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Divine Command and Human Making—or, What Scripture Might Tell Us about a “Christian Understanding of the Arts”

November 10, 2010

Art is one of those things that Christians have had a hard time coming to terms with in light of the {lack of} attention given to it in Scripture. But while Jesus himself never explicitly advocates painting or poetry, Scripture is not totally devoid of justification for human artistry as some may think. What becomes apparent when one reads the Bible for long enough is that there is, in fact, attention to art spread throughout. Dance, music, sculpture, drama—they’re all there. But the biblical writers essentially take for granted that they are there; they’re just an obvious part of society as it functions.

In fact, we have to explore the underlying assumption about human making more generally in Scripture if we are going to understand what is involved in a “Christian understanding of the arts.” While the Exodus 31 narrative regarding tabernacle construction provides us with possibly the clearest reference to God’s approval of artistry, we can see that throughout the rest of Scripture as well, human making is portrayed as central—human action being linked with divine action. Not only is human participation and making allowed in God’s divine plan of creation, but it is also commanded. From the command in Genesis for Adam to cultivate and keep the garden, through the command for Noah to build an ark, to the command to make beautiful things for the tabernacle, God involves human making in his divine project. He creates the world and creatures in it, he re-establishes a society of holy people, and he comes to dwell on earth, but in all of these things, he invites the participation (which always includes an action of creative making) of humanity.

Furthermore, the points at which we see a disapproval of the arts and creative making are where there is no link with divine command—for instance, the building of the tower of Babel in Genesis and the golden calf incident in Exodus. God has not commanded these activities as part of his overarching divine scheme, and therefore meet divine disapproval.

So what are we to make of this connection between divine command and human making that I have so briefly sketched out? Does God have to command an artist directly to create something if they are going meet God’s approval? Of course not. We don’t have to read this connection so literally. We might ask ourselves, rather, what God was doing when he commanded these actions. In the garden, the intent seems to be the flourishing of his hospitable creation and spreading of his divine presence further into the world. In the tabernacle narratives, God wished to dwell among the people and be near them, an action that he desired to be brought about through the construction of a holy place, not the selfish making of a meaningless image. We might gather from these instances that human making more generally should coincide with God’s desire to make his presence known on earth, to foster human community, and to help his creation flourish. As Christians, it is important to understand that these things can be done in a number of ways. Christian art doesn’t require the artist to be explicit about such matters. But what it does require is attention to the most central and foundational of God’s commands to participate in the divine scheme of creation—to cultivate, care and create in order to bring about divine-human relationship.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna permalink
    November 10, 2010 12:25 pm

    Jenn, i feel like i need to ask this, as it seems to be a counterpoint to your argument, how do you reconcile what you are saying about the arts as being an inherent part of humanity and society in the context of scripture with the second commandment and making no graven image of God? Does this place limitations on us now as artists? did it in the context of Torah? how are we to think about human making and the potential for the art we create to become idols?

  2. Jim permalink*
    November 12, 2010 7:35 pm

    Thanks for this post. I have a couple of questions. First, I wonder if command is the right word for God’s ‘sanctioning’ of human making in the bible. It seems that command requires the response of obedience, and that the call to human making in the bible is more than mere obedience, but also a freedom to develop the world in new and interesting ways (of course, this brings with it problems such as the golden calf and the tower of babel that are autonomous forms of human making). So I wonder if using the language of ‘blessing’ to describe God’s sanctioning of human making is better. Blessing, to me, suggests that God gives something to his creatures that is to be developed and brought to fulfillment by them. Your thoughts?

    Also, is all human making art? So is God’s command or blessing directed to making in general or to art specifically in some ways? And are the similarities between the tabernacle and contemporary art enough to suggest that God also commands contemporary people to be artists (knowing that being an artist today means being involved in a specific, historically situated social institution)?

  3. Chris BEAL permalink
    November 14, 2010 10:22 pm

    Hi Jenn,

    Good article, but I would take issue with you saying that Jesus “never explicitly advocates painting or poetry.” He frequently quoted the psalms, which are high poetry. He knew the Song of Solomon: high poetry. He used very common poetic devices when he spoke in metaphorical parables that used symbols aplenty such as fig trees, mustard seeds, birds of the air, prodigal sons, lost sheep, etc. etc. etc. Jesus was a poet and used poetry to comunicate the Gospel.

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