Monday, October 1, 2012

A Review of Art for God's Sake

Front Cover of Art for God's Sake from Wheaton: 

Art for God's Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, by Philip Graham Ryken is a solid resource, which aids in nurturing a deeper understanding of the arts and assists in cultivating a Biblical worldview and theology of the arts. 

Art for God’s Sake is an unassuming, simple, and easy to read book about recovering the arts and restoring them to their right place in God’s kingdom for God’s kingdom purposes, and to God’s own Glory. Ryken summarizes his work, “This is the Christian view of art: the artist is called and gifted by God-who loves all kinds of art; who maintains high aesthetic standards for goodness, truth, and beauty; and whose glory is art’s highest goal.”

Ryken proposes that art has a redeeming purpose in God’s plan and that art deals in the currency of reality and truth.  This reality should include the hopeful aspects that the gospel narrative gives us. Ryken says, "Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose. Art is always an interpretation of reality, and the Christian should interpret reality in its total aspect, including the hope that has come into the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Philip Graham Ryken assesses the importance and the value of art in God’s world saying, “At its best, art is able to satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God has made for His glory.” Not only is the aesthetical value of art highlighted here, but also the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and truth-value as well.

Ryken balances the goodness, truth, and beauty of art with the predominant dangers of art.  He says, “Art trades in images, and images easily lend themselves to idolatry.  Artists know this from their own experience.”  When we are dealing with the fallen nature of humanity and a fallen creation, the prideful struggle for adoration emerges.  The temptation is to be God.  “Art is always tempted to glory in itself, and nearly every form of art has been used to communicate values that are contrary to scripture.  Art is fallen as any other aspect of human existence,” says Ryken.

Christianity and the church are also confronted in Art for God’s Sake.  Ryken criticizes art with a good message that is done badly.  He says, “Ultimately this [kitsch-tacky] kind of art dishonors God because it is not in keeping with the truth and beauty of His character.”  While “art has tremendous power to shape culture and touch the human heart,” according to Ryken, bad art may not have this same desired outcome and does not bring God glory.

Ryken also advocates involvement in the artistic community.  Participation in the arts is essential for Christians engaging and cultivating culture.  “When Christians abandon the artistic community, we loose a significant opportunity to communicate Christ to our culture.  Furthermore, when we settle for trivial expressions of the truth in worship and art, we ourselves are diminished, as we suffer a loss of transcendence,” Ryken asserts.  He also emphasizes that the individual suffers loss of wholeness, or transcendence, when the arts are not engaged meaningfully.

The majority of the book, Art for God’s Sake, looks at these themes and God’s calling and equipping of the visual artists Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31.  From this passage and these two artists, Ryken uncovers four fundamental principles for a Christian theology of the arts.

The four fundamental principles for a Christian theology of the arts are:

1. The artist’s call and gift come from God.
2. God loves all kinds of art.
3. God maintains high standards of goodness, truth, and beauty.
4. Art is for the glory of God.

In looking at Bezalel and Oholiab, the visual artists that were called by God to build the Tabernacle, Ryken says, “The calling of these artists reflects a deep truth about the character of God, namely, that He Himself is the supreme Artist.  We know this because the very first thing God does in the Bible is to produce creative works of art (see Genesis 1-2).”  The insights from these passages about the creative nature of God, and that artistic nature in humanity as His image bearers are paramount in considering the arts.

Our involvement in the arts is a creative enterprise, which engages us with our creator God.  Ryken makes this connection: “Art is an imaginative activity, and in the act of creating, we reflect the mind of our Maker.” He also affirms that God’s creativity communicates, “God’s aesthetic standards include goodness, truth, and beauty.  And these standards are not relative; they are absolute.”  Ryken goes on to say, “To be pleasing to God, art must be true as well as good.  Art is an incarnation of the truth.”  In God’s goodness and creativity, He has given us truth in the beauty of the arts—incarnational.

Ryken sees art’s original intention as being good.  Because of art’s goodness, truth, and beauty, he sees art as sacred and challenges the unrealistic divide between the sacred and the secular.  Ryken observes, “Some Christians continue to think that certain forms of art are more godly than others.  They make a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, not recognizing that so-called secular art is an exploration of the world God has made, and therefore has its place in deepening our understanding of God’s person and work.”  In short, art is God’s.

Ryken gives application to his presumptions about art as he concludes his book.  He begins answering these implicit questions, “How does the Christian engage in the arts?  What does a Christian artist look like?  What does Christian art look like?”  He answers, “Christian artists celebrate the essential goodness of the world that God has made, being true to what is there.”  Ryken says this about “Christian art,” “The kind of art that glorifies God is good, true, and, finally, beautiful.”

The essential motivation of Philip Graham Ryken is stated in the title of his book, “Art is for God’s sake.”  Ryken seeks to recover the arts and restore them to their intended purpose as part of God’s good kingdom.  Ryken is clear, “What we believe about art is based on what we believe about God.  Art is what it is because God is who He is.”  Art is a gift from God and God calls and equips the artist to for His own glory.  This call communicates God, as Ryken says, “Why does God call people to be artists?  Because He is an Artist, and we are made in His image.”

Art for God's Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, by Philip Graham Ryken is an important book for us to consider as Christians.  Ryken makes the topic of the arts and the study of theology in the arts accessible to the layman.  This book is a fantastic primer to deeper study and reflection on the subject of theology in the arts and comes highly recommended. 

This review has been published in part on Amazon.com and on goodreads and has been published in full on Examiner.com

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