Now, Contending for the Faith. In this regular feature, Dave and Tom respond to questions from listeners and readers of The Berean Call. Here’s this week’s question:
“Dear Dave and T.A.,
I am a believer and an art major in college. In listening to your programs, which I enjoy for the most part, I was rather confused when you seemed to be dismissing, if not condemning, thousands of years of religious art as worthless at best. Would you run your reasons for your rather shocking position - to me, at least - by me, so I can decide whether or not they have any merit? Thanks.”
Tom: Dave, you have traveled - you have lived in Europe, you have traveled through Europe. You’ve been to many of the great museums around the world, I assume. Because I’m sure Ruth, you know, she would drag you along.
Dave: She’s tried to educate me. Mm-hmm.
Tom: Yeah. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. I taught art at a university and taken many courses, visited many of the museums around the world, so I am impressed with what men are able to do artistically. But when it comes to representing spirituality, or representing the Bible, or characters in the Bible, I think it’s pretty worthless at best. There’s no remorse in me for that.
Dave: Well, Tom, I think it has some place for little children. “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I spake as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.” So flannel graphs and that sort of thing probably has a place with very young children.
Tom: But what about the great masters, what about the great art works throughout the world, which this art major is concerned about - can’t they use their talent for God in creating biblical imagery?
Dave: No. If you want to paint a Mona Lisa, you know, or something like that, that’s fine; but how can you paint biblical characters? How are you going to paint Moses? You don’t know what he looked like. How are you going to paint Elijah or Elisha or David? You know, many attempts by artists have been so wrong. They’ve got David as a scrawny little weakling. In fact, Saul’s armor (Saul was head and shoulders above Israel) fit David, and Saul would not have offered it to David unless he was the same size; [he] would have had one of the smaller guys offer his armor. But what is the point? The Bible is not written in language that would allow you to paint it, to make a picture of it, because that’s not what is important.
Tom: It’s going to be a misrepresentation no matter how you go about it.
Dave: Absolutely. You do not have the means in the Bible, the descriptive language, that will allow you to paint the scene, and that is not what we need. We need spiritual insight - not through this Eastern meditation and praying through icons, but through God’s Word. We need God to speak to us clearly from His Word and to explain things to us.
Tom: Now, Dave, what about these artists down through history? People say, “Well, their paintings or their sculpture,” whatever it might be, “made such a spiritual impact in my life.” Now you would think, reasonably speaking, that then the people who painted these things would have been inspired of God, would know the Lord, and would present things that, because of their relationship with the Lord, might have some spiritual impact. But I don’t think so. Many of these artists - this was a job; this was the way they made their living. They were given the money by sponsors, you know, throughout history; and, you know, it was a craft, but it’s certainly not spiritual.
Dave: Well Tom, even if you knew - and how would you know - they didn’t take photographs in that day.
Anyway, Paul says, “Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet henceforth know we him no more.” Jesus does not look the way He looked then; he’s in a resurrected, glorified body as John saw Him and fell at His feet as dead, Revelation 1. We’ve talked a bit about trying to visualize Jesus, or paint Jesus, or get a picture of Jesus, and they don’t even agree with one another. There are all kinds of “Jesus-es” out there that artists have painted. So what is the point? It can only lead you astray. It gives you some tangible view, you know, that you can adopt in your mind, but this is not Jesus at all. “His eyes are as a flame of fire, a two-edged sword coming out of His mouth.” Wow! “His feet are as fine brass burning in a furnace.”
Tom: But that’s very symbolic language, Dave.
Dave: Yes, it is, it is. So you couldn’t possibly paint a picture of that.
So, Tom, what we need is to stick with the Bible. “The Bible is profitable,” Paul writes to Timothy (2 Timothy:3:16), “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, (you know, mature, complete) thoroughly furnished unto every good work.” So this is what the Bible is for: it’s for doctrine, it’s for an understanding, not a picture book.
Tom: Yeah, through preaching and teaching. And, Dave, the sad commentary - we had the Barna study - as we’re moving into more subjective areas, more experiential areas, with visual kinds of things, this is really rejecting preaching and teaching. And we find that many churches say, “No, we’re going to cut that down because it doesn’t hold the attention of our congregation.”
Dave: Well, you could go to Jeremiah 13 - we’ve talked about it before, [Jer.] 13:10, where it says, “This evil people, which refuse to follow my word, and they follow the imagination of their own heart.”
So this is what they are doing. We talked about it in other ways: modern translations, paraphrases, Eugene Peterson’s Message, that literally changes what God has said - puts his own words in there. So we are turning away from the Bible to our imagination. Now we have the whole New Testament on video, and so you have actors and actresses acting this out - you know, the director and the lighting and, you know, the scripting, and so forth. Tom, it’s not helpful, but this is what people want to do. They want to engage in this - “Oh, I’ve got a talent for making movies; now let me make a movie about Jesus’ life.” No, sorry, you have just strayed from the Bible. We need to get back to the Bible - “to the law and to the testimony,” [Isaiah] says in [Isaiah] 8:20, I think it is.
Tom: Right. “If they speak not according to this word, there is no light in them.”