Art Needs No Justification. Chapter Two. Hans Rookmaaker

Chapter Two

If as I have said our world began to change in the eighteenth century as its inner direction was set on a humanistic track, where mankind is the master, and pleasure (through money) and power are the ultimate values, where were the Christians? They were not few in number. Some people even call that same period one of great revival. The mainstream of Christianity turned to a kind of pietism in which the idea of the covenant, as preached in the books of Moses and throughout the whole of Scripture, was bypassed. The Old Testament was often neglected, and the meaning of the Christian life was narrowed to that of the devotional life alone. Too easily, large areas of human reality, such as philosophy, science, the arts, economics and politics were handed over to the world, as Christians concentrated mainly on pious activities.
If the world’s system was a secularized one, missing true spirituality, the Christian’s attitude also became a reduced one, missing its foundation in reality, being uninterested in the created world. It sometimes became a ghostlike spirituality without a body. Christians have indeed been active. But they have often optimistically believed that it was enough to preach the gospel and to help in a charitable way. In concentrating on saving souls they have often forgotten that God is the God of life and that the Bible teaches people how to live, how to deal with our world, God’s creation. The result is that even though many people became Christians, nevertheless our world became totally secularized with almost no Christian influence. Our society’s drive is determined by the world and its values or lack of values.

Two Consequences of Retreat
If we say that to work as an artist is not spiritual enough and that art has no place in the Christian life, we are open to deep conflicts and contradictions. I know of a Bible school where they had organized a course on Christianity and culture. Question one was, What has Christianity to do with culture? As they were not able to answer this, the next question was, Why do we have this course?
But what happens when these students leave the school and begin their work, let’s say in evangelism, and start a campaign somewhere? There may be a big tent and a fine preacher. But what about the music that will be played before the preacher speaks? Or will there be no music? And if there is music, what kind of music will it be? Shouldn’t this be thought about? Or doesn’t that matter? Music is also communication. Suppose this communication spoke the opposite of what the fine speaker said? The same applies to the pamphlets being handed out, the posters being made. These should be well designed and in good taste; they are often the outsider’s first encounter with Christians. In a way they constitute our outward face and appearance. Just as people show who they are by their clothes and the way they move, so these things (music, posters – in one word, art) are the things that form our first and sometimes decisive communication.
If we have responsibility for the building of a church, should it just be bare? St. Bernard of Clairvaux wanted the monastic churches bare and simple; but the architecture was beautiful. People still go to these old monastery churches to look at the fine architecture. But if we are not that extreme and look for some appropriate decoration, a stained-glass window for instance, should we not look for a good artist? And who is going to play the organ? And what will the organist play? Very often we have created barriers against hearing the gospel because we preached that we care for people and that this world is God’s but did not act on those principles. Our lack of care showed that we were not really interested in people or in God’s creation. This is the first consequence in the church’s recent retreat from culture.
In contrast, from the Middle Ages through the time of the Reformation up to around 1800 when spiritualistic pietism began to drive beauty out of the church (as if one can have inward beauty without the outward signs of it), there may have been simplicity but always beauty in the things Christians did. That was not an artificially imposed process; it was just the natural way of doing things; art had not yet become Art. In fact, these things were so beautiful and good that people still go to look at them. The paintings of Rembrandt (from Christ on the Road to Emmaus to a still life), the fine churches, the crucifix, the music of Bach (church cantatas as well as the Brandenburg Concertos), the poems of John Donne, Handel’s Messiah and Water Music, indeed too much to be enumerated, all still testify in this secularized age that Christianity at least once did mean something. And these things often still communicate their message. Quite without realizing it, these people, the patrons, the artist and the Christians in those days, erected signs for another age that the Lord had done great things in the world. Today they are often the only witness of a Christian mentality in our public life. For that reason it is good that Christians work as art historians and museum staff, keeping alive the understanding of these old things, which point to the eternal Word of God.
This is not the place to discuss all facets of the Christian faith. But we ought to realize that a second consequence of the church’s retreat is a negative attitude in Christian circles toward culture (in a narrow sense) and the arts. We should remind ourselves that Christ did not come to make us Christians or to save our souls only but that he came to redeem us that we might be human in the full sense of that word. To be new people means that we can begin to act in our full, free, human capacity in all facets of our lives. Therefore to be a Christian means that one has humanity, the freedom to work in God’s creation and to use the talents God has given to each of us, to his glory and to the benefit of our neighbors. Therefore, if we have artistic talents, they should be used.
The Lord knows why he is giving these. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (12:12-27) speaks about the Christian community as the body of Christ. Each has his specific function therein. And not one can be left out. Certainly some play the music, draw the likenesses, photograph the movements and write the stories. These are the artists. They have their rightful place in the family of God. Again, the life of the body of Christ, and certainly a renewal, an awakening, is impossible without these members called by God to do their job.
As the body moves, works, thinks, speaks not for its own sake but called by God to be the salt of the earth, artists are not just servants of a Christian subculture but are called to work for the benefit of all. Of course at times it may be unavoidable that we work for the subculture or that we are a subculture. Sometimes we have to withdraw if the world asks us to do things that are negative and destructive. But if we are rejected not because we are foolish or stubborn or are trying to bully everybody into our own ways and customs but because we do not want to compromise our biblical principles, we can expect the Lord to help us. Remember that Christ said to his disciples that if for his sake we forsake things that are near to our heart and in the center of our life, he will in this life return to us in another way what has been lost. He will take care of us (Mark 10:28-31). While we must not forsake his ways, we are not only free but are called to work for the benefit of all the people around us.

A Call for Reformation
If as Christians we often feel so much at home in this world, then we have to ask ourselves whether we have not been influenced by the standards of the world around us. Maybe the realm of our faith is a tiny part of our life, where piety and devotional literature still have a place. But is our lifestyle, the music we listen to and the values we endorse in practice different from society’s? No wonder that the short, weekly sermon we listen to in our easy chairs becomes otherworldly and impractical, religious in a narrow sense, more a question of feeling than daily reality. We sing that Jesus is the answer; yes, but to what? I am convinced that only a true reformation can lead to a renewal of our culture, a reformation not only of Christianity, even if it certainly has to begin there, but of our Western world. I do not believe in the Marxist solution or the technological solution.
Christians need to wake up. Their feeling of powerlessness or futility has to be replaced by a new impetus to work. In short, Christians themselves need to be aware of the fact that the only prophetic word for today is to turn back to the Lord and look to him for solutions. Let us listen again to his Word. The Old Testament prophets spoke to a world that had known the Word of the Lord and had turned away to live what we now would call a secularized life. Lightheartedly they bypassed the many ills of their day. These prophets did not speak of a sweet, saving grace disconnected from a turning away from the evils of their days and a return to his commandments. The reading of the prophets is not easy. Their words are alarmingly appropriate for our times. Of course nothing can be done if the Lord does not go before us. We cannot make a new spirit or turn judgment and curse into blessings. The Lord has to move. Our prayer is as those fellow believers of old who composed and sang songs like Psalm 10: “Why dost thou stand afar off, 0 LORD? Why dost thou hide thyself in times of trouble?” We are admonished in Zephaniah (2:3), in a situation very much like our own, “Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility….” Although there is no promise that Christianity will again be acknowledged as influential in our society, our task is not to shy away from our responsibilities. We are called to be the salt of the earth, working against corruption. We are admonished to be humble, not to dream of doing God’s work in our own strength. At the same time we are commanded to be righteous, to do our task, to walk in God’s ways. That means to care for this reality that is his creation the way he has. We have a task if we love the Lord and therefore want his name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come. Everybody, each in his own place, must begin at this beginning. Artists are not excluded. In fact, I think they have an important part to play.

Weep, Pray, Think and Work
The beginning I refer to can be summed up in this formula: weep, pray, think, work. This is what the prophet meant in his day when he wrote, “As for me, I will look to the LORD” with the great expectation that follows (Mic. 7:7-11). Weep for the present situation. See how far we have drifted from an acceptable foundation. Let us care about the many who lead lives that seem to be empty and useless. Even the world is concerned about these things. TV demonstrates in a totally secularized world that commercialism, violence, sex, cheap entertainment and escapism are the only realities left. Meaning has to be rediscovered and restored to our actions and endeavors. We must analyze the situation, try to find out what is wrong, and assess our own place and role in it.
To weep is to see that things must change, to begin to care for the victims and to pray for forgiveness. Too often we have been accomplices in all that has happened. Would the Lord not speak to us as in the days of Amos (indeed, these things were written down in order that we should learn from them), “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory… who sing idle songs to the sound of the ha…. who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Amos 6:4- 6)? The question is how far our affluence today can be considered a blessing, and how far it is a blessing turned into a curse. Can we stand easily before the Lord with all our commodities, the things invented to make life easy and luxurious? To weep is also to see our own weakness, our own shortcomings, and to see where our love and our care and our efforts have been lacking. It drives us on to prayer. We pray in the knowledge that we cannot change things ourselves and that we need help. We pray also to ask for wisdom, strength and perseverance to work for a better solution. Perseverance certainly is the most difficult, to know that it will all take time, that it is not enough to work now, but that we must go on and that perhaps we may never see the results ourselves.
The Reformation of Luther and Calvin was in the early sixteenth century, and the rest of that century saw a situation of confusion in the search for new principles and methods. But out of all the work done, in obedience to the Lord, listening again to his Word, grew another culture in many ways better and richer in spirit. The arts of the first half of the seventeenth century were in many ways fruits of this; not perfect, but rich. To change a whole society, to reorganize thought-forms, customs and insights, takes much time. Even so the changes were only partially realized.1 But the arts were part of it all and did not tag on behind.
When we have asked the Lord for help and listened to his words, we must think, think out our position, where to begin and how. I’m convinced that we will never get out of the problems, the crisis, unless we see how we have been caught by the spirit of the Enlightenment, believing in the power of Reason and relegating any belief in God to the subjective and strictly personal. God is good in saving souls, but we have tended to keep him away from our big decisions in scholarship, science, politics and so on. We have got to understand the thought-forms of Western intellectual history and their consequences – a reduced world, relativism, neutralism, neutrality of values which are a-Christian if not anti-Christian. We have to think through the proposed solutions, including Marxism, and so prepare ourselves. This thinking is the task not only of the great philosophers. We are all involved.
We must also think through what Christianity means and its relation to cultural issues. We have been freewheeling too long on this point, assuming that the words of the few people who dealt with this were sufficient. Indeed, our Christianity itself must be thought through again. There is no reformation without theological renewal, or rather, a strengthening of biblical insights. And only then can we come to action and do something with perseverance. Of course then we can start again; the sequence has its own logic; the one cannot be begun unless the other has been done. Weep, pray, think and work.

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