Monthly Archives: September 2013

“Hearing” Biblical Worldview in Musical Motifs

The idea of worldview – that is, the way we view the world – is an important topic of discussion during our interesting times.  The whole concept can sometimes get very philosophical, but really it should be a description of both our beliefs about the world (philosophy) and the reality that we actually find in the world around us.  Everyone has a view of the world, in spite of whether a person can clearly identify or explain his or her own view.

Christians seek to have a worldview that reflects the Biblical truths about God and His creation (including man), and the relationship between the two.  I like to describe it as a filter.  Our worldview acts as a filter to help us make sense of what we see around us and interpret what is going on.  Our goal is to see reality as God sees reality, and to understand His interaction with all that He created.

One of the ways Christian theologians and philosophers talk about worldview is in the ideas of Creation, Fall and Redemption.  This three-fold description of the overall picture of the Christian worldview helps us to see people and events in a way that makes sense.  Let me explain these concepts first in a basic format, and then draw some parallels with music as a way to “hear” Biblical Worldview.

Creation as described in Genesis, and referenced throughout the rest of Scripture, was an act that God declared as “good” (Genesis 1 & 2).  Goodness is inherently part of God’s creative activity, and Christians recognize this fact.  When God made the heavens and earth, the trees and the fields, the fish and the birds, and everything else, He regarded His creation and was satisfied.  When He created man, Adam and Eve, He was satisfied.  Man was God’s glory in the garden, and he was given dominion over all of creation – and this was good and right – for God made it that way.  This was to be “normal” for God’s creation.

What we call the Fall is that instance in which Adam chose to honor himself and his wife over and above God.  Temptation came, Adam considered his own wisdom superior to God’s (pride), he disobeyed, and sin entered the world.  Using the term Fall is descriptive for us in that Adam at that time became separated from God.  With that decision Adam not only subjected himself to death and separation, but all that was under his dominion (all of creation) was subjected to the “imprisonment,” so-to-speak, of his sin.  This is what Paul means when he says that all of creation was “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20).  Adam’s sin affected everything, and now everything is askew.  It is bent.  It’s no longer right.  This is the common human experience.  What we experience as a result of the Fall is no longer “normal.”

Thankfully, God provided a way to restore His original intention for His creation.  This is what Christians call Redemption.  It is more than Christ’s provision for us on the cross in taking our sin and giving us His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).  While we recognize that Christ’s work is a key and the central part, Redemption provides more than salvation for the soul.  It stretches into creation itself to restore it to God as He had intended at first.  Again, Paul refers to this in Romans 8:18-23.  The benefits of Christ’s redemptive work are both present and future. We are secure in His grace now, and yet wait for the final redemption of our body, and ultimately the redemption of all creation.  Redemption is God’s great correction for the effects of sin and for returning to the “normal” He had planned.

So Creation, Fall and Redemption is one way to think about and consider the Christian Worldview.  Now that I have given a quite short synopsis of these ideas, I find it interesting that we can “hear” a parallel in God’s gift of music.  There are some general characteristics of well-written music that can give us an aural (i.e., pertaining to the hearing) perspective on these theological ideas. We can actually hear Creation, Fall and Redemption motifs in music.

I use the word motif in the sense of a musical idea or phrase.  Often, in carefully crafted music, a motif is introduced at the beginning of the piece and repeated, re-used, altered, and re-shaped in numerous ways.  One of the most famous may be Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which uses a quite simple, but powerful, four note phrase as its first motif.  (If you are not familiar with this symphony, stop and ask someone nearby to hum the first few notes.  You’ll remember it after that.)  Beethoven developed this motif and then established as the central figure of the whole movement.  The parallel I find with the Creation idea is that this motif establishes the “normal” part of the music.

Next, the motif is generally altered and changed.  This may be slight – in the changing of the notes or keys; or it may be quite dramatic – like turning the phrase upside down or even playing it backwards.  More often than not, the musical phrase is re-worked in a minor key.  This generally gives it a “darker” and more ominous feeling.  The musical term that could be used is dissonance, which is a kind of tension that the composer places within the music.  I would relate this tension in music to the Fall – although we hear the motif in one way or another, it has been distorted and changed.  It is no longer “normal.”

Finally, the composer draws the original motif out of the dissonance, or tension, and causes a resolution.  This is a return to the original musical phrase, but it is often embellished and made even more beautiful and creative.  Other notes and phrases jump and dance around the original motif.  Sometimes called a recapitulation, the composer reminds us of the original “normal” motif and builds on it, makes it grow, and develops it into something not yet imagined.  This resolution of the musical conflict reminds me of Redemption – just as God in Christ is restoring His creation to what it was meant to be, and beyond.

You would probably miss this type of musical development if your musical diet consists primarily of music found in popular culture (on radio and TV), whether “Christian” or not.  I would encourage you to find Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or listen to Bach’s Chorales, or Mozart’s Requiem.  These composers, and many others, utilize various motifs in their music.  Some, as in the case of Bach, did so as a devoted Christian, while others did so simply as God’s image shown through them as human beings.  Either way, their creativity shines through as a reflection of God’s own creative image.

Music is a great gift of God and in it He has given us a way to experience Creation, Fall and Redemption through our ears.  For him who has ears to hear…

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Art in the Public Square: A Critical Difference

(As ArtPrize approaches in Grand Rapids, MI for 2013, the recent two articles have helped to remind us of how to view the arts from a biblical perspective.  This article is an assessment of the 2012 conclusion, but also helps to keep our minds attuned to the necessity of thinking well, and thinking Christianly, in regard to the arts.)

For over a month now, the articles in this Worship Arts channel have focused on visual art.  We have considered a number of articles regarding how to view art from a Christian perspective, and whether we could really understand and appreciate art through the grid of the Christian worldview.

The largest art competition in the world is an event called ArtPrize, held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It was held two weeks ago week, lasted 15 days, and included over 1500 entries.  The unique, long established feature of the ArtPrize gathering is that the viewing public is solicited to vote as to which entries they judge best.

Unfortunately, this approach to evaluating art has brought disdain from voices of the “art world,” who considered it a substandard competition that played to the whims of the uneducated public and produced winners that are considered one-dimensional, even mundane.  However, this year’s ArtPrize event, for the first time in this event’s history, would set alongside the viewing public’s choice the so-called experts’ choice.  What would we discover?  Would there be consensus or a split decision?  Would there be harmony, or a division between the two groups?

Well, the “jury is in” and the winners were crowned but not without a new controversy.  We now know the results and, let me say, to describe the difference between the two evaluations as a “gap” is well understated. Rather, the results were a giant chasm. The public vote for the artist of the winning entry won a $200,000, and the juried vote of their choice won $100,000.  The stark difference of perspectives contrasting the two groups speak to the fundamental question of how each view beauty and how they interpret what art communicates.

Art is Communication

Definitions of art abound, and I suppose they can be nuanced to say whatever one might desire to defend or promote. But, I think most reasonable people would agree that art, at its basic level, is communication.  Art is intended to say something to the viewer.  Art is an expression of an artist in an attempt to communicate to those looking at the art.

In a time long gone, a great artist was known by his or her artwork.  When the art spoke, it spoke powerfully and clearly, communicating the intended message without explanation.  It is to men, like Michelangelo and others, to which this moniker was applied.  We know them to be great artists because they produced great art.  The art itself was the focus.

More recently (in the last 150 years or so), this notion of art has been turned on its head.  Over time, the focus shifted from the art to the artist.  Gradually, rather than knowing an artist was great because his or her art was indeed great, the art world of critics and artists established a system in which artists were named great artists because they were artists in this art world.  In other words, since it was determined that they were “great artists” by the elite, the art they produced was to be considered great art.

This would be fine if their art continued to communicate effectively, however, it became esoteric to the point that it no longer gained the attention of the public, but only the attention of the artistic elite.  It no longer communicated a message that was discernible, unless it was explained first to the viewer.  No longer was the art communicating, but it was solely the expression of the artist whether or not anyone really understood the meaning.

So we have two views, to put it simply:

  • Art speaks, and as a result we understand what the artist is communicating, or
  • The artist speaks in order to explain what the art is not communicating on its own.

At a fundamental level, this is the result of ArtPrize 2012.  The winner of the people’s vote communicated in such a way that her art spoke to the viewers, and they understood.  They understood the technical skills needed, they understood the subject matter, and in many ways, they understood what she was trying to say.

The winner of the juried award, on the other hand, had to explain the art.  It is not clear what the intended meaning was to be, and although an explanation did bring clarity to the meaning, there remains an underlying bewilderment at how this is really “art.”  Obviously, if the display had not been entered in an art competition, most people would generally walk by it and consider it a nice display but nothing more.

This “great divide” in viewing art is a topic that has been discussed widely, and at least in West Michigan right now, more people are aware of the issues.  In a world of creativity that reflects the very creative activity of God, I hope that this discussion will help more people consider the ideas presented in this column over the last six weeks.

Note: I did not include a description of the ArtPrize winners, or their names because my intent was not to critique them specifically.  My intention is to focus on the larger issues of how we view art, and how we know whether it is “good art” or not.  The views I have expressed are not only my own.  The reactions to these art pieces have come from conversations, articles, blog posts and other sources.  I have also included thoughts that have come from past study and consideration of the world of the arts.  I hope that these articles on viewing art can have some impact on the conversation of art from a Christian worldview.

(Original Post on October 17, 2012 at the Worldview Church:  http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/18626-art-in-the-public-square-a-critical-difference)

Another View on Viewing Art: On Robin Phillips

In my previous article, I gave a synopsis of Francis Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible, in which he gives some sage advice on viewing and understanding the fine arts in the perspective of a Christian Worldview.  Schaeffer not only recommend that we develop an aptitude for viewing art effectively, but believes that it can and should be done by Christians engaging in this world over which Christ is Lord.

This week, let us turn to an excellent article by Robin Phillips titled, Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder? This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 edition of “Christianity and Society.”  As you can see from the title, Phillips is approaching the idea in a different way than Schaeffer, and this can certainly help us continue our growth in viewing and assessing art.

Phillips begins the article by exploring the idea of beauty in general.  He delves into beauty as found in the Bible, and also notes that beauty is an objective quality linked to God’s character and holiness. From there he considers how we might “measure” beauty and what criteria we might use to do so.  In addition, he discusses the language of beauty and how it has been corrupted through time.  (This paragraph is very short synopsis of an excellent presentation of these matters, and I suggest a full reading of the article to glean all the insight provided.)

Based upon that foundation, Phillips guides the reader in how one might view art – or see beauty – in such a way that it opens up the individual to really see what is there.  This is something he calls “beauty-vision.”  Although there may be legitimate impediments that prevent a person from seeing beauty (blindness, for example), Phillips believes that it is important to “gaze in the right direction” in order to begin the process of seeing beauty for what it is.  Essentially, to “awaken a person’s beauty-vision” (pg. 46). Even then, there may be other reasons that we simply miss the beauty in front of us, and he suggests several things to help us overcome these difficulties.

His first level of observation is that of noticing factual things about the work of art.  This would include how various elements of a painting might interact with one another thematically.  Or, it would include information on “the background of the work, the artistic context, how the work conformed (or did not conform) to the dominant conventions of the day, the intention of the artist, and so on” (pg. 46).  This important first level of observation is one that is accessible even by those just beginning the process of looking at art and who are really trying to understand what they see.  It is from these observations of the facts about art that lead to understanding the aesthetics of art.

“After we have helped a person to understand facts about the artwork (Level 1), we can begin to show howaesthetic properties flow out of these factual observations” (pg. 46).  In this way, Phillips leads into the second level of viewing art.  He points out that one can begin to attach descriptive terminology to factual observations and move to this level of understanding.  Two of his examples are, “the lines make this paintinggraceful,” and “the color scheme is somber” (pg. 47).  It is these judgments and perceptions that are the aesthetic qualities characterized by the particular factual elements within the artwork.  The aesthetic judgments arise from the factual observations.  Thus, it is a second level of viewing art.

The next stage in this method to develop “beauty-vision” is the third level, described by Phillips as making “an overall verdict of praise or blame” (pg. 47).  For Phillips, this is where his discussion on beauty intersects with a person’s ability to see these various features of artwork and come to a conclusion on what they have observed.  “Beauty is one of many positive verdicts which arise from a work’s aesthetic features” (pg. 47).  As one is able to draw together the factual observations made of a particular piece of art, and describe that by articulating aesthetic perceptions based upon those facts, it becomes more than a personal opinion why one piece of art might be considered “beautiful,” while another draws condemnation.

Interestingly, Phillips finishes his article discussing beauty and the Biblical Worldview.  He notes that our culture’s rejection of beauty as truth can be legitimately linked to our culture’s rejection of Christian truth.  This is a viewpoint that we have considered before in the writings and thinking of Roger Scruton, who sees modern man intoxicated with ugliness and warns that the desecration of beauty is undoing culture at a foundational level.  As Christians, we must engage in the arts as part of this culture so we might bring a redemptive influence into this important aspect of modern life.

Certainly this method requires practice and refinement for any individual.  However, these three levels of factual observations which lead to the defining of aesthetic properties, and ultimately an artistic verdict, are useful and accessible.  I encourage the reader to print the full article by Robin Phillips at the link below and seek to understand the beauty of art in a more direct way – then go out and look at some art.  You’ll be glad you did!

(Original Post on August 7, 2012 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/18363-another-view-on-viewing-art-on-robin-phillips-)

On Viewing Art: Thoughts from Francis Schaeffer

As summer draws to an end in West Michigan each year, the city of Grand Rapids hosts an annual art show called ArtPrize.  Touted as the world’s largest art competition, the prizes are awarded in a unique fashion, by the vote of the public.  With over 1500 entries, there is a lot of art to view and plenty to think about.  The show lasts almost three weeks in September and October and hosts thousands of visitors.

Although this event is unique in the art world, it brings up many questions for the Christian observer.  How should the Christian view art?  What makes art good and/or bad?  Is it even proper to think about art in those categories?  Is it enough to like it or not like it, regardless of its quality?  What would quality in visual art include?  Does beauty matter?  As Christians, should we view art in a special way?

Francis Schaeffer, certainly one of the early leaders of Christian Worldview thinking, spent considerable time viewing art, thinking about it, and putting it into a Christian perspective.  Thankfully, he left a short treatise on how to view art and can help each Christian view art in a more intelligent and educated way.  Schaeffer’s little book is simply titled, “Art and the Bible.”

Of course, the Christian Worldview speaks to all areas of life and the arts are no exception.  Schaeffer begins his thinking by recognizing that Christ is the Lord of all of life.  Since Christ is Lord over the whole man, then He is Lord over man’s creativity.  Artistic expression is the very essence of expressing the very image of God found in each human being.  As God is the Creator, so are we – made in His image – naturally drawn to be creative.  And Christ is Lord over the creative endeavor.

After beginning with the basis of the Lordship of Christ, Schaeffer very succinctly shows the respect that God has for artistic creativity, even when something is simply created for beauty.  Schaeffer is careful to point out that all art does not need to be a “tract,” but that art can exist to express beauty and truth.  In fact, he carefully demonstrates this by reviewing the biblical references to art from the creation story, to the building of the tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, and even how Christ Himself used art as an illustration for teaching.

The second half of Schaeffer’s book is what he calls, “Some perspectives on art.”  In this section he lists eleven separate ideas on why art is important in our culture, as well as why it is important for Christians to interact with art and artists.  There are many insightful elements to Schaeffer’s thoughts, and I highly recommend a careful reading of his book to glean all you can from it.  Some of his ideas you will agree with, and others will stretch you, but all will help you think about art more clearly.

For now, I would like to highlight only one point that is broken down into four sub points.  Schaeffer calls this, “Four Standards of Judgment.”  In other words, when viewing a piece of art, how should one judge its quality and character?  Upon what basis can we make a judgment so we might be clear about what might be good art (well done, high quality) and other art (low quality)?  The four criteria he lists are:

  1. Technical excellence
  2. Validity
  3. Intellectual content (the worldview that comes through)
  4. Integration of content and vehicle

First, Schaeffer dwells on technical excellence.  He says,

“Here one considers the use of color, form, balance, the texture of the paint, the handling of lines, the unity of the canvas and so forth.  In each of these there can be varying degrees of technical excellence.  By recognizing technical excellence as an aspect of an art work, we are often able to say that while we do not agree with such and such an artist’s world view, he is nonetheless a great artist.”[i]

It is clear that these aspects of technical excellence are accessible by the average person, though some understanding of each is important.

Second, by validity Schaeffer means “whether an artist is honest to himself and to his world view or whether he makes his art only for money or for the sake of being accepted.”[ii] In this statement he does not mean that the artist does not have a right to earn a living with the art work that he or she produces.  His interest here lies in the artist avoiding the attitude of simply playing to the audience to produce a certain affect.  Art, if it is to be valid, should not be manipulative in this way.

Third is the criterion of intellectual content, by which he means how the art reflects the world view of the artist.  Schaeffer is concerned with viewing the art through the whole body of his or her artwork.  In other words, we can’t judge the entirety of a person’s view of the world based upon only one of their creative expressions.  However, when we understand a particular piece within the fuller comprehension of the artist’s body of works, then we can and should be able to determine the reality of the content.  We will also be able to say, “This artist may have technical excellence, and he may be true to himself (validity), but his worldview is wrong and it does not reflect reality as we understand it to be according to the Bible.”  In this assessment, Schaeffer is unashamed to note that an artist (non-Christian or Christian) is expressing content contrary to Scripture.  There are certainly great artists making great art that contains a skewed worldview.

Finally, Schaeffer speaks to the integration of content and vehicle.  This involves “how well the artist has suited the vehicle to the message.  For those art works which are truly great, there is a correlation between the style and the content.  The greatest art fits the vehicle that is being used to the world view that is being presented.”[iii] Schaeffer cites examples that are not necessarily promoting a Christian Worldview, and in so doing shows how we might be able to view art of all types fairly and with understanding.

With these four criteria Francis Schaeffer gives an excellent way for us to view the entries in ArtPrize, or in your local gallery.  The best way to learn how to do this is to practice.  Schaeffer has much more to say, but these ideas are a good start.  So print this article, or order a copy of “Art and the Bible” and go to it.  You’ll be glad you did!

[i] Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Books, 2006), 62.

[ii] Schaeffer, Art, 63.

[iii] Schaeffer, Art, 69.

(Original Post on August 22, 2012 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/18322-on-viewing-art-thoughts-from-schaeffer)

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