“It Was Good”
By: Timothy Keller
Why does the Church and why does Christianity need artists? While we have artists because they have the ability to see the greater reality, we need artists because… we can’t understand truth without art. You see, reason tells me about the truth, but I really cannot grasp what it means; I can’t understand it without art. Jonathan Edwards, the third president of Princeton University, probably the most important American theologian and one of the most prominent preachers in the First Great Awakening makes this point as well. Edwards said that unless you use imagination, unless you take a truth and you image it – which of course is art – you don’t know what it means. If you cannot visualize it, you don’t have a sense of it on your heart. We see this in one of Edwards’ sermons called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It is unfortunate that this sermon is one of the only sermons by Jonathan Edwards that people ever read. He has so many others that are quite excellent. Edwards, at one point in the sermon, looks at the congregation and says, “Your righteousness cannot keep you out of hell.” That is a truth. You may not believe it, but there is the principle. While that is the content of what he is saying, he says it in a way that better makes the point. He says:
Your wickedness makes you, as it were, heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock.
Now as soon as he said that, what has he done? He has used imagination, moving from truth into the area of visualization. As a result you have a clearer sense of what he means. Even if you don’t agree with the concept, you begin to recognize what is going on. You may not have understood what he meant until he crossed over into another mode – until he put it in the form of a sense experience and showed you what it looked and felt like. This sensual expression of the truth allows you to hear the truth, to see the truth, to taste it, touch it, and smell it. The more various forms in which truth is described, the more we understand and can then communicate truth. We can’t understand truth without art. In fact, a preacher can’t really express the truth he knows without at least couching it in some artistic form.
The Church needs artists to assist the body in understanding truth, but just as importantly the Church needs artists to equip the Church to praise God. We cannot praise God without art. Within the Christian art community there is frustration for visual artists who observe the important place of the musical arts in worship. Music is easy to use in worship. It holds a prominent place in worship that the visual arts do not. I believe we have to find ways to use all the arts in worship. But there are important differences between visual and musical art that make musical art a more natural element in public worship. It is impossible to get a thousand people together to do visual arts in worship on a regular basis. A large group can appreciate a visual art display in a church setting but they cannot do it. In contrast, a thousand people can create and do musical art in a worship service and it is both musical art and worship. Only recently I have recognized that God over and over in the Psalms commands people to worship through music. He does not merely call on the congregation to proclaim his glory, he commands us to praise him with music, with the harp and with the viol. Now obviously he does not command us to worship with musical art exclusively rather than visual art. That is not what I am saying. But consider what the command requires. It is again what Lewis describes inReflections on the Psalms. He says that when you experience the meaning of something, you need to praise it. One of the reasons why we non-artists have a lot of trouble praising God is that we can’t enjoy the glory of God unless we praise it. When we praise God, we are not discussing our enjoyment of God, but the praising is the consummation and the completion of our worship as we glorify God. Therefore, one of the reasons we don’t praise very well is because we are limited in how we bring forth what is in our hearts and minds. A great poem, an incredible piece of music or a marvelous painting – these are all ways to express our awe at the glory of God. Art is a natural vehicle for pouring out the praise we long to give God. Without art it is almost impossible to praise God because we have no means by which to get the praise out. We can’t enjoy God without art. And even those of us who are terrible artists have to sing sometimes. We may not get God’s praise out very well, but we have to do something because we have to praise God. So, without art we can’t understand the truth, we can’t enjoy the truth, and we can’t praise God. But there is still another reason the Church needs artists.
The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God. “Imagination communicates,” as Arthur Danto says, “indefinable but inescapable truth.” Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth. There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.