Art for God’s Sake. Phillip Graham Ryken. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing Company, 2006. 64pp.
What is at stake in a world where art is often down played in the church, or when it has a demoralizing effect in its expression according to the world? What does one do when he is called by his Creator to create? Is there a place for the visual and creative arts in the church and will the Christian who is gifted for such a purpose rise to the occasion and recover the arts for God’s sake? This is the question that Phillip Graham Ryken asks in his book Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts. It is a question close to my heart and one that I hope to answer in my life’s work and in my service to God. As often as I can, I engage in something I call Art Ministry. The visual and creative arts are an emerging influence in the Body of Christ. I long to see artists gain stature within the walls of the church; and likewise I long to see artists take the message of redemption outside of the church. Ryken’s book is a perfect place to begin a dialogue that illuminates the need to “recover (or possible discover for the first time) a full biblical understanding of the arts” (Ryken 15). Art for God’s Sake lays a solid foundation for such a dialogue and is a must read for all artists who also long to influence the church and confront the world in the Spirit with truth and beauty.
Ryken proposes a theology of Christian art that is a guide for evaluating the creative process in the visual arts. It expounds basic biblical principles by which a believer can approach the arts and encourages Christian artists to pursue their calling.
Not a lot of books have been written about faith and art. Ryken is no doubt influence by his father Leland Ryken , a professor of literature at Wheaton College who wrote The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts. The elder professor’s book written in 2000 deals in detail with the reason there is resistance to the arts within the church. Art for God’s Sake moves us forward to a time where the visual and creative arts are gaining ground within the church. It serves as a brief introduction to the topic.
Phillip Graham Ryken attended Wheaton College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and philosophy . He earned his master of divinity degree at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and his doctorate degree in historical theology from Oxford University, England. He served as a church planter, associate and senior pastor before being selected to be the president of Wheaton College. Dr. Ryken has written more than 30 books.
Ryken begins his teachings on the biblical world view of art in Exodus 31 where God calls Bezalel and Oholiab to be artists. What differentiated these two skilled craftsmen from others? In addition to their natural ability they are empowered by the Spirit to create a specific work. Likewise, Ryken states that the Christian artist should be called, gifted and empowered to create art. If a Christian thinks he is called to be an artist his natural ability should be subjected to evaluation by experts to see if it rises to the caliber of excellence. Art should be created with excellence and dependence on the Lord.
In the first chapter of Genesis God is revealed as the Creator. As an expression of His nature, God creates. An artist becomes more like his Creator when he creates works of art.
The book Art for God’s Sake widens the definition of art to include all media and forms of expression. Ryken uses the example of the temple with its wide use of materials and expression as his basis for this teaching. He cites Exodus 31:1-5:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills-to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. (NIV)
There is a tendency in the church to narrow the definition of biblical art. Ryken’s definition includes abstract art. He defends abstract art with another piece of his art theology. God’s aesthetic standard insists that biblical art express goodness, truth and beauty. It must not be immoral or idolatrous. This includes abstract art because the inner motive of the artist in the creative process is important. The inner motive is the reason the book is titled; Art for God’s Sake.
Ryken inhis bookargues against art for art sake which says all art has value in and of itself. He insists instead that the purpose of the Christian artist in the creative process must be to glorify God. He states that some people will argue that all art must serve a purpose or be functional. Ryken’s view is that glorifying God is reason enough. This includes art as an expression of living out one’s Christian world view.
Beyond goodness, truth and beauty Christian art should be redemptive. That means it needs to show the truth about the world but also reveal what the hope of restoration in Christ is meant to be. Modern art tends to portray the despair and ugliness of the world while Christian art can show an idealized world view which leaves out the message of redemption. Both approaches miss the truth. The later fails to show the world Christ was sent to save. (Ryken 43)
Ryken concludes the book with a solemn reminder of the ugliness of the cross and its humiliation. He calls for art that shows how God brought beauty to the cross when He released redemption into the world through it.
The book includes a list for further reading for those who want to take a deeper look at the topic. It is my plan to suggest this book to artists who are either beginning their careers in art or are starting their search for personal faith expression. From my contact with other Christian artists I consistently note a desire for community. This book could easily be made into a book or Bible study.
What the book does not do is teach the creative process to believers. Although there is encouragement to create the book does not help an artist flesh out their faith. That is something left for those of us who embrace art ministry, seek out community with other artists and those who inspire and teach the people of God he places in our paths.