As Christians, we believe that God communicates truth about Himself through the things that He has made (Romans 1:18-20; Psalm 19:1-6; etc.). There are examples in Scripture where He invites man to communicate truth in similar ways. To cite an occasion we wouldn’t argue over, he commanded Moses to construct an ark, a tent, and a courtyard, and to cover them with pictures of angels, so that His people would understand what it was like to be near Him. Also, He further appointed Moses to make an altar and a washbasin to teach people what it meant to come into His presence with clean hands and a pure heart (cf. Psalm 24:1-4).
These few examples demonstrate to us that God expects us to pick up on these things, which in turn requires that mankind have the equipment to do so. God makes us perceptive to His language in nature, so that the unbeliever is without excuse, and the believer may perceive His glory in the heavens. He made us sensible in such a way that we could look at something like the Tabernacle and see something of God’s dwelling place in the heavens. God made us to understand a kind of language that speaks not merely to our rational faculties, but to our souls.
But we use this faculty for understanding more than just decoding God’s nonverbal communication. We are not only able to receive such communication from the Creator, but also we are able to communicate with other people using nonverbal language. This is what happens when we make and experience art. I believe that good art is one of the best ways to communicate with other people in terms of goodness, truth, and beauty. The question is whether we or other people really understand the message well enough for art to have its full effect.
When I was first encouraged to be interested in any kind of art higher than my beloved shoegaze music (a type of alternative rock), I found a world abstracted from reality by an impenetrable hedge of incomprehensible symbolism. It was like a foreign language made of signs that had no significance for me. They pointed to exactly nowhere.
I found classical music unlistenable. I thought of painting, at its best, as people doing their best when photography was unavailable to them. Poetry, to me, was a secret language between pretentious people. In summary, I believed that high art was a waste of time; a luxury pursuit for people who, in the words of a friend, “needed something to do.”
To be fair to myself and others, some music that we call “classical” is indeed unlistenable because Modernists intended it to be so. Some paintings were indeed bare representations without having anything worthwhile to say to the observer. Some poetry was (and is) a way for pretentious people to signal their in-group status to other pretentious people. In summary, some art really is bad at being art. But does that imply that there is not such thing as good art? And why should I care if there is?
To get to the point where I could even begin to think in terms of “good art” and “bad art,” I needed to undergo some deep changes in my own thinking. Believe it or not, the changes began when a preacher told me that rock music was an awful, evil thing that would kill things like house plants, pets, and brains. I did not and do not believe him, though I will defend his right to say what he said. However, he did make a tangential point about the moral formation that happens with what he called “good Christian music,” examples of which he conveniently had for sale on the back table. This tangential point stuck with me because it was reasonable: why wouldn’t “good Christian music” be more suitable to moral formation than my then-current diet of Fender Jazzmasters through fuzz pedals?
Here arose a problem: the music he was selling simply wasn’t good, nor did it strike me as particularly Christian. I knew enough to tell that much. I did not know what good music was; but I did know that this simpering, warbly, sentimental stuff was not it. Nor was the simpering, warbly, sentimental stuff we primarily sang in church particularly good. I recall thinking that “Holy, Holy, Holy” seemed to be written by a different type of person altogether from the person who wrote “Jesus Is All the World to Me.” There was something there, beyond my tastes, beyond the bare words, that was real. But I could not explain the difference and often failed in trying.
Providentially, I had a professor in college and another in seminary who could steer my confusion about art toward understanding. They encouraged me to keep interacting with art, insisting that behind that impenetrable hedge was something worth pursuing. Slowly but surely, I began to see glimpses of sunlight through the thorns. They told me what I would tell you: keep interacting with art until the sunlight shines through. The simpering, warbly, sentimental stuff really is deficient, and there is something out there that is real and worth pursuing.
To this day, I am no scholar of aesthetics, nor really a scholar of any stripe. I am a second-generation bicycle mechanic who responded affirmatively to a call to ministry. My high school and undergraduate education, with a few bright exceptions, could justly be compared to the larval stage of a beetle. My seminary degree was mostly designed to help me understand and teach the Bible: Aesthetics were not really part of the curriculum. Along the way, I read a handful of books and articles that were truly helpful, several others that were less than helpful, and some that I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to process.
Work Through the Pain!
This point in the essay would be a convenient time to transition to a nice, tidy method for understanding why the tacky, shallow, sentimental stuff is objectively inferior to the good stuff. There really isn’t one, however, because we encounter art in a way that involves the soul, and not just the intellect. Even reading helpful art critics is like looking at a cookbook: you still don’t really know what the food tastes like until you experience it for yourself. It is our souls that need to improve, and not merely our intellects.
It was worth fighting my short attention span to listen to Handel’s Messiah because it repays my attention with glimpses of glory. It was worth teaching myself to stop and look at paintings because the good ones could show me things that “the eye hath not seen.” It was worth my time to slog through some poetry, and it was a slog as I recall, because the good poets could get past the barricades in my secularized mind and tell me something true about the world. Good art is good and true and beautiful. And it is worth your attention.
Now, the Spiritual Part
As stated above, God Himself communicates with us in ways that are not merely statements of fact. We should not be surprised to find that the same faculty that allows us to interpret art has a primary place in the intellectual life of the Christian disciple. Roughly a third of the Bible is poetic in form, teaching us not only what we need to know, but also how we ought to feel about it. Symbolism of a highly visual sort abounds in the apocalyptic writings, where the point that God is making is often not “here are the bare facts,” but rather something more like “you are too puny to understand Me.” We are to minister to one another not simply with propositions, but with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Why should you care about art? Because when you learn to interact with art, you have new tools at your disposal to understand and appreciate God, His Word, and His works. And perhaps you will have new tools for expressing your appreciation for His goodness, truth, and beauty as well.