Art, For God’s Sake
A man pulls off the road and climbs out of his car to gaze at the sky. He is unaware that his jaw has slackened as he surveys the view. His eyes as well as his mouth are wide open. He’s never seen such gold, not even at the exhibit of King Tut’s tomb. He is dazzled by this huge expanse of glittering clouds, with each blazing highlight more brilliant than the next, set off by shadows of pink and orange. This can’t be real. Why is there so much gold? How can anything be so beautiful?” he wonders. He longs to stay and drink in the spectacle for as long as it lasts, but he can hardly bear the thought of watching it fade. He rips his gaze from the sky and climbs back into his car. He sits, just staring at the steering wheel for minutes before he gets back on the road.
At home, his wife greets him at the door. “Traffic jam?” she asks, referring to the fact that he’s slightly late. “No,” he answers a bit embarrassed. “I stopped to watch a sunset.”
“Colette” by Christine Thurow
“The first demand that any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” —C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
In the Beginning
The initial words of the Scriptures tell us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew verb for create is bara‘ and is used exclusively to refer to God’s activity. The fact that God revealed himself to us as the first and premier artist provides direction as we seek to understand the creative process.
The Master Artist created the universe and all its elements, but he then created humans in his own image. When we ponder that fact, we can understand why each of us has a creative spark. The British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, once said that “man is made to create, from the poet to the potter.”(1) Humans have innate creativity. The Creator’s imprint on our very souls gives birth to our own urge to create. What God has fashioned is far beyond what even the most magnificent artist could hope to produce. He has gifted us, his creation, with the ability to reflect beauty and truth through art.
Art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination…and works so produced.”(2) That which both God and people create can be called art. God instituted art with purpose and intention. Marc Chagall once said, “There is no art for art’s sake. The artist must be interested in the entire realm of life.”(3) Certainly, God did not create for the sake of creating, but for a purpose.(4)
To realize our artistic potential to its fullest, it is crucial for us to examine how the one who gave us the creative spark uses art.
The Creator’s Paradigm
God’s artistry serves many purposes. It gives pleasure and joy—to himself and to people. In Gan Eden, God “planted every kind of tree that is pleasant to the sight.”(5) God looked at his handiwork, and “saw that it was good.”(6) It was pleasing to behold. God valued its beauty.
“Untitled” by M.B.
The psalms are examples of art in the form of poetry, song and movement. They are filled with declarations of joy over creation and thanks to God for the wonders of his artistry: “To him who made the great lights…the sun to rule by day…the moon and stars to rule by night, for his loving kindness is everlasting.”(7)
God delights in giving us good things and wants us to admire the world that he made. In the same way that God’s art gives him pleasure, we can receive enjoyment from exercising creativity. And while not everything we produce is beautiful, beautiful art is enjoyable to our senses and brings us satisfaction.
God not only seeks to please our senses, but he also seeks to engage us. God desires to reveal himself to people. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and what is commonly called the New Testament tell us that God speaks through creation. The prophet Isaiah declared, “Thus says the Lord, who created the heavens, who is God, who formed the earth and made it…’I am the Lord, and there is no other. I have not spoken in secret.'”(8)
Paul, who wrote the New Testament Book of Romans, was a rabbinically trained Jewish believer in Jesus and understood the Jewish concept of God’s revelation through creation: “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made…”(9)
In the same way that one can look at the body of an artist’s work over time and gain some idea of that artist’s outlook or world view, we can learn something of the Creator. God has provided the sky above and the grass underfoot, the expanse of the ocean and the teeming life in a simple puddle—all to reveal himself.
God’s declaration is that he has spoken and that he has done so in his role as Creator. God wants us to see him when we look at what he has made.
How Do We Honor God in Our Art?
Sarah Geffin, a Jewish believer in Jesus and a potter in London, comments, “I have a living faith in a living God. I hope that the beauty and character of God will be reflected in my work.” To Sarah, the main objective of her work is to communicate to others that there is a God, that he gave us the Messiah and that we can know him. Geffin works as a potter and uses her craft to portray biblical accounts.
Pottery by Sarah Geffin
It is truly a fine reflection of our Creator when one is able to use one’s craft to proclaim truth about him. But God does more than direct our attention to himself by what he fashioned. God has also provided us with something to offer back to him once he has gained our attention. He takes satisfaction from what we create. God gave us the ability to express ourselves through dance, drama, poetry, music and art. There are examples of each in Scripture. And they all work toward worshiping God. God reveals who he is to us so that we might enter into a relationship—a relationship that brings us to the point of worshiping him.
Pottery by Paul Meer
Paul Meer is a ceramics instructor in Woodside, California. He defines his expression as an artist as “taking in everything around me, as a person, as a Jewish man. I sit here and take in a lot. I try to organize those things and express them as an offering to the Lord. Everything that I do is presenting it back to him.” God wants us to engage with what he has given to us. He uses creation to reveal himself to us, but why does he reveal himself? So that we might know, interact with, relate to and give back to him. Creation is a tool to relate to the God who formed it.
Marc Chagall said that “the artist must penetrate into the world.”(10) Meer puts it this way, “I am responsible for how I take in stimulus, how I sift through it, how I put things together and present it back to the Lord in a way that would be pleasing to him.”
A good example of this is King David’s poetic prayer, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”(11) The Hebrew verb bara‘ is used here to describe a transformation or restoration done by God.(12) David used his skill as a psalmist to offer his heart to God, that God might “restore to him the enjoyment of his salvation by renewing his heart and his spirit as a newly forgiven sinner.”(13)
Art Can Dishonor God
Art, like any good thing, can be twisted to serve a purpose that is neither true nor beautiful. The second commandment is, “You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”(14) For centuries, people interpreted this commandment as a prohibition against all representational art, in reaction to pagan religions that made religious art a focus for worship.(15) This affects Jewish artists even today. Painter Marilyn Ramsdale, a Jewish believer in Jesus from upstate New York, speaks of “drawing inside of closets at night because I had been told not to make graven images.”
“Untitled” by Marilyn Ramsdale
Did God prohibit all forms of visual art? Not according to the Book of Exodus, where God laid out specific instructions for an artist to adorn the Tabernacle, “I have called by name Bezalel…to design artistic works…and to work in all manners of workmanship.”(16) 1 Kings 7 recounts the adornment of Solomon’s Temple with pomegranates, ornamental buds, wreaths and lattice work.
“Fruit Bowl,” Christine Thurow
God does not prohibit artistry. Rather, the prohibition is against worshiping the creation.(17) Consider the carefully fashioned golden calf that Aaron created for the people when they complained that Moses was never going to return from Mount Sinai. Most likely it was an artistic marvel, but it was an abomination before a holy and jealous God.
Despite all that God had done, the moment the people could not see something or someone to reassure them of his presence, they were ready to turn from him. “Give us a god we can see” is, in effect, what they demanded of Aaron. So he used his artistic skill to present them with something visual—an image of an animal. Not only did the people worship the creation instead of the Creator, but they also worshiped the work of human hands, which fashioned the image of God’s creation.
Elevating creation without recognizing the Creator degrades the gift of art.
The artist faces another dangerous misuse of art—forgetting one’s place as God’s creation. Just as people can esteem a work of art above the Creator, artists can intentionally or unknowingly elevate themselves to that same place. It is important to recognize that people’s creativity is only a shadow of the infinite creativity of God. In fact, the name Bezalel, means “in the shadow of God.”(18)
Our creativity is only a flickering reflection of God’s. Think of it; the painter does not have all the Creator’s colors on his palette and can only approximate a sunset. The photographer can only produce a glimmer of what can be seen with the naked eye. The dancer is limited in movement to how his body is constructed. The writer has only those words that are part of her vocabulary. And so on.
“Jewish Still Life” by Dan Clouts
Zoe-Lynn Cohen, a graphic artist in Pennsylvania, says, “There are so many things that artists see, and I realize that God is the most incredible artist. I find that we just try to recreate.” Dan Clouts, a British Jewish artist, adds, “The act of painting or drawing is helping me to express some of the wonders of God’s creation, and I really sense that it is God who has given me the gift of creativity.”
Let’s Get Real about Art
God has gifted us with creativity and an ability to create things of beauty. However, if art is to reflect reality, we must face the fact that not all reality is beautiful. God’s creativity did not stop with that which is aesthetically pleasing and neither should our art be merely a matter of self-gratification. Art can draw our attention to the human condition, to our separation and utter otherness from God. Many artists, who do not have the hope of a forever with their Creator, leave us out there, hanging over an abyss of despair and depravity.
No one is more creative than God when it comes to giving a graphic picture of the consequences of our separation from him. The models for atonement given in the Book of Leviticus call for visual drama, yes, even tragedy, for God commanded the substitutionary sacrifice of animals to communicate that sin causes death.
“Untitled” by M.B.
Even more startling is the amazing “mixed media” presentation that God made with the prophet Ezekiel. God used the mediums of drawing, drama and sculpture to communicate a message. He even chose the materials: clay, metal, wood and, above all, the body of the prophet Ezekiel. The Artist’s instructions are found in Ezekiel 4:1-8.
We don’t know how long it took Ezekiel to prepare the drawing of the city or to erect the siege works, but we do know that he acted as a living sculpture, lying on the ground first on one side, then the other, for over a year. What was the point of this very elaborate, avant garde piece of work? At least three points are clear from this portion of the text:
- It would be a sign to the house of Israel for a literal battle that would be waged against them.
- It would symbolize Ezekiel taking the sin of the house of Judah and the house of Israel upon himself.
- It would provide a stage from which Ezekiel was to bare his arm and prophesy against Jerusalem.
The picture painted in these eight verses is devoid of beauty but full of truth. The Book of Ezekiel continues to show forth the horrors brought about by the sins of the people until finally there is a glimmer of hope for the remnant of Israel in chapter eleven.
Our Creator God went to great lengths to communicate his judgment for the idolatry and sinful behavior of his people. This same Creator went to great lengths to communicate grace, love and forgiveness to those willing to receive it.
Whether one is a believer in Yeshua (Jesus) or not, it is nearly impossible to escape the impact carried by the imagery of the crucifixion. Yeshua’s death has captured the imagination of artists for centuries as they have tried to recreate the drama, the anguish and the hope of that moment. Marc Chagall, who depicted Moses receiving the Law and Elijah praying on Mount Carmel, could not resist attempting his own portrayal of the crucifixion.
by Shelley Skoropinski
The comparison between the Ezekiel drama and the Jesus drama begs to be addressed. Ezekiel, as a living sculpture, could only symbolize what Jesus accomplished in death…to take upon himself the sins of the people.
Ezekiel was righteous in comparison to his people, but he was an ordinary person. Even a relatively righteous person needs atonement for his own sin and therefore cannot atone for the sins of another. Those of us who believe that Jesus is the Messiah know that he was no ordinary person. Yeshua alone could take upon himself the sins of the people. He did so according to the blueprint for substitutionary atonement God first unfolded in the Book of Leviticus.
Ezekiel was bound by ropes so that he could not move in either direction. Jesus, with hands and feet nailed to two pieces of wood could not move to the right or the left. When Ezekiel’s “siege” was finished, God instructed him to bare his arm to prophesy against Jerusalem. When Jesus had given his life’s blood, his drama nearly at an end, both his arms were bared and outstretched as well. Yet he did not prophesy against sinners. Instead, his arms were opened wide to receive them as he said to his heavenly Father, “Forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”(19)
by Shelley Skoropinski
As an artist reaches out through what he or she depicts, God reaches out to us. He wants us to recognize his involvement in the drama of our lives. He wants to forgive us and to restore us—to awaken us to the beauty of life with him. He wants each of us to be a new creation. But it is up to us to respond to his invitation. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”(20)
Notes (1) Contarini Fleming, 1832.
(2) Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam, 1977).
(3) Reuben Alcalay, A Basic Encyclopedia of Jewish Proverbs and Quotations and Folk Wisdom (New York: Hartmore House, 1973), 19.
(4) Proverbs 16:4.
(5) Genesis 2:9.
(6) Genesis 1:4.
(7) Psalm 136:7-9.
(8) Isaiah 45:18-19.
(9) Romans 1:20.
(10) Jewish Spectator, Sept. 1951, 21.
(11) Psalm 51:10 NIV.
(12) Ron Allen, The Majesty of Man (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1978), 205.
(14) Exodus 20:4.
(15) W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: UAHC, 1981), 677. (16) Exodus 30:1-5.
(17) Exodus 20:5.
(18) The Torah, 677.
(19) Luke 23:34.
(20) Isaiah 55:6.