What’s the point of art in the Church, if there is a point? If we do use creative representations of stories or truths, should they be based in pragmatism — whatever works? Does the Moral matter more than artistic medium or excellence? In a fallen world, does it make sense to spend time on a poem or music if above all else, people need to be saved, and delight in God?

"Art for God's Sake" by Phillip Graham RykenAsking these questions, I picked up Art for God’s Sake by Phillip Ryken, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Like other Reformed materials on the subject, I found it to be a good introduction to the topic.

Ryken’s 64-page book offered a clear Biblical defense that art can glorify God even in implicit ways, based mostly on the construction of the Tabernacle and the instructions God gave to its craftsmen. To some extent is was no more, no less what I expected. Yet I do look forward to seeing what else Gospel-driven thinkers can offer on the subject. And maybe we don’t as much need more materials telling about the role of art in the church, but showing if it’s necessary.

Starting with his introduction, Ryken surveys the pros and cons of being an artist, and especially a Christian artist. Among those cons are, of course, leading people to idolatry, or yourself to poverty. Among the pros: imitating God in His role as Creator, and glorifying Him to others.

Throughout the six short chapters that follow, the author expounds upon God’s calling of Bezalel and Oholiab, craftsmen extraordinaire and Renaissance men before there was a Renaissance. They were not only to build God’s tabernacle, but to do this creatively. Some of God’s directions were clearer, such as with the Ark of the Covenant, but others were left open to the craftsmen’s ideas, Ryken writes. In this God was glorified to His Old Covenant people.

From there the author describes what makes art God-glorifying, and encourages His people to think Biblically and “Christianly” about the arts. A work of art must be good, true and beautiful, just as God Himself is both good, true and beautiful, to honor the ultimate Creator. This includes all kinds of art, he says; God must be glorified in whatever we do (Colossians 3:23).

God-honoring artwork must also be evangelistic, Ryken maintains. However, he gives one of his clearest disclaimers in contrasting this with what too often passes for evangelism:

This does not mean that all our art has to be evangelistic in the sense that it explicitly invites people to believe in Christ. To give an example from another calling, the way in which a Christian who makes cars glorifies God is not by painting “John 3:16” on the hood. Rather, he glorifies God by making a good car.

“A more complete perspective on Christian art recognizes that a creation always reveals something about its creator,” Ryken continues. He likens God’s creation pointing to Him, to the way a Christian’s work should also point everyone, especially Christians, toward Him.

Even more questions

In this, Ryken in effect transmits the Exodus craftsmen’s callings to Christians today — and therein lies perhaps the first of a few shortcomings with the book. (My guess is that these are based not on the author’s fault but rather on the book’s brevity.) Again, further exploration is needed — perhaps it is in other books — about how God’s Old-Covenant callings and spiritual giftings translate to believers now, if indeed they do. My guess is this would require a heavy theological tome, but perhaps Ryken, who is after all Presbyterian, would know of one. Art for God’s Sake does contain a list of other works for further reading.

A second subject to explore: Christian vocation. It seems both topics, Christian art and vocation, are inseparable. Is God most glorified through direct evangelism or church work? If so, we must all not only reject or dismiss Artistry, but all other jobs, and head to seminaries en masse to become seminary clones. Paul’s recognizing of differing gifts would seem to preclude that, but admittedly a worldview of Christian vocation comes more from theological inference. I understand a Dutch Reformed scholar/statesman named Abraham Kuyper wrote extensively on this. Maybe his works would provide further reading and understanding.

Thirdly, there’s the whole issue of pragmatism, and how Biblically the better evangelism gets done when Christians are not using anything and everything they can find to compel people to Make a Decision. I’d love to read more about the balance between Godward art being direct and being subtle. Different sectors of professing Christianity, either true or false — for example, cultural fundamentalists vs. “emergents” — seem to jump to different extremes on this.

Finally, a fourth minor quibble with Ryken’s otherwise-excellent survey of Christians and art: he seems to focus mostly on The Arts, with a capital A, starting with a Japanese friend of his who has had works featured in museums. Not to sound too populist, but this reviewer appreciates such things yet also recognizes that many “folks” don’t care much for that sort of thing. Cannot God be glorified in “popular” art, which still points to His sovereign transcendence? Surely it is not just higher-culture The Arts, but Creative Stuff (novels, movies, ballads, school plays) that can do this. I’d love to see a more “grassroots” look at how creativity can tribute the Creator.

Or perhaps, as I said before, members of the Church so blessed with creative gifts ought to show more than tell. They could try their best to proclaim Christ’s goodness, truth and beauty with deeds, while also waiting for the Big Guys to write words.

While doctrine is vital, creative works help flesh it out. A melody can’t be copied in words. Delighting in God, while based on the revealed propositional Word about Him, encompasses all of life and emotions — and works of art can encourage those emotions, going places teaching can’t. Toward encouraging this, Ryken’s Art for God’s Sake is a great start.