Art is good in its place, but never at the expense of Christ or Scripture.
As we appreciate art, we must also keep in mind that art was made for man, not man for art. If the church spends more resources on grand buildings than on people in need, something is wrong. God’s greatest temple is not a building but people. Those who trust Christ are the temple of the Holy Spirit. As individuals and as the living church together, they, more than any building, are the place Christ dwells.
Let’s turn now from Christ’s impact on the visual arts to his impact on literature. The most important literature in the world is, of course, the Bible itself. The Bible has shaped the language, thought, and literature of the English language and the other languages of the Western world. The Bible is more than great literature, of course—it’s the Word of God. But even on its literary merits, the Bible is remarkable. No less an authority than the brilliant Goethe said that the Bible book of Ruth is the most perfectly crafted short story in world literature, while Charles Dickens declared that Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is the greatest story in all of literature.
Even non-Christian people from other cultures know that the Bible is the foundation of English literature. My friend Masao Yamashita lives in Tokyo and is the Back to God Hour’s broadcast minister in the Japanese language. Masao grew up in a non-Christian Japanese home and knew little about Christianity. He first came upon a copy of the Bible among his sister’s school books. She had been taking a course on English literature, and the Japanese teachers of English literature knew that the Bible is absolutely indispensable to English literature. Masao started reading his sister’s Bible and read it cover to cover several times, not just for its literary quality but because God was speaking to him in those pages. Eventually he put his faith in Christ and became a minister of the gospel. Masao found that the Bible is much more than a literary masterpiece. But don’t miss the point that even Japanese non-Christians know enough to know that any study of English literature must begin with the Bible.
Beowulf, one of the literary landmarks of Old English, is influenced by Christian thought. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would not exist without Christianity, nor would the plays and poetry of William Shakespeare. Not everything Shakespeare wrote was God-honoring, but his way of looking at the world was shaped by Christianity, his language was informed by the Bible, and his personal faith focused on Jesus. Shakespeare said, “I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting; and my body to the earth, whereof it is made.”
Any list of the masterpieces of English literature would have to include Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. The greatest epic poem in English is Paradise Lost, written by Christian poet John Milton. In more recent times, The Lord of the Rings arose from the deeply Christian mind of J.R.R. Tolkien, and Tolkien’s Christian friend C.S. Lewis also wrote some outstanding works. Even non-Christian writers such as Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway were shaped by their Christian setting and dealt with themes that would never have arisen without Christianity.
In the Russian language, who can match the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky? Both men had personal flaws, but their brilliant writing seeks to understand our world in the light of Jesus Christ. In Italian, The Divine Comedy of Dante is the most splendid poem in Italian literature and perhaps in all of literature. In French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and many other languages, literature would be impoverished apart from the impact of Christianity.
I won’t belabor the point further. It’s beyond dispute that the Bible is the masterwork of world literature and that Christ has influenced literature more than anyone else.
Now let’s talk about music. This is another area where the beautiful Savior has made a huge difference. God’s people are singing people. Biblical writers often say things such as “The Lord is my strength and my song” (Psalm 118:14) or “I will sing and make music to the Lord” (Psalm 27:6). The Bible commands, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy” (Psalm 33:3). “Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious!” (Psalm 66:2) The early Christians were told, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (James 5:13). In the book of Revelation, Christ shows heaven to be a place with much music, singing, and celebration.
Not all Christian singing involves artistically excellent poetry and music, but much of it does. Music historian Donald Grout says, “The history of Western art music properly begins with the music of the Christian Church.” Christian congregations and choirs made music matter, and hymn writers and musicians were musical pioneers in many different ways.
Modern musical notation began with a Christian named Guido of Arezzo. Musical notes and scores on paper did for music what written language did for literature. This made it possible for music to exist even when nobody performed it for a long time. It also made music theory possible. Other musical advances, such as polyphony and harmony, were also the work of Christians.
Johann Sebastian Bach, called the father of modern music and thought by many to be the supreme genius in music history, was aiming to honor Christ with his music. Bach was the first to play keyboard instruments with five fingers and the first to offer a well-tempered musical scale.
Handel’s “Messiah” is a musical treasure with words taken entirely from the Bible and its focus entirely on Jesus the Messiah. Handel said that when he was composing it, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” There are many other masters whose music would not exist without Christ, including Mendelssohn and Mozart.
Even moving from the realm of high art to popular music, it turns out than many musicians got their start in churches and gospel choirs. Some remain Christian, while others rebel against Christ and produce anti-Christian music, but the fact remains that even then, they owe their musical talent and their first musical experiences to Christianity.
In looking at Christ’s imprint on the arts, we see that our best and most beautiful cultural treasures owe a great deal to Christianity. But let me emphasize again that Christians don’t worship high culture or good taste. Many followers of Jesus don’t have the time or the taste for great art, literature, or music, but they are spiritually more beautiful and closer to God than many a cultural connoisseur. Also, Christians don’t despise all books, films, and music that don’t qualify as high art. It’s okay for stories and songs to be amusing, fun, exciting, or relaxing without necessarily being deep or splendid. Still, it’s worthwhile to note the beauty, depth, and splendor that are included among Christ’s cultural gifts to the world.
In many cases the arts have fallen on hard times as more and more artists despair of beauty and try to express themselves, rather than try to give hints of God’s glory and Christ’s beauty. Art at its best is not self-expression but expression of the beauty of the Lord. C. S. Lewis put it well when he wrote,
Our whole destiny seems to lie … in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is no our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours… an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.
Those are important words for artists, authors, and musicians, and they are important words for us all. The most important thing in life is to display less of ourselves and more of Christ, the beautiful Savior.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.