A Theological Basis for Excellence in Christian Arts & Design

Creativity | Culture | Theology

Published on June 24, 2021

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I think many a church attendee over the course of the last two decades has had to endure the sight of a WordArt announcement slide or Clip Art (circa 1994) featured on a church bulletin cover. Or perhaps you’ve struggled to read an ad for a church event that packed way too much information into a layout with every font known to man. These things may have made you cringe a little (although understanding the well-intentions of its creators), or perhaps that’s just my designer’s eye being a bit picky.

Though I say these things in jest, it may raise an important question—should mediocre design in Christian media and arts be acceptable? Though we all know the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover”— it is our natural tendency to do just that. People constantly make quick ‘cover value’ decisions based on what they see. Especially in our world dominated by big-budget, high-quality media and design in ads, TV, streaming video, and print—we must ask, has there been much great Gospel content that has been passed over unnoticed due to lacklustre ‘cover design’?

Our theology, whether good or bad, is often reflected in the arts of our churches—in our songs or plays (performance arts) and in our media (visual and audio)—before it is formally written or expressed by the laity. Many of your church-goers may not have your statement of faith memorized, but they surely do have many songs and lyrics frequently stuck in their heads. Therefore, Christians who are committed to doing all they can to proclaim the full truth of God’s Word should also deem it a priority to reflect deeply on their art, media and design. Bad art can be a reflection of poor theology, or at least a poor application of it.

Perhaps a bold statement, I know, but allow me to offer some justification for it.

A Simple Thesis

As someone who is trained as both an artist/designer and a theologian, I hope to put forward some thinking points for reflection. All of these points, however, are put forward knowing full-well the limitations of church and ministry budgets, yet I am still compelled to encourage you to make the effort as much as it is practical for your specific situation. Firstly, there is a legitimate Biblical basis to strive for excellence and beauty in design in the Church and Christian ministries. Secondly, spending the effort, time and thoughtfulness to design with excellence is worth it because the Gospel compels us to communicate its message beautifully.

Theologically Driven Design

In the Byzantine empire, churches were built in the shape of a cross, with the altar at the centre of the crux. The theological symbolism was profound—that people could only come to worship God in the cross of Christ. You’ve perhaps felt the awe of visiting an old cathedral, which was designed so that the viewer feels their ‘smallness.’ The architecture intentionally lifts your gaze to turn your eyes away from earthly things toward heavenly things (2 Corinthians 4:18). This impetus for ‘theologically-driven design’ of sacred space is not without its Biblical parallels.

Moses put Bezalel and Oholiab along with every skilled person to carry out the work of constructing the sanctuary for the Tabernacle. Furthermore, God said that He had filled Bezalel with the Spirit and with creative ability to devise artistic designs, and fine workmanship in precious materials and crafts (see Exodus 36:1-4). Likewise, Solomon had the Temple built with skilful excellence, to ornament the Lord’s house (see 1 Chronicles 22 & 28 and 2 Chronicles 3-4; cf. 1 Kings 6-7). These gifts of creativity in the arts and design were given by God for use in worship to glorify Him.

Now, while this is an Old Testament example of an era of the story of Redemption where worship was geographically centred around the Tabernacle then Temple, I think other parts of Scripture also point to the continuing validity of the place of aesthetics in worship. Though we’re not in the “come and see” paradigm of the splendor of Solomon’s Temple, there is a beauty to the message we are now to “go and tell” of Jesus Christ – our new and better Temple. Moreover, our Lord is an artist, and He created the heavens to tell something of His glory. He didn’t just make them functional—to provide light and solar energy—but He also made them beautiful to reflect His beauty (Psalm 19:1).

Furthermore, a large portion of the Bible is written not as merely communicating raw facts, but in poetic or linguistically creative ways. Part of that which was God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17) was also the creative and beautiful design of Scripture’s composition, utilizing the skills and talents of the human authors. Clearly, there is a right place and Biblical motivation for excellence in aesthetics and design to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). When we as Christians stop at just ‘mere functionality’—saying, “well, it’s good enough once people can read the cover…” or “all the information is on the flyer if you look hard enough…”—we’re stopping short.

Moving Beyond Utilitarianism

In many churches, there can be a temptation toward just doing what gets the job done in the least amount of time and resources. But as we can see from the previous Biblical examples, the focus was not just utilitarian but also aesthetic. I don’t think it’s an either-or choice between either we make something purely functionally pragmatic, or we make it aesthetically pleasing. Both are important to God.

The beauty and grandeur of the design of the Tabernacle, the Temple and Byzantine churches were intended to communicate something important about God, the faith and our place it in. They were meant to convey a sense of awe, reverence and the worth of the God to whom these sanctuaries were built. In our modern world, films use orchestral scores and choirs to awe us with a sense of epic grandeur, weddings use music, decorations, and eloquence to convey the importance of the ceremony and we build sculpted monuments as historic memorials to honour important events of the past. The arts add something to our experience of the sacred that mere utilitarianism cannot. We are not merely functional robots, but we were created to delight in the beauty of creation as well. Excellence in aesthetics help to communicate the weight of the occasion, and what more weighty occasion is there than the worship of our Triune God?

So, is it enough for our Christian media to simply serve their function of conveying facts? I don’t think so. There is a need for us to convey so much more.

Beauty and the Desire for Transcendence

We all have a natural desire to gaze upon beauty. We are attracted to that which is delightful to the senses because it communicates something transcendent to us. It is a deep cry of the soul to be enraptured by beauty—to behold, bask and become a part of it—and our God is supremely beautiful. I believe this is the heart of what David was expressing in Psalm 27:4,

“One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.” [emphasis mine]

Thus, the way we design the aesthetic elements of our worship, our sacred spaces, our church flyers and announcements, our Christian videos, social media posts, and a host of other design-related applications should also reflect the Gospel of the God who is resplendent in beauty. Not so that they would be ends in themselves, but rather that they would point rightly to the True Beauty who is transcendent.

C.S. Lewis rightly notes in The Weight of Glory that the books or music which we thought the beauty was in, were only the means through which it came to us. They image what we really desire and long for, however, they are not the thing itself. They are only “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” In many ways, the arts intuitively communicate the transcendence and splendour which we yearn for more successfully than any other method. They make us yearn for our eschatological hope, which will be the consummation of all of our longings for beauty.

Why the lacklustre design then?

Why then have we so often failed to design with excellence as Christians? I think John Piper rightly critiques the lack of encouragement for the development of the arts in the evangelical church because,

“we are (rightly) a goal-oriented pragmatic people who are bent on being efficient in the spread of the gospel. The production of art is not efficient—so it feels superfluous to us. There seem to be so many more urgent things in life than creating art. We don’t believe that these kinds of [artistic] affectional experiences are essential to a God-exalting life.”

It can be rightly argued that a lot of the success of the Evangelical movement was in part due to its pragmatism after throwing off the weights of cumbersome liturgies and excessively ornate buildings. The missional focus that put the centrality of the ministry of the Word by the most efficient means helped spread the message far and fast. However, I think that in that impulse we lost something. Perhaps it’s time to consider if we need to recapture some of what was thrown off. Why?

Because some things can be communicated by mere logic and reason. However, some truths are so majestic that we must employ metaphors, images and symbols. The truth must not just be said, it must be said beautifully. We need to design with excellence in our media because God is so grand that mere propositional facts about Him will not suffice.

Perhaps there is something more to be said also about how the lack of budget allocation to aesthetic concerns reflects our devaluing or apathy towards it. Also, why Christian creatives who want to serve the church often struggle to make a living doing so and thus the church loses a lot of its creative talent pool to more “secular spheres.” I get that aesthetic concerns are not of primary importance (e.g. the persecuted church doesn’t have time to consider graphic design in its communications), however, I don’t think that means these are not of any importance. But those are perhap issues for future articles. As a closing thought: as far as it is possible for our churches and ministries (and I know that most will not be able to devote Hollywood-level budgets for the design nor have access to the talent-pool necessary), and within our means, we must endeavour to reflect deeply on our theology and strive for excellence in our media to communicate the Gospel truth in a clear and beautiful way—because we need a sense of His transcendent glory!

This article was first published at The Gospel Coalition Canada.

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