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Anyone who reads the Bible, paying careful attention not only to the words of the text but also the forms of God’s revelation, will be struck by the widespread and varied use of the arts for communicating God’s purposes and will. The Old and New Testaments alike make abundant use of the arts: visual arts (the Tabernacle and Temple and all their decorations, the pillar of memorial stones on the banks of the Jordan); musical arts (psalms and spiritual songs); literary arts (story-telling, poetry, perhaps even drama, all kinds of metaphors and images); and a wide variety of abstract and visionary art forms (the first chapters of Ezekiel and Revelation, for example).
All of which begs the question: Why does God consider art so important that He made such varied use of it for communicating His will to His people?
Many reasons come to mind: art’s ability to appeal to the imagination and engage the affections; its value as an aid to memory; the balance between form and freedom inherent in the arts, suggesting both parameters and liberties for our lives; the experience of delight and pleasure art can provide; the universal appeal of art; and so forth. Far from being a mere frill, art has always played a central role in human society. Their souls are impoverished, as is their experience of life, for whom art has little importance.
But by far the greatest value of the arts to the Christian is their ability to nurture the sense of beauty and, thus, to train our hearts and minds to know, enjoy, and relate better to Him who is the Perfection of Beauty. Modern and postmodern artists have so relativized the concept of beauty that even to discuss its role in the arts is to risk appearing passé or uninformed. But this is a strictly recent phenomenon. The history of art is replete with discussions of beauty and its importance in the arts, and, where Christians have entered those discussions, they have argued for the role of art in nurturing our sense of beauty and helping us to know and worship God, as, for example in this exhortation to poets by John Keble (1792-1866):
Sovereign masters of all hearts!Even that which is ugly in the arts trains us for beauty by creating in our souls a sense of dissonance, loss, or absence, making us long for a resolution of form, theme, and artistic elements into something transcendent, something beautiful. By studying the various forms of art, seeking to discern the beauty in them, we are better able to appreciate and experience the wonder and diversity of God. His revelation in Scripture opens up in new, deeper, and more compelling ways when we can understand the artistry underlying its creation and informing its message. The experience of things beautiful—which God intended for us when He created trees “beautiful to look upon” in the garden (Genesis 2:9)—can shape our hearts and minds in ways more reflective of the purpose and pleasure of God.
Know ye who hath set your parts?
He, who gave you breath to sing,
By whose strength ye sweep the string,
He hath chosen you to lead
His hosannas here below . . .
Art matters to God, as we see in His holy Word. For that reason alone, but also because of what we learn through the arts about beauty, art must be important for us as well.