The Christian Artist: Why there is no such thing as "Christian" art

One of the big questions is whether or not there is such a thing as “Christian” art. I think the answer to that question is that there is not such a thing in any objective sense, but I want to be careful in explaining what I mean.

In an interesting passage in Exodus 31, God says to Moses, “Look, I have called Bezallel…and have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge and with all kinds of aptitude, to artistically work with gold, silver, ore, to artistically cut stones and set them, to cut wood artistically, and make all kinds of work.”

Of course woodcutting didn’t make St. Paul’s list of spiritual gifts, but the passage is clear. There are people who are specially gifted by the Spirit of God to make art works for religious use. If that is the case, why can’t we make an argument that there is such a thing as “religious” art. The answer is that once the work of art is created it doesn’t remain stable.

If I borrow some of Martin Buber’s thoughts about aesthetic philosophy, it works like this. During the creative process, the artist is engaged in an I/Thou relationship with the form that is confronting his/her spirit/imagination. Once the work is “bodied forth”, it enters into the world of objectivity. It is an “It” amongst other “Its”. There is always the possibility that it can “blaze up into the present” and become a religious experience, but it doesn’t necessarily have to happen. In fact, it can do quite the opposite.

Nothing in Scripture exemplifies this more than Nehushtan. In Numbers 21, the Israelites have sinned, and God has punished them by sending poisonous snakes to the camp. They repent, and God comes to the rescue by telling Moses to make art. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make yourself a bronze snake and raise it up as a sign; whoever is bitten and looks at it, he will live.’” It is a beautiful passage about the healing power of “religious” art. So, if God commands Moses to make a bronze sculpture, why can’t we safely say that there is such a thing as a “religious” art object. As I said before, the problem is, the art doesn’t remain stable.

We find out in 2 Kings 18 (during Hezikiah’s reign some 500 years later), that the people kept the bronze snake, named it Nehushtan, and were burning incense to it – presumably in imitation of the common snake cults of the time. Through misuse, what was once a work of “religious” art for healing – even commanded by God - becomes an object of religious destruction.

It seems to me that if our creative work enters the objective world and can be used for either healing or destructive purposes, the holiness of the art is not in the thing itself but in its use. Any work of religious art can ultimately be used wrongly for destructive purposes. The good news is that if that is the case, any work of art created for destructive purposes can potentially “blaze up into present” and become a religious experience.

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