Anyone can talk about world change—and what grand talk it is. Yet world change doesn’t always happen through moving and shaking. In fact, it often takes a subtler form, but one that is equally important. I’m talking about the arts. For the most influential creators of culture are, without a doubt, the most impactful changers of culture.
Throughout much of Western history, Christianity was at the center of cultural influence. Christ-centered composers, painters, architects, writers and thinkers set the course of culture, establishing the canon of what we consider the masterwork classics.
Yet not today. Christians are no longer associated with good art. In fact, we’ve retreated from the cultural conversation. We’ve relinquished the keys of the cultural kingdom. Just when our voice is needed more than ever, we’ve become marginal players on the stages of theater, literature, academia and the fine arts.
How can we regain centuries of lost influence? It starts with regaining a deeper understanding of the role of art in the Christian life. Our Christian witness is far more than a concept to be taught and understood. It is a life to be lived, practiced and embodied. More than a beautiful idea, it’s about habits of seeing, creating and being in the world.
The arts can be a profound and lasting way for Christians to better understand and live out their faith, as well as manifest its theological concepts to the world. The arts excel at making sense of the big, messy, incomprehensible world we live in. Likewise, they can serve as channels for a culture to explore and encounter the intricacies and nuances of Christian theology.
This is not to say we have to declare in our art, poetry, photography or film something overtly theological. We need only create in a way that is true to our identity as children of a God who is himself Creator. God created a world he said was “good” but which now groans for a restoration to that old goodness that has fallen away as a result of sin, as Paul writes in Romans 8.
Christian art serves its theological purpose when it embodies this in-between state — between an Edenic, unblemished creation on one side and a restored, new creation on the other. We live between two perfections, and yet in our imperfect landscape there are glimpses of beauty. Art gives us a window into what was, and what is to come. And we ourselves can become the mirrors reflecting Christ’s Kingdom in this now-and-not-yet place.
So much of life is about waiting, and art excels at capturing this.
Christ died on a Friday, a dark and painful day in human history. He rose again on Easter — a Sunday that ushered in the new creation. But then there was Saturday — the long, arduous, painful day of waiting.
Literary critic George Steiner once wrote, “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday, between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”
But it is precisely in this Saturday — this divine discontent, this limbo — that art finds a reason to exist. Art is at its best when it has tension, because it rings true in a now-and-not-yet world.
Music requires minor chords or dissonant themes before it can resolve. Films put roadblocks in the protagonist’s path to redemption. The play of light and dark in a painting, the jolting rhythms of a poem, the haunting absences of a photograph—it’s all about tension.
Often Christians have focused on the Sunday side of art — the art that seems to know only happiness and triumph. Or perhaps they have erred on the opposite extreme, creating Friday art that languishes in the bleak, hopeless places that have defined so much of secular contemporary art.
As Christian artists familiar with frailty and longing but also renewal and hope, I believe Saturday art is our most theologically appropriate calling. Christians, of all artists, should be the most well-equipped to create beautiful things in this liminal space. Of all culture-makers, Christians should be the most aware of sin-sick brokenness but also the redemptive horizon of hope that is resurrection. And we, of all people, should be inspired to create in this Saturday space wherein we glorify our creator and connect with each other. Our collective awareness of unresolved longings and tension is a point of connection with a hurting world that we should not squander.
That’s one of the reasons why Biola University launched this month our “Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts.” With our close proximity to Los Angeles — arguably the creative capital of the world — we at Biola believe it is imperative we engage the culture-making of today. It’s time Christians recover our historic commitment to excellence and innovation in the arts. It’s time we re-earn a place at the center, rather than on the margins, of aesthetic influence and culture-making.