A treatise on vanity. This is basically the book of Ecclesiastes. What a depressing book. How is a book like that ever to be read and enjoyed, especially with our modern sensibilities? We need stuff that will make us feel good even if it is not the truth, right? Isn’t that what we need? That, at any rate, is what much of society would have us believe.
At first glance, it seems that the book of Ecclesiastes is a book that would throw you into nihilistic depression just short of suicidal. So what use has it in Scripture? Or, what, at least, use do we have for it today?
Well, it does no good to build upon a shoddy and cracked foundation. We can build all we want but all we do is for naught if the building will never truly stand. If we are to truly build something that is worth anything we must start anew. We must strip it down to the bedrock. To say that all is vanity is to say that all is cracked, you cannot build upon it. That is not to say that these things are inherently bad, they are not. But for us to understand these things, whatever they may be for you, we must first know they are desperately cracked. They can never hold anything of substance. They can truly never be built upon. They can’t hold the weight. Thus, if we experience discomfort from Ecclesiastes it is the doctor’s scalpel. It is the necessary pain for the healing of our life.
As part of our book diet, C.S. Lewis reminds us to not leave out old books. “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones” (C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”).
Lewis is wise to also say that,
“People were no clever then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction” (C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”).
So, what is art? That is a difficult question. Let’s look at some examples I’ve gathered. Art is…
…according to a dictionary:
The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance
You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.
~Marcel Duchamp , French painter and sculptor
…imitation or creation
Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding.
~Marc Chagall, Russian-French artist
…creating beauty or harmony
Filling a space in a beautiful way. That’s what art means to me.
~Georgia O’Keefe, American painter
Art is harmony.
~Georges Seurat, French painter
…an expression of our innate desire to decorate
The intrinsic decorative urge should not be eradicated. It is one of humankinds deep-rooted primordial urges. Primitive people decorated their implements and cult objects with a desire to beautify and enhance… it is a sense emanating from the urge for perfection and creative accomplishment.
~Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Swiss multi-media, applied arts, performance artist, and textile designer
…something that reveals the essential or hidden truth
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
~Paul Klee, Swiss painter
…a blessed mistake, a misfiring
Art is like the feathers of a peacock; there is no ultimate reason for it. It is nothing more than a leftover impulse from our distant ancestors. It is a mere signal to potential mates that we have enough time, resources, and leisure to be able to waste time on extravagance.
~This seems to be the Darwinian view (cf. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 253)
To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist.
~Jacques-Louis David, French painter
…a source of calm in a chaotic world
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.
~Henri Matisse, French artist
Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.
~Saul Bellow, American novelist
…self-expression or autobiography
What is art? Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives.
~Edvard Munch, Norwegian artist
All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.
~Federico Fellini, Italian film director
…communication of feelings
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and…then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling—this is the activity of art.
~Leo Tolstoy, Russian author
Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.
~David Hockney, British artist
Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.
~André Gide in Poétique
Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.
~ Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art’s Responsibility
…according to my favorite definition:
“One individual personality has definite or special talent for expressing, in some medium, what other personalities can hear, see, smell, feel, taste, understand, enjoy, be stimulated by, be involved in, find refreshment in, find satisfaction in, find fulfillment in, experience reality in, be agonized by, be pleased by, enter into, but which they could not produce themselves…
Art in various forms expresses and gives opportunity to others to share in, and respond to, things which would otherwise remain vague, empty yearnings. Art satisfies and fulfills something in the person creating and in those responding…
One person’s expression of art stimulates another person and brings about growth in understanding, sensitivity and appreciation.
~ Edith Schaeffer in The Hidden Art of Homemaking
Introduction: How should we think about art? Why has art had such a varied history? What explains why we can relate to both “sad reflective art” as well as “joyous exuberant art”? How does art in its various forms sometimes make us yearn for something that seems out of reach?
These are big questions and questions that have been answered by many better minds than my own. However, I believe as we look to God’s Word as our guide we will be able to make some significant observations that will better position us to answer them.
Let’s consider seven things from the storyline of Scripture.
Consider the Creator
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1). He made atoms and oceans, sunsets and frogs, butterflies and hogs. He made matter and motion, the stars in space and every trace of sand. He made my hands and yours too. God makes flowers and bees. God thought up nectar and the neurons that make emotion.
God created the wild crash of hydrogen and oxygen known as water; crystal clear and falls from the sky, and gives life. It’s like miraculous manna from heaven that we completely take for granted.
The only artist who is perfect in all forms of creativity—in technique, in originality, in knowledge, of the past and future, in versatility, in having perfect content to express as well as perfect expression of content, in communicating perfectly the wonders of all that exists as well as something about Himself, is of course God—the God who is Personal.
God is the most majestic musician, supreme sculptor, wowing writer, and awesome artist. We can look at the flowers of the field and see that God is the most creative creator of clothing. He is the creator that gives creativity.“God is the Great Maker, the unique Creator. And all other creative activity derives from him.”
God the Creator is the great Artist. He set the dome of the heavens and fashioned the universe. He created the music of the stars and set the heavenly bodies whirling in a great cosmic dance. He paints the sky of man’s earth with clouds and sunsets, and the ground with flowers and streams. He fashioned man out of dust of the earth. He tells the greatest love story of time and eternity, and unfolds it in a drama unlike any that man has ever created. He uses every art and every medium.
Observation: Our creativity is contingent upon the Creator. God is the great Creator and we merely reflect Him with our creations, as we will see.
We see in the beginning that when God saw all He had made He pronounced, “very good” (Gen. 1:4; 10; 12; 18; 21; 25; 1:31). There was no sin, no death, and no problems. Man had perfect fellowship with God (cf. Gen. 3:8) and enjoyed God’s beautiful creation.
God’s creation shows us what God wants for us. He wants us to enjoy and take part in the creation that He has made very good. It shows us our intended design: fellowship with God and each other and the correct enjoyment and creative oversight of creation.
The heavens declare and shout forth the glory and beauty of God (Ps. 19:1-6). “Our God is beautiful in all his way; it is part of his perfection. This divine beauty has been woven into the fabric of creation, in the massive stars, inside the submicroscopic balance of the atom.”
Observation: As we take in and enjoy beauty, whether Mozart, Norman Rockwell, or a brook basking in the sun, it points us back to our Creator for which we truly yearn. Even “photography is a longing for eternity, a desire for a lasting impact. When we blast our memories far and wide, we are hoping they will linger when we’re not present and maybe even when we’re gone. How odd that something seemingly instant can be rooted in a hunger for eternity.”
Consider that we are Creative Creatures
What is man? A complex animal, more advanced through Darwinian Evolution? Are humans merely matter in motion?
We see the doctrine of the image of God, the imago Dei, in various places in Scripture (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7 Col. 3:10; James 3:9). The most prominent is Genesis 1:27 that says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” “The ‘image (likeness) of God’ refers to a permanent aspect of our created nature, which was not affected by the fall. It is the special characteristic of the human race, which distinguishes us from other creatures.”
So, “We are created in the likeness of the Creator… So we are, on a finite level, people who can create.”
We were made, in part, to create. We were made to work unhindered at the creative care of the creation. However, the plot thickens. A cosmic problem is introduced. Through man’s fall we see the crash and curse of creation, which explains why everything is no longer good and why our creative care is constrained.
Observation: We are creative creatures; that is part of what we do and how we reflect the image of our Creator. We see that because that is what we were created to do we thrive as individuals and as societies as we create.
Man was created that he might create. It is not a waste of man’s time to be creative, because this is what was made to be able to do. He was made in the image of a Creator, and given the capacity to create—on a finite level of course, needing to use the materials already created—but he is still the creature of a Creator.
We were created in the image of God not to procrastinate but to be productive, to create and “subdue the earth.” When we are functioning according to our design, doing what God has given us to do, it is then that we prosper (and realize I do not mean financially, I mean teleologically).
Realize there are all sorts of types of creativity, one person creates cars, another creates music, and still another manages his restaurant in thoughtful ways. The important observation here is not so much what we do but how we approach our tasks.
We should approach all we do with intentionality and skill. As Timothy Keller says, “our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and… undermines society itself.”
Consider the Crash
Man disobeyed and rebelled (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:6) and this brought spiritual and physical death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19), pain (3:16-17), difficulties (3:18-19), and separation from God (3:23-24). This is the bad news that we all live in.
In Genesis 3:1-24 we see the Fall of humanity. We see various forms of death given birth to. We see “’an ever-growing avalanche of sin, a continually widening chasm between man and God’. It progresses from disobedience, to murder, to indiscriminate killing, to titanic lust, to total corruption, and uncontrolled violence.” Sin truly brings a litany of death. “Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence. We have lost God’s shalom—physically, spiritually, socially, psychologically, culturally. Things now fall apart.” Sin opens Pandora’s box and unleashes a horde of evil.
We have marred more than the mediocre; we have marred the Michelangelos of the world. We have marred superb beauty and made it unbelievably hideous.
To illustrate, if I ruin a “masterpiece” that my son made with paper, glue, and crayons, the ramifications will be far less than if I destroy the Mona Lisa.
Well, creation was intended to be a Mona Lisa; that is, it was intended to be supremely glorious. God’s creation was intended to be good, beautiful, and aesthetically pleasing to our senses, emotions, and intellect beyond what we can imagine.
We often think of this world as the way it is not as the way it was intended to be. If we could see a glimpse of what the Great Creator had in mind for His masterpiece, then we’d see that we “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” We essentially killed a thousand Beethovens and blared white noise. We backfilled the Grand Canyon with gravel. We burned a hundred museums of art. We scorched our taste buds off our tongue. We took a wrecking ball to all the wonders of the world and razed a thousand gorgeous cities. We have brought cataclysmic chaos to the world.
Sin is not a light thing. We, as humans, were created in the image of God. We were to be like Christ, God in flesh (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). The world was meant to be supremely glorious, peaceful, and loving but instead it is disgusting and understandably repugnant to God. So, as we try to grasp the wonder of what has been marred we can begin to understand how serious the situation is and how terrible sin is.
The crash happened in Genesis 3, man disobeyed God and chaos and curse ensued. In the crash, we see what went wrong with us and the world.
Observation: The image we bare is tainted and marred. It’s like one of Winslow Homer’s famous watercolor paintings had a pail of acid poured on it. We can still trace the image but it’s faded. We need a master painter to repaint us.
It is important to observe that “The arts, which speak so subjectively and so very personally regarding who and what we are in relation to our Maker are very vulnerable to the distortion that sin has brought in the world.” Even in the Bible art can be used to idolatrous ends. We, after the crash, often use creativity to de-create and desecrate the good world God has made.
We see that we often desire heaven and make hell. We want back in Eden and sometimes we express that, but sometimes we express the crash. We, in the words of Makoto Fujimura, “carry the dust of Eden in our DNA.” Michael Card has said, “A thousand examples speak of a deep, inner hunger for beauty that, at its heart, is a hunger for God. We hunger for beauty because it is a beautiful God whom we serve.” Yet, we are stuck on the outside of Eden. We are stuck yearning.
Much art reflects on this theme, from superhero movies to angsty art, we know there was a fall. We know we live after the crash. We desire the new creation but many don’t know the answer. They don’t know Christ the Promised One.
After the crash of creation, after the curse was introduced, there was a promise of a deliverer that would set all right again. At first, the promised offspring (Gen. 3:15) was vague; in fact, Eve rejoiced because she thought she had the offspring (4:1) but it was all for naught because Cain was the offspring of the serpent and killed his brother.
However, later on, we see Him who even the prophets longed to see (Matt. 13:17), we know that all Scripture finds its fulfillment in Jesus who is the long awaited Messiah (2 Cor. 1:20). The one that will crush the curse and bring in the new creation.
The Bible is a true story about God making the world, man messing it up, and God becoming a man to fix the world by not messing up. It is a story of Eden—exile—repeat. It is not until the true Adam, the true and righteous Son of God—Jesus—comes that this process is broken. All of Christ’s predeceases fell short; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Saul, David, Solomon, and the lambs, priests, and prophets could not fill Christ’s role.
Through Christ we see what God has done to put things right. Christ hung, outstretched on the tree, and bore the curse and will come again to bring His eternal reign when peace will be pervasive and joy will be tangible.
Jesus is the hero of the story. He takes upon Himself the curse and brings the new creation and friendship with God that we all yearn for.
The Cosmic Creator that flung the stars in place and knows them all by name cares to the point of crucifixion. He is the author that writes Himself into the story. He makes, He comes, He dies, and He rises again. And He’s coming back to recreate the world.
Observation: In Christ, first we see our Savior, but we see also see a profound example. Christ’s character as seen in the Gospels is one of creativity and compassion. He is expressive and real. He is harsh and gentle.
Christ was honest to the reality of our current condition. He didn’t lighten the realities of the crash and the catastrophes that it created. However, He wasn’t hopeless either. He brought the world the solution they needed: Himself.
We too must understand our current condition and honestly and creatively communicate truth to the world.
Consider our Current Condition
It is important for us to correctly situate ourselves within our current condition. We, for instance, do not want to place ourselves within the new creation when we are still wheeling from the crash. In the same way, we don’t want to forget that Christ has came. We need to understand our current condition. We do not want to have an “over-realized eschatology” or an “under-realized eschatology.” We want to correctly grasp our situation and communicate the struggles and hopes that we have to the world.
Steve Turner has said, “It is not Christian to make art that assumes that the world is unblemished.” It’s certainly true that the Kingdom has come in God’s Son. The light is shining and the darkness is passing away (1 Jn. 2:8) but it hasn’t passed away yet. We still live in a fallen world. Soon the darkness will be forever gone (Rev. 22:5) but for now it’s an element in our reality so to paint or portray reality means including “darkness.”
We must position ourselves after the Creator, the creation of all things, and the crash and curse of the cosmos, and we must remember that we were created as creative creatures to reflect our Creator. We must remember Christ, the hope of all the world. We must hope in Him and the new creation that He will bring at the consummation of His Kingdom.
We must not get stuck hopelessly on the crash and curse of the world, though to be in the world is to reflect realistically on its realities. Yet, we must not forget Christ and His coming Kingdom and the fact that we are not the center of the universe. So, “The Christian artist will often be an irritant, disturbing the anthropocentric view of the world that fallen nature naturally gravitates toward.”
Observation: It is when we remember our current condition, all that has laid behind us and all that lays before us, that we can most profoundly and prophetically speak into our cultures. It is then that we can bring compassion and truth to bear and see God’s truth take root and change people and society.
So, David Skeel says, “The most beautiful and memorable art will reflect the tensions and complexity that only Christianity can fully explain.”
Consider the coming Consummation
When Jesus came the first time, He had no beauty or majesty. When He comes again His face will shine like the sun in full strength (Rev. 1:16). We were cast out of the garden in the beginning but as Jesus said to the thief on the cross, all those who go to Him will be let back in. For those in Christ, the story of history will have a happy ending (Rom. 8:29-39).
Through Jesus the Christ, we have the unwavering hope of a new creation (2 Peter 3:13). “The creation was subjected to futility” in Adam (Gen. 317-19) but in Christ “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21). As Isaac Watts put it in “Joy to the World,”
No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.
The problem (all of them!) will be fixed and there will be no more sin (Rev. 21:27; 22:3; Matt. 13:41). Everything will be more right than it was ever wrong. We will see that God did, in fact, work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). Christ will make a new creation and we will be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2; Rom. 8:29; 2 Peter 1:4). “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). God will fulfill our deepest desires and we will finally live with Him in paradise in the end.
Jesus is the good news but the good news is not static it goes on and on and on; those in Christ live happily-ever-after. In contrast, God “will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers” (Matt. 13:41) and cast them into the pit of eternal fire (Rev. 20:14-15). The Lord will bring heaven down and establish His Kingdom that will not be shaken but will last forever and ever in perfect beauty and joy.
Observation: Time is working itself down to a consummation; to a renewal of the creation, in fact, a new creation. Ever since Eden, this is what we have longed for and it is made available through Christ. However, many miss it. They look to the creature rather than to the Creator to find satisfaction, life, and joy.
As we carry out various creative tasks we can thoughtfully point people to what they need and why they need it. We can address the issue of the crash, our current condition, and Christ and the coming consummation.
We can also know that art occupies a type of middle ground. In one way pointing backward (to creation) while planted firmly (in the current condition) and also pointing ahead (to the consummation).
Conclusion: So, how should we think about art?
As we carry out our creative tasks (whether or not it is typically labeled art or not) we reflect our Maker. We point to the reason and rhyme of the universe, especially when we reflect on and cause others to reflect on why, at times, there seems to be no reason and rhyme to the universe.
Lastly, as we seek to be faithful and reflect God’s image we must look to Jesus. He is the Master. He is “painting” us in His image. The brushstrokes that stand out the most are “love the LORD your God with all you are” and “your neighbor as yourself.” It is through the application of those two brushstrokes that we look more and more as we were always supposed to look.
 My word is very fallible but God’s Word is truth. This is important because, as William Dyrness, has said: ““Artistic issues are, according to the biblical perspective, profoundly theological from the beginning to end” (William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, 70).
 Edith Schaeffer, The Hidden Art of Homemaking, 14-15.
 Frank E. Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth, 72.
 W. S. LaSor, “Art” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 302.
 “Only God can imagine and make something out of nothing. In this sense, he is the only One who deserves the title of Creator. We are merely creative” (Harold M. Best in Michael Care, Scribbling in the Sand, 122).
 Michael Card, Scribbling in the Sand, 32.
 Craig Detweiler, iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives, 189.
 “That man by creation uniquely bears the divine image is a fundamental biblical doctrine—as also that this image is sullied by sin and that it is restored by divine salvation” (Carl F. H. Henry, “Man” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, 338).
 “The declaration that humanity bears God’s likeness is startling, awesome, and almost incredible, but what exactly does it mean?… Two primary, and not necessarily contradictory views are: (1) the substantive view, according to which humans share some aspects of the nature of God (intelligence, emotions, etc.); and (2) the functional view, according to which humans act like God in their divinely given role to rule the earth. The immediate context, with the language of dominion and subjugation, suggests that the functional interpretation is primary” (Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman, 29). I personally believe in a hybrid view. I believed in a functional view that implies the substantive view. That is, if we as humans are to function as vice-regents we must be endowed with the abilities to carry it out (e.g. intelligence, creativity, etc.).
 G. L. Bray, “Image of God” in NDBT, 576.
 Edith Schaeffer, The Hidden Art of Homemaking, 24.
 Edith Schaeffer, The Hidden Art of Homemaking, 24.
 I think for example of Chic-fil-a.
 Keller, Every Good Endeavor, 19. He also says “Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught. Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever” (29).
 Revd Victor James Johnson, “Illustrating Evil – The Effect of the Fall as seen in Genesis 4-11,” 57 in Melanesian Journal of Theology 11-1&2 (1995).
 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 177. “Disunion with God is reflected in disunion with others and with oneself” (Johnson, Foundations of Soul Care, 466).
 Frank E. Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth, 75.
 Makoto Fujimura, Refractions.
 Michael Card, Scribbling in the Sand, 32.
 “Christianity explains our inability to sustain transcendence as evidence that creation, and the creation, have been corrupted” (David Skeel, True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World, 88).
 Steve Turner, Imagine: a vision for Christians in the arts, 86. “To portray the world as a rose garden can be as misleading as portraying it as a cesspool” (Ibid., 58).
 Steve Turner, Imagine: a vision for Christians in the arts, 22.
 David Skeel, True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World, 82.
“When we are at play, or looking at a painting or a stature, or reading a story, the imaginary work must have such an effect on us that it enlarges our own sense of reality.”
~Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
“Students value literature as a means of enlarging their knowledge of the world, because through literature they acquire not so much additional information as additional experience.”
~Marie Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration
“Literature… serves to deepen and to extend human greatness through the nurture of beauty, understanding, and compassion. In none of these ways, of course, can literature, unless it be the literature of the Christian faith, lead us to the City of God, but it may make our life in the city of man far more a thing of joy and meaning and humanity, and that in itself is no small achievement. Great literature may not be a Jacob’s ladder by which we can climb to heave, but it provides an invaluable staff with which to walk the earth.”
~Roland M. Frye, Perspectives on Man: Literature and the Christian Tradition
“Art is one of the means by which man grabbles with and assimilates reality.”
~Ralph Fox, The Novel and the People
“The primary job that any writer faces is to tell you a story of human experience—I mean by that, universal mutual experience, the anguishes and troubles and gifts of the human heart, which is universal, without regard to race or time or condition.”
~William Faulkner, Faulkner at West Point
“A poem… begins in delight and ends in wisdom [and]… a clarification of life… For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew… There is a glad recognition of the long lost.”
~Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”
See Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination