There is a growing trend in the artistic world to minimize or deny the presence of morality in the field of art. The line between the sacred and the secular has been obscured to the point when anything called “art” is assumed to be perfectly reasonable and right and beautiful. In essence, art has been granted “inalienable rights” enjoyed by no other field: the right to portray acts of evil that our culture would frown upon in the real world. A place of business would never allow an unclothed individual to enter its establishment, but what if that same nude were the model for a sketching session? Assault and violence are aggressively detested by our culture (and rightly so!), but how should we respond when that same act of violence is projected on a screen in a dark room? From both situations arise sobering questions about the nature and jurisdiction of art.
Between the film industry, visual arts, performing arts, and the written word, art is the most powerful and influential platform on which evil is freely showcased. Add to that premise the frightening observation that our young people are increasingly being shaped by the entertainment industry more than any other medium of education. Ravi Zacharias, a brilliant apologist and philosopher, observed this about our present age:
We now learn to listen with our eyes and think with our feelings…We are meant to see through the eye, with the conscience; when we start seeing with the eye devoid of the conscience, all kinds of belief can invade your imagination.1
He then quotes the poet William Blake:
This life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.
In essence, while art has historically been restrained by morality, today’s art is at liberty to define morality. A terrifying thought, that any act of evil (be it rape, murder, or racism) has the preponderance to shape our perception of right and wrong when put to music or paper. Look at the complacency towards wickedness our films encourage, from the positive portrayal of revenge (“Monte Cristo”) to the hearty approval of adulterous protagonists who murder over historical artifacts (“Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark”)—and these are rather “mild” examples compared to more recent media. So as art and media grow in influence over man’s heart, morality’s role in art becomes of weightier importance. Is art amoral, and is it “hedged” from the restraining arm of morality? If art is subject to moral laws, what are the boundaries? How are these moral conclusions materialized in real life?
Removing the Hedge
We must begin by examining the jurisdiction of God’s Law. It cannot be emphasized enough that God is the Father of all created things, and that all faculties of His creation are but hints of His own intelligence; thus philosophy, calculus, social studies, and the arts are lesser manifestations of God’s all-knowledge. As a transcendent Being surpassed by no other, God’s Word (His Law) is final in every area of life, for every area was created by Him. To say that God’s moral laws (which dictate right and wrong) cannot in some way undergird the arts is to say that God’s rule is incomplete. This thinking wrongfully elevates the sacredness of art above the sacredness of its Creator and His Words.
Aaron and Bezalel
God’s Word gives us clear teaching regarding the nature of art. Consider Aaron’s sin when he fashioned a golden calf for the rebellious people of Israel to worship.
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off [your] gold earrings…and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1–4)
I may be mistaken, but Scripture does not directly cite Aaron as worshipping the image himself. But it is interesting that when Moses rebuked Aaron, saying “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”, Aaron proceeded to explain away the calf as a chance explosion.2 In other words, he shirked responsibility for making the calf in the first place. Apparently, God does place moral significance on the work of our hands. Certainly Aaron was a skilled craftsman and the calf was a beautiful likeness, but the idol did not derive its morality from its beauty. In this instance, the image served a Satanic purpose and represented a conscious rebellion against God’s commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them (Exodus 20:4–5a)…”
Now we jump three chapters from the infamous golden calf to the construction of the Tabernacle. God Himself chose a man named Bezalel to supervise the Tabernacle’s construction. Take note of the language:
Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and [H]e has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts…He has filled them [Bezalel and Oholiab the son of Ahisamak] with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers (Exodus 35:30–35).”
Notice that whereas God rebuked Aaron (through Moses), He personally equipped Bezalel the craftsman to fashion the Tabernacle, and His pure and Holy presence which filled the Tent also approved Bezalel’s work. Why could not Aaron just as easily have fashioned the image of cherubim on a mercy seat (instead of a calf) for the Israelites to worship?3 If we cannot conclude that Aaron’s act of forming an idol was a sin, then we cannot say that Bezalel did anything of better value by fashioning the Tabernacle. In other words, if there is no evil in profane art (whether by nature or purpose), there is no sanctity in pure and righteous art.
One can look at other examples of craftsmanship and see art being exploited for both sinful and righteous purposes. Demetrius the silversmith formed silver shrines to Artemis (Acts 19:24–27), while Solomon initiated and oversaw the construction of the Temple of God (1 Kings 6). Both projects—beautiful pieces of artwork—surely required great skill and artistry, but we read that Demetrius’ work was condemned and Solomon’s approved by God.
It is therefore clear from Scripture that art can become immoral by virtue of its intended purpose. Many dilemmas can be answered by this premise. Is writing a piece for a Satanic worship service wrong? Without a doubt! For the very purpose of the piece is evil. Would baking a cake for a homosexual “wedding” be right for a Christian baker?4 God forbid, no! The purpose of a wedding cake is to support and celebrate the marriage for which it was made. How much different would it be from giving them a dowry?
Can art be inherently immoral—that is, wrong in the absence of context or explanation? There are a number of works that come to mind which would sustain that charge. Most of them are too graphic and blasphemous for me to describe, but often these works involve Christian images (the Cross, the Fish symbol, etc.) that are desecrated by the material out of which they were fashioned. Such unspeakable abominations are wrong in and of themselves because the intent of blasphemy (the blending of the sacred and the profane) is so symbolically embedded in their creation.
We then conclude that art can be immoral, either because it is intrinsically impure or serves an immoral purpose. Yet we also find that art can be holy on account of these same premises. In Part Two we will sift through subtler artistic predicaments.
In the meantime I welcome healthy discussion on this issue! Please be courteous, knowing that your words carry great moral weight as well (Matthew 12:37).
Zacharias, Ravi. “Cultural Relativism and the Emasculation of Truth.” Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. 11 Mar. 2013. Sermon. Featured in the Just Thinking Broadcasts. ↩
It seems the “Big Bang” is not such a new idea after all. ↩
In fact the first chapter of Hebrews was written to rebut the worship of angelic beings. ↩
I cite this real event as an example of the rampant opportunity for compromise today. ↩