Book Review – Art for God’s Sake

I am the worst artist in the world. I’m sure there are some who would contest that claim, but if you were to ask me to draw something (anything!) I think you’d quickly agree that I am about as bad as a person can get. It is strange that I am such a terribly poor artist as I come from a long line of very capable artists. Yet somehow, when the various family genes were combined to form me, all of those artistic genes fled.

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.

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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.

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