The Value of the Arts from a Biblical Worldview

December 12th, 2019

by Russ Gehrlein

Does art have value to God in the world of work? This wide career field would include expressions of pure art in its various forms (drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, etc.), as well as music, dance, theatre, movies, television, and literature.

I personally have a love-hate relationship with the arts. I am more of a science guy. Some aspects of it I absolutely love, specifically music, theatre, movies, and television. Although I truly appreciate a nicely composed photo, I have never been too excited about painting or sculpture. I went to an art museum in LA a couple of months ago, and I swear, one of the exhibits should have been titled: “The scary things you don’t want to find under your bed”.

I am not a huge fan of dancing, either, as my family and friends will attest. I don’t like to watch it and I do not like to do it. However, I did dance with my daughter at her wedding to the song of my choice, which was “My Girl”.  Sigh. And I also truly enjoyed watching high school productions of Singing in the Rain and Footloose that my son directed as a drama teacher.  (I cried when he made it rain on stage.)

I recently watched an inspirational video about the dancing profession. Its main point was: “traditional careers aren’t for everyone.” True statement. They quoted a statistic that I find reasonable: “58% of parents discourage their kids from pursuing a career in entertainment.” Later, they made the point that “More than half the nation attends a performance art event every year.” I liked the message it was trying to convey. Despite the difficulties in finding steady employment in this or any other field, in general, young people should be encouraged to pursue their passions persistently. Plus, the arts make life enjoyable.

But if you think about it, God, as Creator, is an artist. We read in Gen. 2:9 that “the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” There was both beauty and usefulness. The stars, sunsets, snowflakes, flowers, mountains, bunnies, butterflies, etc., were not just created for our survival, but for our enjoyment and to reflect His glory.

Other art forms are mentioned throughout the Bible. An OT verse (which was quoted in the movie and musical Footloose) tells us “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. . . a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:1, 4).

In Ex. 25-31, Yahweh lays out detailed plans for His tabernacle, a portable sanctuary where He would “dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). These holy specifications for the tabernacle, its furnishings, decorations, and attire for the priests included all kinds of artistic materials or mediums such as precious metals and stones, colored yarns, fine linen, goat hair, ram skins, hides from sea cows, and wood. This communal art and construction project required a host of skilled and Spirit-filled men and women. I discussed this in depth in a fun article I posted on my blog a little over a year ago. It illustrates the power and purpose of excellent expressions of creative artwork that enhanced the Israelites’ ability to experience the very presence of God.

John, in Rev. 21:18-21, gives a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, which includes gold and precious stones adorning its walls. Once again, we see a link between excellence in art and architecture and God’s presence. Anyone who has ever visited a cathedral in Europe like I have on several occasions can attest to this.

In contrast to the value of art, which not all Christians can agree on, the undeniable value of music to enhance worship is nearly universal in all cultures. The right music, combined with biblically based lyrics, can put us into the very presence of God. I will never forget tearfully singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with 50,000 brothers at several Promise Keepers conferences in the mid-90s. In 1 Chron. 6:31-32, we find musicians that David put in charge of music in the tabernacle. It was said that they ministered with music, and performed their duties according to regulations laid down for them. The Psalms is a collection of 150 songs used in OT worship.

I should also mention the value of literature. Certainly the Bible clearly demonstrates its value. It is a classic work of literature; the book of all books, which has been reprinted in nearly every language and is still a best-seller. Jesus Himself was a master storyteller. He used His parables to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Paul Stevens, in his book Work Matters, says this:

We can create beauty not just in music and the visual arts, but also in a meal or a deal, a voice or an invoice, an operation or a cooperation, a community formed or an immunity created, a test or a quest, a swept floor or a forgiven heart, a canvas painting or a computer program, a plaything or a work-thing, a toy or a tool.  Is the Spirit’s presence just for the Church to sing spiritual songs and to worship and to build other Christians up?  No.  The Holy Spirit empowers us to do good and beautiful things in the world.

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, offers some unique insights into humanity’s call to reflect the image of God through our creativity.  He teaches,

“Culture is all of these things: paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels.  It is what human beings make of the world.  It always bears the stamp of our creativity, our God-given desire to make something more than we were given.”  Creativity is what we were called to do.

Later, Crouch sets up a great example of the value of human creativity that builds upon what God has created in his description of the omelet. He starts with the assumption that “the world should have an alternative to the blandness of plain cooked eggs. The world should be multicolored, with green peppers and pink ham and white cheese contrasting with the pale yellow eggs; the world should have many textures, both crunchy and smooth. . . Even a simple breakfast dish encodes a whole set of assumptions and hopes about the world, which we could summarize this way: the world has eggs, but it should have omelets too.”

I believe that visual arts, music, and drama all have their proper place. Like any field of work, art in its many forms can certainly glorify evil, and that is what makes a lot of Christians fear and disdain the arts in general. In contrast, I often mention the example of my brother in Christ, Denzel Washington, Oscar-winning actor. He plays both good and bad characters equally well.  But when he plays an evil one, he insists that the movie show the consequences of his bad choices, for example, in his film Training Day.

Far more often, art merely shows us the human condition in a way that catches our full attention.  It can help us to see that we are made in God’s image and that we are also marred by sin in our flesh.  It can vividly portray our brokenness, pointing to man’s need of redemption which can only be found in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, when we create or perform art, music, and drama, we display the image of our Creator, which can put the spotlight on Him.

I hope that this reflection gives believers a new appreciation for the value that art, music, and drama can bring to our lives, and that we will see those who work in this field in a new light.

This article is an excerpt from Russell Gehrlein's book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work. Originally published at Russ's Reflections website, re-posted with permission.

You might enjoy Russ's other articles on this website.