I'm currently reading The God Who is There by Francis Shaeffer. I have been amazed by the cultural analysis he has done in the first half of the book, especially his analysis of art. The philosophical teachings found in much of the artwork the past two centuries absolutely fascinates me.
It is amazing to me the power in such a medium. The arts have indeed shaped the culture around us. Paintings, literature, and architecture are not merely entertaining hobbies but philosophy on display. Artist comment on their society, creatively displaying their worldview, their quest for meaning, and their final conclusions.
The amazing thing Shaeffer pointed out was that many of these men lived in complete and utter despair, particularly the modern painters such as Van Gough. Their artwork shows they were seeking for a universals while building and focusing on the particulars. These men were searching for answers in a world devoid of God and a world devoid of truth. The lives of such men are tragic, and their final conclusions are epitomized in their epic demise by the taking of their own life. After searching for meaning and significance, they found themselves in a dark hole of meaninglessness.
Francis Shaeffer concludes with this observation
These paintings, these poems, and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they life; yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.
What an accurate critique. The tortured work of these men reveal the desperateness of those around us. Just as these artist express their own lostness in their artwork, they are in good company. There are neighbors, co-workers, and friends who are lost in the nebulous of the denial of absolute truth, seeking a meaning in a world where —at least in their worldview— is not possible. Subjectivism and existentialism merely mask the reality of their worldview - hopelessness and despair.
How does this reality change the way we look at the expressions of art around us? I suggest the following ways.
We Must Take Art Seriously
Christians are not very artistically inclined. Although there seems to be a reclaiming of the arts among Christians, many Christians have failed to take the medium seriously. We must understand that art shapes culture. It speaks into the souls of men in a deep and profound way. Art teaches. Always. This means that Christians must greatly understand the profoundness of the medium. As Christians, we know why men and women create art, it is because of the imago dei. There is something about our created nature in the image of God that compels us to create, explore, imagine, and speak. Christians must not dismiss the art of culture as immaturity, foolishness, or even irrelevance. Where philosophy teaches in the academy, art takes the philosophy of the academy and presents it initially to culture.
We Must Examine Art Critically
Christians must be cautious not to immediately accept all art forms and the message they communicate. Although we can enjoy the skill, precision, and creativity implored enjoying must not lead us to accepting. Let me give us a relevant example in the medium of film, the most powerful cultural shaper in western civilization.
The movie Avatar was a box office hit that made millions of dollars. It was a visually amazing epic adventure on an uncharted world. Although we can go see Avatar and enjoy the medium and creativity of the film, we must not accept its philosophical message, which is a retelling of the eastern worldview (which is become increasingly westernized), panenthism, which is a worldview in which a impersonal divine spirit indwells and connects all things together (think the force from Star Wars). This is completely contrary to the Christian worldview who says that God is not an impersonal spirit, but the personal God who exists in trinity.
The great danger is that so many christians embrace the art without critically thinking about its message. Art has a way of teaching us and shaping us in a way that we don't realize is happening. The message of the theater, of novels, and of artwork instructs often times subconsciously. Christians must examine art seriously, but also critically.
We Must Observe Art With Scrutiny
We can know a great deal about our culture and about our society if we carefully examine the art it produces. From the latest oscar winning film to the latest Justin Beiber album (which can hardly be considered art). The arts reveal the values, the morality, and the worldview of those who are creating.
Christians must learn to view art with evangelistic interest. As we observe the art of culture, we must look for Gospel incompatibilities (this is not compatible with a Christian worldview) and Gospel bridges (that points to the meta narrative of Scripture). Christians must get their head out of the sand and observe the people and the culture God has placed us in. Then with investigative critical thinking we can accurately and contextually communicate the Gospel, answering the questions that the culture is asking. The Christian must take the pulse of culture by observing the arts. In order to share the Gospel effectively, we must no the walls and barriers of the people we are trying to reach.