Each weekend at my church, children do what van Gogh did; they draw things. Sometimes they give their creations to me. I ask them who the Martian-looking figure is. Often, they say, “It’s you, Pastor Steve!” My daughters regularly create art for me as well. It is one of the true joys of being a dad. The problem is they make so much we have to dispose of them discreetly. If they spot any of their art in the garbage, they protest like we are throwing away the Mona Lisa.
The difference between the children’s art and van Gogh’s painting is around $50 million. Why did Vincent van Gogh paint? Why do our children draw? For similar reasons, the Egyptians built the pyramids, the Aztecs built their temples, and an Indian emperor built the Taj Mahal. Modern people paint their homes, do their hair, wash their cars, write poems to their lovers, and take family pictures. We are passionate about expressing ourselves in every sensory category. Like God-made beauty, man-made creations of beauty also move us profoundly. The cultures of history’s civilizations are primarily defined by how their people expressed themselves in artistic expressions such as architecture, music, dance, pottery, and clothing. From the beginning, humanity has made beautiful things. Our culture today is dominated by artistic expression and our passion for it. The digital age has brought art to our fingertips. Art from all around the world and from every era of history is accessible for viewing, downloading, or purchase. It is so common that we can easily miss the weighty reasons we love both our creations and the beautiful creations of fellow image-bearers who are gifted to create.
Answering why we love to create beauty requires a look back to our origin to see where this creative impulse comes from. Genesis 1 gives us the creation narrative and includes God’s blue-print for the human race: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Bearing the image of God means that we, like God, have an aesthetic appreciation for beauty. This goes much further than merely appreciating beauty, however. God has built into our DNA a version of His imagination and creative expression.
God’s creation was and is fundamentally different than ours in that God created everything out of nothing. Our creations are more of a creative rearranging of raw materials that God has made. The painter uses God’s colors. The dancer uses a body God designed. A musician borrows God’s sound waves. Only God has ever created something out of nothing. Serious consideration of what that means is one more reason to be in awe of Him.
Yet humans also create. We can imagine something and then take it from a mental concept to actual reality. Our first glimpse of human creativity is Genesis 2:19: “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (NIV). What is more natural for a human than to name something? Even a little child will name her blanket or doll.
“Creativity begins in the imagination. God gave that ability to us.”
There are billions of life forms on our planet, yet only humans name things. Where does that impulse come from? It comes from somewhere deep within us: our imagination. Humans uniquely have imagination. To imagine something is to create it mentally and conceptually. We do this every day and don’t think anything of it. We imagine the day ahead of us. We imagine what we will wear. We imagine the route we will drive to work. We imagine conversations we will have. We imagine potential solutions for issues we face. Our minds can conceive of things in potentiality before we make them reality. Even reading this page and allowing small shapes to represent words that correspond to concepts requires symbolic representation that soars beyond any other creature.
Our imaginative ability is fascinating. If we are simply a biological mass of evolved molecules, how can we create something in our mind before we do it? There is no naturalistic explanation for human imagination. But the Christian worldview has an explanation: we do because God did. God imagined the world before He made it. He contemplated making man before He did it (Gen. 1:26). Creativity begins in the imagination. God gave that ability to us. Adam saw the animals, and from within him came a creative impulse to make verbal representations of what he saw: giraffe, frog, leopard, Eve.
As a result of the fall, man lost his innocence, but not his creative ability. Over time this ability expressed itself in organizational and artistic ways. The Bible credits Jubal with the discovery and development of instruments and music (Gen. 4:20). Then Tubal-Cain began making tools, and humanity’s culture launched into creatively shaping the human environment to meet human needs (Gen. 4:22). It’s important to realize that from the beginning, humankind created things that weren’t just utilitarian but were crafted artistically, in the same way the Creator made a blue sky and a green tree and a red robin. The Bible celebrates artists such as Bezalel (tabernacle), David (songwriter), and the musicians playing music in temple worship. Jesus was an artisan, and the son of an artisan, who learned his trade from His builder father. God likes it when image-bearers reflect His character by creating beauty. The divine Artisan made us little artisans, and beauty has been a considerable part of our lives and culture ever since.
Rather than saying that art needs to be overtly “Christian” or deal with religious themes to be appropriately enjoyed, we need to view all art through a biblical worldview. From this perspective, everything is speaking theologically. That is what God’s kind of art does; it proclaims what is true about God. While creation is fallen, the universe of God’s art celebrates what is true about God. However, in a fallen world, all human art speaks with oscillating contradictions and inconsistencies. Even the natural world groans with sin-created tensions between life and beauty, on the one hand, and death and decay on the other. It anticipates when everything it says and does is true once again (Rom. 8:19–23).
Man’s artful expressions are also self-contradictory. We are not what we were made for, and our art is not what it could be. As Pablo Picasso famously said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Human minds spiritually darkened by the effects of sin often worship created things rather than their Creator (Rom. 1:25). Their lifestyles will show a desperate search for meaning, and their songs, poems, and sculptures will too. Human imagination creates perspectives on reality that express the hopelessness and emptiness of bearing His image but not knowing Him.
This, too, is very theological. To the Christian mind, matured to see the world through the grid of the biblical story, these expressions can create wonder at human achievement without glorying in the worldview it communicates. Rather than saying that some art is secular and some art is sacred, we do better to view everything as sacred or sacredly defined. The impulse to do so is from God. The incarnation of imagination into art is also God-like. All human expression speaks of God, either in consistencies or in contradictions, and the Christian mind searches for and delights in every truthful resemblance of God. From the Christian worldview, all art is like that. It all speaks of what is sacred, and everything communicates either truth or falsehood. Truth is beautiful, and error is ugly. If there were nothing beautiful, there would be nothing ugly.
The ultimate example of this is hell itself, even as it breaks our hearts to consider it. Hell speaks the truth of God’s love and beauty by displaying how ugly its absence is. When art is anti-God, the Christian worldview stretches to see it for what it is—a lie—and to view the lie as an opportunity to glory in the beauty of truth. Ugliness helps make the excellent and beautiful more desirable.
Experiencing human art is at times uplifting and redemptive; often, it magnifies what is corrupt, fallen, and flowing from man’s lower nature. The challenge for us is that we inevitably experience both in the course of man-made beauty. So what is God’s kind of beauty? Remember, like a yardstick is a yard and measures a yard, God is beauty and measures all beauty. The degree to which human beauty expresses God’s beauty is the degree to which God delights in it (and so should we).
This is why God the Father rejoices over Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being, the perfect mirror eternally showing who is the fairest of them all. God’s kind of beauty is His beauty. The world, the Word, and His Son are the only perfect reflections. Our artistic expressions and interpretations lack clarity and precision since we only see His beauty “like puzzling reflections in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12 NLT).
Yet we can express and appreciate what we know about God. Beautiful art will reflect the excellence, goodness, harmonies, virtue, and redemptive glory of God. In this, beauty is in the eye of the beholder as long as we recognize God as the Beholder of all beauty. It is our privilege to join with God’s delight in man-made beauty’s splendor and reflected theological brilliance.
The challenge comes when the beauty is enjoyed for its own sake. The wonder leads to worship of the artist, the music, or the emotional experience instead of God. As C. S. Lewis said, “The unbeliever is always apt to make a kind of religion of his aesthetic experiences.” He must do so because beauty enriches life and temporarily masks the pain.
“Our wonder has to survive the shushing guards of a fallen Eden.”
Some years ago, I was blessed to walk through the Sistine Chapel and view Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling. He painted it in the early 1500s, and it is considered one of the most outstanding examples of human artistry. If the heavens declare the glory of God, looking up in the chapel declares the glory of Michelangelo. The authorities require silence in the chapel, but ironically, the security guards shushing to keep people quiet amplifies the noise and clamor. This illustrates the experience of human art. While it can be astonishingly beautiful, there’s always brokenness in the experience of it. Our wonder has to survive the shushing guards of a fallen Eden.
A Christian is free to relish the wonder that music or any other beauty creates within as long as it doesn’t stop there. Just like the sunset or the mountain view, these moments of wonder and joy must be turned into Godward worship (giving Him honor and thanks), or we are merely experiencing man-made beauty as any atheist can.
A Christian’s experience of wonder and joy in beauty should be far greater than that of a non-Christian. What is religious ecstasy to an unbeliever is just the beginning of wonder’s blessing for a Christian. The unbeliever has nowhere to go with his experience and is left to crave it again. Go to another concert. Have another sexual encounter. Watch the same movie over and over. The Christian takes the wonder and uses it to animate praise to God. This consummates our joy in the beauty and glorifies God as the Giver of beauty’s blessings. In this way, we enjoy man-made artistic beauty for what God intended it to be—a wonder-producing, praise-inducing experience of His glory.
by Steve DeWitt
Why do our hearts thrill over a sunset or cry over a song? The experience of beauty does something profound and powerful within the heart and...
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