Art and The Call To Cultivate

by Travis Lowe on September 04, 2019

I recently found myself struck by the words in a worship song I had left playing as, “background noise." The lyrics themselves were not new to me. Though I didn’t realize at first, I was deeply familiar with them. They were a near verbatim quote from the book of James. Despite their familiarity, I marveled at their truth and relevance in a way that I hadn’t since first encountering the passage as a young Christian. There is something to be said for the ability art has to communicate eternal truths in ways that break up the fallow soil of our hearts. We ought not to be surprised by the way art can frame spiritual realities in fresh ways. After creating man, God issues a cultural mandate, “Fill the earth and subdue it.” Adam was placed in the garden with a similar mandate; “work and keep this place.” It is a call to cultivate, to shape, and to fashion the created world in ways that express the glory of the One who’s image Adam bears. Of course, he fails; Satan comes under the guise of the created order, a serpent, and instead subdues Adam. Creation rebels against man with thorns (Genesis 3:18). Humankind responded in kind by sharpening creation into a javelin to pierce the side of Christ, rather than a crown to be laid at His feet (John 19:34). Sin turns the cultural mandate into a declaration of war.

Rod Dreher, an Easter Orthodox writer, recently offered this helpful insight on the persuasive power of the arts:

“In this day and age, the best apologetics for the Christian faith are not arguments, but the beauty that comes through the art the church makes and goodness as it comes through the lives of the saints.”

To be clear, I don’t think that art absolves us of the responsibility of making a case for the Gospel. Nor do I believe that art exists exclusively, or even primarily, as an apologetic bludgeoning tool. Instead, I think Dreher reminds us that the arts have a profound role to play in demonstrating the power of the Gospel to stir the human soul towards glory. Roman Catholic author, Barbara Nicolosi experienced this on a trip to the Vatican; standing amidst the towering structures of Roman cathedrals her friend blurted out: “I am never going to argue with anyone else about Christianity ’til they’ve been here.” Nicolosi goes on to explain, “There was something about the beauty of the place that, for her, was proof that humanity and God were everything the church said that they were.”

It is no small thing that the first case in Scripture of a man filled with the Spirit was the craftsman and artist who set his hands to the work of fashioning and adorning the tabernacle (Exodus 31). And it is no small thing that in salvation we receive the same Holy Spirit in fullness; the Comforter who refashions our hearts and affections into the image of Jesus. Though the world remains under the curse, those who are being made over into the image of the second Adam must fulfill the call of God to humanity: multiply, subdue, cultivate. It means taking the created order and once more fashioning from it objects which both frame and bear witness to the glorious, saving work of the Triune God. The production of art is not a secondary task to be carried on in the basement of a church: it is part of reclaiming in Christ what we lost in the fall.

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