Does Art have Eternal Value?
To be entirely honest, I have struggled for years to understand the importance of art. Why must we paint pictures, and write poems, read stories, and act, and film, and sculpt, and dance, and carve, and craft, and sing, and draw. I can’t seem to get away from the reality that these things are important. Have you ever considered how much the human soul craves story. We are desperate for understanding, for interpretation, for relief, for engagement, for someone else to visually show us what already lies in our own hearts. We fall in love with songs and novels and movies and people because something in them resonates with something in us and we long to dive in deeper, to hold it close, to listen to it and watch the thing unfold over and over and over again. Not only this, but we express our love this way too. We write songs, and stories and poems out of the overflow of whatever is most deeply moving through our hearts. That is why in my search to understand if there is any intrinsic and/or eternal value to the act and resulting product of creating art, I have discovered that it is in the creating of art that we can deeply and passionately worship our Creator.
I have been reading John Piper’s “Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully” In it he brilliantly points out that creating is a powerful form of meditation. Sometimes we don’t really let the reality of a thing sink into the marrow of our soul until we try to somehow put it into our own words, to look at the thing, and how it made us feel and think and understand and put all of that into a shape or a sentence or a melody. In his book, Piper proposes the idea that putting out a “poetic effort” to communicate something beautifully is a powerful way of training ourselves to see and savor beauty which then fuels further worship of God who is himself the source of all true beauty. Perhaps an example would help illustrate what Piper is getting at. In his book he says, “when I hear my daughter singing… my heart is glad. But when I make the effort to put into suitable words what I love about her song—in a conversation, in a birthday card, in a poem—I hear more, see more, love more. This is how it is with all truth and beauty—the wonders of nature, the stunning turns of redemptive history, and the glories of Christ. In making the poetic effort to find fitting words for these wonders, we see and savor them more deeply and speak them with more power.”1
And so as we create to worship we must bring our best, high quality, deeply imaginative craftsmanship. This does not mean you have to be the best at what you do. What it does mean is that if anyone were to look at your work, they could see that you dug deep to produce what you did—no half measures here. We are to love the lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.2 If we put half-hearted effort into our work, whether from laziness, or fear, or in a hallow attempt to evangelize that is void of any true worship we are like Cain3, offering what’s easy and what won’t cost us much. Our worship should cost us much and if we dare to reach in deeply until it hurts, it will become our joy to give it, all of it, with all our heart. As T.S. Eliot has said, “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink”4 and isn’t that just how it should be.
As a consumer of art and story of the culture in which you live, can’t you tell the difference between something made in a shallow attempt to sell or preach or promote versus something that has uncovered and revealed the creator’s deep desire and thus has life poured into it. To push past the surface of the easily accessible and readily acceptable language to communicate truth beautifully that resonates with humanities deepest held desires takes courage and perseverance for this is deeply opposed. As Emily P. Freeman has said in her book, A Million Little Ways, “when we aren’t able to to translate what makes us come alive into our own language, the temptation might be to dismiss it altogether. Many of us have spent our entire lives editing our first thoughts. We do this for all kinds of reasons—to avoid critique, prevent failure, please people, or simply because we can’t see how they will logically fit into our lives. So we tuck away our deepest desires, and we cover them up with more acceptable pursuits.”5
You want to know why I believe we are so easily deceived into thinking our deepest desires and any attempt at exploring and expressing them through our creations is often stifled by the suggestion that such things are not acceptable or worthwhile? I believe it is because it keeps us from truly worshipping our God. We have an enemy whose power cannot stand in the face of worship of the One true God and so he will do whatever it takes to keep our hearts shallow and resigned. He will work overtime to make our Christian pursuits of service and obedience void of heart and desire because without heart and desire we cannot worship in spirit and in truth. We need our hearts. We need to know the desires that lie in our hearts in order to pour these things out in adoration. And so we must do the hard work of uncovering our desires, if we are to give God our best.
As John Piper said in Let the Nations be Glad, “missions is not eternal, worship is.”6 To worship is our first commandment. To let worship propel the creative work does not necessarily mean that it has to be evangelical either. There is a time and place for such work, but even in artwork that aims at reaching non-believers one must first make quality work that is not flat and preachy and predictable. We must dig deeper than that, don’t settle on the familiar and the easy. Search, explore, pry into your own heart and mind and discover what lies beneath the cliches and idioms and all the jargon that lies at the surface within easy access and find the treasures buried in that place where who you really are can connect with a God who really is.
Third, let us expand our understanding of art beyond word and paint and film for we are co-creators in a world full of endless mediums created by God and given to us with complete freedom to explore their limits and test their combinations. God gave us our voices and he gave us garlic and oregano. He gave us the elements of the earth to form new substances and compounds and he gave us plants that can be pressed into dyes, eaten for their nutritional value, gathered for their medicinal value, or planted for their aesthetic value. But more than that he gave us a unique set of capacities that define our humanity and give us limitless creative outlets. We have the capacity to think and to feel, to bond and to relate. He made us sexual beings and hungry beings and learning beings. We can make art with the way we bake cookies, or tell jokes, or relate to our spouse, or build houses, or ice skate, or treat our neighbors, or read aloud. There is an art to everything, even us human beings, ourselves, are said to be works of art created by God.7
As we do the work of mediating on the beauty of God and his truth and his creation expressing the depths of his desire, it will in turn ignite worship even as it uncovers the depths of our own hearts.8 For we ourselves are God’s craftsmanship, his creation, his expression of his own heart. As Emily P. Freeman has said, “we are the poetry of God’s heart, the expression of his desire”.9
But we must not forget that we are a broken version of what we were once created to be, and we now have the capacity to have broken and distorted desires. That is why we as works of art, must bend our will to God as the artist who has created us and knows what wholeness and restoration will look like for us, specifically. He knows what the pureness of corrupted desires is supposed to look like within us. And so we surrender our desires even as they are uncovered and let Christ wash, heal, and restore them to their former glory. Only then will we reflect the radiance our King.
We must not create by merely trying hard and forcing our art to communicate a message that feels forced to everyone watching, but we must have the courage and the perseverance to create by meditating on the truth and beauty of God as we put our findings into our own words and shapes and melodies, uncovering our desires as we create from our deepest places, and live like works of art with the substance of our lives, bending our will to the desire of the master artist.
Article by Makaila Mobley
- Seeing and Saying Beautifully, by John Piper
- Mark 12:40
- The Story of Cain and Able is found in Genesis 4
- T.S. Eliot
- A Million Little Ways, by Emily P. Freeman
- Let the Nations be Glad, by John Piper
- Ephesians 2:10, Genesis 1:27
- Ephesians 2:10, Genesis 1:270
- A Million Little Ways, by Emily P. Freeman