How does being a Christian affect the way you relate to your studies in the performing arts? What does it even mean to use your artistic gift to glorify God?
In my time working with Christian students studying one of the performing arts, I’ve found three common responses to these sorts of questions. On one end of the spectrum, I’ve found Christians who are dangerously close to, if not actually, idolising the arts. Practising and performing, in their mind, constitutes their chief form of service and worship to God; they might even call such activities a form of prayer. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve found Christians who are dangerously close to, if not actually, disparaging the arts. Music, dance, drama – in their mind, those things are rather frivolous forms of entertainment which have little spiritual value, and may well be dangerous, distracting people from 'the real work of evangelism'. Do use your gift for the glory of God, they may say, but that probably means doing a Mark Drama if you’re an actor, or a performance of Handel's Messiah if you’re a musician, particularly if such events are outreach events.
But most students, I’ve found, tend to lie somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and their response normally consists chiefly of confusion. They love their particular art form, are conscious of not wanting to idolise it, but have also heard others say that it has limited value and that they’d be better going and getting a real job, or even better, going into full-time Christian ministry.
They then feel terribly confused and conflicted, sometimes wondering whether they really are wasting their time in the arts, at other times enjoying it so much they can’t ever imagine doing anything else, and then later on feeling a bit guilty for having enjoyed something so obviously 'unspiritual' so much.
Here’s the thing - all three of those responses lack the same thing: Biblical insight.
How does what God says in the Bible about Himself and His world inform our understanding of the arts?
1. The arts are good creations
Evidence #1 - Creation itself
Genesis 1-2 sees God create everything out of nothing, including time and space, music and bodies.
Moreover, God created life, life in all its richness – people in all their difference shapes, sizes, tribes, languages, cultures; and what’s more, a rich, rich creation for them to enjoy. As one pastor has written:
There is something gratuitous about creation, an unnecessary abundance of beauty.[i]
Isn’t it incredible to think that in God’s design for life, he devised that the human ear would be able to receive sound waves, and that such waves would be able profoundly to affect our emotions?! Or that he devised the human body to have limbs and muscles that could be flexed and stretched and bent and that they could be done so at speed! And that such activity would not only look beautiful to an observer but feel amazing to those who practise it…
And remember, the end of the creation account declares that:
God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good.
- Key question: Over how much of life is Jesus Lord?
Answer: All of it! He made all of it, so He’s interested in all of it. There is no sacred/secular divide. There’s no area outside the Lordship of Jesus Christ, no exclusion zone, no 'secular territory'. Whether it’s your Bible studies or your musical studies, your acts of service or your acts of Shakespeare, your church attendance or your dance performance – He’s interested in all of it.
Evidence #2: the Character of God
(a) God is creative.
God creates not just the raw materials for us to survive, but instead a rich and beautiful creation of 'unnecessary abundance'. Note this in the way Eve perceived the fruit of the forbidden tree:
'... the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes...'
God is very creative. Thus it is a God-like thing to be creative. The desire to be creative, to bring something out of nothing, to reorder chaos - that comes from being created in the image of God.
- Key question: Does the fact that our creativity stems from being image-bearers of the divine make the arts somehow special?
Answer: Yes, and no.
- Yes, because it is an activity that God Himself engages in and declares to be good. That’s pretty special.
- No, not particularly special – after all, bringing order out of chaos is a model that can be ascribed to building a tower block, planning a traffic system, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, even cleaning a dirty toilet. However, viewed positively, what that means is that all of those activities, viewed theologically, can be seen as replicating a divinely creative activity, which is a very rich thought, and hugely liberating and dignifying for, say, the house cleaner.
(b) God is communicative. Our God speaks. Moreover, our God also has His words written down. Hence, the Bible. And the vast majority of the Bible is communicated in stories. And of that which isn’t narrative, much of it is poetry and song. God not only communicates and expresses Himself in basic statements of fact, but also in more artistic forms. Jesus Himself often used stories and parables to make His points.
Thus, to be involved in dramatic art forms, telling stories, exploring deep themes of identity and what it means to be human – that reflects the very nature of the Bible, our communicative God’s written Word.
Evidence #3: the Cultural mandate
The cultural mandate is the divine injunction in Genesis where God ascribes to mankind the tasks of filling, subduing, and ruling over the earth:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
Here we see God establishing the concept of authority, rule, and work – all of which come together to form a culture. After the Fall, we see Abel keeping flocks and Cain working the soil – we have agriculture, which again crops up (pun fully intended) in chapter 4:
Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.
Here we see: (1) agriculture with Jabal (2) metal work, construction and manufacturing with Tubal-cain, and (3) music with Jubal.
So here we have an art form very early on in the timeline of biblical human history put alongside such 'useful' things as agriculture and industry. In other words, in God’s pattern for society and culture, music is seen as a legitimate trade, and indeed I would extend this to other performing arts.
Indeed, the uses of music documented in the Bible are very revealing (see table below). Obviously music is to be used to praise God, but it was also used in celebrations and festivals, at formal occasions such as coronations, weddings and funerals, casually whilst at work or just simply for leisure, even once for therapeutic purposes. And dance most certainly would have been involved in some of these too. In fact twice the Psalms command praise through dance.[ii]
Thus the performing arts, biblically, have a legitimate place as a trade or career in our society and culture.
2. The arts are fallen and cursed.
In Genesis 3, we read of sin coming into the world, and the way it manifested itself, as seen in verse 6, was essentially by humans taking God’s good gifts (e.g. a piece of fruit – 'the tree was good for food') and twisting them to use them for selfish, self-glorifying purposes (e.g. to gain knowledge – 'the tree was to be desired to make one wise'), causing God to curse the earth, including our work (v.17 – 'cursed is the ground because of you', v.19 – 'by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread'.)
This pattern of curse is replicated in all forms of work, including the performing arts. In and of themselves, they may be good gifts from God, but because of the fall, they are cursed. No art form is inherently sinful, but the way they are used by fallen humanity may well be sinful, and indeed often is. Here’s three ways in which we see the cursedness of the arts manifesting itself:
Evidence #1: The abuse of the arts.
The Bible is replete with examples of music in particular used to celebrate sin, to worship other gods or rulers, and to be malicious and unkind. See the table below for some examples. And the same is still true today: the performing arts may be used to celebrate sin, e.g. approving ungodly relationships, glorifying violence. They may be used to manipulate (think adverts); they might be used for the purposes of propaganda in wartime; to spread untruth; to be malicious; to worship other gods.
Evidence #2: The worship of the arts.
For great is the lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the lord made the heavens.
Only God is worthy of our worship. After all, He made everything! Including us. Including the arts which we so love. And yet all too often sin manifests itself in us by ignoring the creator and worshipping that which is created. And in the arts, there tend to be two options. Either we worship our particular art form itself, forever trying to perfect it, even feeling guilty and/or inadequate when we fail to do so. Or perhaps more often, we worship ourselves, idolising our success or career or reputation. Either way, we sin by redirecting the worship of which only the Lord God Almighty is worthy onto a mere creation of His.
Evidence #3: The toil of the arts.
We know that performing can be a burdensome activity. Making mistakes on the day, medical issues, financial issues, lack of jobs and opportunities, even the (ultimately sinful) irritation of seeing those we consider less-talented having more success than us.
Thus, biblically, the performing arts are clearly cursed, and often used sinfully by fallen humanity.
How are we to conclude? Well, we need to maintain a biblical balance - the arts are both cursed (and indeed often frustrating), and yet nevertheless still good – even after the Fall.
Note, for example, that:
- when it comes to music at least, not only does creation metaphorically still sing, so do the angels, e.g. when Christ was born - Luke 2:13-14
- and so too does God - Zephaniah 3:17 - 'he will exult over you with loud singing'!
- Moreover, in the Bible, God’s judgments on sinful people sometimes involve the withdrawing of music and celebration,which would therefore imply that they are good things, even in a fallen world. [iii]
The key: keep the performing arts good things, not god things. The arts cannot by themselves bring you into relationship with God; they can only point to God. The arts cannot deal with your sin, only the cross can.
But the arts are clearly still to be used for praising God for the gospel – such commands are plentiful in the New Testament; and they can be pursued as careers for the Lord. They will be part of our eternal enjoyment in the New Creation, after all!
In brief therefore, don’t idolise the arts, but don’t reject them either. Rather give thanks for them. Perhaps the key verses here are to be found in 1 Timothy:
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
[i] The Good God, Mike Reeves
[ii] Psalms 149:3, 150:4
[iii] Isaiah 14:11; 16:10; 24:8-9; Jeremiah 7:34; Lamentations 5:14; Revelation 18:21-22