Saturday, January 12, 2013

Biblical Directions for Art and Pleasure

Ever since Adam was created, man has had to deal with his earthly surroundings. God created man as one to subdue and interact with the world around him, and this interaction was at first perfectly righteous. Since man’s fall into sin, his relations to the world around him have been corrupted. As the Christian experiences Christ’s renewing power, he is forced to consider in what a right relation to this world consists. Especially difficult in Christian history has been our relation to those things that are not necessary for existence variously known as pleasure, art, decor, entertainment, and civilized culture. Even in the days of the Apostles there was conflict over ascetic practices of abstinence (1 Tim. 4:3, Rom. 14). Many extremes can be found in history from Christians who were very strict in prohibition of entertainments, to Christians who were very indulgent in all sorts of excess, although the former has tended to be more common. As we look at what the Bible says concerning earthly pleasures, we will find that it directs us in finding godly enjoyment in them.

Perhaps the most obvious direction we have concerning these pleasures is that they must be used with faith in Christ. Speaking of eating food, Paul teaches, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Without faith in God, our pleasure will be idolatry. We will look to something else as the provider of blessing. We might look at the pleasure itself as the object of our faith. Without faith in God, the blessings that God sends will actually only increase our accountability and judgement. God is the one from whom all blessings flow, and to deny this is to deny His deity. On the other hand, when we have faith in God, our enjoyment becomes a way to praise and worship Him. These blessings then are truly blessings, for our good, because they build up our enjoyment of our relationship with God. With faith in God’s power and goodness through Christ even the littlest pleasure is recognized as a gracious gift from our Father.

Similar to faith, joy is another aspect of what should be our relation to pleasure. When we receive something good and reject it as “earthly vanity,” or as a mere temptation, we are being ungrateful for what God has made for us. Paul harshly condemns this attitude of abstinence, saying, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). It is not the pleasure (marriage and food, in this case) that is evil, but the way we might use it. When we receive it with thanksgiving, praising God in prayer and using it according to His word, it is not only not evil, but good and holy. Paul also got upset at the Roman Christians who were dividing themselves by disputes over food. Food is supposed to increase, not decrease, faith, love, and joy. The food (or similar pleasure) is not an end it itself. The “kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Many people do become absorbed in the pleasures themselves so as to lose sight of God the giver. As John Calvin colorfully describes, “many are so delighted with marble, gold, and pictures, that they become marble-hearted—are changed as it were into metal, and made like painted figures” (471). Instead, “the object of creating all things was to teach us to know their author, and feel grateful for his indulgence” (470-471). When we eat, drink, dance, and sing with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, our enjoyments are actually expressions of the kingdom of God.

One of the blessings that God gives, to be received in faith and joy, is beauty. Beauty comes from God; it is an aspect of His glory. To seek the source of beauty somewhere else (e.g. in ourselves or the creation) is a form of idolatry. God proclaimed that He would take away and defile Tyre’s beauty because the king of Tyre had set himself up as god, saying, “I am perfect in beauty” (Ezek. 27:3, 28:6-7). On the other hand, God gives beauty to His people. God gave extraordinary physical beauty to Job’s daughters as a blessing (Job 42:15). He describes His salvation in terms of beautification, as in Isaiah 28:5, 62:3. He promises that the beauty and glory of the nations shall come “to beautify the place of my sanctuary” (Is. 60:13, also Rev. 21:24, 26). God’s beauty is all around us in His creation and, as we have said, to ignore it would be wicked ungratefulness (Ps. 19:1, Rom. 1:20). As the heirs of the world (Rom. 4:13, Gal 3:29) we are to rejoice at the beauty that God has made, claiming it as His sons.

Not only do we receive beauty, but we also imitate God in making beauty ourselves. Adam and Eve were created perfectly in God’s image, reflecting Him by taking dominion of the earth in ordering and, among other things, beautifying it. The creation was good already, but it was not developed and needed to be brought into its potential. Since man’s fall, both we and the creation have been negatively influenced by sin. As we are now being renewed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29, Col. 3:10) we must once again learn to obey God by imitating our Creator (albeit imperfectly) by beautifying the world, engaging both the work of dominion as well as the additional work of reversing the ugly effects of the curse.

As Zechariah 9:16-17 says, we are made beautiful because our Savior is great in beauty. We engage in this pursuit of beauty by reflecting the source of beauty, God. I would suggest we define beauty as that which is the earthly reflection of God's nature. As R.C. Sproul Sr. has said, "God is the ultimate standard of beauty, just as He is the ultimate standard of truth. Works of art that somehow reflect His nature are more beautiful than works that do not" (60). There are several aspects of this. For example, order as well as zeal are attributes of God (1 Cor. 14:33, Is. 42:13) and both add beauty, especially when entwined together. Our Triune God is both one and three, bringing aspects of unity and diversity in perfect harmony. God is also ethically pure, and true beauty will reflect this. Since God’s beauty is revealed in His creation, we can study patterns and values in creation, recognizing that we are to take these primitive elements of nature and develop them. It is in this rewarding pursuit of beauty that much of art consists. When we are engaging in painting, music, dance, and poetry we are taking color, sound, bodies, and words and subduing them to God’s beauty. Art, then, is to be God-centered.

Another important direction given to us concerning enjoyment is that it should be relational. The Bible doesn’t really talk much about “me time.” There are times when a person is away from other humans but only to be more focused on God (e.g. Matt. 14:22-23). As we have already mentioned, our enjoyments are always to be done in relation to God in faith, joy, and thanksgiving. To enjoy things purely by one’s self is selfishness. Moreover, the Bible places a high priority on enjoying God’s gifts in community with other people. In the Old Testament thanksgiving feast of the tithe it was important that the intense celebration be done by “you and your household,” incorporating into the household celebration the Levite, widow, orphan, and stranger (Deut. 14:26, 15:20, 26:11). Jeremiah proclaims that the prosperity that God’s salvation brings shall include the dancing of the young and old, men and women, all together (Jer. 31:13). In the parable of the prodigal son, the celebration described, which included feasting, dancing, music, and rich attire, was done in community, celebrating the love of the father for his son (Luke 15:22-32). The Philippian jailer and his household rejoiced together that he had believed in God (Acts 16:34). Hospitality and the sharing of our blessings with others are encouraged and commanded in many places in Scripture (Heb. 13:2, Rom. 12:13). The list could go on and on, including every section of the Bible.

This community in which we enjoy God’s blessings and create beautiful culture is a complex thing. The basic social unit seems to be the family, or more properly, the household. This is the group of people, tied by the natural ties of blood and time, and more importantly, under the protection of the marriage covenant with strict commands to obey father and mother. Death is the punishment in biblical law for the undermining of the family, i.e. adultery or incorrigible rebellion (Lev. 20:9-10, Matt. 15:4). It is to this unit, under the headship of the husband, that the dominion mandate was primarily given (Gen. 1:26-28). The household is in a manner saved as a unit (Acts. 16:31) and covenantally unified in its aim to glorify God (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39). It is here, in (what should be) the strongest of relationships, that culture and pleasure is primarily enjoyed and developed. It is in the family in which you have the elements of the rest of society: male and female, young and old, with differing gifts. Thus, a culture that is operating biblically will have distinct ethnic, folk, and traditional elements.

Included in the family, and beyond, are the elements of personal community and generational continuity. While the family is basic, it ought not be ingrown. These principles express themselves in the local community in which the family lives, creating nations and their cultures. Both the culture and the medium in which it is conveyed is important, and they actually influence each other. In fact, in today’s situation, “the forms of our popular culture may well have a more significant effect on our perceptions than the content” (Myers, 16). In modern society, culture and its popular forms have been uprooted from the family and become individualistic, impersonal, and revolutionary. As Christians, not only must our motive and standard of enjoyment be right (i.e. thanksgiving and God-defined beauty) but also the situation of our enjoyment. Our enjoyment becomes richer when it is shared by a community, transcending the individual, where each can contribute his/her gifts. It becomes more excellent when it is shaped and built upon by the generations, transcending the moment, where each generation adds more experience and perspective to our enjoyment. And the interaction of people, when done in Christ, is itself something to celebrate. “Like feasts and holidays, celebration in lovemaking is about remembering. It is a love of history, a couple’s history of good times, of positive personal knowledge shared by no others, of refuge from a crazy world” (Jones, 86-87).

While there is much more that could be said concerning our enjoyments, we can see that the Bible does give us good, and comprehensive, directions. Our motivation must be faith in Christ and joy for what God has given us. We must measure our (puny) achievements not only by their usefulness, but by the beauty and glory of our God, submitting our work to His nature. Our medium of pleasure and enjoyment must be rooted in the family and community, sharing God’s gifts and our work with one another. As we have mentioned, this godly culture should not be ingrown, but should grow into our communities and nations. Discipling the nations is our “Great Commission” and includes the art and culture of the nations. The Christian family disciples the nations by its dominion work in its vocation and cultural relations to its neighbors. The Church as an institution also changes culture. Through the preaching of its pastors, a Christian culture is indirectly founded when men are made new creatures in Christ (Van Til, 225). The Scripture which the Church teaches equips us for “every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). While the exact application is usually left to the families in their vocations, the families of the earth are coming to the Church, the New Jerusalem, to learn the ways of God and to learn to walk in its light (Is. 2:3, Rev. 21:24). May we show the world a culture of delight and hope amid its gloom of death. May we learn to exalt in the goodness of our God who causes

“the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man's heart.”
(Ps. 104:14-15)

Works Cited List:
Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.
Jones, Douglas and Douglas Wilson Angels in the Architecture. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1998.
Myers, Kenneth A. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989.
Sproul Sr., R.C. Tabletalk 36.9, Sep. 2012: 60
The Holy Bible (ESV). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.
Van Til, Henry R. The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

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