Frances Schaeffer's Art and the Bible

 Over the summer, I participated in a course called Creativity and the Christian. It was a challenge and a joy to be forced to write essays again. I'll be posting what I worked on over the next couple weeks, beginning with three book reports. Each of these books is excellent and I recommend reading. Here is my report for Frances Scaheffer's classic volume, Art and the Bible.


Key Contributions

The Christian faith has enjoyed a historically rich relationship with the arts. The writings of Dante, the music of Bach, the paintings of Rembrandt, and the songwriting of Bono are small sampling of this heritage. So why is the Evangelical church marked by both an aesthetic barrenness and an attitude of fear and avoidance towards the arts? Is our church's understanding of the arts actually rooted in a proper understanding of the Bible? Francis Schaeffer's seminal work, Art and the Bible, provided a much needed clarity when it was first published in 1973 and continues to offer a reorienting view of a proper doctrine of creativity. 

The Bible's portrayal of reality is not limited to matters of the soul. The doctrines of the creation, the redemption, and the future resurrection provide a framework that permeates all aspects of reality. Christ is Lord over everything, giving us context and boldness for our own acts of artistic creation. With such an anchoring in the objective, true reality, we have both the strength and the freedom to pursue knowledge and art.

We see the character of God both in his creation of the world and in how he directs us through his word. And both point to a God who is himself creative and who made us to worship him creatively. "God is interested in beauty. God made people to be beautiful. And beauty has a place in the worship of God." Observe the beauty and complexity of His creation. Read the descriptions on the various types of art God commissioned for the tabernacle and the temple. Notice the wide range of writing styles that are included in scriptures. If we are made in the image of God, we too are called to be creative and our art has value in itself. "Why? Because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator."


Strengths and Weaknesses

For Schaeffer, art is an expression of  "the nature and character of humanity." We can recognize the excellence of an artist's work without having to agree with his outlook on life. To enjoy an author's skill with words or a director's vision of the world is a way to honour the image of God in those people. But that doesn't necessarily mean we embrace what that artist is saying morally. Every man, artist or not, is bound to the Word of God.

Schaeffer's articulates the minor and major themes in the Christian message and how Christian art should include both. The minor theme includes the reality of the fallenness of man, the resulting sense of meaninglessness and tragedy, and the "defeated and sinful side to the Christian life." The major theme is the joy that opens up when we realize that God is real and knowable, and that there is hope through redemption and the future resurrection. To underemphasize the minor theme is to be false to reality. "But in general...the major theme is to be dominant - though it must exist in relationship to the minor."

He also distinguishes between using art to worship God instead of worshipping the art itself. He observes that the Law "does not forbid the making of representatives art but rather the worship of it." If our art finds its worth as an offering to God rather than to men, then there is meaning and significance to our efforts. But our tendency, as humans and as artists, is to instead worship the work of our hands and elevate it over God. "Fixed down in our hearts is a failure to understand that beauty should be to the praise of God." Hezekiah destroys Moses' bronze serpent "because men had made it an idol. What is wrong with representational art is not its existence but its wrong uses." May our worship be only to the True King, so that our art may serve Him instead of taking His place in our lives. The book was so rich I struggled to pick out weaknesses.


Personal Application

Schaeffer's charge to keep our art contemporary is an important challenge. "If you are a young Christian artist, you should be working in the art forms of the twentieth century, showing the marks of the culture out of which you have come, reflecting your own contemporaries and embodying something of the nature of the world as seen from a Christian perspective." This requires vigilance, being constantly aware of how the content of your messages fits within the style of your art. There is no easy answer. We must ask careful questions of our audience and listen closely to their feedback. Does the medium distract or confuse the content? "The Christian...must wrestle with the whole question, looking to the Holy Spirit for help to know when to invent, when to adopt, when to adapt, and when to not to use a specific style at all. This is something each artist wrestles with for a lifetime, not something he settles once and for all."

Ultimately, Schaeffer's book offers me freedom. "The Christian is the really free man - he is free to have imagination." It is a freedom rooted in a proper doctrine of our God and his world. It is a freedom offered through the redemption of our hearts in Christ and the guidance of His Spirit, replacing the paralyzing effects of idolatry. It is also a freedom coming from the realization that we are given a lifetime to express everything that needs to be said. "No artist can say everything he might want to say... into a single work... If a man is to be an artist, his goal should be in a lifetime to produce a wide and deep body of work."

Over the years, I've struggled with feelings of inadequacy or failure when my creative endeavours don't succeed. Through this book, I've realized how much of this stems from finding my identity in the art, rather than using my art as a means to worship God. My prayer is that my work would be to an audience of One and that my satisfaction would come from this alone.


Questions for the Author

If, through Christ, our "whole capacity as man is refashioned" - our soul and our mind and body - how does this apply to taking care of our bodies; health, fitness, and beauty?

"The arts and the sciences do have a place in the Christian life - they are not peripheral." It's clear from this book that having proper doctrine is central to holding the arts and sciences in place. What focus then should churches place on teaching these other topics?

He talks about the ugliness of many evangelical church buildings and compares it to the construction of the temple, which was full of physical beauty. How do these guidelines from the Old Testament era apply to building churches in the New Testament?

In what ways can our contemporary church's architecture and physical aesthetic provoke praise? How should we balance our emphasis on this with the other purposes of the church? How should we convey the importance of this to leaders in the church who overlook it?

Hezekiah "had the temple cleansed and worship reformed according to the law of God." In what ways does the church's contemporary worship need reforming?

How does he interact with nudity in art? This applies to viewing classical art, like paintings and sculpture, but also modern art, like film and literature. Sexuality and the body are beautiful and matter to God, but we are also accountable to a higher moral standard.

He talks about art that is produced within the Christian framework, even if the artist is him or herself not a believer. Does this happen less and less on our culture? Also, there are some who find truth and beauty and echoes of the Gospel in all art, regardless of who created it. What would Schaeffer say to this? When should we be critical of a work's worldview and when should we enjoy and learn from what it says?