The “Christian” Artist: 10 Reflections from Abraham Kuyper
The artistic legacy of American Christianity is mixed, (at best). Christians have scorned the arts as useless, wasteful, sinful, elitist, idolatrous, and self-centered. When these same Christians decide to “take back the arts” and make their own forms of “Christian” music, movies, novels, and paintings, the artistic results, once again, are mixed, at best.
What should be our response to this “mixed” legacy of the arts in American Christianity?
Abraham Kuyper’s 1898 reflections on faith and the arts in his Lectures On Calvinism are impressive in their depth, breadth, and insight on the subject. While I do not find myself agreeing with every aspect of his aesthetics, I find his speech (composed in 1898) to be extremely prescient, prophetic, and relevant for today’s discussions of faith and the arts.
It is no surprise that Christians called to the arts are ambivalent about the American church. Some feel mistrusted and marginalized. Others feel isolated and lonely, and still others feel misunderstood, frustrated, and even angry.
This week, for my reflection on Abraham Kuyper, I offer 10 pieces of advice for the Christian artist inspired by Kuyper’s chapter on “Calvinism and the Arts.” I hope that these are helpful in your reading of his lecture.
- Your Art is Not a Luxury, It is a Necessity
While some Christians have argued that the arts are a wasteful luxury – that money should only be spent on evangelism or helping the poor – Kuyper disagrees. Art, he argues “is no fringe that is attached to the garment, and no amusement that is added to life, but a most serious power.” The arts are a central part of God’s intention for humanity. Take beauty and creativity away from a person’s life and you have removed a core part of their created humanity.
Kuyper argues that art is not a superfluous “decoration” for life. To the contrary – it can help us understand what life is all about. Art, he insists, teaches us lessons “which neither science, nor politics, nor religious life, nor even revelation can bring to light.”(163) For him, a bare utilitarian vision of life which has no space for creativity, imagination, or beauty is not a life worthy of a creative and imaginative God. The arts remind us, in a world of bare rationalism and materialism, that life is about more than simply the true and the good, it is also about the beautiful. For, in “this cold, irreligious, and practical age the warmth of this devotion to art has kept alive many higher aspirations of our soul.”(143)
Standing firmly in the creativity and imagination of the Creator God himself, Christian artists should never apologize for their calling to the arts. They have a high and holy calling.
The artist creates, not because she feels like it, not because she has some extra time and money, not because a space is lacking decoration. The artist creates because her God has called her to create. This is the only justification she needs.
- Push Boundaries
Christians have historically feared artists because they push boundaries, challenge assumptions, and question the status quo. Christians in America have wrongly married their faith to a stagnant cultural conservatism that fears cultural exploration, innovation, and change.
In opposition to this, Kuyper argues that God called Adam and Eve to explore, cultivate, and develop the Garden of Eden—not freeze it in place. Therefore, he argues, Christians are not in the business of fearful cultural conservation – they are in the business of hopeful cultural exploration, cultivation, and development.
If our God is a God who loves fearless exploration and development, the arts “cannot afford to tarry at her origin, but must ever develop herself more richly… Only, the law of her growth and life… must remain the fundamental law of art for ever.” (163)
- Don’t Make “Christian Art”
Abraham Kuyper argues that the church should not have its own distinct style of “Christian art.” The church should not be in the business of controlling its artists or they art they produce. The church does not call artists – God does. The artist is responsible directly to God, and not the church. He is radically free to glorify God through his art-making. Because the artist is freed by God’s call, we should not expect one singular “Christian style” of art, but instead, a broad, messy, and beautiful variety of explorations in a multiplicity of media, addressing ever widening themes.
- Don’t Make “Secular Art”
Embarrassed by the horrible state of “Christian Art,” some Christians in the arts (in particular those called to make art out in the “secular art world”) attempt to hide their faith or ignore it. Fearful of being found out, they try to make art that is disconnected from their deepest convictions and beliefs.
While Kuyper is against “Christian Art,” he is also against “Secular Art.” He believes that “the call for a secular, all-embracing art-style, independent of any religious principle, is simply absurd.” (151) Why is it absurd? Because every song, painting, and sculpture emerges from some conviction about the meaning and purpose of life. It comes from a belief in something. Every artist must have a worldview—a core identity. The only question is, what will that core identity be?
Kuyper insists that the arts “demand a central motive in the mental and emotional life of a people.” (150) In short, if you believe nothing, you have nothing to create. Even the so-called atheist artist believes in something, if she didn’t, she would have no reason to make anything at all. Every artist has a throne that cannot remain empty. The Christian artist has a choice to make, even as she creates for spaces outside of the church.
- Don’t Be a Snob
Abraham Kuyper was squarely against the modern practice of isolating “the arts” to metropolitan museums, wealthy homes, posh galleries, graduate schools, and the realm of elite professional artists. If it is true that God is an artist, and if it is true God created all of us to long for beauty, creativity, and imagination, then it follows that the arts should be for everyone. Christians called to the arts must be aware of the cultural temptation to isolate, elevate, and patronize—and they must find ways to subvert and challenge this practice. The arts are for all of God’s people.
- Appreciate Art By Non-Christians
Because of common grace, Abraham Kuyper argues that the “arts are gifts which God imparts promiscuously to believers and to unbelievers, yea, that, as history shows, these gifts have flourished even in a larger measure outside the holy circle.” (160) Kuyper points to the fact that the ancient Greeks far surpassed the ancient Israelites in their artistic abilities. In God’s sovereign freedom he decided to bless the Greeks more than the Israelites.
If this is true, then Christians should never dismiss art made by non-Christians. If they do, they may very well be dismissing the very gifts of God.
- Don’t Copy Nature, Wrestle With It
The artist does not merely copy the garden God made. The artist explores the garden, unfolds it, dissects it, develops it, tests it, and reveals new insights about life within it. The “vocation of art,” according to Kuyper, is “not merely to observe everything visible and audible, to apprehend it, and reproduce it artistically.” (154) No, artists are called to “the noble vocation of disclosing to man a higher reality.” (153) The artist does not copy life, she wrestles with life and comes out on the other side with new insights to share, new things to reveal.
As we mentioned before, art teaches us lessons about life “which neither science, nor politics, nor religious life, nor even revelation can bring to light.”(163) Furthermore, the artist does not simply tell us what is (in the present). The artist also reminds us what we have we lost (from the past) and what could be (in the future). The artist embraces both memory and imagination.
The true artist does not copy life, she wrestles with it, she reveals it. That is her sacred calling.
- Pay Attention to the Common, the Ordinary
As a Calvinist, Abraham Kuyper believes that God cares about and saves ordinary people. God loves them, not because they have done something extraordinary, but because he intends to do something extraordinary with their ordinary lives. These so-called “ordinary” people have done nothing to earn God’s love. God freely chooses the ordinary to make the extraordinary.
So, if God loves the ordinary, the common, the mundane; Kuyper concludes that the artist should too. They should not be bored with the commoner’s life, because God isn’t. Kuyper writes,
If a common man, to whom the world pays no special attention, is valued and even chosen by God as one of His elect, this must lead the artist also to find a motive for his artistic studies in what is common and of every-day occurrence, to pay attention to the emotions and the issues of the human heart in it…to interpret for the world at large the precious discovery he has made. (166)
There is something beautiful in the so-called boring, there is something sacred in the so-called secular, and there is something extraordinary in the so-called ordinary. It is the vocation of the artist to investigate, explore, and finally reveal that hidden reality.
- There is No Such Thing As Evil Art
While many Christians have spurned the arts as evil and idolatrous at their core, Kuyper vehemently disagrees. God created the arts. God is the author of our creativity, imagination, skill, and craftsmanship. These are gifts of God. To label them the gifts of the devil is to disgrace the true giver of the gifts. “Satan,” Kuyper argues, “is destitute of every creative power. All he can do is to abuse the good gifts of God.” Any brokenness or sin that we witness in the arts is simply the perversion of something good. Evil cannot make, it can only destroy. Evil cannot craft, it can only twist.
Furthermore, the complaint that “the art world is evil” is actually a case for engaging the arts—not running away from them. Sin has not only infected the arts, it has infected politics, business, education, medicine, the media, the church, and the family. People who are called to be salt, light, and leaven in a world on fire do not run away from the blaze—they run into it.
- Approach Your Skills As Gifts (Not Possessions)
The final word of advice Kuyper would give to the artist is that they must, above all, receive their artistic gifts as gifts. Our artistic gifts are something we steward. They are not something that we own. They were given, not for our glory, but for God’s. They were bestowed, not for our personal good, but for the common good.
Strictly speaking, they are not our skills, brilliance, creativity, or craftsmanship that are on display, but God’s. Art, Kuyper argues, cannot “originate with man, for, being a creature himself, man cannot but employ the powers and gifts put by God at his disposal.” (155) Quoting Calvin, his favorite theologian, Kuyper argues that “all the arts come from God and are to be respected as Divine inventions.”
If we are stewards and not possessors of artist gifts, there are at least three practical consequences. First, we may never believe that we earned our success on our own. Second, we are in a constant state of self-learning, exploring and sharpening the gifts that God has given. Third, we do our artistic work, not out of duty, obligation, or raw ambition, but instead we create out of gratitude. Our art-making is fundamentally a responsive act of worship to the One who gave us these gifts. As the artist Makoto Fujimura remarks, “my approach to art resembles the paradigm set by a woman in the gospel who broke her jar of nard upon Christ’s feet.” May we all offer our gifts back to the one who gave them to us.