what might art have to teach us?

lichentreeAs I’ve mentioned before, a number of the Christian artists I know struggle with feelings of guilt. The message they often get — usually subliminally and not explicitly — from the Christian community is that they need to justify their ‘indulgence’.

One venerable way in which Christian artists have justified their art has been to highlight its didactic potential. What art can teach us.

That’s why Sir Philip Sydney in his Defense of Poesy makes such a point of insisting that good art serves both to delight and instruct.

We’ve become quite suspicious of the ‘didactic imperative’ in recent decades. In many ways, it goes back in many respects to the way our modern experts in propaganda have harnessed human creativity of all forms to smooth the way for great evil.

This adds fuel to the fire of the iconoclastic impulse, which we see in Calvin’s Institutes 1.XI, that calls upon Christians with artistic ability to employ their skills producing resources to prop up the kids’ Sunday School programme, for example. Didactism is a means of containing the potentially dangerous effects of beauty.

But I have some (non-rhetorical) questions:

  • Could it be possible to rehabilitate the question of what art might have to teach us? Can we find a way to draw a sustainable distinction between propaganda and didacticism?
  • On the flip side, can we broaden our sense of the ways in which art might instruct or edify? How might we be instructed by even Tim Winton’s kind of disturbing, murky, ambiguous, unresolved work that rams our nose up against some of the most confronting aspects of life (have a go at reading his latest, Breath, if you’re brave)?
  • How might the Church find ways to nurture artists who’ll train and stretch our imaginations and help us live as creatures as well as Christians (enjoying the goodness of this world that God has made, governs and promises to perfect — including his remarkable, dynamic gifts of human community and creativity)?


  1. Thanks for this Chris..
    I feel as though the discussions and arguments around this issue stem from the relationship between the “subjectivity and objectivity” of art.
    What I see as good art might not be good to others, therefore, for people who live in our age, and particularly our theological climate where we are so anxious about basing all that we believe on solid ground art falls under the category of ‘bad epistemic foundation’.
    I guess part of the problem is with contemporary art as well. No rules, no forms, anti-authoritarian.
    But the irony is.. in our lives there are so many moments when we learn to hope for something better or learn to treasure the delightful moments we have. i.e., having a baby, weddings, a moment when you are forgiven by someone, a moment when you are released from pressure. A moment when you want to forget…etc. And I do believe that art for some, does exactly that. Those moments indeed are subjective moments.. but in reality I do believe there is some objectivity to it..an objectivity that enables us to intuitively long or perhaps even the opposite, despise those moments, which then moves us forward to hope.

  2. You know I’m a Neanderthal when it comes to art – I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, and often just “don’t get it”. So please help me to “get it”.

    Is not the call to the artist the same as any other christian? Work out how to best use the gifts God gave you to serve the church? As the plumber helps plumb, the computer nerd helps network. the evangelist evangelises, the preacher preaches, the hospitable person practises hospitality. All to serve others at church.

    Note though that the aim is not self-fulfilment, but how to serve people at church. So whilst the executive may dream of executive teams, they are happy to clean the toilet, as this faithfully serves God and his people.

    In past churches I have seen artists create multimedia, design outlines, advertisements, set up the church meeting places to be aesthetically pleasing, and not offensive to the senses as so many are. I’ve seen them decorate rooms, write and act in plays, teach Sunday school (which seems to demand a great deal of artistic and creative skill), and draw cartoons.

    So – is that enough? What am I missing? And tell me – should there be a different set of “rules” for the artist? I’ve seen this argued for before – but as I said – I just don’t get it.


  3. Mike, why are you limiting the sphere in which we live for Christ to just the church? rather than the world?

  4. I’m not limiting the sphere in which we live for Christ. I just talked about ways the artist can serve at church. Not making a comment outside of that.

    If a plumber can earn a living by plumbing, so they should. I’m assuming it’s the same for an artist.

    Is there a difference?

    In all cases – surely one should live for God. Of course – I don’t think there’s an intrinsic right for the artist to earn a living by artistry, then for the plumber to by plumbing.

  5. So to clarify further – I’m a big fan of people serving God in whatever situation they are in – at church, at home, at work, even at the beach. We live for Christ in all situations, in every way, in every thought, word or deed, in every moment.

  6. Thanks for that Mike, I appreciate it. With the guilt thing that Chris mentioned earlier, some artists (I don’t want to generalize), feel guilty not when they do things for church but when they do things outside the church. And i think this is tide to our unconscious division we carry in our minds.

    working for God = professional ministry
    working for me = secular work

    All I want to say is Jesus is Lord of not just the church but the whole world. Which means Artists should not feel guilty when engaged in artistic activities outside of church.

    How are they serving the Lord with art?
    I think there are a number of points to be made here. I am working on thinking through some of these myself, and part of the problem is I do not have a working definition of ‘art’ yet.

    But some things I want to say now is,

    1. Art is a gift from God, as with all gifts there is the danger of misusing it, either in idolatry or by neglect. Artists can glorify God by thanking him for the gift of creativity as they engage in their activities. This attitude is a lost one definitely in our context, as it is all about self-glorification. ( OT examples of artists working on Temple)
    2. Artists can serve God by serving their neighbours to appreciate humanity and the potentialities with which God has made us. (We were made to ‘work’ in the garden)
    3. Artists can serve God by representing him, as the one who is not monotonous but ‘beautiful’ if I can use this term. The garden, the OT temple, The city in the new creation are all described in visually rich language.
    4. Gunton says that art is a vehicle in which you can glimpse into the future perfection that is to come. If it is, then this means that it is not an allegory but a real sign, a symbol for us to hope for the New Creation.

  7. another interesting thing to consider is O’Donovan’s definition of work, which though I’m sure I’ve mangled it, is something done for the benefit of society.

    So if your art benefits society, it is a good thing.


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