Strolling through the Kimbell Art Museum, I could not believe Renoir’s On the Terrace—my favorite painting ever—was only two feet in front of me. I wanted to touch it, but the awareness of security guards and that sneaky alarm convinced me otherwise.
Sigh—it was so beautiful and skillful and . . . .
The presence of such great works of art, displaying artistic mastery I cannot comprehend, completely overwhelmed me. On loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Kimbell presented more than 90 masterpieces from the impressionist era. Displayed were the works of master painters Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec—just to name a few! The gallery not only grouped the paintings by artist, but also in a chronological manner; thus exposing the evolution of impressionism throughout the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. To think a handful of painters, whose artistic eye challenged traditions and abounded with creativity, reinvented the art of painting and influenced culture decades later—absolutely incredible.
My afternoon at the museum made me ponder, What is the evangelical Christian to do with this art? Monet lived with another man’s wife for 13 years; Degas was a vocal anti-Semite; Van Gogh acquired gonorrhea from an alcoholic prostitute he patroned for two years and was committed to a mental institute (during which he painted Starry Night); and Renoir fathered an illegitimate child by Aline Victoria Charigot five years before he married her. These hall-of-famers are not exactly upstanding Christian men.
Yet, when I look at the works of the impressionists, although an art novice, something within me reacts to the beauty and skill I behold—much the same way I react when I encounter nature. I am beholding God’s glory. It prompts me to worship.
Created to Create
In Genesis 1:26-28, we learn that God created people in His image—possessing authority, a free will, a spirit, emotions, and creativity. As nature glorifies God by showing His creativity and skill (Psalm 19:1-2; Psalm 104), humanity glorifies God by reflecting His image. Thus, the artistic/creative person is an expression of God’s image and glorifying God as he or she creates. Other Christians can then praise God and worship Him not only when they see His creative works—a sunset or mountain chain—but also when they see the creative work from His human creations—paintings, sculptures, architecture, design, literature, etc.
Pondering these possibilities reveals we can enjoy God and worship Him by enjoying His creation—both of nature and culture. (See 1 Timothy 4:1-5; Ecclesiastes 2:24-25, 5:18-19, 9:9.)
Although we may not agree with the moral and religious choices of a particular artist, we can, however, recognize the creative skill—whether genius or just simply genuine—as possessing some element of good and beauty, much the same way God set the example by declaring His creative works ultimately good (Genesis 1). We can appreciate those through the lens of God’s creation—He made the person who could create something so unique and complex!
Create No Gods Before Me
Just as creation can become an idol, so can art—paintings, music, films, etc. This happens when it replaces God in importance. For instance, a person may admire and revere Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper but despise and reject Jesus. Furthermore, the Scripture warns against immersion in culture (Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 8:-10; 2 Corinthians 6:14ff; Ephesians 4:17ff; 1 John 2:15-17).
Yet, because an artist’s material is not overtly Christian or is blatantly non-Christian, does it mean believers cannot praise God for the skill given to that person by enjoying the art? Perhaps, in the secular culture—art, music, literature—there are still glories of God to behold.
To the Artist
This should also be good news to the artist. No longer must you lay down your paintbrush, cloth swatch, or pen to pursue a Christian vocation. “Being in the ministry” takes all shapes and sizes, and some of those folks need to glorify God by utilizing and sharpening their God-given talents and interests. Just as God provides an example for the missionary, the pastor, or the theologian in His Word, He also provides an example for the creative heart. Think of the grandeur of Eden, the pomp of the Temple, and the descriptions of the new heaven and new earth. You are not left without an example. God is the ultimate artist, the ultimate creative mind.
In All I Do
Reading this, some may cringe. Thanks to America’s puritanical heritage, it still may be difficult for American Christianity to swallow the idea of embracing creativity as okay, not to mention asworship. However, my Kimbell experience taught me that worship of God is not limited to Bible study, prayer, church, attendance, and good deeds. No, worship of God penetrates every moment of life, seeing Him in all I do and all I meet (1 Corinthians 10:31). Although I live in a fallen world, which often mars the purity of God’s image in us, such sin can never fully hide our original design—to glorify Him. We do that when we create—stirring sermon or skillful watercolor, all to the glory of the great Creator.
Question: Knowing that bearing God’s image means people are prone to create, how does that impact the way you categorize art—music, sculpture, paintings, films, etc?
Emily White Youree is a freelance writer and editor who lives near Fort Worth, Texas with her husband Bryan.