Speculative 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.
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.
Pharaoh 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.