The Good, True and Beautiful - Philip Ryken
The Good, the True, and the Beautiful
by Philip Graham Ryken
The latitude God gives to the arts does not mean that anything goes. God has high standards for art, as he does for everything else. Using Exodus 31 as a guide God's aesthetic standards include goodness, truth, and beauty. And these standards are not relative; they are absolute. A Christian view of art thus stands in opposition to the postmodern assumption that there are no absolutes.
Goodness is both an ethical and an aesthetic standard. Obviously, Bezalel and Oholiab were not allowed to make anything that violated the Ten Commandments – especially the second commandment, which outlawed idolatrous images of the divine being, or any other form of false worship (see Ex. 20:4-5). Similarly, Christian artists are not allowed to make anything that is immoral or that is designed to serve as an object of religious worship. But goodness is also an aesthetic category. Israel's artists were called to make good art-art that was excellent, art that demonstrated thorough mastery of technique in a particular artistic discipline. At the end of his instructions, God said that Bezalel and Oholiab were to make everything according to his specifications (Ex. 31:11), and if we scan the preceding chapters, we see just how specific God can be. God's careful instructions for building the tabernacle remind us that his perfection sets the standard for whatever we create in his name. Whatever we happen to make – not only in the visual arts, but in all the arts – we should make it as well as we can, offering God our very best.
This is not to say that the Bible provides any specific information about the skills required for any particular form of art. Rather, the standards for artistic goodness come from creation itself. They are intrinsic to the physical materials-to the sights and the sounds-of any artistic craft. "What can an artist use but materials, such as they are?" wrote Annie Dillard. "What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that's burnt out, any muck ready to hand?"! So the photographer learns the properties of light and shadow, as well as the technical aspects of taking and developing photographs. Or the vocalist learns to sing by experimenting with resonance, articulation, and other factors in the production of sound, and then by listening to the results. What constitutes excellence in these and other art forms is inherent in the art forms themselves, and thus it comes from God as part of his general revelation. The difference between good art and bad art is not something we learn from the Bible, primarily, but from the world that God has made. But what the Bible does tell us is that God knows the difference, and that he has a taste for excellence.
To be pleasing to God, art must be true as well as good. Truth has always been one important criterion for art. Art is an incarnation of the truth. It penetrates the surface of things to portray them as they really are. The tabernacle is a good example. The whole building was designed to communicate truth about God and his relationship with his people. And in order to fulfil this purpose, the artistry that went into the tabernacle had to be true. It had to be true to nature. When it represented something in creation - flowers, for example, or pomegranates-it had to be true to what God had made. It also had to be true to who God is. Each part of the tabernacle said something about God. The golden ark symbolized the authority of his royal throne; the bronze basin signified his power to wash away sin; and so forth. In order to accurately communicate these truths, the tabernacle had to tell the truth. Its art was in the service of its truth.
Art communicates truth in various ways. Sometimes it tells a story, and the story is true to human experience-it is an incarnation of the human condition. Sometimes art tells the truth in the form of propositions. This is especially characteristic of literary art forms, which speak with words. Art can also convey emotional and experiential truth, and it can do this without words, as is often the case with music. But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation-the story of God's creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ.
Modern and postmodern art often claim to tell the truth about the pain and absurdity of human existence, but that is only part of the story. The Christian approach to the human condition is more complete, and for that reason more hopeful (and ultimately more truthful). Christian artists celebrate the essential goodness of the world that God has made, being true to what is there. Such celebration is not a form of naive idealism, but of healthy realism. At the same time, Christian artists also lament the ugly intrusion of evil into a world that is warped by sin, mourning the lost beauties of a fallen paradise. When truly Christian art portrays the sufferings of fallen humanity, it always does so with a tragic sensibility, as in the paintings of Rembrandt. There is a sense not only of what we are, but also of what we were: creatures made to be like God.
Even better, there is a sense of what we can become. Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose. Art is always an interpretation of reality, and the Christian should interpret reality in its total aspect, including the hope that has come into the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather than giving in to meaninglessness and despair, Christian artists know that there is a way out. Thus they create images of grace, awakening a desire for the new heavens and the new earth by anticipating the possibilities of redemption in Christ. And according to the Dutch critic Hans Rookmaaker, it is the Christian teaching about grace that resolves
the very practical problem of how we are to live in a world that is full of sin and ungodliness. Where things are loving, good, right and true, where things are according to God's law and His will for creation, there is no problem. The Christian will appreciate and actively enjoy and enter into all the good things God has made. But where they have been spoilt or warped by sin, then the Christian must show by his life, his words, his action, his creativity what God really intended them to be. He has been made new in Christ, been given a new quality of life which is in harmony with God's original intention for man. He has been given the power of God Himself by the Holy Spirit, who will help him to work out his new life into the world around him.2
The kind of art that glorifies God is good, true, and, finally, beautiful. Today it sometimes seems as though the art world is struggling to overcome an aesthetic of ugliness. Beauty used to be one of the artist's highest priorities; now for many artists it is among the lowest priorities, if it is even a criterion for artwork at all. But God is a great lover of beauty, as we can see from the collection of his work that hangs in the gallery of the universe. Form is as important to him as function. Thus it was not enough for the tabernacle to be laid out in the right way; it also had to be beautiful. There was beauty in the color of its fabrics, the sparkle of its gems, the shape of its objects, and the symmetry of its proportions. The tabernacle was a thing of beauty. God made sure of this by taking the unprecedented step of endowing its artists with the gift of his Spirit. All of this tells us something about what kind of artist God is: an artist who loves beauty.
Beauty and truth belong together. As the poet John Keats said in his famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "beauty is truth, truth beauty-that is all ye need to know." Taken literally, Keats's identification of truth and beauty (to say nothing of his claim that this is the sum of all knowledge) is an exaggeration; yet truth and beauty are interconnected. The problem with some modern and postmodern art is that it seeks to offer truth at the expense of beauty. It tells the truth only about ugliness and alienation, leaving out the beauty of creation and redemption. A good deal of so-called Christian art tends to have the opposite problem. It tries to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false – dishonest about the tragic implications of our depravity. Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall, or the light, cheery melodies that characterize the Christian life as one of undiminished happiness. Such a world may be nice to imagine, but it is not the world God sent his Son to save.
So what kind of art is able to meet God's standards, as exemplified in the tabernacle? Not art that is bad, false, or ugly, but art that incarnates the good, the true, and the beautiful. In other words, our art must be in keeping with the character of our God, who himself is good, true, and beautiful. The Scripture says that God is good and does good (e.g., Pss. 107:1; 119:68), that he is truthful and true (e.g., Isa. 45: 19; 1 Thess. 1 :9), and that he is beauteous in his being (Ps. 27:4). And now this good, true, and beautiful God says to us, in words that might well serve as a manifesto for Christianity and the arts: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things" (Phil. 4:8). Although this verse has wider implications for the whole Christian life, at the very least it outlines a set of ethical and aesthetic norms for the artist and for art.
This does not mean that goodness, truth, and beauty are always easy to define (especially beauty). Nor does it mean that Christian artists never portray anything ugly. We have truth to tell about the ugliness of a fallen world. Indeed, Christianity offers the best explanation for that ugliness in its doctrine of depravity: the world has been spoiled by sin. Francis Schaeffer helpfully identified this as "the minor theme" of Christian art, namely, the lostness of humanity outside of Christ and the "defeated and sinful side to the Christian's life." But we are always drawn to the beauty that endures-the truth of what we were, what we are, and what we can become in Christ. According to Schaeffer, this is "the major theme" of the Christian worldview: the grace of God that gives meaning and purpose to life.3 In a world that has been uglified by sin, the Christian artist shows the plausibility of redemption by producing good work that is true in its beauty.
1. Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 72.
2. H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 38.
3. F.A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 56-59.
This is a chapter in P.G. Ryken Art for God’s Sake. A Call to Recover the Arts, P&R Publishing - Philipsburg, 2006.
Philip Graham Ryken is President of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, USA.