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No. 7: Arts and Play, Part 3

Open Book: Views & Reviews, No. 7
January, 1992
Copyright (c) 1992 Biblical Horizons

Let us now switch gears and move to a discussion of art, literature, architecture, and music. In English, we speak of "playing" games and also of "playing" musical instruments. There is a connection between the two, in that both involve some degree of pleasure and recreation. At the same time, the arts are serious business, not just fun. We see this in the attention God required in the artistic aspects of His worship. American Christians tend to treat the arts as just one more form of recreation. But while there is a connection between art and play (so that we are discussing both together in these essays), actually art and beauty should be at the center of life, since they are supposed to reveal God’s glory and beauty to us. A good deal of transformative thinking is needed in this area.

The Bible indicates to us that we are supposed to bring the very best of our labors to God as our tithe, our first-fruit offering. Historically, the very best art, architecture, literature, and music has been found in the worship and decor of the church. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, there had come to be so much artistic abuse in the church that some of the protestants removed art and music from the church. One of the sad byproducts of this, especially in America, is that church architecture and church music have often been very poor.

God is beautiful. His throne is set in glory and beauty, and He commanded that His Temple and His priests be garbed in glory and beauty. Gold, fine linen, beautiful colors, precious stone, careful architectural lines, orchestras of professional musicians, trained choirs — all of these things we find in the Bible’s description of God’s house and His worship.

Folk Art and Fine Art

We can and should distinguish between "folk" art and "spectator" art. In practice, what "spectator art" means is art that has been separated from a whole-life context and turned into something appreciated at a distance. For instance, if we draw a picture on our walls (or fresco them), then we are adorning our home; this is in the more folkish area. But if we paint the same picture on a canvas and hang it in a museum, we have removed it from the whole-life "folk" context and put it into the more abstracted "spectator art" milieu. We have bracketed it (literally, framed it) off from the rest of life. Similarly, as soon as dance is taken from a dance floor and put on a stage, it moves from folk to spectator. And as soon as music, singing or playing, is put on a concert stage it moves from folk to spectator.

Within spectator art we can distinguish between popular and fine art. Fine art is art that is "refined," that is, art that requires a much higher degree of skill than popular art, and that is designed to "communicate at a more profound level" rather than be "merely useful or entertaining."

Most, though not all, folk art is crude. That is in the nature of the case, since most people are not expert enough to produce really beautiful art or music. The one place where folk art and fine art meet is in the liturgy of the historic Christian churches. The place where whole-life art, which involves the participation of people, reaches its fullest and most beautiful form, is in formal public worship. The liturgy involves all the arts. For instance:

The glory of the liturgy, done as a command performance before the throne of the King of kings, is that with only a little training all the people can participate in it. Thus, the liturgy becomes the fountain of the greatest in both folk art and fine art.

A culture with a well-developed liturgy of worship will also have good folk art and good fine art in all the rest of life. By way of contrast, a culture that has no liturgy of worship (as is the case with most American churches) will have only very crude folk art, and virtually no fine art. Americans import their fine art from Europe, for the most part.

For a variety of reasons, American protestant churches in the Baptist/Methodist/Presbyterian/Pentecostalist traditions have a negative view toward command-performance liturgy. Worship in these churches tends to be a form of entertainment: popular spectator art. The congregation sits passively and listens to a performance put on by preacher or choir. In some churches the preacher is expected to entertain with a lot of yelling and carrying on, while in others he is expected to entertain by providing a detailed Bible or doctrinal lesson. While there is nothing wrong (obviously) with a Bible lesson, if that is about the only thing people come to church for, then they basically are coming to receive, not to give. They are not coming to worship God, but to get information — and all too often this degenerates into merely getting their ears tickled.

The more liturgical churches are often little better. They are indeed more artistic, and have better architecture, decor, music, and so forth. But generally the congregations sit passively and are entertained by all of this: fine spectator art.

(The worst form of this entertainment religion is the televised preaching service, in which the viewer cannot participate even if he wanted to. People who spend lots of time watching TV preachers will tend to bring that same passive mentality with them when they come to public worship at church, and will tend to resist any upgrade that requires them to take a more active part in worship.)

What we need is worship as fine folk art. The Bible everywhere indicates that the church should develop a rich liturgy to present before the King of kings. Historically the church has always done so. We need to give careful consideration to this as we seek to reform the area of the arts. The United States of America is about fifty times larger than France, Germany, or Britain, but does the USA have fifty times the number of great novelists, painters, or composers as any of these countries? Obviously not. The reason is that in spite of the decline of Christianity in these European countries, the discipline of a high liturgy was still felt in the arts there. Americans have more great orchestras, but not composers. Probably more than any other of the arts, music grows out of the worship of the church, and in America, church music is disgracefully poor. Thus, as always, judgment and reformation must begin at the house of God. Given the liturgical movement in all quarters of the Christian church in America at present, we have reason to hope that in another generation or two, our culture will have been disciplined enough to begin producing great works of fine art.

Some Recommendations

God’s beauty is the standard of what we should regard as beautiful. Christians should endeavor to learn to appreciate the best in art, literature, and music. For the most part, this means appreciating the fine arts, especially when we do not have access to participating in fine liturgical worship. Most of us, however, don’t know where to begin. Let me give a few suggestions and comments.

First, most of the classics of Western literature are either Christian or are influenced by Christian themes. It would be good if churches would set up reading classes, and pastors would take people through some of the classics from a Christian point of view. The same is true of the visual arts. We should want to be educated in this, so that we can appreciate the glory and beauty of God and His creation better. When a Shakespeare play is on television, make certain you watch it closely. You’ll find that you basically agree with the points Shakespeare was making. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are not the only writers Christians will appreciate. There are also the mystery stories written by G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers. There are the science fiction tales by Cordwainer Smith, Fred Saberhagen (the "Berserker Wars" series), Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Gene Wolfe. There are the serious social novels by Francois Mauriac and Fyodor Dostoievsky. Christians can also appreciate the literary efforts of Leo Tolstoi, for instance, even though he was not a Christian, because of the Christian influences in his writings.

Second, it is relatively easy for Christians to surround themselves with good music. By good music, I mean classical music. I don’t mean "Christian radio station" music, whether of the gospel variety or of the easy listening variety. Both of these styles of music are usually characterized by flat, dull, gooey words, and flat, dull, gooey music. There is generally little or nothing to lead us to a more profound understanding of the glory and beauty of God and His creation.

The point is not that all such music is "bad," but that it is by far not the best. Modern Christian music has developed out of popular, pagan styles of music, and has a history of about fifteen years of development and growth. Classical music developed out of church music and has a history of about fifteen hundred years of development and growth. Which do you suppose is superior? Which would you like your children to get the most exposure to? Which will better help you grow in faith and knowledge?

It is true that most of the great composers were not Christians, but it is also true that the styles of the music they wrote was developed and fixed by Christians during the years 1000 to 1700 A.D. (Indeed, the development of musical notation is pretty much uniquely Western and thus Christian.) It has taken a couple of centuries to undo the Christian heritage in music (and in the other arts). Christian composers of recent years, such as Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Franck, Poulenc, and Messiaen, have written explicitly for God’s glory, as did virtually all the early composers, such as Machaut, Ockhegem, Josquin des Pres, Bach, and Handel. If Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner were not Christians, or even anti-Christian in their personal philosophies, still they were working out of a Christian heritage, in terms of a Christian idea of what is glorious and beautiful, and much of their music can be and should be enjoyed by Christians today.

If there is a classical radio station in your area, tune to it and leave it on all day. Saturate your environment with the best, and minimize your exposure to what is inferior. Let me say again, however, that I am not claiming that all other kinds of music are bad, or have some type of mysterious evil effects on those who listen to them. It is simply to say that we should surround our home environments with the very best.

Christians do not need to fear the arts. God wants us to live beautiful lives and make more beauty to His glory. As long as we seek first the kingdom of God, we do not need to fear that we will be drawn away from God by good literature, art, and music.

What about dancing? Because of the erotic nature of much dancing, Christians have historically shied away from the dance. In the Bible, however, people danced to the Lord; indeed, we are commanded to do so (Psalm 150:4). Thus, dancing is not always wrong; it depends on the situation. Romantic dancing between a man and his wife, for instance, is entirely appropriate. A man ought not to be happy if his wife dances in the embrace of some other man, however. Moreover, some folk dances are innocent of erotic overtones. Christians should be careful of the dance, as of all things, but Christians should not reject the beauty of bodily movement and exercise, for it is a way to praise God.


Television is a problem for Christians, because television tends to become addictive. To sit and watch TV does not engage the mind actively the same way that reading a book or listening intelligently to a symphony does. When we sit passively, in an attitude of wanting to be entertained, we tend to become depressed. Most of us, if we spend too much time entertaining ourselves, will get into a foul mood. Man needs to put some effort into what he does.

Another problem is that television is almost always watched too much by children, who should be out playing and developing their bodies, or studying, or working at piano lessons, or helping around the house or farm. Square-eyed kids, addicted to what writer Harlan Ellison has aptly called the "glass teat," are not being prepared for the responsibilities of Christian maturity.

A third problem is that television pipes directly into our homes a pagan philosophy of life, attractively presented in the form of cartoons, interesting dramas, or not-very-funny entertainment programs. Those who subscribe to movie channels also have to contend with pornography.

So, the solution is to get rid of the television, right? No, not at all. Such a solution can be a denial of the power of God to give us self-discipline. We must learn to discipline our viewing habits and watch selectively. There is no magic formula for this. Some people have tried rationing their use of the television by putting a piggy bank on the set, and paying something like $2.00 per hour to watch it. How many people do you think really keep this up for very long, especially when they realize that they are simply paying themselves? Even if you are paying the money over to the church, the fact is that it takes as much self-discipline to do all this as it does simply to decide to break the habit and keep the set turned off except for things that you really want to see. Make the decision, ask God to help you keep with it, and gird up your loins and do it. Of course, if you find that in fact you never watch any more television, because nothing interests you, you might get rid of it. There are, however, good concerts, plays, films, and programs on the arts on some public TV and satellite cable channels. We should take advantage of these. We can also enjoy programs about nature, animals, and science, provided we filter the evolutionary viewpoint.

How about entertainment viewing? In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with a Christian spending a moderate amount of his time reading simple fiction or viewing television drama. The problem comes in that so much of this kind of stuff is garbage. It really is. It has no point, no depth, no humor. (It is pitiful how television comedians strive to be funny, but even with the canned laughter, there is little real humor on television.)

I mentioned something earlier that applies here: filtering and objectivity. The older we become, the more skilled we should be at filtering the kind of stuff that is thrown at us; that is, we should be able to assume an objective psychological stance and sort out the good from the bad. Except for the Bible, all literature is a mixture of good and bad elements. Sometimes the good vastly outweighs the bad, so that we are able to stomach or filter the bad very easily. Sometimes the bad so outweighs the good that we reject the story or drama altogether, as trash or as pornography. Sometimes there is a mixture. Different people will have different interests and different abilities to filter. We cannot, thus, set up a universal standard for all people. There are books and films that children should not read or see, but that adults can appreciate. (Indeed, the Jewish rabbis used to maintain that no unmarried person should be permitted to read the scroll of the Song of Solomon, for obvious reasons.) So, filtering is very important, but it is up to each individual how much he is able and/or willing to filter.

As a general rule, however, the Christian will watch far less television, and be far more selective, than the non-Christian.

Now, how about Christian television stations? I’m going to be very blunt here, and risk offending some: I think most of this stuff is a total and complete waste of time. The sermons (harangues) preached on television are mostly garbage, not Bible exposition. They are devoid of value in helping you mature in the faith. Moreover, they tend to compete with the Church for your time, loyalty, and money. Second, while the older, cleaner entertainment programming of some Christian networks is obviously preferable to what is on the three major networks today, it is still not a whole lot better even so. Finally, you can waste a lot of time watching Christian talk shows, time better spent doing something active. This kind of viewing is all right while you wash dishes or fold clothes, but it seldom has enough value to command your full attention.

The Christian use of television is still in its infancy. It has come a long way, but just because a television program is Christian in orientation does not mean we are obligated to watch it, nor does it give us an excuse to sit and use the "plug-in drug." We have to be just as selective with Christian television as with non-Christian. If there is a guest on a talk show who has something genuinely worthwhile to say, you might tune in. Otherwise, there are probably better ways to use your time.

(to be concluded)

Open Book is published occasionally, funds permitting, by Biblical Horizons , P.O. Box 1096, Tyler, Texas 32588-1096. Anyone sending a donation, in any amount, will be placed on the mailing list to receive issues of Open Book as they are published. The content of all essays published in Open Book is Copyrighted, but permission to reprint any essay is freely given provided that the essay is published uncut, and that the name and address of Biblical Horizons is given.