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Art for God's Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts Paperback – Apr 2 2006
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Art for God`s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts
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Philip Graham Ryken, Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and the author of several previous books, including Written in Stone (an insightful study of the Decalogue), has in sixty-four pages outlined a biblical view of art's place in God's world. Ryken is moved by the plight of the Christian artist whose calling and work is misunderstood or rejected by the church. He realizes that Christians may be suspicious of art because of their concern for idolatry and their repulsion toward much of contemporary art, which has abandoned the ideal of beauty and revels in the bizarre, the transgressive, and the outright ugly. Ryken also laments that Christians too often reduce art to utilitarian and evangelistic purposes that fail to honor art as art. Further, Christians often laud art that does not take the brokenness of life east of Eden seriously. Quite frequently, Christian art is little more than pious kitsch, which he aptly describes as "tacky artwork of poor quality that appeals to low tastes" (p. 14).
Yet art should be consecrated to the glory of God, and Ryken instructs us briefly to that end. Thus he develops a sound theology of art based on the beauty of God's creation, our status as creative beings made in God's image (Genesis 1:26), and God's calling on individuals to create works of art. Ryken ruminates at some length on the significance of the calling of Bezalel and Oholiab, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to be skilled craftsmen in the construction of God's tabernacle, his beautiful dwelling place (Exodus 31). God "called artists to make the tabernacle, and to make sure that they did it well, he equipped them with every kind of artistic talent. By doing this, God was putting the blessing of his divine approval on both the arts and the artist" (22). Moreover, these craftsmen produced "three kinds of visual art: symbolic, representative, and nonrepresentative (or abstract) art" (33), thus showing God's endorsement of these forms. These are only two of the significant insights that Ryken draws from the tabernacle.
More generally, "the kind of art that glorifies God is good, true, and, finally, beautiful" (42). While truth and beauty are not identical, contra Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn," they belong together. Ryken notes, "The problem with some modern and postmodern art is that it seeks to offer truth at the expense of beauty. It tells the truth about ugliness and alienation, leaving out the beauty of creation and redemption" (43). On the other hand, "A good deal of so-called Christian art tends to have the opposite problem. It tries to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false--dishonest about the tragic implications of our depravity. Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall..." (43). (Ryken does not name names, but he is surely thinking of Thomas Kinkade's paintings.)
Ryken aptly summarizes this thesis in the concluding chapter, "Beautiful Savior." "This is the Christian view of art: the artist is called and gifted by God--who loves all kinds of art; who maintains high aesthetic standards for goodness, truth, and beauty; and whose glory is art's highest goal" (p. 53). He then concludes with a meditation on Christ's death and resurrection in light of this thesis. The ugliness of human sin required that an all-beautiful and all-glorious God send his Son to become a disfigured and mutilated sacrifice that we might be redeemed. In this sense, "the cross screams against all the sensibilities of his divine aesthetic" (55). Yet this was the only way for redemption to be won: "Sin had brought ugliness and death into the world. In order to save his lost creation, God sent his Son right into the absurdity and alienation. There Jesus took our sin himself, dying to pay the price that justice demanded. It was such an ugly death that people had to turn away" (55-56). But God transformed this ugliness into beauty through the resurrection, in which Christ is given a glorious and triumphant body. In light of these tremendous realities, "we should devote our skill to making art for the glory of God, and for the sake of his Son--our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ" (58).
Not only am I the worst artist in the world, but I also have a strong dislike for most of the visual arts. For many years I thought that my dislike of these forms of art stemmed from my lack of talent in this area. But after much reflection I think there may be another source for my dislike of art. In my education I was constantly taught that art is inherently subjective--that meaning is assigned to a piece of art not by the artist but by the person gazing at it. I was taught that I was to study a work of art, allow it to speak to me, and understand the meaning of the work to be whatever came to mind at that moment. I may not have been able to express why I found this unsatisfactory, but it led me to dislike art and even to distrust it.
In recent years I have been recovering from this viewpoint. Art For God's Sake by Philip Graham Ryken, pastor of historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, has helped in this recovery. It is a short book, weighing in at only 64 pages, but one that is thick with satisfying, biblical reflections on the arts. Ryken argues for the recovery of the arts among Christians. He argues also for the objective nature of the arts--an objectivity which encourages us to seek out the meaning the artist meant a work to display.
The purpose of the book is twofold. Ryken wishes to "encourage Christian artists in the pursuit of their calling and to give artists and nonartists alike a short introduction to thinking Christianly about the arts" (17). The proper place to begin thinking about this topic is Scripture. We will find that Scripture affirms the value of art and artists "while at the same time protecting it from the corrupting effects of sin" (17). And so Ryken begins in an obvious place, showing that in Exodus 31 God specially called and equipped two men to build His tabernacle. The passage teaches four fundamental principles for the construction of a Christian theology of the arts: the artist's call and gift come from God; God loves all kinds of art; God maintains high standards for goodness, truth and beauty; and art is for the glory of God. The next four chapters expound upon these four principles.
Here is a brief summary of these four principles:
The artist is called and gifted by God--who loves all kinds of art; who maintains high aesthetic standards for goodness, truth, and beauty; and whose glory is art's highest goal. We accept these principles because they are biblical, and also because they are true to God's character. What we believe about art is based on what we believe about God. Art is what it is because God is who he is.
The book concludes with a reflection on our beautiful Savior and the exceeding ugliness that was His death and crucifixion. "The center of God's masterpiece of salvation was an event of appalling ugliness and degradation" (54).
And so Ryken concludes that artists should use their artistic talents to bring glory to God. And further, the church should take a leading role in encouraging this type of expression. Art For God's Sake, while a short book, was encouraging to me and I trust would be equally encouraging to those who feel the need to express themselves through their artistic talents. I hope that this book will prove to be a catalyst in sparking a recovery of the arts.
While he does affirm the arts explicitly,and say some very encouraging and true things, at the same time he undermines his very goal. An example of this is when he states at the outset "images easily lend themselves to idolatry"(p.11).
This simply isn't the Biblical perspective on art. Art does not cause or lend itself to idolatry any more than a lazyboy chair lends itself to sloth. If art was the cause of idolatry, God would not have commanded art to be made within His place of worship.
The reformers made it clear that anything and everything can become an idol. John Calvin was right when he said, "our hearts are idol factories." Art does not cause idolatry. It is an occasion for it, just like the approval of man, money, power, etc. I believe this misunderstanding is part of the problem - we need to stop singling out art as somehow more evil or tempting than the other things we worship.
Ryken's presents a proof of his point in Exodus 31-32. In examining the golden calf passage he writes, "Anyone who doubts the tendency of artistry to become idolatry needs only to read on into Exodus 32 (p. 49).
Amazingly, given Ryken's knowledge and wisdom, he misses the real context: The artist, Bezalel, who is commissioned by God in Exodus 31 is not mentioned in chapter 32. His artwork is not yet created or mentioned either.
Who made the golden calf? Aaron. Exodus 32 is about priests giving in to the desires of the people, and people being prone to return to their old slavery to sin, not about the art commissioned by God being used for idolatry.
Ryken is confusing the issue he seeks to clarify.
Ryken reminds readers that art comes from the supreme Artist, God himself. He says of Him in creation, "...like a painter adding watercolors to a sketch, or like a composer developing variations on a melodic theme, God takes the forms of creation and adds content. He fills the water with sea creatures, the sky with birds, and the land with wild animals." (22) The author then informs readers of the first mention of artists in Exodus 31, when the Lord commissions the tabernacle through Moses, and the craftsmen used for various media were called of God, inferring that art is meant to glorify God. He says that the gifts God gave to these artists showed the necessity of "spiritual insight as well as practical skill."
In the spirit of Francis Schaeffer, Ryken makes a worthy defense of the rich variety of arts, and encourages believers to recapture that which elevates the Lord. He defines worthy art as good, true, and beautiful, the last being somewhat subjective. The book is brief, only 58 pages, and has a helpful section that follows with suggestions for further reading. And Ryken's writing is conversational, making it something anyone would enjoy. Highly recommended. - Anne Walker, Christian Book Previews.com
Art for God's Sake is an unassuming, simple, and easy to read book about recovering the arts and restoring them to their right place in God's kingdom for God's kingdom purposes, and to God's own Glory. Ryken summarizes his work, "This is the Christian view of art: the artist is called and gifted by God-who loves all kinds of art; who maintains high aesthetic standards for goodness, truth, and beauty; and whose glory is art's highest goal."
Ryken proposes that art has a redeeming purpose in God's plan and that art deals in the currency of reality and truth. This reality should include the hopeful aspects that the gospel narrative gives us. Ryken says, "Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose. Art is always an interpretation of reality, and the Christian should interpret reality in its total aspect, including the hope that has come into the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Philip Graham Ryken assesses the importance and the value of art in God's world saying, "At its best, art is able to satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God has made for His glory." Not only is the aesthetical value of art highlighted here, but also the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and truth-value as well.
The majority of the book, Art for God's Sake, looks at these themes and God's calling and equipping of the visual artists Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31. From this passage and these two artists, Ryken uncovers four fundamental principles for a Christian theology of the arts.
The four fundamental principles for a Christian theology of the arts are:
1. The artist's call and gift come from God.
2. God loves all kinds of art.
3. God maintains high standards of goodness, truth, and beauty.
4. Art is for the glory of God.