Art and the Self

Some quick thoughts from this morning. I am reading book titled, “From Dawn To Decadence,” by Jacques Barzun. It is history of western cultural life from 1500 to the present. If you are a history buff like me I recommend it. This morning the section on Renaissance art and how it was shaped has me fascinated with the kind of artists we have become today. Here is a quote from the book defining the mission of Renaissance art and artists.


“The Renaissance treatises declare that apart from his moral mission, the artist’s duty (and thereby his intention) is to imitate nature. He must minutely observe “God’s footstool”; it is a way to worship Him. This discipline parallels the scientist’s, and more than one artist of the period thinks of himself as a ‘natural philosopher.’”


In simpler terms the Renaissance artist’s mission was to study the created order and reveal the nature of what it truly was. The artist saw the mission of art as a quest to reveal the nature of God as an act of worship. In general art follows the feeling of the greater culture, and this idea represented the Renaissance feeling about everything. Art, Science, and Learning all existed so that one could have a greater understanding of who God was and is. Every occupation existed to reveal the eternal. In even simpler terms, art existed to express God.


Fast forwarding through the events that have led us past modernity and into postmodernity it has been well documented that the starting point of reason and learning is no longer God but the self. We no longer value what is to be known apart from how it affects us personally. Our starting point of art is no longer to reveal the eternal, it is to reveal the self. Artists speak about how their art is an extension of themselves. It is a way to express themselves more fully to the culture at large. No longer is the goal of art to express what is eternal and outside of the self, in order to understand it, the goal of art in the present is only to express the self so that the self may be understood. This idea in general carries connotations about how we view everything including art and love. Love is no longer a story that is given from the divine to express the eternal, it has become something that originates in the self, existing to express our desires and our stories. Instead of creating art that seeks to understand God, we create art that wonders why God does not understand us, and instead of seeking love that resonates with the heart of God, we demand that his heart resonates with ours. In love and in art we have become God.


This has found its way into the church and our postmodern worship culture. The hymns of the Reformation sought to teach the singer about the nature of God and the gospel. The hymn writers were theologians first and musicians second. In order to love God you must know who he is, and to the reformers all of life was a tool to seek truth about the eternal.


In the present, many of our songs are devoid of anything but self expression, mirroring the culture at large. Many of our worship leaders are artist and musicians first and theologians on the side. We are prone to sing at length about how God loves us, knows us, cares for us, works miracles for us, never leaves us, and how we feel about these promises in return. We have built a culture in worship that hinges on our ability to emote our heart to God rather than seeking to understand his. Our songs must tell the story of God. Jesus is looking for those who will worship in Spirit and in truth and the search for truth comes through hard work and study. You cannot feel your way to truth, in most cases you will probably feel your way in the opposite direction.


Our worship must start with God and a desire to understand him, it cannot start with us and a desire to be understood. Because we have not done this well our churches are filled with people who do not know the doctrines of God. Sin, wrath, repentance, and atonement have been reduced, in many cases,  to vague phrases about how God loves us no matter what we do, with no mention of grace that leads to repentance. We cannot see God starting from the self, we must see God first and then we will be informed about how little the self can actually be trusted. This is the call of the Gospel itself, leave the self and follow Jesus. If we are to see our people truly engage God in Christian worship the litmus test will not be how it felt, it will be whether or not it caused repentance and a life moved toward the gospel. There is more to be said here, and more implications for how we lead, but for now I will leave it here.