Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Art for God's Sake" by Philip Graham Ryken

Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2006. 64 pages. $5.99. [First published in Denver Journal.]

A small book on a big topic is a dangerous proposition. It may show disrespect for its subject by bragging that it can be read in a short time, such as Kant in 90 Minutes. (Kant in 90 minutes is not Kant at all.) On the other hand, a short book can thoughtfully introduce a profound subject worthy of further consideration; it may be a primer. Art for God’s Sake is a worthy primer; it addresses the relationship of Christian faith and art in the hope of helping Christians “recover the arts.”

Philip Graham Ryken, Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and the author of several previous books, including Written in Stone (an insightful study of the Decalogue), has in sixty-four pages outlined a biblical view of art’s place in God’s world. Ryken is moved by the plight of the Christian artist whose calling and work is misunderstood or rejected by the church. He realizes that Christians may be suspicious of art because of their concern for idolatry and their repulsion toward much of contemporary art, which has abandoned the ideal of beauty and revels in the bizarre, the transgressive, and the outright ugly. Ryken also laments that Christians too often reduce art to utilitarian and evangelistic purposes that fail to honor art as art. Further, Christians often laud art that does not take the brokenness of life east of Eden seriously. Quite frequently, Christian art is little more than pious kitsch, which he aptly describes as “tacky artwork of poor quality that appeals to low tastes” (p. 14).

Yet art should be consecrated to the glory of God, and Ryken instructs us briefly to that end. Thus he develops a sound theology of art based on the beauty of God’s creation, our status as creative beings made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), and God’s calling on individuals to create works of art. Ryken ruminates at some length on the significance of the calling of Bezalel and Oholiab, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to be skilled craftsmen in the construction of God’s tabernacle, his beautiful dwelling place (Exodus 31). God “called artists to make the tabernacle, and to make sure that they did it well, he equipped them with every kind of artistic talent. By doing this, God was putting the blessing of his divine approval on both the arts and the artist” (22). Moreover, these craftsmen produced “three kinds of visual art: symbolic, representative, and nonrepresentative (or abstract) art” (33), thus showing God’s endorsement of these forms. These are only two of the significant insights that Ryken draws from the tabernacle.

More generally, “the kind of art that glorifies God is good, true, and, finally, beautiful” (42). While truth and beauty are not identical, contra Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” they belong together. Ryken notes, “The problem with some modern and postmodern art is that it seeks to offer truth at the expense of beauty. It tells the truth about ugliness and alienation, leaving out the beauty of creation and redemption” (43). On the other hand, “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…” (43). (Ryken does not name names, but he is surely thinking of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings.)

Ryken aptly summarizes this thesis in the concluding chapter, “Beautiful Savior.” “This is the Christian view of art: the artist is called and gifted by God—who loves all kinds of art; who maintains high aesthetic standards for goodness, truth, and beauty; and whose glory is art’s highest goal” (p. 53). He then concludes with a meditation on Christ’s death and resurrection in light of this thesis. The ugliness of human sin required that an all-beautiful and all-glorious God send his Son to become a disfigured and mutilated sacrifice that we might be redeemed. In this sense, “the cross screams against all the sensibilities of his divine aesthetic” (55). Yet this was the only way for redemption to be won: “Sin had brought ugliness and death into the world. In order to save his lost creation, God sent his Son right into the absurdity and alienation. There Jesus took our sin himself, dying to pay the price that justice demanded. It was such an ugly death that people had to turn away” (55-56). But God transformed this ugliness into beauty through the resurrection, in which Christ is given a glorious and triumphant body. In light of these tremendous realities, “we should devote our skill to making art for the glory of God, and for the sake of his Son—our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ” (58).

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary


Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, but what would Oscar Wilde say?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I have no idea.

Susan said...

"The object of art is to stir the most divine and remote of the chords which make music in our soul; and colour is indeed, of itself a mystical presence on things, and tone a kind of sentinel." ~Oscar Wilde

Nate said...

Excuse me for interrupting, but I have written a comment in the past about this, which sort of applies here:

"The sensing of beauty is just that, a sensory experience. It is Universal in that humans all experience it. We all sense, we all think, we all interpret that information and we all feel an emotive response to that interpreted information. We all must sense pretty much the same since no one likes to be burned, and everyone likes human touch, etc. When we think and interpret, this is where we differ, and the term ‘taste’ is applied. Taste, however, does not change the universality of beauty, just the referent (its application). This sense of beauty is an inherent function of human beings. It is freely given to all, and brings us great joy.
Beauty hits us unexpectedly, we can’t force it or fake it. We can learn
more about something which can cause us to expand what makes us feel it; but we can’t expand it. We have no control and are subjected to either experiencing or refusing to experience it. There are those forms which have a more universal appeal, where there is a stronger consensus about what is or is not beautiful.

Beauty does not save us from death, or pain; but it can have a positive effect nonetheless. It might shift us out of many experiential negatives such as boredom and anger, but is that its function? Can we recapture the wonder at divine perfection that the ancients seemed to have in abundance? If beauty were allowed to have its way with our spirit, I believe that we would be transported beyond the physical into the spiritual, which was precisely the original intention of Byzantine and Gothic architecture.
However, and I must be candid here, beauty is not perfection, but leads to it. God is beautiful, beauty is not God. Many Christians seem to think that our fallen state is completely against beauty. But does the geographic strata of the Grand Canyon become ugly, for example, once we find that it is built upon the death of thousands of creatures? Can we not find beauty in the temporal that leads to the eternal, even that state of ugliness just before glory? Can we see beauty in the half eaten leaf, the rust at the bottom of an automobile?
It seems to be the opinion of many today that the contemporary art world focuses on the outlandish, and there is some truth to that. But a major feature of the work that does not get splashed into the face of the public is its strong search for beauty. The beauty it strives to find is in the forms that were previously considered ugly or misshapen. Perhaps if beauty can be found there then maybe there is still meaning in a world that seems to have been consumed and obsessed by corruption.
Many works by secular artists actually focus on redemption. Materials and subject matter that has been overlooked in the past, or rendered as garbage, is being placed in the view of the public, not because it is ugly, but in an attempt to make the ugly beautiful by changing our traditional aesthetic categories. Whether or not this is even possible is not the question, neither is the result, but the intent. No individual would spend hours developing works that were meaningless to them, even if they claimed it were so.
The solution is not to ban, or react to the work negatively, but to see that there is a heart and soul to the individual who produces the work. Negative press does follow many of the fringe artists in the contemporary art scene, but they do not represent the whole and viewers should be allowed to look beyond the sensationalism at what is really going on.
Many Christian views on art are written by philosophers and theologians, where is the voice of the Christian artist today? Let them talk about their views of the arts and even the church, as a long neglected part of the Body of believers, I think they will give a long needed fresh perpective."

Jonathan Erdman said...

I was also thinking about this one from The Portrait of Dorian Gray:

"All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors....

...All art is quite useless"

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

"All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors....

...All art is quite useless"

This strikes me as absured, that there is no objective meaning to art and no reason to savor it. Ryken argues otherwise quite persuasively.

Blogredaktör said...

Pretty good ambitions with the blog
Mr Groothius!!!

Greetings from a "swed" - who is intresting in (christian)art:

Look at a swedish painters
Janeric Johansson

Blogredaktör said...

Pretty good ambitions.....Mr Groothius.
I´m intrestings in
"the problems" with creative
activity as (christian) art.

Look at Janeric Johansson. a swedish painters

PS. I know about your articles on www .............