H.R. Rookmaaker - The Christian and Art
The Christian and Art
by H.R. Rookmaaker
The subject of art has been almost wholly neglected in Protestant circles
during the last few centuries. This aspect of Puritanism was a result of a
mystical tendency which, in turn, was derived from medieval and
pietistic interpretations of Scripture. Art thus became a problem in
Bible-believing circles. At present several Protestant scholars are seeking
a solution to this problem, mainly in the area of art theory and criticism,
for the purpose of showing that a Christian analysis may also present
answers to questions of art. The norm for our attitude to art, however,
may not be sought in an attempt to build up an aesthetic of our own
since this is, of course, subjective and transient. Nor is this necessary for
the topic at hand. For the issues in question actually concern the nature
of a Christian way of life, and about this the Bible is explicit. From this
vantage point the subjectivity of the individual (type, character,
development) may also be taken into account.
A gift of God for enjoyment
It is wrong to pose an antithesis between one’s professional life and the
enjoyment of art in the same way that sincerity may be opposed to
light-heartedness, seriousness to frivolity, responsibility to trifling, or
constraint to joy. Such a distinction is humanistic. For both toil and
enjoyment have their respective place and purpose (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
The enjoyment of art belongs to the gifts which God presents to his
children for their happiness (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11-13).
There are many types of art, each fulfilling its own function. In music we
can differentiate between background music, folk songs, church music,
concert music, etc. Each of these has its own task and laws. During a
parade a concert by Bach is out of place, and a march played at a church
meeting is equally inappropriate. In pictorial art the distinction between
book illustrations, decorative murals and paintings is quite clear. Similar
differences in function can be noted in literature and the dramatic arts.
In each genre we discover various levels. Each kind requires a different
programme. Thus, varying levels of understanding – depending upon
knowledge, experience, education and other factors – give rise to
various kinds of art.
Art thus has many facets. And that which one is seeking or
presenting must be selected with tact and insight into the demands
made by the particular function and level. This, too, is a norm.
Function of art
Art or entertainment (both are fundamentally the same, although the
words perhaps denote different levels and functions) bring us into
contact with reality in two ways. In the first place every piece of art
reveals to us some portion of reality of which we were perhaps ignorant.
It opens our eyes to beauties and peculiarities not experienced before.
A landscape painting, for instance, may show the beauty of certain
clouds or colours; a song may evoke new emotions. In the second place,
any work of art has a reality of its own that may have considerable impact
on our lives. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’
Considering these two facets of art, it is evident that the view of life
which is incorporated into a specific work of art will be of great
importance. If it is borne by a kindred spirit it can be enjoyed without
many obstacles (e.g. seventeenth-century Dutch art, the music of Schütz
or Bach, real Christian literature). But if it expresses another world and
life view there will be a kind of conversation between us and the author
(not to be considered as an individual but as a member of some group
or the advocate of a tendency). Even this may be an enrichment of life
and may deepen one’s view of reality, spiritual as well as visual. If the
work of art seems to be a curse, or leads thought and imagination in a
sinful direction, then we may cease the conversation by turning away. In
general it can also be stated that here the word of our Lord is valid, that
not what goes into people defiles them but what comes out of them
(Matthew 15:11). Reading a book of an obviously non-Christian
character, for example, is not sinful in itself and does not necessarily
distract us from the Lord. Sometimes such reading may even deepen our
faith. Christians need only guard their own thoughts, words and deeds.
The Lord has given us freedom in the realm of art. This is not
humanistic freedom, in which people seek to be either godless or
godlike, but it is the freedom of Romans 8 and Galatians, a holy freedom
to read, look at and listen to art as it speaks to us. It has often been
darkened because Christians undertook to guard the children of the
Lord against evil by their own means or strength, not trusting in the
Lord with all their hearts. At such times they thought it proper to
introduce many commandments and regulations of their own, with the
result that the love due to the Lord waxed cold. But the Lord has told
us to trust him and, because we are ‘perfect in Jesus Christ’, who has
delivered us from the power of darkness and in whom our sins are
forgiven, we must not enslave ourselves to human ordinances.
Paul’s words in Colossians 2:23-3:17 are especially important in this
respect. For his argument clearly shows that Christian liberty in matters
of art does not mean ungodliness or sinful engagement in the ways of
the world. Although Christians are free, they are nevertheless in
Christ and therefore will not want to engage in sinful things, even in
the realm of art.
Does Scripture present any norms for art? Before answering this
question it must be stressed that the Bible does not say that only
believers can create good art. For instance, Solomon received assistance
from a heathen king and his artists in building the Temple. As long as a
person abides by the rules of art, respects nature, i.e. the structures of
God’s creation, his or her art can be sound. (Picasso’s art, for example,
is often not sound in that he pictures many parts of the body in a wrong
place, i.e. in a place contrary to God’s created order.) The observation
that unbelievers are able to produce sound art is not contradicted by the
fact that frequently their art reveals their disobedience to God’s laws and
their lack of love for him and their neighbours, especially in our times
when artists have gained a deep consciousness of their own standpoint.
The consciousness of the modern artist has been excellently described
as ‘the courage and honesty of a mind valiantly beating itself to
destruction against the locked and barred door of an unknown and
perhaps non-existing reality’. The final consequence of such a
viewpoint is that artists take their stand against God and his creation.
Their art reveals their antipathy towards the divinely created order of
nature (observe the defilement of this order in many modern works of
art) and against human being (a revolutionary spirit that takes pleasure
in degrading traditional or human values). But, on the other hand, even
in our time the most modern of the modern, such as Picasso, sometimes
produce beautiful works of art, although these works may not always
follow from the artist’s own world and life view. In general one can say
that in art the critic must always exercise care to criticize the work of art
as it offers itself to her or his perception and to define the spirit which
it represents and not to judge the artist personally, since that [judgment]
is reserved for God himself.
Although the Bible does not present any rules for art as such, a passage
like Philippians 4:8 offers a clue to what the Lord desires art to be.
This text concerns the Christian’s whole behaviour, art included.
The following exegesis is focused on art, showing the norms of Scripture
In the first place, the Christian must consider truth. This means that
the artist must pay careful attention to the structures and possibilities
that God laid down in nature. This is not a plea for a radical naturalism
that injures reality by the exclusion of the human interpretative and
normative aspects of life. Nor does this mean that fantasy must be
shunned, or that everything must be rendered in perfect detail. But it
does mean that fantasy and fiction are to be employed for the
promotion of truth – not its debasement. Truth is bound to the Second
great Commandment, the love of one’s neighbour, which may oblige us
to clothe sin or to refrain from relating affairs which may lead others
into sin. Truth in art involves praise of the beauties of creation, the
beauty of good works and the greatness of God, who helps, guides and
may chastise the person who does not heed his commands. There must
also be due respect for the subjective truth that may be incorporated
into a work of art: a person may believe an opinion to be true and when
relating this must be respected for it since he or she did not attempt to
lie. This respect is due also if the opinion is a lie when confronted with
the truth of the Scriptures. For a forthright approach is always to be
preferred to half-truths hidden under seemingly correct and justified
words, which are much more dangerous since they imply a more or less
hypocritical attitude on the part of the author in question.
The second standard mentioned in Philippians 4:8 is honesty. We may
– and at times must – talk about sin. But this must be done in such a way
that no one is misled by it. Sin can be related in a pure and honest
manner, without pedantry. Honesty demands openheartedness and
clarity in speech along with scriptural dignity and restraint.
Paul further advises us in this passage that people must think about
the things that are just [or right]. This does not mean that (in the work
of art) the righteous always prosper while the sinners are unhappy. This
is evident from scriptural passages such as Psalm 73. Nevertheless, a work
of art should indicate what is right and wrong.
Whatsoever is pure is next. Purity does not mean neglect of sexual
and erotic realities but rather avoidance of exhibitionism so often found
especially in contemporary literature. In this respect also the Scriptures
point the way to a simultaneity of realism and purity.
Art should also be characterized by loveliness. Artists must search for
beauty and harmony. They should not unnecessarily subject their
readers and interpreters to fright, fearful noise, terrifying tales, awful
feelings, gruesome cruelties. In short, they may not violate the Second
great Commandment by throwing their fellow human beings into a
mental or psychic pit without any artistic catharsis. Fearful things need
to be told sometimes, but they may never be a goal in themselves – and
a dissonant passage must find a ‘lovely’ solution. Loveliness is a clear
command, but it must not be misunderstood. For it is well possible that
drama may be fine if it is truthful and reveals beauty, while comedy may
be saddening if it serves sin or violates truth.
Last but not least, Paul advises attention to be focused on things of
good report [praiseworthy]. Every artist who is conscientious endeavours
to serve his or her neighbour, and whatever desires truth and justice
deserves praise. This is true whether the artist is a Christian or not, but
more so if the ways of life according to the Scriptures are observed.
Evaluation of art
These suggested principles must be employed in judging art, whether
judging the work of a Christian or an unbeliever. Moreover, the
observations made in the second section must be kept in mind:
it may happen that a Christian has little understanding of reality and
violates the law in this respect, and that an unbeliever is right. A work of
art will be all the greater if the artist knows and fears the Lord, shows
insight into God’s creation, and is sufficiently talented to make a real
work of art.
The critic must judge with understanding, not mercilessly, and never
with pride. The critic must be careful to do justice to whatever qualities
a work of art may have. The remarks at the end of the section on non-
Christian art are relevant here also.
Indispensability of art
Art is a gift of God. It means much in our lives, for it can give great joy
and enhance the beauty of life. It may bring us into contact with reality
in a variety of ways and, by means of modern art for instance, we can
come to a better understanding of the spirit of our times and the
strivings of our fellow human beings. Art may thus increase our faith. It
can deepen our insight into reality as it exists in all its fullness – in its
beauty, its God-given goodness, even in its sin and iniquity. In the
awareness of the ways of our time and of the spiritual problems of our
fellow human beings as these are revealed in their art, we may be able to
give an answer to their specific questions, opening the Scriptures with an
eye to their special needs. In this way we may not only help others to love
the Lord but even aid our world in solving its problems. These problems
are profound, so that a mere surface knowledge of them might make us
hard in our judgment and superficial in our answers.
If we seek to banish art and beauty from our lives, we not only miss
very much and render our ears and eyes barren but we are also
ungrateful to God and, even worse, we offend him by calling unworthy
what he made for the sake of humankind. This is true even though the
realm of art presents its problems and pains to the Christian, who is a
stranger in this world that is still touched by unholiness.
Structure of art
It is not possible here to develop a complete theory of the structure of
art. Instead, some remarks on the visual arts will be offered which are
also valid mutatis mutandis for the other arts.
A picture consists basically of materials (paints on canvas, lines, etc.)
which have an objective psychological function, i.e. they can be seen and
they make certain impressions. But these lines, colours and forms
denote something, be it a head or a landscape or a story. They compose
the iconical facet of art, and this facet can be compared to language
since it also has its ‘syntax’ and ways of ‘speech’, in short, its own laws
and positive forms which make it possible for us to understand what is
expressed. In the study of ancient art one must always be careful not to
misunderstand it, for we are not familiar with its ‘language’. For
example, a common misinterpretation occurs in dealing with fifteenth-century
art when people are led by the apparent naturalism of the
paintings to interpret them as portraying a given reality. Therefore one
wonders at the naïve way in which the old masters interpreted Bible
stories, as if they supposed that in biblical times people wore clothes like
those of the painter’s own day and lived in the same type of
environment. But the truth is that there is here no question of any
portrayal of a historical reality, reporting things as they appeared e.g. in
AD 30. These paintings really present homiletically a theological truth in
formulations which can be compared to creedal statements in their
rigidity and unalterableness. And because these truths are eternal and
not restricted to a certain moment of history, the painters attempted to
make clothes and environment as irrelevant as possible by merely giving
them the forms of their own world. In short, painting also has its figures
of speech and a changing language. Perspective and naturalism or non-naturalism
in its different forms are means of expression, and these
means change with the times. Here the norm is – as for language –
clarity. When a picture expresses itself clearly in the pictorial language
of its time, it is good in an iconical sense.
This is the first critical examination we have to make. The next step in
riticism concerns what is said and the truth of this message.
This iconical element is present also in other visual objects of human
making, e.g. in maps, picture statistics, sign boards, etc. In a work of art
these iconical elements are organized in such a way that they form a
harmonious whole, a composition that has its rhythmic and relational
qualities. Beauty in visuality (in human artefacts) is also found outside of
the visual arts – in ornaments, ceramics, silverware, proportion in
buildings. But in a pictorial work of art this compositional beauty is
directed towards the organization of the iconical elements, which in
themselves are arranged in such a way that they can be bearers of beauty
in that respect.
Theoretically it would be true to say that if the content of a work of
art is expressed clearly but is a lie as such, its beauty will also be
intrinsically impaired, since sin cannot be beautiful. But we live in an
abnormal world (i.e. between the Fall and the Second Coming of Christ)
and sometimes beauty exists when ungodly things are expressed. And it
may happen that beauty is lacking even when the contents of the work
of art are truthful in the deepest sense. For beauty is debased because of
an ungodly starting point. This is true in many instances in modern art,
where artists seek for ugliness just in order to express their hatred
against traditional values, and in the deepest sense, against the God
whose creation they knowingly detest. But these are extremes. In the
main, one can say that even unbelievers will obey the laws of beauty
given in creation. And they will often look at reality and tell about the
things they have seen, for otherwise they will not be understood since
they would be creating mere incomprehensible phantoms. So even
when one does not agree with the Mariolatrous exposition given in a
certain painting by van Eyck or Raphael, one may see truth in the
observation of the reality of womanhood, the beauty of precious stones,
or the peculiarities of a landscape.
We mention all these matters only to draw attention to the fact that
the evaluation of a certain picture according to the principles discussed
in the section on evaluation may be relatively easy, but that the analysis
of the picture with regard to its elements will not always be so easy. The
problems are complex, and the study of them is still at its very beginning.
Originally published in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Wilmington – Delaware, 1964.
Also published in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.