April 16th, 2007 by Menachem Wecker
Joe Carter publishes the blog Evangelical Outpost. Here are a few of the highlights from his bio which I like best: “After nearly graduating with a degree in psychology, I came to my senses and ended up with a B.S. in Liberal Studies … I’m the Director of Web Communications for Family Research Council … I’m married to Misty, a beautiful, talented, intelligent, woman who somehow manages to put up with my peculiar quirks. I studied Forensic Sciences in graduate school before it dawned on me that I could save the cost of tuition and just watch CSI … I have one child, a beautiful, artistically talented, and incredibly smart daughter named Samantha … I started blogging after reading a book by Hugh Hewitt. Althought I’m a native Texan, I currently live in Virginia. I’m a Reformed protestant evangelical, though I have a soft spot for Catholics … I spend far too much time blogging. On average, about 25 hours a week.” Here is what Joe had to say about the Second Commandment, and whatever else I could bug him about.
MW: What exactly is meant by the Second Commandment? What was permitted and forbidden under that commandment when it was first delivered?
JC: The context of the commandment given in Exodus 20:4-5 (“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…) is illuminated by Leviticus 26:1 (”You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God.”). Even if we only had these two passages it would seem clear that what is being forbidden is not the creation of all representational art but the worship of graven images.
But we also have the example of God commanding Moses to create a tabernacle and decorate it with imagery that includes representations of “anything that is in heaven” (i.e., images of cherubim) and of that which is “in the earth beneath” (i.e., flowers and pomegranates). It seems unlikely that if God was prohibiting the creation of all representational art he would order Moses to disobey his command.
MW: How, if at all, do you define Christian art?
JC: Much of my thinking on art from a Christian perspective has been shaped by the apologist and cultural critic Francis Schaeffer. Christian art, as Schaeffer would define the term, is art whose content reflects a Christian worldview. He believed that Christian art had a minor theme–the abnormality of the revolting world–and a major theme–the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life. Not surprisingly, by this definition an artist doesn’t necessarily have to be a Christian in order to produce “Christian art.”
MW: What is your favorite work (or works) of Christian art?
JC: As far as the visual arts, I’m partial to works of sculpture. One of the best examples from the modern era is the late Frederick Hart’s Ex Nihilo (posted) which is displayed in the center portal arch of the National Cathedral. Hart described his work as “a single expression of Creation, as the metamorphosis of divine spirit and energy. The figures emerge from the nothingness of chaos, caught in the moment of eternal transformation - the majesty and mystery of divine force in a state of becoming.” It is not only a brilliant depiction of God bringing order “out of nothingness” but an apt example of the artist as sub-creator, bringing order out of material that has been provided by God.
Two other modern artists whose worked has moved me is Edward Knippers (particularly Jesus Whipped and Elijah and the Fiery Chariot) and James Janknegt (specifically St. John Reconsiders Modern Epistemology).
JC: With a yawn of boredom. Nothing is more tiresome than a modern artist living in New York trying to be “edgy” by creating blasphemous or ironic religious imagery. This trite pattern–shock the sensibilities of the people in the flyover states so the East Coast intelligentsia will view you as a courageous martyr–has practically become its own genre.
Can artists go too far? Absolutely. Should they be forcibly censored? I would say no, though tax dollars should not be used to fund such “art.” In America, you are free to curse God all you want — just don’t expect me to subsidize your sin.
MW: Are there aspects of the Bible that should not be depicted? To what extent should artists be bound by the same standards of Biblical exegesis as other commentators?
JC: The only line that I would say is absolutely clear is that we should not try to depict the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. Even if it doesn’t break the Second Commandment, it certainly skirts too close to the edge.
The second part of your question contains the underlying assumption that what artists do might somehow be exceptional, that they are allowed to “create their own rules.” I think this is a common ideal fostered by Western culture idea of the artist as an individual, creative genius who stands apart from or outside of culture. In essence, the artist has taken the role once reserved for the prophet.
As Christians, though, we are not autonomous individuals but persons bound in community. God’s word is not a private message given to us as individuals to interpret as we choose. It is a guiding text that is given to the entire Body in order that we may live, work, and breathe as the Bride of Christ. An artist has no more right to create their own standards of Biblical exegesis than anyone else. Indeed, the artist is in the same position as teachers and preachers in that they are held to a higher standard because they are entrusted with communicating the truth.
MW: To what extent does Christianity encourage people to make art that is not specifically religious?
JC: Christianity should encourage the creation of art that is true and beautiful. Just as all truth is God’s truth, all beauty is God’s beauty. Because there are certain aspects of religion that we regard as especially true and beautiful, it is natural that much Christian art is “religious” in content.
However, Christian art should be free to depict the entire panorama of God’s creation, reflecting both our fallen nature and our redemptive hope. As Christians we are not “religious” beings or “profane” beings but rather human beings. Likewise, our art should also reflect our humanity just as we should reflect the imago dei.