I enjoyed a wonderful sermon by my pastor, Rev. Michael Brown, on Bezalel and Oholiab and their artistry work in the temple (Exodus 31). One of the main points of the sermon was that God takes form and beauty seriously and has very high aesthetic standards. He also takes pleasure in the creativity of His creatures.
That God loves beauty and art is obvious in creation and in the fact that He has placed an artistic tendency in all of us. Even if we don’t all create art, we appreciate it to some extent. And even if we don’t all paint or compose, we use our creative faculties daily to beautify our life and the world around us.
The tragedy is what today’s American Christian culture has done to those natural artistic tendencies. They have repressed them, censured them, and minimized them. Many have already drawn striking similarities between the church in the Middle Ages and the evangelical churches of today. This is particularly true regarding art and censorship. Whenever we try to give art a pragmatic moral function, we cripple it, as history continues to prove. God sees art as something legitimate in itself. Rev. Brown quoted Francis Schaeffer as saying, “Art needs no justification.” Schaeffer also said, “The lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God.”
Rev. Brown pointed out that, with the fall, damage has come to God’s initial masterpiece. Christ came to restore creation to the beauty originally intended. It’s wonderful to understand our yearnings for beauty as parallel to our yearnings for holiness, as both will be present in full in the world to come.
The reason I chose this painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais for this blog entry is that I was struck by the story behind it. Millais was one of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of Romantic painters moved by the passion to reform art and bring it back to the intense colors and abundant details of Italian XIII century art and Flemish art. The Pre-Raphaelite movement has received much criticism and I am not making here a case for their art, but their passion and devotion is admirable. At a time when most artists were painting inside studios, Millais spent countless hours in the fields, studying nature in all its details. The poor model spent hours in a freezing bathtub (the candles used to warm the water had gone out and she was afraid to mention it) until she developed pneumonia.
What motivated this extreme devotion? An unquenchable yearning for beauty and perfection, something every artist will immediately identify as his or her own. God has put this yearning in all of our hearts and we need to recognize it and honor it. Sadly, we find it mostly in non-believers. But why? It seems that, of all people, we should share most intensely the groaning of nature waiting to be delivered (Romans 8:19-22).
Sometimes we hear, “See what passion and devotion non-believers show in their art? We need to show the same for God.” What those messages normally indicate, however, is that we should express our passion and devotion only in “spiritual” things such as worship and prayer, or practical things directed to the furtherance of the Gospel. We should have learned by this time that the Gospel is not promoted by a paranoiac fear of culture and the refusal to use our talents to express our yearnings and even groans. Thank God for the Psaltery and the honesty of those songs!
Last (I am already going over the time I have allowed myself for this), the passion and devotion that moved Millais to labour day after day in the reproduction of every blade of grass is an eulogy to accuracy and precision in our work. Rev. Brown exhorted us to flee mediocrity in our vocations. There is a wonderful word for mediocrity in Italian, “pressapochismo”. “Pressapoco” means almost, roughly, more or less… Pressapochismo is a noun derived from the adverb, meaning “roughliness” (my spell-check is telling me that the word doesn’t exist, but maybe it should.
It’s disheartening that Christians are often satisfied with mediocrity in the arts. It doesn’t matter if the music is poor, if the novel has no plot or the art is shoddy, as long as the message is there. God knows the pain I suffered after the artist of my first book stopped working for me. I thought it would be easy to find another artist, but I was faced with a choice of poor quality or prohibitive prices. Sometimes, sadly, Christian artists offered both! It was also a lonely struggle, because many Christian friends were puzzled by my suffering. Why should I care so much about the quality of the art? I am grateful to God who has provided a truly great artist (Matt Abraxas) for my third book, on John Owen.
Disclaimer: this blog entry is not meant to give an accurate summary of Rev. Brown’s sermon, but only my own impressions and thoughts. You can hear his sermon here: http://www.christurc.org/sermons_exodus.html