Appreciating the arts to the glory of God

From as early as I can remember, books, poetry, and literature have mattered to me a great deal. That interest intensified in my teens, and eventually led me to study English as a single honours subject at university – I had no career plans back in those care free, fee-free, days of undergrad education!

Lurking in the background for me, however, was a lingering conviction about how compatible my interest in the arts was with living authentically for Christ. Ironically, it was only when my studies finished, when my sense of calling to pastoral ministry became clear, and when reading and writing became a volitional activity once again that the conflict really took hold. Part of the problem was that I always knew that my appetite for the arts could easily usurp the place that my love for God should occupy; that the replacement ideology of Romanticism which forfeited God and supplanted him with (at best deistic) beauty was a source of temptation for anyone to whom the arts held appeal.

My immediate reaction was one of renunciation, of turning away from all artistic expression as having any valid claim on my time and thinking. This was a straightforward abandonment of something which had held a significant place in my life, and the frisson of laying it on the altar persuaded me that I was doing the right thing. With the passage of time, and with a better understanding (thanks to John Calvin) of how beauty can be appreciated and assimilated into a God-centred worldview I have come to rethink that early act of rejection.

Instrumental in this was my new-found enjoyment during my twenties and thirties of the Puritans. These were men who loved the Lord and who loved language, and who knew how to employ the latter in service of the former. Reading Brooks, Watson and Flavel pointed me to a path which could bear the weight of well chosen words as handmaidens to well digested truth.

In the past ten years I have methodically and prayerfully revived my interest in the arts, only this time with a better idea of their place and their purpose. Below are 4 priorities which have helped me, and may help others who face similar tensions. What I share has immediate reference to literary art, but could equally apply to other areas also:

1. Secure your fixed points: worldview is at the heart of any form of artistic expression, in liminal and subliminal terms. The very idea of expression, of authentic articulation, means that something of the belief system of the artist must be communicated. As a Christian I want this aspect of reading to inform me, to challenge me, but not to weaken my spiritual moorings. For this to be the case I need to know my own beliefs, I need to understand my own worldview, I need to be firm about what I believe so that I am not blown about with every wind of every idea. This means that I am coming to literature, not as an empty vessel, but as a committed believer who can see the worth of listening to voices other than my own, appreciating perspectives contrary to my own, but still knowing securely what ‘my own’ is.

2. Establish your ratios: related to this first point is the degree to which we feed our aesthetic appetite, and the degree to which we meet our spiritual needs. If we are going to invest time in reading we will want to make sure that the better percentage is directed towards our spiritual formation. A healthy diet of Bible reading will of necessity curtail the amount of our free time we can give to reading other literature, and if books are of interest to us we will want to give God the best of our intellect in understanding him better. Only after this can literature have a healthy place in our lives, and we must be constantly watchful of where these ratios stand.

3. Choose your material: diversity is of the essence of enjoying good literature, the ability to see through the eyes and get under the skin of people and places which are foreign to our minds and experiences. For the Christian this desire for diversity must be governed by choosing texts which are not blasphemous, scandalous, or gratuitous. We can persuade ourselves that we are cosmopolitan thinkers who can withstand the influence of what we read, but that is a vast overestimation of our strength and security. If we consistently expose our minds to material which is acerbically sceptical, or flagrantly immoral we have to ask how this fits with Paul’s counsel in Philippians 4:8 to feed our minds with the good.

4. Remember your purpose: the Christian reader, the Christian aesthete has a great benefit in their engagement with the arts. The celebration of beauty is not the heralding of some wispy human sentiment, but brings us right back to the giver of that beauty, and his purpose for our lives. I firmly believe that I cannot celebrate art for arts sake, but must rejoice in art for God’s sake, to glorify him by engaging my heart and mind in the given good that art can bring.

These simple principles have greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the arts, and by extension my enjoyment of God. By guarding against the legitimate love for literature becoming an ultimate love that sidelines the Lord, I have found a beautiful sense of harmony and confluence in my reading, writing, and rejoicing in the One who gives every good gift.

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