Covenantal Art

Bojidar Marinov

Podcast: Axe to the Root
Topics: ,

Art must take the world as interpreted by God and represent it in a form that emphasizes either beauty or ugliness, and re-interpret them ethically/judicially after God’s interpretation of them.

Assigned Reading:
From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun


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Welcome to Episode 49 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes I will talk on a topic that I know only theoretically: art, artistic expression, beauty, harmony, etc. I said I know only theoretically, because, I must admit, I am not gifted to be a producer of beauty and harmony in any area whatsoever. But art always has two sides: that of the artists and that of the “connoisseurs,” the people who, in a sense, “consume” art, or are on the receiving side of it. So I am on that side. I am an avid consumer of all kinds of art, from visual arts to music and literature. And I can say that to some extent, I can tell the difference between art and a sloppy imitation of art; you can call me an educated amateur consumer of art. Or something. Now, I don’t think everyone should be a consumer of art; the snobbishness of those who pride in being fine connoisseurs of art is just another version of pridefulness which I don’t share. (Well, to be honest, I did share for a certain period of my life, but it’s over, I hope.) I can certainly tell the difference between a Rubens and a Rembrandt, I never make the mistake of using the term Classical music for Baroque or for Romantic music, I can recite by heart Shakespeare and Alfred de Musset, but I don’t make much of it. Technical details don’t matter in a covenantal frame.

Scripture, however, gives a very special place to art. Not to a specific style or fad of art, not to specific forms of expression or specific rules of harmony. Some specific forms or styles may be found in Scripture under certain interpretations, but even if found, they are not given any covenantal significance over other forms or styles. But art in general is clearly depicted to be part of the Dominion Covenant, of that mandate God gave man in the beginning to take dominion over the earth and transform it to God’s glory.

The first mention of art and craftsmanship is in the early chapters of Genesis, a natural consequence of the Dominion Mandate. It is interesting, however, that such mention is made in the family line of Cain, not of Adam’s righteous son, Seth. Genesis 4:20-22 says this: “Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. As for Zillah, she also gave birth to Tubal-cain, the forger of all implements of bronze and iron; and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.” Adah and Zillah were the wives of Lamech, the first man to openly brag about committing a murder, so Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain were his sons. All these were descendants of Cain, and therefore were legally excluded from mankind, from the family of man in Genesis 4:11-12. Notice that the descendants of Cain are first listed, but then the next chapter immediately starts with “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” The chapter then continues only with the descendants of Seth, and in verse 3 explains why: “When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.” The theology behind this remark which mirrors the language of Genesis 1:26 is an issue for another episode, the question here, however is, “Why are art and metallurgy mentioned in relation to the sons of Cain, even though they were legally excluded from the family of man?” Why weren’t they mentioned in relation to the redeemed family of Adam, the descendants of Seth?

I am not sure about the exact interpretation of these verses, but my best guess would be that God’s purpose was to show that art (as well as crafts, as well as metallurgy and other productive activities) can, for a time, exist outside a covenantal frame. Unbelievers, even as wicked as the sons of Cain, can produce beauty and harmony. The act of productivity itself or the beauty itself does not make up for unfaithfulness of the covenant. In the final account, beauty can exist outside the covenant of redemption, but it must serve the covenant of redemption. It must only exist in a covenantal, that is, ethical/judicial frame.

Beauty, of course, is very difficult to define. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is an established truism, and indeed, people do have different tastes . . . supposedly. But then, on the other hand, we all seem to know when we see something beautiful, or something ugly. Some girls are sought after more than other girls, and that’s not because boys are smart enough to be attracted to the girls’ moral character. There seem to be differences, and yet, there seem to be certain shared tastes among all the people. And yet, we are still not capable of giving a rational, academic definition of beauty. Or of harmony. But art is all about beauty and harmony, and about their impact on the human senses. An artist may claim to not care about other people’s perception of his own art, he may claim to do art for the sake of art, to be driven by motives far above the approval of the crowd, and yet, at the end of the day, he wants to see his work displayed in an art gallery and admired by other people. That is, every artist expects that there is some sort of objective reality which makes people have the same appreciation for beauty (or ugliness) as he does. We all do. And yet, we can’t define beauty objectively. Historically, a number of art schools and academic groups have tried to produce an objective definition of beauty in terms of rules and relations of harmony, and yet, the moment they did it, new forms of beauty and harmony have appeared which disobey the old rules, and yet are perceived by the senses as beauty.

How do we solve this obvious contradiction that art – or perception of beauty and harmony – is both subjective and objective?

The solution is found in the Word of God, and that is, that art is a direct inspiration and revelation by the Holy Spirit. The New Testament speaks much of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Old Testament has its stories of people filled with the Holy Spirit. Even Saul, a man who was not in any way in any intimate relationship with God, was filled with the Holy Spirit at least once in his life, in 1 Samuel 10:9-13. (Just as a side comment, so unusual was his religious zeal that all who knew him were amazed, “What happened to Saul? Is he also among the prophets?”) As much as the Bible speaks of being filled with the Holy Spirit, however, the first person mentioned to be filled with the Holy Spirit was an artist. In Exodus 31 God speaks to Moses about building the Tabernacle and tells him that He has supplied the man who will make all the designs:

See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship (Exodus 31:2-5).

But Bezalel is not unique. The next verse explicitly say that similar inspiration and revelation is put in the hearts of all who have skill:

And behold, I Myself have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill, that they may make all that I have commanded you. . . . (v. 6).

The key words here are the repetition of “skill”: “in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill.” The English translation of “skill” is harmonized with the context, of course, but in Hebrew the word translated “skill” is the plain common Hebrew word hakmah, that is, “wisdom.” The same “wisdom” which speaks in Proverbs 8, and the same “wisdom” whose beginning is the fear of God, according to Psalm 111:10. The verse sounds like this in Hebrew: “All the wise-hearted in whom I have put wisdom.” The men who have artistic skill are filled with the Spirit of God, and that artistic skill is nothing more than the same wisdom we all are supposed to have, just expressed in a different area of life. The same connection between wisdom, the spirit of God, and artistic abilities can be seen in Exodus 28:3: “You shall speak to all the skillful persons whom I have endowed with the spirit of wisdom. . . .” Again, “skillful” in Hebrew is “wise-hearted,” and the spirit of God is the source of that skill.

If art is supernatural inspiration given to specific people, this would explain both the subjective and the objective aspect of art. There are objective standards, obviously, because all art comes from the same Spirit. Of course, as everything else, spiritual inspiration can be twisted to serve evil purposes, or even twisted to subvert the very objective concept of beauty. But no matter how humans may try, the objective concept of beauty is still there, because it comes from the same Spirit. And yet, since the Spirit gives it as a direct inspiration and revelation to specific individuals, its specific expression remains ostensibly personal and subjective. And not only the expression but the perception as well: after all, the appreciation of art needs just as much of spiritual discernment as the production of art. Art does require what we call “intuition,” which is nothing less than supernatural, that is, spiritual understanding of reality that can’t be defined by rational standards. That doesn’t mean that an artist can’t be self-conscious in obeying rules and standards in his art, but that within the bounds of those rules and standards one needs supernatural inspiration to really produce works of beauty that appeal to the senses and the inner heart of other people.

To deviate shortly from our topic, this also explains why Christian art has deteriorated so sharply in the last one century compared to Christian art ofprevious centuries. If artistic abilities are direct inspiration and revelation by the Holy Spirit, just like Biblical wisdom, then any ideology that diminishes the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church will by necessity diminish the faith in His direct operation in inspiration and revelation to individual believers. Less inspiration and less revelation will lead to less artistic ability, and to fewer people having artistic talents. In the last 100 years, we have had such ideology: cessationism, the belief that the Holy Spirit has ceased being involved directly in the life of the Church through the manifestation of His spiritual gifts, described in the New Testament. One of the fruits of that ideology – among many others – has been the disappearance of talent and the dominance of mediocrity. Churches – especially the Reformed churches – have been strictly rationalistic in their worldview; and rationalism can’t produce artistic talent. I have read a number of articles and book that complain about the decline of arts and literature in our day; but the critics seldom follow through with finding the source of the problem, namely, the decline of the belief in the real presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. When the Holy Spirit is reduced to church activities regulated by a churchian elite, His inspiration disappears. And therefore art disappears too. Next time some pastor of theologian complains about the decline of arts, remind him that he is part of the problem by teaching and preaching the doctrine of Enlightenment rationalism, also known as cessationism.

Returning to Bezalel and Oholiab, their direct appointment tells us not only that artistic abilities are a direct work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men, it also reveals to us the ultimate purpose of covenantal art.

The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was not designed to be a system of occult atonement. There was nothing in the ceremonies and in the blood of the sacrifices that would satisfy God. This was a common knowledge among both Jews and Gentiles, for Stephen told his persecutors that “God doesn’t dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48) and Paul told the Athenians the same, adding that “God is not served by human hands” (Acts 17:24-25). There was no spiritual reality in the OT ceremonies, for Paul says in Col. 2:17 that they were only shadows, while the body – that is, the reality – is Christ. Heb. 10:1 speaks of the Law – the sacrifices of the Law, in context – as only the shadow of the good things to come, not the form of things. In fact, the whole epistle to the Hebrews is a theological treatise on the difference between the shadows of the Law and the light of the coming of Christ. We will talk in a future episode about this division in the Law between shadow and light, but for our purposes here, what is important to understand is that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not a system of religious service to God. God, in fact, destroyed the Temple and the services in it for a while, and yet the Hebrew nation continued being the Hebrew nation, and all the covenantal obligations continued to be in force even without the Temple and the sacrifices. Even under the Old Covenant, a person and a nation could be in covenant with God without the ceremonies.

The purpose of the system was evangelism and teaching. The Temple and the ceremonies in it were the Old Covenant equivalent of modern street preaching and evangelism crusades and missionary outreach. There was nothing magical in the ceremonies; God simply used them to teach both Israel and the nations about His world and His redemption. And thus, the purpose of the artistic skills God, through His Spirit, put in Bezalel and his co-workers, was evangelism and teaching.

It started, of course, with an appeal to the senses – beauty and harmony. The Ark and the Tabernacle combined a number of materials which gave the appearance of beauty and majesty – gold, acacia wood, linen and goat hair, different colors (color was an expensive luxury at the time, especially purple), etc. There were special measurements that were meant to give the appearance of harmony as well: and the measurements were given not only for the Tabernacle as a whole but for every single item in it, including the tables and the laver and the lampstand, etc. We today sometimes criticize appeal to the senses when we see it – cause it doesn’t look “spiritual” to our rationalistic minds – but the Bible clearly endorses it as something good and useful; provided, of course, it is used in a covenantal way. The Tabernacle was meant to be a feast for the eyes of any beholder, and the Temple built later by Solomon even more so. Beauty and harmony were a necessary part of Israel’s place as God’s priest to the nations. In other places in the Bible we see the same: the appeal to the senses is perfectly legitimate. For example, throughout the Song of Solomon, female beauty is extolled a number of times. Deut. 21:11 also acknowledges the legitimacy the appeal of female beauty to the senses, and regulates it to prevent injustice. Beauty is good and lawful, art is good and spiritual. It all needs to be regulated by the law of God. It must be subject to a higher covenantal principle.

At times, that higher covenantal principle, of course, requires that beauty is diminished or ignored, and God even uses ugliness – a negative appeal to the senses – to teach His lessons. The ultimate example of it is Jesus Himself. While our modern illustrators and historic painters of icons have been tripping over each other to depict Him as a fairly handsome man, we know from the Biblical record that He was quite inconspicuous when among other people; we also know from Isaiah 53:2 that in His earthly image, Jesus had no majesty to look upon, and no beauty for others to be attracted to Him. At times in the Bible, we see plain ugliness in literary expression, again, with the purpose of conveying higher truths. Thus, beauty, and art, while important, are not necessary in themselves. They are only to be used in service of the covenant. The appeal to the senses can’t have an independent existence. It must have an ethical/judicial purpose.

When we come to that ethical/judicial purpose, however, too often it is understood as an artistic version of an altar call: a bland, simplistic repetition of a few moralistic cliches, plus a call to praying the sinner’s prayer and “accepting Jesus in your heart.” Our modern songs are such repetition of cliches, to the point where they are simply unbearable to even listen to, let alone sing, in the church or outside the church. A few Christian movies I have seen in the last 20 years are just as unbearable: again, cliched, bland, preachy, and at times straight out patronizing the viewers. Visual arts, of course, are almost non-existent today among Christians; where Christians undertake them, the result is again tasteless and simplistic. We are today devoid of the ability to represent beauty, but even worse, we are devoid of the spirit of art and beauty in all we do, whether visual, performing, or literary arts.

The reason for this mediocrity is that our modern Christianity has abandoned the comprehensive worldview of the Christian faith. The world is left to the enemy, and Christian endeavor in it is restricted to “preaching the gospel,” which means not really preaching the Gospel but repeating a few intellectual propositions about personal salvation. I have talked about this truncating the Christian message in other episodes and articles; what is important to realize here is that one of the reasons for the mediocrity of Christian art these days is that art is supposed to be a representation of a world and a worldview, and Christian today have no world nor worldview to represent. Christian art can’t be greater than the gospel it serves; thus, a truncated “gospel” will by default produce a mediocre and truncated art. Even where we have talented artists, their product will inevitably be bland and simplistic. Your worldview determines the art you produce.

Covenantal art in the Bible, and specifically in the Old Covenant, included all of life. The Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were representative not simply of God’s salvation; they were supposed to be a microcosm of the larger cosmos. A person who looked at the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system and the objects in the Tabernacle and the ceremonial activities of the priests saw not only salvation; he saw the history of the human race from the Creation to Christ. He saw the age-old struggles of the human race; he saw the futility of human efforts; he saw the promise and the hope of God’s intervention; and he also saw God’s justice and the bright future of the redeemed mankind. In the Song of Solomon, a love story is presented without one single line of moralism or preachiness; just straight love poetry. But that poetry again is so interwoven with the comprehensive worldview of the covenant that we can see Christ and the Church in it even as we are enjoying the beauty of the words.

Covenantal art, therefore, must not simply issue a call to repentance or conversion. For such a simple call there is no need for art. Art must take the world as interpreted by God and represent it in a form that emphasizes either beauty or ugliness, and re-interpret them ethically/judicially after God’s interpretation of them. It must presuppose an absolute source of ethics; or present the picture of a world without such a source. It must depict and describe the real man in his fallen state, his struggles and failures and insecurities and fear; or it must present the redeemed man in his victories. It must explore and exploit to the utmost the central topic of our created world, namely, self-sacrifice for a higher purpose. (That’s what made Rogue One, for example, such a good movie: That principle of self-sacrifice never fails to produce good art, does it?) It must take present reality, past reality, and even imaginary reality (think The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars) and create a world out of it. Not necessarily a world of the same religious or churchian slang of today. It may be even a world using the vocabulary of the enemy, and yet, subjecting it to a Biblical worldview. (Think of the wizards in The Lord of the Rings). Its music must appeal to the senses, and through them lead the mind and heart discern between good and evil. Etc, etc. The list of legitimate horizons that covenantal art can reach is as great so the world God has created. The limit is only in the ethical/judicial interpretation of reality; what that reality is – modern, historical, futuristic, imaginary, fantasy, poetic, even ugly (think Solzhenitsyn) – doesn’t matter. The legalistic moralism against certain types of artistic reality is stupid; no Christian has ever tried wizardry because of Gandalf the Grey.

I recently had the chance to listen to several songs by a modern Christian popular music group. Not commenting on the quality of the music, the lyrics left in me the impression that what they were trying to do was to give exactly the same simplistic altar call under several different tunes. (And how different they were I don’t want to discuss.) After listening to the songs, my conclusion was that there was more Biblical worldview in some songs of the hippie generation of the 1970s (think, for example, Dust in the Wind by Kansas or Blinded by Science by Foreigner), than in all of these supposedly Christian songs. The hippies, apparently, for all their resistance to Christianity, had a much larger world in view, and, exploring their much larger world, inevitably had to discover and agree with certain Biblical truths, which they then included in their songs. The majority of modern Christian artists, having a truncated gospel and a small world to draw on, end up having no covenantal truths to convey. Having no covenantal truths to convey is the surest road to mediocrity, even if you are the most talented person on the planet.

Much more can be said on this issue if I had the time, and we will expand on art in a future episode. For now, the assigned reading for this week will be a book by the French author Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun was born in France but spent the last years of his life in Texas; and he lived to be 105 years old. The book is an enormous essay on the rise and decay of European art for the last 500 years. While Barzun had no explicit covenantal worldview, he nevertheless grasped quite a few of the ethical/judicial issues related to art, and related to its decline. It’s a fat book, but worth your time.

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