I want to begin with some questions that have come out of many years of intellectual struggle. And I pose them knowing that I too stand under their scrutiny.
In the press of your work; in the blush and flower of your passion and enthusiasm—devoting your hearts and minds to the doing of art-as-witness and art-as-worship—are you developing a theology of worship, of creativity, of artistic action, and of culture, testing your insights by it, to the extent that you can codify and teach this theology to someone else before, during, and after your singing, crafting, composing, dancing, sculpting and playing take place?
Does your theology call your art to account or are you allowing your art to approve your theology simply because you are a Christian? Do you understand the difference between spiritualizing your art and grounding your art within a biblical worldview? Hans Rookmaker once authored a booklet entitled Art needs no Justification. He was right to the extent that art does not need the exterior scaffolding of commerce, referential explanation, or mere usefulness in order to validate itself. But he was not assuming that art needs no theological justification, and he would be the first one to insist on the difference between justifying art with superficial God-talk and providing a biblical framework that prepared the way for the most imaginative, excelling, and God-glorifying art possible—from simple to complex, strange to familiar, conservatively fresh to radically dislodging.
And the best theology for the artist is a theology that at its roots has very little art talk in it. It must be a theology of which art is but one of a thousand subjects; a theology that does not change from subject to subject, but remains firm whatever the subject. It must be a theology that differentiates between revelation and creation, between Truth and handiwork; it must be a theology so complete that it speaks directly to the making of art without having to begin with the idea of art as a separate entity. Are you seriously working through this, knowing that just as your art must continue to mature, so must your theology? And do you take comfort in knowing the difference between an incorrect theology and an incomplete one? I ask this because I remember the time when I thought I had it all put together—my Christian worldview was finally complete. I could archive it, making reference to it whenever a question arose. I truly remember thinking this. How foolish. Then, issues started to come to me that were not sufficiently covered by what I had invented. I discovered that while I had certain foundational matters right—the elegant stuff of biblical orthodoxy—I had not followed through fully in building a wide-ranging intellectual superstructure. I made the mistake of assuming that constructing a Christian worldview was an event and not a process. Furthermore, it was not something I could copy from someone else—a Wolterstorff or a Seerveld or a C.F.H. Henry. I might learn from them but not unlike conversion itself, I had to forge my own testimony. And I am still trying to do this. Are you?
Art is both enchanting and dangerous. It runs a fine line between faith and works, between self-awareness and self-centeredness, and most of all, between authentic worship and idolatry. In fact, idolatry is simply another word for works-centeredness and self -centeredness. But the Gospel makes a radical distinction between true and false worship, between the worship of the One True Living God and the worship of handiwork, thus between the power of God and the power of handiwork.
How so? Because every material creature and spiritual being in the entire creation—everyone and everything, with the terrifying and satisfying exception of the Triune God—is handiwork. This, of course, includes art. When Adam fell and we fell in and with him, we turned to serve creature and handiwork in their numberless epiphanies, for these were all that was left. In turning this way we left the door open for something as noble as artistic action to turn against us, to seduce us with its magnificence, and all too often, to equate itself with Truth and to masquerade as part of the Holy.
In other words, idolatry is the chief sin facing both the Christian and the remainder of humankind. At base, idolatry is not just a graven image here or stick or spirit there. It is rather the contradictory act of shaping something and then allowing it to shape us in ways going beyond its intrinsic nature. This delusion works two ways on two bodies of humanity. First, it confirms the non-Christian when the No-god, by whatever name, becomes The-god. And secondly, it infects the body of Christ whenever some thing, material or spiritual, is expected to act on behalf of God, to effectualize or magnify his presence and to allude to, abet, or substitute for his power. For the church, this kind of idolatry is golden-calfism—there is no other word for it—to which God says, “You shall not worship me in this way.” In this condemning but grace-laden statement, God says at once that he is, in fact, being worshiped, but not in the way he should be worshiped.
If, even in the most innocent way, we begin to talk about the arts as tools for witness; and even though we may privately admit that “tool” just doesn’t say it quite right; even though we may have developed a theology of artistic action in which we talk about art as an aid to worship or salvation, but then turn right around and say that it is an act of worship; and even though we may know the Lord may be paradoxically at work in the face of the contradictions, we still have to face two tasks. The first is to answer a fundamental question that pertains to our artistic witness among unbelievers: “How can unredeemed minds—idolatrous minds—with their natural and deep-rooted dependence on the power of handiwork, understand the difference between artifactual power and Spirit power, when artifactual power is the primary fuel for the way they live?
The second is to address a condition among believers, a condition that I’m afraid remains largely unresolved in the contemporary, means-obsessed church. When we think of worship as what we do on a Sunday; when we talk about the effect or power of music or the arts in bringing worship about and/or enhancing it; when we limit ourselves to music making as the most direct expression of worship; when we go so far as to say—as many do—that the music is “the worship”—unless we have developed a personal and corporate theology whereby these incipient idolatries and embryonic heresies are quickly destroyed, we have forfeited the right to go to the nations, the cities, the prisons, the hospices, and the villages, with purified talk about the differences between faith and works, between artifactual power and Spirit power.
There is a principle in all of this, analogous to the conception and birth of a baby: To the extent that, in our witness, we either imply or assume that the power in an artifact effectualizes, metamorphoses, or is translatable into the power of God, who alone is our worship; to the extent that we either imply or assume that the power in artifacts aids and abets the Gospel, which alone is the power of God unto salvation; to these extents, converts will carry these birth defects in them. Then unless they are healed and done away with, they will continue as part and parcel of the new Christian’s expectations about how God meets them and works for them, no matter how far they go in their Christian journey.
Let me apply the above to our national context. The American way, the Americanized way is fallen, down deep, just as all other national and ethnic ways are. There is no such thing as the obnoxious American all by itself; there is no such thing as cultural imperialism all by itself. A valid cultural understanding shows us that all cultures are, in some way, imperialistic. Our only fault as Americans is to have dressed up worldwide falleness in unusually glittering garb—all too seductive and overwhelming. It is the garb of primal power—the power of the artifact, the power of handiwork, the power of the system, the power of idolatry, the power of the image. And for the church, these artifactual, systemic, and procedural powers can be, and often are, easily metamorphosed into the spiritual, the ideal, the upward call. Thus, a plea for a biblical worldview—not an American or European, or Nigerian, or tribal one, or a corrective one based on a newly garnered insight from another culture—this worldview must first of all be a plea for massive de-contextualization and unmasking of so-called theologies that we have constructed with which we proceed into what we think is contextualization—call it relevance as well—but just may be another anthropocentric way of making Christianity slip into intimacy with yet another cultural dialect.
At base, culture is an interaction between what people believe and what they make. Its forays into idolatry will be seen in the extent to which things believed and things made are dependent on or equal to each other. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only forum in which things believed and things made are unconfused, properly differentiated, and fully integrated. For the Christian mind—the biblically theologized mind—truth and beauty are not confused, relativities and absolutes are properly defined, creature and Creator are wisely separated, means, ends, and offerings are wonderfully clarified, and gift and Giver set in eternal hierarchy. Thus the arts are never elevated to a place of means or end. They are simply and purely offerings—perfume—poured over the feet of Jesus, while others catch the fragrance, first of Jesus and only then, the gift.
This leads to a further thought—and I realize that I am taking a very conservative, and to some, an old fashioned position. If the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, all by its solitary Spirit-driven and Christ-centered self; and if it is the Word of God that can convert, all by its lonely propositional and storied self, everyone of us who is called into the arts and who wants to use them in a way that will participate in the literal resurrection of the imago Dei, in the literal turning from creature to Creator and the living out of a life of unceasing worship and perpetual offering—if these things are true, then we must be very sure that our art, from start to finish, and in all of its presentational media and dialects, must be a humbled and hidden servant of the Word of God. It can not afford to be its proxy, and by all means, not the evangelistic front-runner. Any talk in which witnessing through the arts is perceived to be the primary evangelistic action, is flawed from the start. Going further, we must never forget that the various art forms act disequally when it comes to transmitting Truth messages. We must remember that the more distant a given art form is from narrational and propositional speech, the less capable it is of witnessing directly to any thing but itself. To cite the obvious, how do you create a choreographic equivalent of Romans 12:2?
The Gospel—pure, simple, unadorned, and authoritatively proclaimed—is its own power and its own worldview. Our task, therefore, is not to piece it into a worldview but to discover its own completeness, only then to build on this primary fullness concept by concept, dilemma after dilemma, and possibility after possibility. If we find error or incompleteness in our thinking, it is not because the fundament needs reworking, but our intellects need refining and our prayer for wisdom must become all the more humble and ardent. For when all is said and done, when all the brilliance of our education and cleverness fade into each other, wisdom is all that is left.
Thus, the arts, in their various propositional and discursive garbs, find their place, not as frontrunners, but as followers and servants of proclamation. They may, like John the Baptist, also serve as forerunners, but only in saying what they are not before they say what they are and who eternally IS, preparing the way instead of being the way. They must also decrease so that Christ alone—Christ the Eternal Word and Christ the Gospeled Word—may increase.
With these things to ponder, and with God-given protection from incipient idolatry, we can now say, “Let the arts flourish. Let a thousand artifactual tongues ring forth—they will never suffice. Let God speak first and let us respond in variegated ways. Let the nations, the not-yet-Israel come to the rising of our lights only to be led to the one single, the one unique Light who alone rises within us, both through our art and in spite of it, always as if God himself were making his appeal through us.”
So we can pray this way: “Even so, come quickly, ever so quickly, Lord Jesus. Come, if you wish, through our art, but come above all through the singular force of your Word. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, not because we make art, but because your Word prevails, and all art surrenders to this enormity. Even so, come, Lord Jesus; come amidst the sculptings, the gestures, the scene changes, the strummings, and dithyrambs; come to overpower and outlast these, using them only as you choose. And if you use them, come quickly to relieve us of the temptation that the song or the dance or the drama did it. Come, Lord Jesus, to renew and re-fix our attention on the Giver not the gift. Come, Lord Jesus; come to the artists themselves who, long before they ply their crafts and give voice to their imaginings, are nothing more than blood-washed, needy servants and living epistles. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly to this ravished, obscenely disfigured yet beautiful race in whom your image cries out for resurrection from the dead; come to the very center of its bleakness and set things right, soul by soul, soul by soul, unto a flood of souls, until the dimensions of the new heavens and earth need to be revised and newly fit to take in the endless flood of cleansed, blood-washed citizens. Even so, come Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen.”