Francis Shaeffer on Art and the Bible

An art work is a doxology in itself. -Fracis Shaeffer

In 2017, I am going to write some things concerning Christians and the arts, creativity. I think we are still confused on the subject. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But, like to engage the subject with some help from my friends. Dead friends.

One of the better books on the subject of arts, creativity, and the Bible is Art and the Bible, by Francis A. Shaeffer. He deals with art in the Scriptures and how Christians can evaluate art in the world. 

Foundational Convictions on Art and Creativity

Before I share a couple things from Shaeffer on evaluating art. I want to make a brief comment on why creativity and the arts is a biblical idea: 

  1. God is Creator (Gen. 1:1). 
  2. People are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).
  3. If people are made in the image of God, they are given the ability to create. 
  4. Humans don’t create out of nothing, like God. They use God-given resources, to create art, and other things. 
  5. God commands and expects us to create.

Brief sketch, nothing profound. But, these are essential foundational roots for beginning the conversation around art, creativity, and the Bible. We’ll flesh out these convictions and add others in future posts. For now, this will do.

God is Creator. We are made in his likeness and image. Therefore, we must create, cultivate, work, and make stuff, driven by our God-given, and the good design from our Creator.

11 Perspectives for Evaluating Art

So, let’s dive into the thoughts of Francis Shaeffer on how to evaluate art. He writes these eleven perspectives with the above biblical foundation in place.

#1 A work of art has value in itself.

Art is not only for analysis. It’s not simply for intellectual poking and prodding. Art is to be enjoyed and marveled at. 

Art has value for the Christian because God is our Creator. And, we are made like God, to create. We can marvel at God, and the people he has made, and their art. Animals don’t create. Only humans create. 

But, don’t mistake all art as being created equal. Some art is morally questionable and does not have excellent quality (we’ll talk about this later). The artist has certain abilities, skills, and experience. 

But, creativity and art in and of itself is good, because God is good.

#2 Art forms add strength to the world view which shows through, no matter what the world view is or whether the world view is true or false. 

Christian or not, there is a world view being expressed. Yet, art is a channel to express that view in vivid color.

Shaeffer gives an example of a side of beef hanging in a butcher shop. If you saw it, no big deal, that’s what butcher shops are for. But, when you see Rembrandt’s A Side of Beef, you think differently about the beef altogether.

The Psalms do the same thing. They are written as Jewish poetry. You know God is not a literal rock (Ps. 18:2). But, when the Scripture says God is our rock, you have a renewed vision of what this means. 

Art can do the same thing regardless of world view.

#3 In all forms of writing, both poetry and prose, it makes a tremendous difference whether there is a continuity or a discontinuity with the normal definitions of words in normal syntax.

This one gets a bit confusing. Shaeffer argues that total abstract writing, sculpting, and painting, can create a wall between the viewer and artist.

A writer who uses language that is not common to the culture, and breaks all grammatical rules, and basic use of language, is not helpful. 

This doesn’t mean we can’t use parable, hyperbole, illustration, and break grammatical rules (books do it all the time). He means, an artist who is only after the abstract, bizarre, and unreadable, for no other reason than, “this is art, don’t question it.” 

Misses the point of art and communication.

Creating a new language and syntax for the audience you are trying to reach might hinder more than help in the end.

#4 The fact something is a work of art does not make is sacred.

There is a silly notion that art can’t be judged for its world view. People say, “It can’t, because art is sacred, it’s mine, it fell from heaven, don’t touch.”

Back to point #1, the only sacredness of art, is the reality we are made by God, he is a Creator, and gives us the ability to create. But, we can evaluate, poke, and disagree, with a world view in art because its not an untouchable sacred thing.

We don’t have to embrace the world view simply because it’s a famous artist or famous piece of art. 

This steers us away from the snobbishness you often see in college courses on Art History.

#5 What kind of judgment does one apply, then, to a work of art?

We know there is value in art itself because of the Creator and his image-bearing creation. But, what do we evaluate for a work of art? How? Shaeffer is very helpful here:

(1) Technical excellence- this can be subjective. But, when you look at a painting, hear a piece of music, or read an excellent book… you see/hear the technical skill. Does it look like a kindergarten with crayons drew it? Or, a skilled painter? Does the vocalist hit the right notes or sound like a teen hitting puberty?

This does not mean the artist should be rejected because of world view. If the technical skill is solid we can rejoice in the art they made. 

(2) Validity- this is hard to judge. But, the question becomes: is the work of art authentic? Does the artist make it only for money, fame, and prestige? You can tell when someone is not creating work that has an authenticity behind it.

Shaeffer gives an example of a preacher who preaches for money and notoriety. You hear it in their voice. They are not crafting the sermon for the souls of the people only selfish gain. 

(3) Intellectual content- does the world view of the person come out in the art? 

This is hard because you have Christians making art that don’t express a blatant Christian world view, and yet; it’s good art. You can have non-Christians making art with a Christian world view and themes. You can have Christians making art with a blatant Christian world view. And, of course, non-Christians making art with a blatant anti-God bias. 

Christians can make art with themes of sin, death, and despair. But, because of our world view, we know despite these realities, God is good, Jesus saves, and is making all things new. We can balance lament and sorrow with joy and celebration. 

The Christian doesn’t need to have Jesus on a cross for every painting and the line “Jesus loves me” in every song. But, a consistent world view should shine through in whatever medium they choose, albeit blatant and/or subtle.

(4) Integration of content and vehicle- the vehicle in which the art is being shared should match with the content. Does the message coming through a book, painting, poetry, or speech, work with the medium/vehicle?

None of these are perfect tools for evaluation. There is still the reality of subjectivity, but can be a starting point for evaluating any work of art.

#6 Art forms can be used for any type of message from pure fantasy to detailed history.

The sprawling epic fantasy novel (i.e. Lord of the Rings) does not mean it’s devoid of propositional truth or specific world view and message. Keep a close eye on a Stephen King novel and you’ll see a quasi-Christian world view come through. 

The medium is often where Christians get hung up. Many Christians don’t read fiction, watch TV/movies, or engage poetry, because its seen as sinful, and a waste of time. 

But, these mediums, and others, can share a message that is true, factual, and right and good. 

#7 Styles of art form change and there is nothing wrong with this.

Go to the local art museum and see the change in style in paintings, drawings, and sculpture from the last thousand years. Quite different. Listen to modern music from the 50’s and listen to pop music of 2016. Very different.

Christians often get hung up on the forms of art and how its shared and judge it invalid. Books of this era have a more conversational tone compared to Shakespeare (at least books in the West). Movies don’t have the same vibe, feel, and language from silent films compared to Marvel movies today. 

There’s no sacred language and form in which art is considered better than previous generations. It is always evolving and changing. That’s okay.

#8 There is no such thing as a godly style or ungodly style.

This is especially true when it comes to Christian music. Some will say playing the pipe organ is the only viable instrument for corporate worship. Drums and guitars are from the spit of the Devil. 

Rock music is bad. Classical is sacred. You get the point.

There is no God-ordained style that is more godly than another. Style is neutral. Minor chords whether played by a Christian or not, are still minor chords. A watercolor painting from a Christian does not make the style more holy. It’s still a watercolor painting. 

Yet, this does not mean particular styles can be used for ungodly things. Let’s not be naive. But, sometimes the styles we deem more godly, are often more unChristian than others (we’ll explore this a later time).

#9 The Christian world view can be divided into what I call a major and minor theme.

Shaeffer is specific in these examples. The minor theme is comprised of two truths:

(1) The revolting world. People who have rejected Christ and are eternally lost. They want to show the meaningless of life.

(2) There is a defeated and sinful side of the Christian life. No Christian is living a victorious like (regardless of what Joel Osteen says). We are still sinful, weak, and need daily help from the Spirit, and God’s grace. Christians still have inconsistent behavior, thoughts, and attitudes. 

The major theme is opposite of the minor:

Shaeffer argues there is meaning and hope in the Christian world view. Why? There are metaphysical and moral realties. God is there. God exists. There are morals; not just conditioning. People are made in the image of God and have meaning and significance. 

In the area of creativity, because it is not simply a mechanical construct, and because of the realities mentioned above, life is not absurd and meaningless. 

So, to synthesize it down. The Christian artist can deal with the realities of sin, death, sorrow, suffering, and injustice. They actually have language and content to give meaning to it all. And, they also can deal with hope, salvation, and optimism, in their art. They know God can deliver sinners, he can make them new, and is in the process of redeeming everything in creation. Hope is not lost. Life is not random and absurd. God is in control of every detail. 

The Christian can make authentic art living in the tension of the here and the not yet. 

#10 Christian art is by no means always religious art, that is, art which deals with religious themes. 

This is where most Christian art fails. It is always a portrait of Jesus on the cross, playing with children, or Noah’s ark. But, in God’s creation, is it all involved with religious subjects?

What about the universe? Birds? Dogs? Sunsets and sunrises? When God created out of nothing he displayed beauty for humanity to enjoy. It was not all religious matter.

We have the Song of Solomon to bear this out. A book in the Bible dealing with the beauty and love between a man and a woman. A book dealing with breasts, sex, and romance. That is a gift from God. It’s in the Bible and not religious in a pure sense. 

We have God commanding Moses to get artists to create art for the tabernacle. Later we have Solomon commanded to make art for the Temple. Why? God is beautiful and wants us to enjoy beauty. 

David sings songs in the Psalms that are not religious in nature. Simply marveling at the creative genius of God and how he’d even think of humans (Psalm 8). Christian art doesn’t need to overtly deal with sin, death, hell, and the gospel.

Christianity is concerned with the entire person and the entire creation. Not just salvation. The Christian message begins in Genesis with creation, not salvation. 

Christians can make art, dance, sing, engineer structures, program software, and write songs, that are not religious in nature. God deals with the whole range of the person and creation. 

Art is not solely for evangelistic purposes. 

#11 Every artist has the problem of making individual art, and, as well, building up a total body of work.

The point of the last perspective on evaluating art is this… you can’t judge an artist on one piece of work. In the same way, you can’t judge a pastor on one sermon. They can’t get all of their ideas and convictions in one message. An artist can’t share their world view in one piece of work.

Painters, dancers, writers, engineers, programmers, teachers, and homemakers, who create art are not one-trick-ponies. Judge their work on the entirety of what they make. Make judgments on the entire canon not one isolated piece. 

For the Christian Artist

If you consider yourself Christian and an artist of any shape and kind. Shaeffer gives wise counsel:

“… His/Her goal should be in a lifetime to produce a wide and deep body of work.”

*Check out Art and the Bible by Francis A. Shaeffer. The post inspired from pages 50-93.