Because of sin, the arts sometimes do not serve to glorify but to debase. Sinful men make their environments ugly, and create ugly art to “enhance” their ugly words. But since all men are still God’s images, no men are able to live with such ugliness all the time. Thus, even in the most debased of human cultures, there is still some beauty.
Also, in view of the sinful and fallen condition of the world, artists who are committed to glory and beauty will sometimes used debased techniques to portray ugliness, in order to reveal some aspect of the human condition.
All of this is to say that when we analyze a piece of art, we must look not only at the content (the “word dimension”) but also at the artistic element. A novel, painting, or piece of music is not to be analyzed as good or evil when it comes to its artistry, but should be analyzed as excellent or poor in terms of its glory. The word-aspect of a piece of art may be good or evil; but the glory-aspect is either excellent or poor. There is no such thing as an evil rhythm, an evil chord progression, an evil smell, or an evil color scheme; but there are certainly poor rhythms, chord progressions, smells, and color schemes.
Realizing this enables us to see why Christians can and should enjoy works of art produced by unbelievers, even when the unbelievers have an evil intention. Unbelievers are still made in God’s image, and in a Christian society they also have the benefit of the social discipline of the gospel under the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ. Thus, an unbeliever with evil intentions, like Wagner, can produce beautiful music that Christians can and should enjoy.
In the Church, the symbolism of architecture focuses on the word-aspect (the table, pulpit, throne, and font) by placing these in the center, but the overall design of the building is also important as a way of enhancing the place of worship. Similarly, vocal music glorifies the words of Scripture, while instrumental music enhances the environment.
When we consider the arts, we must consider not only the words associated with a particular artistic object, custom, or experience, but also the glory and beauty connected with it. Both content and glory are important to God, and both should be important to us as well.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This piece originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.