Why Artists Need Theology

by Owen Strachan March 29, 2017

A few days ago, popular musician Michael Gungor issued strong comments about the blood of Christ, calling the idea of such a sacrifice “horrific.” I offered a brief response to Gungor, and have been surprised at the response to my short article.

A few folks wondered whether we should cut Gungor some slack, as he is an artist and not a theologian. This is a matter worth considering. Artists and musicians are obviously creative-minded people. There are seemingly so few Christians of this kind plying their trade in Western culture; surely we can give them some leash, relax the doctrinal standards, and leave them to “ask their questions” and “probe the tensions” in peace?

The church should definitely seek to enfranchise creative types. We want artists and musicians and writers to flourish in our movement. The truth of the matter is that there is no ground for creativity that comes close to the intellectual fertility of Christian theology. Think about the reality of creation ex nihilo. What a mystery this is; what profundity one finds in the thunder-clap flourish of divine making; what diversity one discovers in the world God has made. An artist could spend the rest of his or her life thinking about just this doctrine, and engage with it artistically.

We often get the relationship between theology and art reversed. We feel sorry for Christian creatives, for they are constrained (so we hear) by the corrugated edges of biblical theism. Too bad, we sigh. If they could just loosen the covenantal constraints, they could really soar. But this is the reverse of the truth. The Christian worldview, powered by biblical truth, is a foundation for enterprise and creativity unparalleled in the known world. There are depths in God that no human mind can master (see 1 Cor. 2:10). There is beauty in Christ and his self-sacrificial act that no one can fully grasp. There is serendipity in the wind-like Spirit that no one can sum up.

Yes, our faith is a “deposit” (2 Tim. 1:13). Yes, it has dimensions—thickness and height and weight, the weight of glory. But the physicality of the faith is not an impediment to artists. It is a summons to them. Work the clay, we say to our artistic friends. Help us see hidden glory. Help us grasp afresh the majesty and tragedy and dynamism and joy of the Christian faith.

There is no separate Christian faith for artists. There is no distinct Bible version, edited of controversial truths, for musicians. If the holy Scripture can inspire some of the historic accomplishments of Western culture—whether those of Bach or Durer or Lewis or Eliot or many others—then it can do so in our time. The life of the Christian mind can thrive, even in the shadows. If secularism is advancing in the West, it is not a half-secular, half-Christian faith that will offer witness to it, and stand out against it. It is a full-fledged, full-throated, full-throttle Christianity that will glisten as the world gladly enrobes itself in darkness.

I am sorry to see these comments from Michael Gungor. He is an artist whose music has previously blessed many of us; his song “Beautiful Things” is itself a beautiful thing. The move to soften and redefine the faith that he seems to be making, however, is a dangerous and frankly foolish one. It leaves his artistic work without Christian distinctiveness; it drains his music of the savor of life, that delicious quality that only worshipful art can provide (2 Cor. 2:16). This shift leaves him calling the blood of Christ shed for us “horrific,” where a martyred apostle of the living God calls this same blood “precious” (1 Peter 1:19).

These last words regarding Peter matter for these aesthetic considerations, and for our approach to Gungor’s words. There is no creation more spectacular, more striking, than the set-apart Christian. Peter, we note, was nothing if not a set-apart Christian. But Peter, according to tradition, was not celebrated for his faith. He was, like Christ, crucified, and crucified upside down. If you gaze into the past today, you can see this scene, and you can recognize how the world intends such a death to be a word of warning. Do not follow this Christ, we are being told. This is how it will go for you. So it may.

But if you keep your eyes focused on the dying apostle before you, perhaps you can see what the world cannot: this vicious death is not, in the providence of God, a sign of failure. The death of the apostle, one who loved the blood of Christ, is in truth a work of art, unveiled before the world, testifying to the ultimate sacrifice, hung in a gallery made by the Lord.

The angels witness this work of God, the masterpiece of the set-apart Christian.

Editor's note: this originally published at The Center for Public Theology.