The problem with treating the arts as a means to another end is that when that end is achieved the arts suddenly lose their value. Lewis Hyde showed this in The Gift by highlighting the decline of arts funding in America after the Cold War. During the propaganda war, the arts had been supported as a bastion of Western freedoms. This is the period when the National Endowment for the Arts was founded, when the CIA worked behind the scenes to exhibit American artists abroad. But when the West ‘won’, an era of unselfconscious market triumphalism was ushered in and the arts quickly began to seem superfluous. They had served their purpose.
Evangelical Christians, in the majority of cases that I have experienced, tend to justify the arts only as a means to an end. Most commonly this means the only respectable argument for investment in the arts is that it will lead to increased church attendance or greater relevance to contemporary society or engagement with the youth. I have been party to this too and I understand the tension.
These are certainly worthy and worthwhile goals. Of course we want more people to know God and reach every generation and culture effectively. But as Christians, treating the arts merely as a means to evangelism, or relevance, or engagement, assumes that art has no inherent and enduring value to be cultivated beyond these goals. The Bible, however, shows quite clearly that this is an impoverished logic, for artistic creativity will long outlast these temporal ends.
In the new Heavens and Earth, there will be no need for evangelists, neither will there be disparity between the people of God and their surroundings, nor will there be rifts between generations. All will see him, all will know him and all will worship him in solidarity. But one aspect of human existence that will continue to grow perpetually, eternally, for the people of God, is our reflection of his nature. We are being formed into the images of Christ, the image of God. We will reflect his glory by reflecting his nature, character and activity. We are to be made like him–not exhaustively, but truly.
Genesis 1:1 reveals God as the Creator, the great Artist wielding his brush out of the overflow of Trinitarian love. We thus meet him in scripture as Creator before he is Saviour, Father and Judge. Can we afford to neglect this aspect of our God, or of ourselves, his image-bearers?
There will come a time when evangelism will have served its purpose, but the gift of creativity will endure. When the cause of winning people of Christ has been fulfilled, we will continue to create in collaboration with our Creator God. While no one will then need to be convinced, the glory of the gospel will continue to be proclaimed in ever more wonderful and imaginative ways.
Evangelism, in one way then, is a means to creating more artists.
I’m not arguing merely to exalt the arts out of self-indulgence or special pleading, but to honour the Gift Giver by enjoying his precious gift. A gift used merely as a transaction, to gain a measured reciprocal response, leaves the realm of the gift and enters the market of commodities. But to use the gift as a gift, to consume it for the joy of it’s being a gift, transforms us with gratitude and compels us to pass the gift along because we know it is not our possession. And what could bring the giver more satisfaction and glory than to see his gift wholeheartedly enjoyed, like the contentment of a loving husband revelling in his bride’s disinterested pleasure?