Art as Doxology, Not Tract
By Joel Ohman
Gather a cross-section of evangelical Christians—pastors and lay leaders, young and old—and give them the assignment of critiquing and ranking the creative output available out in the marketplace today, whether movies, books, art, or music, and you might find some common criterion bubble to the surface. Profanity, nudity, vulgarity, and all the other “ity”s are listed out in short order on one side of the page, obvious negatives. On the other side, a short tally of praiseworthy items, chief of which: evangelism, or, simply put, is the gospel message explicitly stated? Those are worthy items to consider, but is that it? Is God concerned merely with a tally of curse words and uncovered body parts weighed against the gospel message shared in propositional form? Or could there be something more?
In Francis Schaeffer’s classic work, Art and the Bible, the quote from which this article is titled is as follows: “A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.”
Unfortunately, the reverse is often the case: a few Christians assessing the worth of any given cultural good are more prone to judge its “goodness” solely in terms of its didactic efficacy, and if there is any inherent beauty, creativity, or innovation displayed in its crafting then that is merely icing on the gospel cake. Am I advocating for a retreat from proclaiming the gospel with our art? No! What I am saying is that, as God’s representatives here on earth, image-bearers and little creators, each charged with transforming the world around us in the name of our King, we are called to so much more in humble love for Him.
Even Martin Luther weighed in on this narrow “tract-like” approach to our work in his classic response to a cobbler who wanted to create shoes for the glory of God by stamping little crosses on each shoe. “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” All too often the evangelical approach to our work and our art, including the movies, books, and TV shows we create, is simply like that of the well-intentioned cobbler: our first concern is whether we have “stamped” enough little crosses on our work, rather than asking ourselves if the final product exhibits the craftsmanship and beauty that brings glory to God and demonstrates a true love for our neighbor and the world we inhabit.
The Two-Chapter Gospel?
This reducing of our creative output, and even our work, to become mere conduits of proclamation in propositional form, has been referred to by author and professor Hugh Whelchel in his book How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work as the “Two-Chapter Gospel”. Though not a bad thing on its face—we should all be proclaiming the Good News!—it’s not the whole story. If the grand narrative of Scripture is encapsulated in four distinct “Chapters”: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, then a truncated “Two-Chapter Gospel” sees everything only through the lens of Fall and Redemption, making evangelism the one and only call on the Christian’s life, and as such, divorces our work and our art from God’s great plan to restore everything in Creation unto it’s final state of “goodness”, all under the Lordship of Christ our King.
In short, God’s plan is bigger, broader, and more comprehensive than the call for personal salvation—it is nothing short of the absolute restoration of everything. Is this a polemic against evangelical Christians proclaiming the gospel message, in their art and work and in their daily lives? No! But we should see God’s call on us, and on our art, as something more, something all-encompassing. Something that demands we create good and beautiful and true things for the glory of God, not merely as vehicles—the ungenerous might even say Trojan Horses—to deliver a sermon, but as a doxology, a thing of praise unto God, remembering that doxology reflects the Greek word “doxa” as in right opinions (orthodox) which are glorious.
As a Christian author, or should I say, a Christian who is an author, someone who writes books that are not categorized as “Christian fiction”, in other words—Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, to be exact—I am quite familiar with this tension, even in “secular” books like my own, to include a conversion experience in at least one of the character’s storylines, or an overt gospel message in some way, and I have given in to that pull before. But, after including that conversion experience, if I discover that the plot falls flat, the characters are one-dimensional, the wordcraft is pedestrian and bland, and the book is pure drudgery to actually read, then have I truly created a doxology, something of praise to God? Is that it? Can I rest content after a job well done? Well, if that’s the best I can do, then maybe. But I would venture to say that each of us would find something inside of us that resists this notion that producing an inferior product and then “stamping a little cross on it” somehow covers all ills.
May this serve as a reminder that everything we do matters to God. What we create, what we consume, what we choose to praise, it’s all an important part of our image-bearing responsibility as God’s representatives here on earth. May we have a renewed focus on proclaiming the gospel, yes, even in our art, but may we also praise what God praises: beauty, truth, excellence, and all that is good and wonderful as it points to and reflects something great about our Creator.
Our Art in His Story
Whelchel, quoting Tim Keller, describe the fullness of the gospel like this: “The gospel, when understood in its fullness, is not solely about individual happiness and fulfillment; it is not all about me. “It is not just a wonderful plan for ‘my life’ but a wonderful plan for the world; it is about the coming of God’s kingdom to renew all things.” Only with this bigger picture in view can we understand how our story fits into His story.” And, one might add: it’s only in understanding this bigger picture that we can understand how our art fits into His story.
If our Risen Lord, Christ the King, is in the process of redeeming and restoring all of creation unto Himself, and he has tasked his people, the Body of Christ, to act as his hands and feet—and producers and directors, actors and writers, creators and designers—how then should we create? May we never neglect the importance of proclaiming the gospel in word and in deed, but may we never settle for stamping little crosses on our shoes and our shows when the demands on our work and our art are so much more.
About the Author:
Joel Ohman is a serial entrepreneur, author, and Movieguide® supporter. He is the author of the bestselling Meritropolis Trilogy—“The Hunger Games meets The Village”—the founder of CarInsuranceComparison.com, Exercise.com, and a number of digital media startups. He lives in Tampa, FL with his wife Angela and their three kids. His writing companion is Caesar, a slightly overweight Bull Mastiff who loves to eat the tops off of strawberries. You can connect with Joel at JoelOhman.com.