Arts and Worship: 5 Thoughts on the Nature of Biblical Artistry

What is biblical art? Or what makes art biblical? For that matter, how do we know if someone’s artistry is truly biblical? What difference does it make for worship leaders and thoughtful cultural artists?

If those questions have ever traveled through the synaptic highway of your brain, this discussion will hopefully help clarify and propel your thinking. This will be the first of a series of thoughtful posts on the purpose and goal and methods of biblical artistry.

(Please note that there are many fine books that approach this topic in various forms. Most of those will provide a much more scholarly take. My goal is to help the artist on the street and the worship pastor in the pew with a more conversational style. I will reference some of the great books as we go. One good place to start is Gene Veith’s State of Arts: From Bezalel to Magglethorpe.)

What is Biblical Artistry?

By biblical artistry I’m discussing the intentional pursuit of creating art from a biblical worldview — not necessarily creating art about biblical themes, though that could be included.

5 thoughts on the nature of biblical artistry

When asked to summarize the essence of worship, a fellow worship leader answered: “To love God with all my heart, soul, mind and being–with my whole life, not just with songs–but certainly including songs.”

A biblically informed and led artist would answer the same. The Great Commandment (Mt. 22:37-40) is paramount:

1Biblical art is done out of love for God and neighbor.

2. Biblical artistry is done with excellence and empowered by the Holy Spirit. When God sought an artist to create the art for the tabernacle, he selected Bezalel (Exodus 31) because: 1) he was skilled in his craft; and 2) he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Proverbs tells us that skilled artists will perform before kings and queens. A biblical artist is always seeking to present his best art.

What role does the Holy Spirit play in Bezalel’s art? While God can always supernaturally give us skills we never possessed, he normally uses skills we’ve already refined. The Spirit empowers and directs these abilities for God’s purposes. I believe He also perfects our work in ways we couldn’t imagine.

3. Biblical artistry is done for the glory of God. J.S. Bach is famous for signing his compositions with SDG, an acronym referring to the latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria – “to the glory of God alone” or “to God alone be all the glory.” This phrase finds its roots in Paul’s admonition to “do whatever you do for the glory of God.” Sounds easy enough…

But for an artist of any discipline–visual, music, dramatic or literary–this is a constant fight. Most artists make their art in hopes that people will enjoy and appreciate their offering. Artists can be crushed through simple criticism (think of Carole King’s demise at the hands of one harsh critic). Applause and praise stokes the souls and passions of artists.

To offer God “ALL the glory” is very difficult for an artist. It becomes even more challenging when an artist depends on art for his or her livelihood. Money tends to follow those who promote their art well–regardless of quality.

Pat Delony is my friend and a very talented painter and a marketer. His undergraduate degree is in fine art and he would prefer to paint in the styles of the great master artists like Rembrandt or Money. However, he discovered that most people don’t appreciate and can’t afford fine art. They will, however, pay for natural art done through innovative styles. So Pat decided to distinguish himself as a pointillist–a style demanding very detailed fine pen work, but easily duplicated. Applying his marketing skills, Pat has created a niche for himself as a regional wildlife artist and stays very busy, but still finds time to teach his grandchildren art and help his son with his youth ministry.

As a jazz musician I find many of my teachers and peers speak critically of Kenny G, David Sanborn, Chris Boti, Kirk Whalum and other jazz musicians who’ve made a living in mainstream pop music. However, I think they are jealous of musicians who have founds ways to create art AND support their families. They are creating art that people will support with their pocketbooks, not just their critical acclaims.

That said, I understand why some will say these musicians have “sold out.” They are allowing the market to dictate what art they will create–but remember, providing for our families is not a bad thing, even Michelangelo had to create art that pleased his patrons.

4. Biblical art isn’t always popular and may not sell. A biblical artist has to be willing to speak the messages God is giving her regardless of how well it is received. In this way a biblical artist is like a prophet. While art cannot deliver propositional truth in the same way a sermon or book can, it is very effective at catalyzing conversations and asking important questions of individuals or communities.

5. Biblical Artistry requires sacrifice. Great athletes must buffet their bodies to reach the top of their sport. Farmers spend months tilling, planting and weeding their fields before they are rewarded with crops. The success of an athlete and a farmer depend on how diligently they worked when hidden from the public eye. An athlete can always have a lucky year and all farmers benefit when ideal conditions prevail, but the true test comes during difficult times.

The same can be said for artists. The artist who spends hours each week perfecting her art will eventually have the opportunity to share her art with the world. Persevering without giving up is the test all great artists must overcome. Few artists are ushered into greatness without crossing the threshold of sacrifice.

Some helpful resources to continue your thinking:

Art for God’s Sake by Phil Ryken. Phil is the consummate pastor, theologian and appreciator of great art. This short book provides a good overview of the scriptural call to create art to the glory of God. Phil is now president at Wheaton College (and I might mention Phil was a classmate of mine–and I’m not surprised at all that he is now president of our alma mater).

It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (edited by Ned Bustard and Sandra Bowden). This is a collection of great articles all centered around how art can glorify God. The contributors range from pastor Tim Keller to world-renowned artist Mako Fujimara; from professor and jazz pianist Bill Edgar to Nashville producer and musician Charlie Peacock.

The Heart of an Artist by Rory Noland. Rory was one of the founding musicians at Willow Creek Community Church. He has directed and produced thousands of services working alongside some of the best musicians in Chicago and from across the Christian music world. These insights are tested in the trenches and important for all biblical artists as they consider the role of their heart in creating art (a topic for another post).

Your Turn:

Since this is meant to be a conversation starter, I’d love to hear from you. How do the scriptures shape your view of your craft?

About Phil Mershon

Phil is an ordained Presbyterian pastor, experienced worship leader, former missionary, and director of events for Social Media Examiner (see LinkedIn profile). He holds degrees in theology, counseling, music and economics. His passion is helping the church follow her calling in worship that is thoughtful, passionate and excellent, and leading churches toward cultural engagement. Follow his tweets: @called_2worship and @phil_mershon
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