from STUDIO 16 (August 1997)
My teacher training was secular and at a primary level. I am not an Art practitioner, and have only given Art instruction to students from age 9 through 12.
As a teacher of the Arts in a Christian school, I have often found myself between a rock and a hard place. I know that there is more to the Arts disciplines than is often tolerated by well-meaning religious people, but at the same time, I am conscious that much of what is offered by our "secular" colleagues is offensive to the faith. Are there some guidelines that enable us to be relevant and Christian?
It seems to me that there are possibly eight broad guidelines that can assist in the task of teaching the Arts in a Christian school. The guidelines could be equally helpful in choosing literature for study, analyzing poetry or considering works of fine Art, dance and drama.
This paper has been written with brevity in mind, and several assertions will be made without explanation and qualification. As dialogue over these ideas develops, the gaps can be filled with broader definitions.
My first assertion is that Christian Art has as its focus, Christ. Christ is both God of very God, and at the same time, Man of very Man. This will mean that Christian Art will celebrate the Deity and glory of God in Christ, and also it will celebrate what it means to be human - created in the image of God, fallen and living in a fallen universe, but also redeemed with an important part to play in God's ultimate purposes. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth - and Christian Art will explore both heavenly and earthly themes.
Many have tried to make Art reside under the umbrella of creativity (and creativity has been defined as the making of new combinations out of existing components). However, human depravity can also be "creative" in the light of this definition. Often the products of such creativity are not acceptable in a Christian context - when the so-called graffiti artist paints on a railway carriage (and in the process destroys the property that belongs to another) he is being "creative" but is the product of his activity "Art"?
It is my contention that the thing that makes Art distinctively Christian is its redemptive quality. Redemptive Art will be creative, but it does not necessarily have to be prepared by Christians. Christ came to redeem the cosmos - reverse the chaos and disorder that impregnates the created realm as a consequence of sin. Christian Art will contribute, to some extent, to this redemptive process. This process could also be called a beautification process.
As a community becomes saturated in the Word of God, symbols will be used and understood in the process of communication. Christian Art will utilize an enormous range of symbols, but through these symbols, an enormous amount will be communicated.
Now, having identified the coordinating principle of redemption, we can begin to discuss some possible guiding principles for Art from a Christian perspective.
The first of the guidelines relates to the celebration of God's creation. Any expression of the Arts that brings into focus the beauty and wonder of God's creation is valid in a Christian context. Such works need not mention God, Jesus, or have religious themes. God said of His creation, "It is good". As we participate in the redemptive process (or the beautification process) of the created order - by painting beautiful things, or penning beautiful words - we are mirroring God Himself. Why shouldn't we enjoy God's creation for what it is? He made it for us!
God created "ex nihilo" but we who are made in His image take the details of God's fiat creation and arrange them in new and interesting ways. The second guideline relates to a celebration of God's creativity, and his infinite variety of pattern and order. Again, as Christians we can appreciate the creativity of new word associations, intricate design, and complexity of relationship without a necessarily religious overtone.
A reality of life is that the sin of Adam has thrust the whole created order into depravity. At every hand there is evidence of the depraved state of the human condition. It is valid, as a Christian, to express and study the depravity of man. This is the third guideline. The point at which we overstep the mark is when we celebrate sin, or make sin appear to be attractive. As Christians we need to agree with the Apostle Paul that "sin is exceeding sinful", and Christian involvement with it needs to be on that basis. Anything less is to crucify again the Lord of glory.
The world often portrays the human condition, but offers no hope beyond it. A fourth guideline is the celebration of redemption and the hope beyond the fallenness of the created order. We can portray such hope in ways that are not necessarily religious, also. Stories of reconciliation, poems that conclude with a contrasting high point, music that resolves in a major and finished chord, all reflect this reality of redemption.
Having said all the above, the fifth guideline is the acknowledgment of the place for the Arts in Evangelism, the communication of the gospel and in the creating of an atmosphere that enhances - but not mediates - worship. The making of idols is not permitted (mediation), but using an appropriate colour-scheme in the painting of a church building is essential (atmosphere enhancement). Drama, for instance, is a powerful tool in the presentation of Gospel truth. Those expressions of the Arts that clearly and directly outline the simple message of the Gospel need to find their ways into the classrooms of our Christian schools.
A sixth guideline would be the celebration of covenant community. Relationships, in all their complexities, need to be explored in a Christian context (both thematically, and also structurally in the framework of a composition). The emphasis needs to be on a movement towards the agape that Jesus commanded of His disciples; the love that would convince the world that the Father sent His Son. Covenant community would also include worship, because the Bible clearly places worship in the context of covenant relationship. The prayers of husbands are not answered if they are out of relationship with their wives; being denied Christian fellowship by Church leaders, is to be handed over for the destruction of the flesh by Satan. The Arts, in a Christian context, need to explore and celebrate these expression.
God has embellished His Self-revelation with symbolism. Symbols encapsulate vast sweeps of meaning. As we master God's symbols, and the symbols of Christian and contemporary culture, we become more efficient in our inter-relational communication. A seventh guideline relates to the development of skills in symbolic communication. Christian schools need to show students how to read religious and cultural symbols in the Arts, and train them in the use of symbolism in their own expression of the Arts.
God created all things in six literal days, and on the seventh day He rested. An eighth principle relates to the ability to step back and simply enjoy the Art created on the other six days. We need to train our students in the processes of Art appreciation, which will require skills in criticism, historic contextualism, and aesthetic appreciation. Christian Art may cross over into the sphere of Craft, and have a utilitarian purpose - we can eat off beautifully crafted dinner plates and drink out of beautifully crafted coffee mugs. Christians need to be encouraged to fill their homes and offices with objects of Art. To do so will be a redemptive act - an act that reflects the purpose for which Christ came.
These guidelines are not presented as an exhaustive discussion on the topic. Perhaps others could take these ideas further, and think through the issues relating to practically applying them in the classroom. Perhaps there are further guidelines that could be suggested. To some extent these guidelines may be incomplete, but I do hope that they are useful.
(Lance Box would like to hear your comments on this essay! E-mail Lance Box, or write to Lance Box, PO Box 2452, Tuggeranong ACT 2901 AUSTRALIA).