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The Art And Craft Of Glorifying God

The belief that “good art,” simply because it is good art, glorifies God, is a fallacy. Lots of artistic expression has a worldview contrary to God. Contrary, not neutral, and certainly not God glorifying.

street_artist_pexels-photo-14275Speculative Faith uses a random quote widget that allows various sayings to appear at the top of each page. Some of the quotes are insightful, I think, and some thought-provoking. One which appeared some years ago, for me, was simply provoking.

It touched one of my hot buttons—one of my pet peeves about Christians’ attitudes toward fiction. As it turns out, my thoughts on the subject also serve as a rebuttal to an idea that surfaced in the Spec Faith series on fiction and evangelizing: God is glorified simply by Christians writing well or by reading:

Christians should evangelize. And yet God has saved us people to glorify him in many ways—including work, rest, and the enjoyment of human culture that includes stories. (My emphasis.)

The latter part of that statement does not agree with my concept, and what I believe Scripture teaches, about glorifying God. Instead, the Oxford-American Dictionary portrays my thoughts in its first definition of glorify: “reveal or make clearer the glory of (God) by one’s actions.”

From Scripture, I think Matthew 5:16 may best represent my thoughts about glorifying God:

Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

I learn a couple basic truths about glorifying God from that verse:

    1. Glorifying God is a response to something tangible
    2. Glorifying God is an intentional action
    3. Glorifying God puts the spotlight on God, not on what occasioned the giving of glory.

So what was the quote that nudged my thinking toward rant level?

“The way in which a Christian who makes cars glorifies God is not by painting ‘John 3:16’ on the hood. […] Similarly, the artist glorifies God by making good art, whether or not it contains an explicit gospel message.” — Phillip Graham Ryken

Seems innocuous enough, doesn’t it. Why, then, would I rail against it?

There are two fallacies that grate on my sensibilities. The first is comparing car-making to art-making. Art, and particularly writing, by definition involves communication. Making cars does not. Hence, the analogy breaks down at the beginning.

Other such analogies are plumbers and writers—the plumber doesn’t have to tag the pipes he works on with a Bible verse or witness to the homeowner as he works or put a tract in with his bill in order to bring God glory, so why should the writer?

Hopefully the writer does something more subtle, but the point here is that the job of the plumber is to fix whatever is wrong with a home’s pipes and the writer’s job is to communicate. The two don’t have the same function and therefore aren’t comparable. Both can glorify God in their lives and in their approach to their work and in their interaction with people, but the writer has an added opportunity to glorify God by the content of his stories.art-view

Secondly, and the concept that goads me most, the belief that “good art,” simply because it is good art, glorifies God, is a fallacy. Lots of artistic expression has a worldview contrary to God. Contrary, not neutral, and certainly not God glorifying. Take Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, for example, a book which won awards and which garnered many rave reviews. Pullman himself says

I’m caught between the words ‘atheistic’ and ‘agnostic’. I’ve got no evidence whatever for believing in a God. But I know that all the things I do know are very small compared with the things that I don’t know.

So maybe there is a God out there. All I know is that if there is, he hasn’t shown himself on earth.

Are his books, artistic as they are, still glorifying the God he doesn’t believe in? Apparently some people don’t think so.

Some people have accused Pullman of nurturing a dark agenda and an anti-Christian purpose. He was recently described in The Mail on Sunday as the most dangerous author in Britain.
“A dark agenda?”

Did God give Philip Pullman his talent to write fiction? Absolutely, but instead of using it to glorify God, he used it to mock Him and denigrate Him and in the end “kill” Him (the conclusion of the His Dark Materials series).

As I see it, Philip Pullman epitomizes Romans 1:21-23.

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Emphasis mine.)

He has chosen against God. His writing may be artistic, but he slanders God with it. He is not glorifying God.

While God certainly can and does derive glory from all He has made, that’s not the same thing as the thing giving Him glory. Consequently, I don’t believe fallen man in his unredeemed state glorifies God. Any inkling of his status as Image Bearer is marred by his sin. I think most likely, as our righteousness is nothing but dirty rags, our art, unless God does a work in our lives, is nothing but prideful self-expression.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be good, as we evaluate literary quality. But if real art is perfect Truth in harmony with perfect Beauty, then obviously our efforts at creating art fall far short. And more so for the unredeemed. How can he who denies Christ put Truth in his work? He won’t, not in the fullest understanding of the word. It may contain truths, and it still might be imaginative, creative, even beautiful. But it will fall short of pointing to God and acknowledging Him as the Creator and Sustainer of life, as the Lord of all, as the Savior and Redeemer and Friend of those He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light.

I’ll give two illustrations from popular culture. There’s a dance program on TV called “So You Think You Can Dance.” I have to say, when I watched the show some years ago, I saw some really, really beautiful dance routines. None of them glorified God, though. They glorified the dancer, the choreographer, the subject (some were theme pieces that told a story), even the music, but not God. Yes, I know God gave the dancers their ability. But for them to glorify God, I believe He should be recognized as the cause or the object of what had been created. Their “light,” if you will, didn’t cause people to marvel at God.

Second illustration is from “American Idol.” The runner-up some years ago was Adam Lambert. I remember watching some of his performances and saying how afraid I was that he would win. I thought he could become the next Michael Jackson, he was that good, that creative. But why “afraid”? Because his good was a glorification of humanistic values at best, demonic values at worst. Nothing about Adam’s work was God glorifying. And yet he was very, very talented.

I think of Pharaoh’s magicians who were able to duplicate Moses’s miracles for a while. Were they glorifying God by doing so? Not at all. They were using the very things God put inside them to defy Him, to rebel against Him, and to encourage others to do so as well.

Moses026Pharaoh himself hardened his heart, but God used that act of defiance for His glory. Joseph told his brothers that they meant evil against him, but God meant what they did for good. Both these people and events show that the evil work of a person’s hands isn’t God-glorifying until God gets a hold of it and uses it as He wishes.

In other words, producing art or enjoying culture isn’t intrinsically God-glorifying. We who are recipients of God’s grace and mercy have the opportunity to shine the light on God—what He does and who He is—but to do so, we must be intentional (think of David dancing before the ark of God). Glorifying God doesn’t happen as an accidental byproduct of our life or even of our life in Christ.

Much of this post is a re-print of an article and a comment which first appeared here at Spec Faith in October 2010.

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Paul Lee
Member

Although I disagree, I find this rebuttal of common grace more interesting and inspiring than the arguments in favor of common grace that imply that it doesn’t matter.

No one has ever seen God. I suspect you’ll favor the other side of that verse, which goes on to say that God has made Himself known. Evidently there’s a difference between seeing God’s glory and learning of its revelation. Whenever people tell me to stop being unhappy and insecure because of God’s sure promises in the Bible, I turn to look at the empty space where the presence of God is still invisible and painfully longed for, despite the revelation.

The absence of God can be universally sensed, and I think portraying the inexpressible longing and the wonder of what may be is a large part of art. (The wondering is perfectly legitimate despite any amount of biblical revelation, because God is not equivalent to His self-revelation in written form or in human testimonies.)

I feel that if the revelation of explicit knowledge about God were sufficient to convey His glory, then Christ would not need to return.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Paul, I’m not sure that Rebecca means to rebut the concept of “common grace.” Instead (this is my interpretation, anyway) she’s countering a false conclusion that some folks may draw from two arguable truths:

  1. Given: God gets (or “derives,” as Rebecca said) glory from the world;
  2. Given: God can do this despite the anti-God motives of an artist;
  3. Therefore: Christian artists and culture enjoyers need not be concerned with actively, consciously, and truthfully glorifying God.

The first two statements are biblical defensible. The third conclusion is a “logical” conclusion but also an immature, shallow, and anti-Scriptural one. Ultimately it ends up committing the same hands-off, laid-back, dull and anti-thoughtful response to culture and storytelling as the “what hath Jesus to do with any pagan stories” response already has. Worse, it’s not a response based in worshipful gratitude for God’s good gifts, which not only glorifies Him as the center of the universe but also gives us delight in Him.

More below.

Leah Burchfiel
Member
Leah Burchfiel

Something about Philip Pullman being the most dangerous author makes me want to laugh a little. Or is that the point, that he’s most dangerous because he’s overall pretty innocuous?

The reason I didn’t like his Dark Materials was because I didn’t like Lyra. Or much of anyone else. Maybe I should re-read it and see if that impression still holds up.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Good stuff here (overall)!

We’re fully agreed on this part:

While God certainly can and does derive glory from all He has made, that’s not the same thing as the thing giving Him glory.

In another series I suggested this is the difference between prepositions.

Does God get glory over a person’s action, or through a person’s action?

As you mentioned, Scripture is clear that God got glory over Pharaoh.

So it would not be right to say that “Pharaoh glorified God” if we mean that this was somehow the king’s intention. To avoid confusion, the subject must be, “God …” and then the verb. God, not man, is the initiator.

However, He got glory through the actions of Moses. God is still prime mover, but Moses was a partner who chose to reject his own glory-thieving and respond to God’s summons and choose to be God’s vessel. Even more so does God get glory through the action of Himself/His Son, Jesus Christ — a glory that Jesus receives and share with His repentant adopted siblings.

I heartily oppose any notion that a Christian should somehow envy or emulate the non-Christian, and step back from “giving glory through.” Christ has died to set us free to do much more than that.

The Ryken quote, however, is in the context of reminding Christians that our conscious glorification of God includes more than our “spiritual” deeds. In other words, he is speaking against the notion that writing, reading, culture engagement, etc., are somehow outside the concept of glorifying God.

My own quote is a summary of that concept. The enjoyment of culture that includes stories ought to be making clear the glory of God. It is not apart from His glory. It is consciously done in and for that glory.

But back to Ryken’s quote. His context may help clarify his meaning.

The doctrine of creation teaches that by God’s common grace, the gift of art inevitably declares the praise of its Giver. Thus non-Christian as well as Christian artists can represent virtue, beauty, and truth. It is important to remember, as Nigel Goodwin has said, that “God in His wisdom did not give all His gifts to Christians.” But even if God may be glorified by art that is not explicitly offered in his honor, he is most truly praised when his glory is the aim of our art.

This does NOT mean that all our art has to be evangelistic in the sense that it explicitly invites people to believe in Christ. To give an example from another calling, the way in which a Christian who makes cars glorifies God is not by painting “John 3;16” on the hood. Rather, he glorifies God by making a good car. Similarly, the artist glorifies God by making good art, whether or not it contains an explicit gospel message. The sculptor glorifies God in her sculpture; the architect glorifies God in his building; and so forth. Because it works with the materials of creation, the artistry itself is capable of conveying the artist’s commitment to a good, loving, and gracious Creator.

Another way to say this is that art can be Christian without serving merely as a vehicle for evangelism, or for other forms of preaching. Such a utilitarian perspective impoverishes the arts. A more complete perspective on Christian art recognizes that a creation always reveals something about its creator. What artists make tells us something about how they view the world. Thus the art of a Christian ought to be consistent with a life of faith in Christ. This is not always the case, of course, because artists struggle with their fallen nature as much as anyone else. Nevertheless, as Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person who is a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life.” Johann Sebastian Bach is famous for signing his works with the letters “sDg,” standing for the Latin phrase SOLI DEO GLORIA—”to God alone be the glory.” This was a pious act that indicated the composer’s sincere desire to present his art as an offering to God. The important thing, however, was not so much the letters that Bach added to his score, but the music itself, which in its ordered beauty was a testimony to his faith in God. In the same way, every artist whose talents are under the lordship of Jesus Christ will produce art for God’s sake.

— Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006, pp. 50-52 (emphases added)

All this to say, I cannot — on the face of it! — agree with this:

In other words, producing art or enjoying culture isn’t intrinsically God-glorifying.

In fact, God will “get glory over” such practices when pagans do them, because “the silver is [God’s] and the gold is [God’s]” (Haggai 2:8). There is a doctrine called “common grace,” in which God has included reflections of Himself in simple, natural things such as sunshine and rain for everyone (Matt. 5:45) and in common-sense parenting (Matt. 7:9-12).

It’s right and biblical to recognize these gifts of God, which give Him glory despite the persons’ sinful motivations. That’s to His credit, not theirs’.

But in some sense, all that has nothing to do with what we do. All we know is what you said, and which I wholeheartedly endorse: When Christians enjoy or make culture, yes, we must do this with intentionality. Why would we want to “revert”? (In fact, Romans 1 indicates “common grace” revelations of God serve as both a blessing and a judgment. If people do not respond to common-grace gifts of God by repenting and wanting God’s saving grace, to glorify Him intentionally, the very warm sun turns to judging fire.)

Furthermore, our purpose must be intentional because God’s word makes it clear that we must be intentional. A great text for this is 1 Timothy 4, especially verses 1-5, which outlines this dual truth:

  1. Liars say that certain material enjoyments are evil; however,
  2. God made everything good to be enjoyed (even in a sinful age), but
  3. These things must be sanctified through the word and prayer.

The word and prayer are intentional. So no one gets to play a song or write a story without intentional heart-level transformation efforts by studying God’s word and praying back to Him. Which, I’m afraid, gives the lie to the whole “I’m a Christian but I don’t really think about it when it comes to things like stories. I just go onto autopilot.” That’s what author Trevin Wax termed the “quietist gospel.” And that’s not how Christians should live.

Leah Burchfiel
Member
Leah Burchfiel

In other words, we end up at “faith vs works” again and start arguing about the finer details of that balance. Again.

Faith vs works is probably the #1 topic on which I go “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty” and wish that everyone else did, too.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Well before that topic we would need to have a “sufficiency of Scripture” topic.

I am not at all exasperated with either topic. What else is there for Christians to do together when we’re care for and trusting one another–presuming this occurs, of course–but to explore the truths of our Lord together?

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I’m still reading! Surely I’m not the only one.

I hope my agreement came through. I believe on this topic we’re more in agreement than it might seem. This could perhaps best be seen when we recognize what Ryken is speaking against.

He’s speaking against a lingering Christian notion that art/stories/fiction have no purpose apart from basically being a sermon illustration.

He’s also speaking against a lingering notion that art/stories/fiction should somehow be separate from our intentional efforts to become more like Jesus in how we think and love and live. In other words, the “well, it’s just a story,” response, which not only insults stories but also takes one segment of real life (the “art and culture” segment) and ropes it off. As if the Holy Spirit isn’t “allowed” in that area of life, or needn’t go in there, because it’s pointless.

Some of the seeming disagreement may also come from the understanding of the word “function.” I believe Ryken is not denying art should have a function. He doesn’t approach the (irritating) “art is good for its own sake” notion. What he’s contradicting is a belief that art/stories are merely a “vehicle,” e.g. if we have fiction at all, let it be just garnish for another genre such as biography or history or systematic theology. It’s a wrong view of “functional” or “utilitarian” — which some Christians still suspect.

(And then others counter this with equally utilitarian arguments, such as that really good Christian fiction ought to have certain bad words, or sex, or Social Justice, so that we can therefore impress non-Christian readers.)

I think many SpecFaith readers, and others in our “circles” of fantastical Christian advocates, already agree with this. But you and I certainly agree in opposing the overcorrection that we see — the notion that if “art glorifies God” than Christians can just sit back and be lazy and just let God do all the “work” of getting/deriving glory, while we don’t even make an effort to seek out biblical truth in the stories. What’s especially amusing is to see this idea alongside the idea that “Christian stories need to be more excellent.” So … the Christian creator can just sit back and passively wait for biblical truth to get into the story, but needs to work hard to make the story excellent? Got it.