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Worldview

Why It’s Okay for Christian Art to Be Totally Useless

“All art is quite useless.”

This famous quote by poet and playwright Oscar Wilde leads down a road Christians are often hesitant to follow. As an artist himself, Wilde was obviously not declaring that art lacked value. He was asserting that its value doesn’t come from any utilitarian function or pragmatic purpose, but simply from being art.

Yet, there is frequently a sense among Christians that art needs justification. It must serve some quantitative function or purpose. When approaching a work of art, the first question people often ask is, “What does it mean?” As a result, the Church has historically been skeptical of abstract art with seemingly arbitrary shapes and colors. Art must have a meaning or a message and the less ambiguous the better.

Many Christian films include supplemental Bible study material, with the film acting as the conversation starter rather than the conversation itself. Christian books are usually infused with religious symbolism or allegory (some clever and thought-provoking, others as subtle as a sledgehammer). And if dance is tolerated at all, it primarily takes the form of  “dance sign language.” The performers often sport signs—“lust,” “greed,” “despair”—to remove any doubt about the message their choreographed movements are communicating.

As a result, many Christians don’t know what to do with art that doesn’t conform to these prescribed functions, and Christian artists feel a heavy burden to justify their creative expressions. If they are unable to incorporate a theological or evangelistic message into their creation, they often fall back on an apologetic promise that their art “builds bridges” with or “open doors” to unbelievers. Such purposes are valuable but not essential.

Art can be its own justification.

The Bible clearly states that nature’s beauty and sublimity proclaims God’s glory (Psalm 19; Romans 1). How? Did God infuse the world with countless religious forms and shapes like those pictured below?

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Of course not. Does a shapeless cluster of clouds display God’s glory any less spectacularly than clouds in the shape of a cross do? No. Clouds declare God’s glory because they’re beautiful, and beauty belongs to God alone. Must a majestic mountain range be grouped into sets of 12—representative of the 12 tribes of Israel— to declare God’s sovereignty? Several years ago, a well-known preacher received much applause when he demonstrated that the laminin protein in the human body is shaped like a cross.

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Wow! Many Christians celebrated and claimed that such a revelation proved that God is dominant over creation…as if the fact that the protein is an irreducibly complex biological phenomena that defies naturalistic explanation hadn’t already made that truth abundantly clear! If we are only impressed by nature when it appears in the form of a religious symbol, we should immediately invest in a new pair of glasses.

The same principle applies to art.

Art doesn’t need to take a religious form to glorify God. It doesn’t have to mean anything,  say anything, or take any recognizable forms. In fact, art needs no justification beyond its existence as an expression and celebration of our God-given creative ability.

Perhaps because art can serve as a tool for evangelism, we mistakenly conclude that it must. As a result, we hold art to a different standard than nearly everything else in life. Consider the following experiences:

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Who, after hearing about a friend’s weekend hike through the mountains, asks, “What was the point of that?” Do we need a reason to bask in the beauty of nature other than that it delights us?

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Who, while sitting in a buzzing baseball stadium after the center fielder has just made a leaping catch to rob the visiting team of a home run, asks, “What did I learn from that?” Any contrived parallels to Paul’s “run the race” verses in Scripture would only seem to cheapen the moment.

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Who, after savoring the last bite of a juicy steak, asks, “What truth about the Kingdom of God did that experience reveal?” If God didn’t want us to enjoy delicious food, He wouldn’t have given us taste buds.

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What father, after riding a roller coaster with his children, huddles them together for a quick Bible study on the various usages of the Greek word for “fear” in the New Testament? He doesn’t ride the roller coaster with his children in order to start a theological discussion. He does so simply because it’s part of growing up and being alive.

These experiences are not ways for us to learn about life, but to experience it. God gave us a vast capacity for emotional and sensory experiences. He designed a world full of vibrant colors, enticing smells, mouth-watering flavors, and delightful tonal harmonies. Then He set humans loose, like kids in a candy store, to experience all the wonders of His creation.

To conflate art with a sermon or message is to render it obsolete. If we approach art only as a philosophical exercise—mercilessly dissecting it for its worldviews, implications, and theological teachings—we’re missing out on its real beauty and power.

We create music not just to proclaim lyrical gospel truths but because a world without music is a less joyous place to live. We paint not merely to give visual representation to biblical narratives but because God created a world full of brilliant colors rather than mundane shades of gray. We dance not simply to transpose a sermon into an artistic form but because God gifted us with marvelous bodies capable of exquisite grace and beauty rather than making us stiff, clunky robots.

In short, we create art because God gave us the ability and impulse to do so. We need no other justification.

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3 comments

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Terry Osgood July 15, 2019 at 12:53 pm

My “concern” about “totally useless art” is that some people who produce it believe that doing so will (or should) provide for themselves and their families. In my experience, much “totally useless art” (Christian or otherwise) serves no significant commercial purpose. This is not a criticism of your article, or a statement that all art must be commercially productive to matter. But, I raise the issue to continue the discussion from where you left off.

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The Collision July 15, 2019 at 2:10 pm

Absolutely. It’s important to keep in mind that just because God instills in us a passion for something does not mean that he intends that passion to become our full-time career or the source of providing for ourselves or our families. God may have given us that passion for our own private enjoyment, or to bless our church and community, or—on rarer occasions—to pursue as a career.

The flip side, is that I think the state of Christian art today has been pulled down and muzzled due to Christians who have forced themselves to create cookie-cutter and uninspired art in an effort for commercial marketability. The Christian artists become driven more by what they think might sell than by how God might have them use their talents, Thanks for sharing, Terry!

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Terry Osgood July 15, 2019 at 7:09 pm

Here’s another thought: is something “Christian art” merely because a Christian produces it? Doesn’t the term “Christian art” itself imply that there is a Christian significance to it? (As opposed to merely referring to “art” of any variety that happens to be produced by a believer).

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