Colin Harbinson /TD>


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by Colin Harbinson

When Churches embrace a Biblical view of the arts as a God-given integral part of life, then art and worship are allowed to form a unified experience. However, it is to the detriment of the Church as a whole, that it has not developed a coherent framework that validates, or encourages the arts. When spiritual leaders fail to understand or relate to creative expression, Christians are often discouraged from involvement in what is considered to be 'worldly' activity. It is encouraging to find artistic expression flourishing within worshiping communities. This is significant, for worship is the only effective safeguard against idolatry, a majordistortion in the arts.

To come to a fuller understanding of these issues, it is necessary to explore both the validity and the danger of artistic involvement. It is also important to comprehend God's desire for cultural redemption and the role of the church in this process.

Imago Dei
The Bible begins with the glorious statement; "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."1 Stunning in its simplicity, yet profound in implication, this verse first introduces us to God as the Creator, the original artist. He is the creative personality behind all things. Creativity is an essential part of His divine nature.

On the sixth day, when He looked at the full body of His handiwork, He declared it to be "very good!"2 God was His own critic, and He pronounced all aspects of His creation to be excellent. This creative God made man and woman in His own image; "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created Him: male and female He created them."3 The outworking of the Imago Dei, the image of God, has particular relevance in our understanding of man's creative nature. Abraham Kuyper observed; " As image bearer of God, man possesses the ability both to create something beautiful, and to delight in it."4

Culture Forming
This Hebraic-Christian vision of man the creator, made in the image of Creator God, formed the ideological framework that resulted in the rich cultural legacy of Western civilization. In sharp contrast, other religious worldviews have often seen the world as a static 'closed' system. Life is perceived as a series of cycles, without beginning or end. The object is to get off the treadmill and break out of the cycle through a process of birth, death and rebirth. There is no incentive to create something new, for the ultimate goal is to find 'oneness' with what already exists.

The Biblical view sees God's creation as a dynamic 'open' system. Man is free to explore the new, to be interactive with nature, to develop culture under God.

The end result of the injunction to "cultivate the earth and keep it,"5 is the development of culture. All cultural expression is the product of its underlying religious belief system. Human beings were to develop Godly cultural expressions, under the lordship of their creator. To this mandate was added another clear responsibility. The injunction to "keep it," emphasized the importance of being a good steward of God's gifts and resources. As Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton state; "To be a cultural being is quite simply to be human."6

Aesthetic Appreciation
To understand the possibilities inherent in the culture-forming mandate, it is important to recognize that function was not the only imperative. Knowing that the Creator was concerned with beauty, also alerts us to the fact that God's perfect created world has both utilitarian and aesthetic properties.

When God placed man and woman in the garden of Eden, He made all kinds of trees to grow, "that were pleasing to the eye and good for food."7 Later, God instructed Moses that the Tabernacle was to be constructed with "artistic designs,"8 and detailed the design of Aaron's robes to reflect "glory and beauty."9

There is a tendency for Christian dogma to undervalue the aesthetic side of life. This limited appreciation of the value of the arts does little to reflect God's love of beauty. It also negates our high calling to be a celebrative people, to His glory. In contrast, Old Testament worship modeled a more integrated approach, in which "music, visual art and poetry converged in Temple worship to form a unified artistic and spiritual experience."10

Danger of Idolatry
Another reason for ambivalence toward the aesthetic, is that Christianity is a faith based on the "word." Boorstin correctly observes that; "Western religious traditions were wary of the seen, of the image, and the Protestant Reformation built a theology on this suspicion of all images."11

Fear of "image" idolatry has robbed us of a great deal of our creative inheritance. However, concern over this issue is not without foundation in history or present day reality. For example, soon after Moses received the vision of art for glory and beauty while on the mountaintop, he discovered the potential of art to become idolatrous. Aaron had listened to the people, and 'fashioned' a golden calf. This sculpture was now the object of worship, and cause for music and dance. Worship of the created, had replaced worship of the Creator.12

C.S.Lewis saw the ability of art to steal affection away from God, when he wrote; "Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling . . . "13 Art has the ability to draw our affection to itself. It is possible to love our artistic expressions, more than we love God Himself.

Scripture records another example of the potential of art to fall into idolatrous use.14 God instructed Moses to fashion a 'bronze sculpture' of a serpent, in the likeness of the snakes that were biting and killing the rebellious Israelites. This 'artwork' was put on a pole for all to see, and those who looked upon it were healed, forgiven and restored. It was not the art itself that brought healing and restoration, but God chose to work through this sculpture in a powerful way.

Many years later, Hezekiah discovered people worshiping and offering incense to the same work of art that God so powerfully used in the wilderness. It had become an idol. The King took the bronze sculpture, and in repentance smashed it to pieces.15

Cultural Redemption
If art has such a potential for idolatry, would it not be wise for the Church to avoid it altogether? In response to this question, let us continue with the journey of the 'artwork' that began its existence in the wilderness. In John,16 we find Jesus using this sculpture of the serpent on the pole, as a metaphor of His own redemptive work. The obvious question arises about how Jesus could use something that had become tarnished by idolatry, as a picture of His death on the cross. The answer points to a very important principle that is at the heart of the redemption of all things. That is, when the sin issues are dealt with in any area of life, that area can begin to be restored to God's original creational purpose. Because of the repentant action of Hezekiah, Jesus could identify with the illustration of the bronze serpent in its original created purpose, of forgiveness and restoration.

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