What role do artists have in the mission of God? How does the everyday, working artist fit into God’s plan for the world? It’s a common question that often goes unanswered, or is answered poorly. We think there is a simple answer that challenges Christian artists.
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever and this is clearly drawn from the Sacred Scriptures where we see that God is worthy to receive glory and praise (Rev. 4:11) and that everything we do should be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Artists are no different. We are called to glorify God. But what does that really mean, in practice, as we pursue our work?
The cultural mandate
The best place to start answering this question is in the creation account. “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,’” (Gen. 1:28). This charge given to Adam and Eve is known as the cultural mandate. In this command God stated his desire for man to not only populate the earth and care for creation, but to build and create human culture. The purpose of humanity must not be limited to physical generation only and artists fit into the other realm of spiritually generating concepts and ideas in a society.
Culture is the sum total of what people know, believe, think, experience, build and create. Culture is not just the arts, but the arts are certainly part of a culture’s foundation. Art functions as both the soil for cultural growth and the fruit that it yields.
The cultural mandate is a key part of the artist’s identity and role in God’s plan for the world. The work of our minds and hands contributes to human culture.
What artists produce builds culture, in both large and small ways. This mandate shows us that what we put into the world matters to God.
God’s specific call to artists
In the book ‘Art for God’s Sake’, Phillip Ryken points to the story of Bezalel to demonstrate how God views the work of the artist. In Exodus 31, God called Bezalel by name to build His tabernacle: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft,” (Ex. 31:2-5).
This is a specific call for Bezalel to build the tabernacle. As such, we have to recognize that not all of his experience applies to all Christians in all situations. However, the text is clear and provides principles for thinking through the believer’s pursuit of art. Namely, that the gifts and abilities of an artist come from the Lord, and that He gave them to us for His purposes.
When God creates an artist, He does so with the talents and abilities necessary to see His beauty and truth in the world, and lead others to them. The call of the artist is a personal one that comes from God. For an artist to walk away from this call, either in purpose or use of their gifts, is tragic.
An artist is likely to ask at some point, “But, how do I know if I’m supposed to be an artist?” It is a fair and honest question. There are many people who wish to be artists but don’t have the corresponding gifts, and others who have these gifts who don’t want them. I think there are two ways to be sure in your calling, and both are important. First, you should have a deep need to create or use your gift. You simply must do it. Second, your gift will be recognized and validated by people who are qualified to judge.
How do we glorify God in our work?
This leaves us with the obvious question, how do we glorify God through our art? The simple answer is that by using your gifts to show His beauty and truth to the world you will glorify Him.
While the tabernacle glorified God explicitly, all art has the potential to glorify God. But it must be noted that this is only true so far as it reflects the character, virtues, beauty and truth of God. Artistic gifts, like anything else under the sun, can be put to tasks that glorify God or rebel against Him.
A work of art does not have to be obviously Christian to glorify God. Conversely, I believe that many “Christian” works do not glorify God at all. Art most truly praises God when the heart of the artist seeks to glorify Him in their work. It is the orientation of the artist’s heart and the extent to which the work reflects God’s beauty and truth that matters.
There is a spiritual danger for artists who embark on this journey of seeking to glorify God with their art: idolatry. We idolize art when we make being an artist our identity ahead of our identity as blood-bought sons and daughters of the King. We idolize art when we believe it is valuable for its own sake. We idolize art by refusing to acknowledge that art itself is for the glory of God. We must beg the Holy Spirit to sanctify us and persevere us through these temptations. When we idolize art, we do great damage to our souls.
The call of the artist to glorify God is no different than the call of any other Christian to glorify God in their work. The aim of glorifying God through art is another facet of a biblical theology of vocation.
Catholic writer Dorothy Sayers put it best when she wrote: “The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.” When Jesus was learning to be a carpenter from Joseph, I bet his desire was to glorify God by making good tables.
The call for all Christians to be missionary disciples falls on every artist. Art must serve a divine purpose and its upon artists to take their calling seriously.