How God Speaks Through Art
If you’ve ever wondered whether God speaks through art, you may find this message encouraging.
In the book of Genesis, we see God working as the Creator of the universe. Not only do we see Him create things that serve a purpose, but things simply because they’re “pleasing to the eye.” Beauty is the sole reason for some of His creation. And because we’re created in His image, we too appreciate things simply for their beauty. Creativity and the arts are central to God’s instructions in Genesis 2:15 to “cultivate the earth.” This directive gives us authority not simply to cultivate a garden, but to shape and transform (to cultivate) our culture. We’re responsible for influencing the culture around us, which includes art, music, literature, and other creative endeavors, that through them we might reflect God’s glory.
C.S. Lewis examined the purpose of art and literature in his book, An Experiment in Criticism. He believed one purpose for the arts is that we need a view of life that transcends our own. When asked why people read literature, he wrote:
“The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself… We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own… We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs, even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved… Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own… My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others… I will see what others have invented… In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself… I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
Speaking on the purpose for art, Lewis wrote:
“The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
He noted there are two ways in which we can view a work of art. One way is to view it without any expectation at all, except that it has something unique to impart to us. “We sit down before [a work of art] in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it.” The best way to approach art and literature is to “receive” them. He writes, “When we ‘receive’ it, we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist.” He believed there is an inherent message in every work of art and we must allow it to be revealed.
The other approach is to view it in order to fill a particular need or to confirm something that already exists in our mind. He said individuals who view it this way “use” art. He writes: “When we ‘use’ it, we treat it as assistance for our own activities.” Rather than enjoying art for its aesthetic beauty, we use it like we use blankets and water pitchers—to serve functions that we deem important. Christian thinking about art has suffered from pragmatism. For many of us, art only has value to the degree that it conveys a religious message. We’ve turned it into little more than a billboard for a religious worldview. Lewis took exception to this view of art:
“To use art merely to promote a practical or didactic purpose, even a Christian one, would strip the work of art of any aesthetic qualities it may possess and offer, and reduce it, possibly, to a boring anesthetic. Rather, then, our first response to art was to understand it in the sense of standing under it, enjoy it, receive from it, and experience the experience, know the story, see the colors, taste the realities, and enjoy the pleasures it offered.”
Lewis believed art wasn’t meant to promote ideological agendas. Putting a religious message above aesthetic quality leads to art that is not aesthetically pleasing, but boring and trite—defeating one of its main purposes. Rather than being glaringly obvious, He believed the message God intends to impart through a work of art “bubbles up” in subtle ways we often fail to recognize.
Art that carries an overtly religious message suffers the same problems seen in commercial art. When an artist focuses on rendering the right slogan or icon to convey a particular message, their attention is not on the elements that make for masterful art. As art goes—commercial art is generally of poor quality and is seldom found in museums and galleries. Art that inspires and is aesthetically pleasing is created using criteria that have nothing to do with the message itself, but the way in which the work of art is brought together. Skilled artists apply their knowledge of color theory, composition, the use of shadow, highlight, texture, and they employ different brush techniques to create a painting that captures the imagination. Art that is aesthetically pleasing is can speak to anyone—regardless of their religious view. And God can use such art as a means to deliver His own message.
Art created with an overtly Christian message is often of low quality, which is it is not highly prized by art collectors and museums. If you’re a Christian and you believe the secular word rejects Christian art because of its religious motifs, consider that many works of the great masters of the Renaissance depicted biblical scenes. This art is highly prized for its quality in spite of its biblical message. The secular world values Christian art when it is on par with art being produced by other artists who are considered to be masters.
Christian books are not immune to these problems. Very few are of high enough quality that they can be considered true literature. A notable exception is a pair of books written by Lewis that were described by one of the most respected science fiction writers of all time—Arthur C. Clarke: “Less sympathetic to our aims was Dr. C. S. Lewis, author of two of the very few works of space fiction that can be classed as literature—Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.”
Although Lewis disagreed with the ideas put forth by Clarke and other science fiction writers of the day, his work was highly regarded by his contemporaries. Clarke noted that Lewis’ books were among the few that could truly be called literature. This was because Clarke recognized their exceptional quality. Lewis believed Christians must first be good at the technical aspects of what they do. Rather than creating poor quality art saturated with religion, he believed we ought to create excellent quality art and literature that contain subtle messages. To that end, He wrote The Chronicles of Narnia.
Until J.K. Rowling penned the Harry Potter series, Lewis’s Narnia books were the best-selling children’s fantasy books of all time. Their popularity was due to the fact that Lewis was an exceptionally skilled writer. Rather than using an overtly Christian message, he wrote a tale of redemption clothed in classic fantasy. Lewis believed art and literature have the potential to reach the far recesses of the human imagination in ways a Sunday sermon can’t. He illustrated this idea in his article, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said:”
“Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feeling. But suppose by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency. Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
In order to see precisely how God speaks through art that is not overtly religious, allow me to share an example.
I once heard the testimony of an agnostic woman who visited an art gallery. The woman viewed one painting after another then found herself drawn to one painting in particular. She stood in front of it for a long time—her mouth hanging open in shock. Tears flowed down her cheeks. A friend noticed and asked what was wrong. She replied that she had never seen anything so beautiful as the painting that hung in front of her. “I never believed in God,” she confessed. “But I now know that God must exist. For only the mind of an incredibly talented and brilliant God could inspire someone to create a painting such as this.” Without anything that overtly spoke of Christianity, one woman’s agnosticism was turned to belief in God.
My wife is trained as a painter. She’s learned the lesson Lewis preached and was the first to show me what it looks like in practice. Her paintings don’t contain the kind of things most “Christian” paintings do. They aren’t filled with wooden crosses, lions, lambs, or eagles. She paints landscapes, portraits, abstract forms, and blue skies. In some of her paintings (if you can receive what is there) you’ll find subtle suggestions of the cross, hints of the heavens, and other elements that speak of God. The average person may not see any of it, but those who have eyes to see will notice them, even if only subconsciously, and they will be drawn to God through them. She knows it’s not up to her to devise a clever or emotionally appealing message. God is able to reach virtually anyone with a message just for them.
Jesus said no one comes to Him unless they are drawn to Him by the Father. How God speaks through art to each person is dependent on His knowledge of when and how they can best be drawn into that relationship. We don’t need to create the message ourselves. All we need to do is create good art and get it in front of people. The Holy Spirit will do the rest.
This is an excerpt from my book Hearing God’s Voice Made Simple.