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Why Christians Should Care About Meaning in Art

Christians claim to be concerned with meaning. They debate over the meaning of texts of Scripture, and urge particular hermeneutics, so as to arrive at the correct meaning of Scripture. Many claim to be concerned with the meaning of cultural trends, explaining their ethical significance. Some are fascinated with current events, and are hungry to hear some Christian interpretation of the meaning of these events. Few Christians would openly confess to an indifference to meaning in general.

Enough Evangelical Christians are indifferent to meaning in art, though. Art (meaning music, literature, poetry, film, theatre, architecture, painting, sculpture) is relegated to the category of either decorative entertainment, passive amusement, or the province of those “artsy types” or “Renaissance men”. Having embraced a secular split between objective and subjective knowledge, between science and faith, between matter and morality, art doesn’t feature much in their idea of how truth is communicated. I think this is fatal blind spot. I suggest five reasons why Christians should care about the meaning of art, and I doubt any of these reasons is dispensable.

  1. Art is necessary for worship. We are commanded to worship, and to do so using “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” At the very least, Christians have to employ two of the arts: poetry and music. To be ignorant of the meaning of these things is the equivalent of singing in a foreign language. Unless you understand how these media communicate, you are going to miss much of what they communicate.
  2. Art shapes and reflects entire worldviews. Take these quotes, culled from Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo:

    “Art tries, literally, to picture the things which philosophy tries to put into carefully thought-out words.” —Hans Rookmaaker

    “Through art we can know another’s view of the universe.” —Marcel Proust

    “Through modern art, our time reveals itself to itself” – William Barrett

If you want to know how your neighbor perceives reality, look at his DVD collection, his iTunes favorites, or his bookshelf. If you want to know why your neighbor thinks the world is the way he thinks it is, find out what books, songs, magazines, TV shows, YouTube channels, and radio stations are his regular companions. Much art is nothing more than passive time-wasting with an amusing spectacle. But much of it communicates ideas about God, humanity, evil, good, beauty, truth, morality, and salvation. And art persuades at the imaginative and affective level, which is far more immediate and permanent than persuasion on the cognitive and abstract level.

3. Art shapes moral judgement. Art persuades towards a system of good and evil. It does this not only explicitly, but implicitly. Explicitly, when the hero of the movie is living with his ‘partner’, fornication is celebrated. Implicitly, when the music is simplistic and predictable, we grow in a narcissistic love of what effortlessly amuses us. Both the form and content of art mean something, and those meanings are shaping what we love and hate, what we endorse or repudiate, what we permit and what we forbid.

4. Art shapes imaginative perception. The imagination understands the world by comparing, contrasting or otherwise analogizing the sensory experience that comes to it. Analogy and abstraction is the stock-in-trade of the arts. The various elements in art combine to abstract some idea, and then provide an analogy. The music, the painting, the poem, or the story uses its various elements to take some idea from reality, and say, “This is like that.” Whether the art is very abstract (such as music), or very concrete (such as film), it still calls for imaginative perception. And since Christians believe that ultimate reality contains transcendent realities such as truth, goodness, and beauty which cannot be perceived by the senses but must be understood by the imagination, we can say that imaginative perception is the most important kind. Bad art is bad not only when its content is untrue or immoral, but when its form weakens, corrupts or destroys the best kind of imaginative perception. It forms cataracts over the eyes of the heart.

5. Art is the form in which Scripture has come to us. The Bible is a work of art: its form is artistic (narrative, poetic, apocalyptic, parabolic) and its content is artistic – its abundant use of imagery. If we become urban blockheads and trousered apes when it comes to art, we will fail to do justice the very meaning of Scripture.

I doubt then, that we who wish to know the Truth can afford to dismiss art. The pagan Cicero saw more clearly than some Evangelicals when he said that art is “a copy of life, a mirror of custom, a reflection of truth.”

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.