This post draws heavily on Calvin Seerveld’s wonderful essay, ‘The Biblical Charter for Artistic Activity,’ Rainbows For the Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task (Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), 20-41. (If all theological essays were as good as this one then theology would be a lot more fun!) Seerveld teaches philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada, and has been influential in shaping a Reformational approach to the arts.
Humanity, says Calvin Seerveld, is ‘covenanted to cultural response’ (23):
When God finished creation (and it was a good job) , it seems that everything was still open to further development … He made a special business of taking man and setting him in the garden to cultivate it, farm it, take care of it, protect it against enemies, build it up, win its possible fruits (Genesis 2:15). So from the very beginning it was a natural, serious, unfinished matter in man’s hands, this ‘culturing’ of the earth … Culture is not optional. Formative culturing of creation is intrinsic to human nature, put there purposely – God knows why. Adam immediately got busy, and upon studying the animals to give them their names … In other words to fight cultural amplification of creation is to be disobedient to the will of the Lord revealed in the Scriptures. (23-24)
Seerveld emphasises artistic endeavour as work and craftsmanship. Artists often want to see themselves as a special case – unlike other people. Seerveld sees as a legitimate vocation for Christians, but not a specific vocation somehow distinct from other vocations.
Art is one way for men and women to respond to the Lord’s command to cultivate the earth, to praise his Name. Art is neither more nor less than that. Art, christianly conceived, is not something esoteric. Art is no more special (nor less special) than marriage and prayer and fresh strawberries out of season. Like acrobatics and careful thought and running a business well, artistry takes training. It is more difficult than falling off a log. To sing with modulated tones, controlled breathing, and fine phrasing, or to take shop-worn words and cast them into the necklace of a sonnet form and make them fresh again, or to walk across a stage and slump on the ground in such a way that every eye is struck by the despair cursing the person: all that takes special gifts and knowledge of execution. But art is not, therefore, suddenly mysterious or supernatural. (25)
Creation gives art its mandate. But culture is also corrupted by sin. ‘Today the direction of art untouched by the reforming light of Psalm 104 wavers between superficial amusement (robbed of its ‘logical service’), bootless, polished technique (a would-be noncommittal routine) often in the service of making money, and an evil, psychedelic regression, casting helplessly about for the original hallelujah fabric of art.’ (30) ‘Our highly developed, mass-communicating civilization’ presents particularly challenges to Christian artists to avoid a commercialised art that trade integrity for Mammon.
Redemption and consummation
Christ reconciles all things through his redeeming work. God is in the business of bringing all things together under one head, Christ. So art is to be reclaimed in Christ’s name and brought under his lordship. Creation gives us a mandate for cultural activity; redemption gives us a mandate for cultural renewal.
If older Christians do not like the secular novels their young people read, cannot stand the songs and films mass-produced to capture and twist the imagination of millions around us, are nonplussed by the godless contemporary art, what can they expect if no redemptive, imaginatively rich alternative has been engaged in by Christ’s body for sustained years of work; what can they expect if it hasn’t even started? (35)
We may not be content with believers of native talent who paint pastoral scenes with amateur craftsmanship to cover the wall-papered spot behind the sofa. Art is even more devastatingly serious than decor. We may also not be content with rustic scenes and picturesque landscapes. The devil will easily let us Christians have a few nostalgic meadows: he is scrounging for the hearts of men and women in North America, including the youth of the church, especially in the city life of technology where the centres of human cultural power and mass communication media are. Where the cultural action is, its most current marketplace, that is the very place where the Holy Spirit must be called into forceful play. That is where young Christian artists must be encouraged in the name of the Lord to pour their talents, bending steel, composing melodies that fill the air waves, filming the complexities of our tensed, hidden lives, using the grit of sand and glass and pigment in compositions to expose the meaningless waste of sin around us and to show the life of exciting joy present in our modern world when the law of the Lord is obeyed. (35-36)
At the end of the story the culture of the nations is brought into the new Jerusalem.
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:23-27)