Art as a Theological Text: 3 Approaches
Is it possible to read a work of art (whether it be a painting, a song, a dance, a comic book, etc.) as a theological text? What is meant here by “theological text”? And how, exactly, does one “read” a work of art? These are important and complex questions that cannot be fully answered in a short blog post like this one. What I propose to do is briefly sketch three approaches that some have taken to these questions. These approaches do not appear to be mutually exclusive, but making these distinctions may help Christians be more thoughtful about how they reflect theologically on works of art. I welcome your thoughtful consideration.
- Art as Knowledge: The first approach emphasizes that works of art communicate cognitive theological content. Jeremy Begbie, for example, draws on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi and argues that works of art are, primarily, metaphor. He writes, “A metaphor seems to add something to our understanding which cannot be wholly accounted for in literal terms.” He points out that metaphor can actually be a “means through which our language is rendered more faithful to reality.”Another example of this approach would clearly be the popular Christian use of worldview analysis. One potential pitfall of this view is that it might assume a Romantic theory of creativity that is merely a reversal of the artist who expresses his or her own feelings.
- Art as Desire: This approach emphasizes the role of the work of art in worship as it reorients the worshipper’s desire towards God. Some choose to focus on the way that works of art are bound up with the desires of the artist. Dan Siedell, for example, argues that “altars to the unknown god are strewn about the historical landscape of modern and contemporary art.” All art making is an act of worship, but it may not be worship properly directed. Similarly, William Dyrness argues that “art that is serious always hungers to be a part of something larger.” Others might choose to emphasize the way in which art (perhaps through beauty) elicits desire from viewers and listeners. Another aspect of this approach is an emphasis on sacrament: art’s capacity to manifest or communicate God’s presence. Richard Viladesau, for example, argues that art “is a symbol that refers us … to the unique source of grace.” He points out that art’s “only power is aesthetic and symbolic, and this power depends upon the spiritual engagement of the viewer.” Important questions to ask here might be: “If art can reorient our desires, does it also carry the potential to manipulate?” and “How does this approach deal with works of art that are ugly, tragic or horrific?”
- Art as Tradition: More than the other two approaches, this one emphasizes the role of art in humanity’s historical relationship with God. Some may take the view that art is not an essential component of being human, but is, in fact, an aspect of human culture that occurs after the fall and that will be transcended in the restoration of paradise.Others understand art in terms of God’s gracious choice to accommodate himself to the limitations of human thought and action. Depending on one’s view of tradition, one may wish to see art as participating in God’s developing revelation to humanity. For example, David Brown argues that the strength of the Christian artistic tradition is “its capacity to transmit the biblical story in ways which at times could speak more powerfully to contemporaries than the original deposit.” This approach tends to emphasize that works of art may not simply be illustrations of religious beliefs, but also “primary expressions of religious ideas.” Important considerations for this approach is how the Christian community relates to works of art ‘outside of’ its own tradition, and what criteria there might be for determining whether a work of art is revelatory.
 Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise, (London: T and T Clark, 1991), 238.
 Ibid, 239.
 Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010).
 Daniel A. Seidell, God in the Gallery, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 11.
 William Dyrness, Visual Faith, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 101.
 Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts, (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 160.