Christians making art need to be concerned with two main things: excellence in their craft—offering our work to God for His glory; and an imitation of Christ—the prime artist, for by Him the Scriptures say “everything was made.”
The artistic journey starts with a simple desire to create, but this is only the beginning. This seed will in time grow into a full-blown philosophy of art-making, whether the artist is able to articulate it or not. And like plants themselves, these philosophies come in all shapes and sizes, from weeds to roses to lilies.
Excellence in Craft
Artists pursue excellence in their craft for a variety of reasons. First among them is the fact that artists are called to live in response to the talent that God has given. They are to cultivate it and to pray for the Holy Spirit of God to fill them with skill, ability, and knowledge. In short, they work hard as men and women doing their work before the Lord, for as the wisdom of Proverbs reminds us, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” They study models to learn why some things work and others don’t—why some work is compelling, lasting, and excellent. They form opinions and cultivate taste.
Often this process involves letting your taste or aesthetic sense guide you to some work you admire. Once the work is before you, you can both enjoy it and ask questions of it. In my work—music—I might hear a song or a particular production style that I enjoy, and I want to know what it is about the music that intrigues me. Why do I find it to be excellent? The process helps me to learn something new about music and to define a standard with which to measure my own work.
The culture around us (beyond the Christian subculture) has standards of excellence that are often very high and worth reaching for. It’s important to be serious enough about our life as a disciple that we don’t let supposed standards of excellence that are incongruent with Scripture pollute our own good definitions of excellence. Christians ought to be able to recognize and name various models of excellence found in the fullness of reality, never forgetting that God has shown great genius, skill, and imagination in Creation.
The ideal for a Christian making art is to be one who is set free to imagine good and to create it. By dedicating yourself to acquiring skill and ability in your craft, to living by a standard of artistic excellence, you greatly increase your chances of actually being able to create all that you imagine. Good intentions will not do, but hard work might.
This is something that jazz hero John Coltrane knew well and lived by. Coltrane possessed an ability to make creative choices that others either did not know existed, were afraid to make, or simply could not execute because they had not prepared for such strange and wonderful possibilities. He stretched preconceived boundaries and erased limitations that many thought to be intrinsic to the instrument. In the world of jazz saxophone, Coltrane narrowed the gap between what a musician could imagine and what he could actually create. The pursuit of excellence—to God’s glory—through practice and study, through the cultivation of God-given talent, for reasons of love, is the way that Christians can and should go about narrowing the gap.
Make the Most of Every Opportunity
True artists purpose not to live in a world of “if onlys,” but instead make the most of every opportunity. They do not wait for a national platform to really apply themselves. They give their best to God in their home church, community, or university—being seen as faithful in the little things that they might be found ready and prepared for the bigger. They recognize that contemporary tools are nice to have but are no substitute for astonishing ideas.
Artists following Jesus pray for humility and don’t struggle endlessly against circumstances designed to humble them. Instead they see that even difficult circumstances can be a provision from God and an answer to their prayers. They welcome the discipline of the Lord because it is a testimony of His fatherly love and a sure sign that He is changing them incrementally into the man or woman He has designed them to be. Remember, God is working in you to make you like the prime artist, Jesus—not to give you your version of the perfect artistic life. Each day is a chance to decide afresh which outcome you are living for.
God has shown great love to people through His plan of redemption. Following this good pattern, love should be at the heart of all excellent art created by disciples of Jesus. And since loving well requires thinking well, true artists purpose to be good thinkers. Philippians 4:8 is their text. They meditate on what is lovely and truthful and desire such things in their art. They are curious to know how things work. They know the power of ideas and pray to use only those whose consequences produce fruit in keeping with the purposes of God. They cultivate the ability to distinguish good and evil (Hebrews 5:14). A good life is framed by discernment, and discernment comes through knowledge of the Word and the power of the Spirit. Study and pray. Great art is created in an environment of freedom, but the fuel of freedom is the substance of truth. The artist learns to watch both his life and his doctrine closely.
Know Mission and Destination
True artists know their mission and destination. Years ago William Barclay wrote, “It may be said that there are two great beginnings in the life of every man who has left his mark upon history. There is the day when he is born into the world, and there is the day when he discovers why he was born into the world.”
In this Barclay is quite correct, and it’s here that Christians have the advantage. We know why we were born into the world. We know the kingdom story and how it’s meant to inform our own. We know that we are the Church, the ecclesia, the called-out ones. We are called not to our own purposes but to God’s.
The words of John Henry Newman add to this idea even further: “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me that He has not committed to another. I have my mission. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain.”
This is the kingdom perspective. It is the perspective that God has called all artists to seize. The kingdom perspective is a perspective fueled by faith, freely expressing itself through love in response to the grace of God.
True artists imitate Jesus in His serving and His storytelling. They pursue greatness in craft in order to give the Lord the best fruit of the talent He has given them, not to build themselves up. They understand that true greatness is found in the heart of the servant.
After Jesus had washed the feet of His disciples He told them, “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them”(John 13:15–17).
True artists purpose to love the Church despite indifference or opposition to their work. They are eager to find their place in the body and do not consider themselves exempt from fellowship and church stewardship responsibilities. They love the Church and do all they can to build it up, for how can you love Christ and hate His Church?
You are made for relationship in all its variety. Genesis 2:18 instructs us in the need for community: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” It is impossible for Lone Rangers to produce fruit of a comprehensive nature—they’re too selfish. In addition to caring for the artistic needs of his or her community, a good artist will make other significant contributions as well, for example, serving through prayer for others. In a natural way, prayer for others is a spiritual discipline that gives birth to good art.
Other-centered living (after the model of Jesus) is at the very heart of good art-making. The arts have the ability to serve people in a number of healthy ways, from worship to our need for beauty. Care for others through your talent, and be imaginative about what caring and serving might look like. The possibilities are wide, high, and long.
Christian art should be what Eugene Peterson called the “observable evidence of what happens when a person of faith goes about the business of believing and loving and following God”—not “a rulebook defining the action” but instead “a snapshot of the players, playing the game.” Good Christian artists make snapshots of all of us playing the game.
In his book, Rainbows For A Fallen World, Calvin Seerveld has this to say: “Christians of the historic Reformation will be wise if they understand art to be like clothes: a gift of the Lord to cover our nakedness, to dress our human life with joy, to strengthen and enrich our labors of praising God, serving the neighbor, and caring for the world.”
Praising, serving, and caring—these concepts should be as much a part of the artist’s life as oils and brushes, guitars and word processors.
Telling a Good Story with Your Life
As my son Sam once said, “The way I see it, if you’re old and don’t have any stories—then something must have gone wrong.”
In making art that is glorifying to God, the Christian artist must imitate his Lord in storytelling. God has spoken in history, giving His people a narrative which not only frames our view of the truth, the Church, and the kingdom, but reminds us that God acts in history on behalf of His people, and that these acts are stories worthy of being told again and again. He is still acting on behalf of His people today, and we should be telling today’s stories (which is why all God’s actions in history represent good and worthy subjects for art-making).
Scripture teaches us that Christians “must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order that they may provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives” (Titus 3:14). The unproductive life is one in which you end up with nothing to show and nothing to tell. One sure-fire way to reach such an unproductive end is to give little credence to the life of the mind, the imagination, or holy, kingdom-perspective living. Live to tell the story as only you can tell it. Don’t miss your cue.
Telling a good story with your life is about faith that gives birth to action. It is about the object of your faith inspiring you to love responses or love actions. Remember, the storyteller of good imagination seeks to leave the world and its inhabitants tangibly better than they were before the storyteller arrived on earth. Make this your goal.
Some part of a good story is about imitation. It’s doing the Father’s business. As Jesus said, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful“(Luke 6:35–36). In addition, heed Paul’s advice and “take note of those who live according to the pattern laid out by the apostles” (Philippians 3:17).
Live your life in the context of what God is doing and you will live a life that tells a good story, an eternal story. Rise every morning to talk with God about what He’s doing on that day. Have what author Dallas Willard calls an “intelligent conversation about matters of mutual concern.” Ask God where the kingdom is being advanced, where the invisible is being made visible, where the battles are being fought, and ask Him to let you be a part of what He’s doing in kingdom history. Ask this with great confidence, “for we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
Here’s what I’ve figured out for myself: My life and my art are going to tell a story whether I try to or not. They will tell a story that says: “This is what a follower of Jesus is. This is what he is about. This is what he believes. This is what he thinks is important.” Because this is going to happen and can’t be stopped, I had better make sure I know my role and my job description: a Christian is a living explanation. I will make the teaching about God the Savior attractive by living out what it is. It’s attractive without me. My life and artistic work is to represent it accurately and not do violence to its beauty. I’ll be doing well if I can become the kind of person He’s teaching me to be.
Gratefully, there is immeasurable freedom in Christ as we work and play. I am free to be who and what I am—a prepared and active participant in God’s universe. My freedom serves to remind me that an heir does not live like an orphan; a subject in the kingdom does not live as if there is no authority higher than himself; an object of affection does not live as if she is not deeply loved. These things are true, as true as shadow and light or melody and rhythm.
Be who and what you are. There is no truer starting place for making good and true art.
Charlie Peacock is an artist/songwriter, producer, and author. He was named by Billboard as one of the 500 most important record producers in music history, is a Grammy Award-winning record producer, and three-time winner of the Gospel Music Association’s Producer of the Year award.
This article is adapted from a chapter in It Was Good: Making Art for the Glory of God, published by Square Halo Books. The publisher’s founders are actively involved in PCA churches (Wheatland Presbyterian, Lancaster, Pa.; and Abbot Memorial Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Md.). The company is, they say, “thoroughly and unashamedly a child of the Reformation.” And their objective is “to supply practical theological/biblical instruction or useful insights in some part of life where believers are (or should be) actively involved in bearing witness to our sovereign God and His kingdom through their lives, words, and vocations.”
In Christian art, the square halo once identified a living person presumed to be a saint. Square Halo Books, formed about a decade ago, provides a platform for living saints who would handle biblical texts properly and in context. Square Halo authors share a belief in the infallibility of Scripture, but often lack the name recognition needed to attract a larger publisher. And often, these authors speak about orthodox ideas that fall outside the interests of mainstream religious book publishing companies.
To learn more about Square halo Books, visit www.squarehalobooks.com.