Art Does Not Cause Idolatry
Art does not cause idolatry. I wish it went without saying, but it needs to be stated directly and articulated clearly. There are still Christians and theologians that are wary of art, and act as if art contains some power to cause idolatry. This is, I believe, patently absurd. Ironically, we still see this mindset evidenced in sermons and even books where theologians are trying to support the arts. However, the Christian church will not move forward in truly supporting artists until we abandon this idea that art causes idolatry.
Consider Philip Graham Ryken’s book, Art for God’s Sake. In the very first chapter, and in the very first paragraph he writes, “images easily lend themselves to idolatry.” This isn’t simply a misstep. He repeats this idea multiple times in the book. And yet, though he has a PhD from Oxford, his position is theologically untenable, but I will get to that. It is particularly puzzling because he is trying to argue in favor of the arts, and he even invited a visual artist to write the forward.
Why do church leaders state these kinds of sentiments? I believe it is because they have been trained and mentored within a residue of anti-art sentiment which has existed in the church ever since the Reformation. It seeps through in commentaries, translations and into our seminaries. I believe Dr. Ryken meant well, and it is obvious from this book and his other writings that he wants to encourage artists. In many ways I don’t fault him, or the theologians of our time. I find fault with the entire way Academics and Theologians have failed to address art, beauty, and creativity over the last 500 years.
The problem is so few theologians have clarified these issues well, and thus we have well-intending pastors, theologians and even presidents of Christian colleges who do not really understand the actual connection between art and idolatry. Or rather, the lack of direct connection between art and idolatry.
The Core Issue of Idolatry
The issue of idolatry comes from the second commandment, where God addresses His people after he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. God wanted to change not only their worship, but their cultural customs, their traditions, and their very identity. God didn’t rescue them from Egypt for them to live as if Pharaoh is still a god, and for them to continue worshiping the gods of Egypt. After all, he just destroyed their gods through the 10 plagues. He proved their gods were impotent.
God is telling them, “Worship only me.” He is clear that they cannot keep the customs or traditions that point to the Egyptian gods and pharaohs of today, the Philistine and Canaanite gods of tomorrow, or the Babylonian and Assyrian gods they will encounter far in the future.
God’s Issue Was Not With Artwork
Some people think the second commandment is simply about the making of statues. However, the context in the book of Exodus shows us that crafting the likeness of anything above in heaven or below on earth cannot be the point. If we look only a few chapters later in the book of Exodus we see God is speaking to Moses from that same Mt. Sinai where he gave the second commandment, and we read this:
Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts— 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. –EX 31
The fascinating issue here is that the second commandment states explicitly “do not make” images. And yet, a few chapters later we see God using the same exact Hebrew word, and commanding them “to make” artistic designs of things in heaven like Cherubim, things on earthy like blossoms and vegetation. And this model never changes. Centuries later we see that when the Israelites erected Solomon’s Temple they added more artistic examples of vegetation and angelic beings as well as Oxen and Lions. These were all acceptable to God, and never condemned.
The only type of art condemned in the bible, is artwork made for the explicit purpose of idol worship. These were little statues used in shrines or large statues placed as City Shrines. Those sculptures were called ‘idols’ because of how they were explicitly used. Even the bronze serpent, commissioned by God, became an idol when people began burning incense to it, though its original intent was to serve as a holy picture of Christ. The issue is how it is used and how it served as a vehicle for idolatry.
It Is About the Heart
At first, the commandment to make images, and the command to make the artwork for the tabernacle seem to be contradicting each other. But if we look closer, we can see something else in the verse that makes all the difference. In the second commandment, at the end of the verse we see . . . “you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” This is the point. It is about what we worship, not what we create. God was never anti-art. God was simply against anti- “art worship”
If you picture Jesus walking through The Getty, or the National Gallery in London, or The Louvre in Paris. . . He wouldn’t be opposed to all the great art. What would upset Jesus would be if people started kneeling before the artwork and praying to The Mona Lisa, or to the Starry Nights of Van Gogh, or burning incense to a painting of The Last Supper. Why would Jesus be upset? Not because the paintings were so moving, or so powerful, but because people were worshiping it.
You see – we have to step back and remind ourselves where idolatry comes from: The problem is not something external, but something internal. As Jesus said , “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Mt. 15:11) The problem is what comes out our hearts – gossip, slander, pride, lust, sloth, idolatry.
False Cause Fallacy
To claim artwork causes idolatry is to commit the false cause fallacy. The cause of sin is how our heart takes good things and makes them ultimate things, worthy of worship. But the objects are not evil and have no agency. If artwork caused idolatry, then every time we go to a museum, we should expect to see people burning candles to sculptures and praying to paintings. How could they resist if the artwork causes idolatry?
But the cause of our sin is in our heart, not out in the world:
“Lazy Boy chairs don’t cause sloth
Great restaurants don’t cause gluttony
Beautiful people don’t cause lust.
Trophies don’t cause pride.
Art doesn’t cause idolatry”
Our Hearts Lead to Idolatry
Martin Luther and John Calvin correctly pointed out that our hearts are idol factories – prone to worship almost anything. Our hearts can worship power, money, food, physical fitness, artistic creativity and accolades, getting a Grammy, an Oscar, or an Emmy. The real issue is our heart.
The Egyptian idols were simply artifacts meant to facilitate pagan idolatry. They did not cause idolatry. They had no real power. Think of this: Archaeologist don’t uncover idols today and immediately find themselves uncontrollably worshiping and bowing down before them. If that was true, no Christian should ever be involved in archaeology. No. They dust them off, record them and ship them to museums to be viewed as an artifact, and keep digging like nothing happened- because these little statues have absolutely no intrinsic power. The power to worship them is a choice we make based upon what we believe, and that decision resides completely within the human heart.
A Biblical Response to the Beauty of Creation and Artwork
A Christian is the one who can be moved powerfully by the beauty of creation, or the majesty of a work of art without being tempted to worship either. Imagine standing before a regal lion, with impressive teeth, mane and claws. It is natural to be moved and even inspired by his regal nature.
While there are some cultures that worship animals, that is not really a temptation for those of us in the west. Consider how God calls himself the Lion of Judah, and we understand what he is implying through the metaphor. Yet we do not worship lions. Humans are quite adept at separating the metaphor from reality. The thoughtful Christian appreciates beauty in art or in creation without being tempted to worship it. We know there is only one God that is worthy of our worship.
The truth is that it is the superstitious man or woman who thinks the power of a work of art lies in the actual marble or in the oil pigments. The wise person recognizes that artwork is simply a conversation between you and the artist.
What moves you when you listen to a piece of music or encounter a great painting, simply shows you what ideas and conversations it awakens in your heart. What you do with those ideas is up to you. You could sin by worshiping the art, you could pause to contemplate the intentions of the artist or your own subjective appreciation, or you could simply walk on to the next work of art without the slightest temptation. The artwork itself holds no power. The power lies within our God-given imagination as we seek to understand what each work of art means to us personally.
The worship of anything created by men and women is idolatry, but the same is true of things created by God. We don’t worship trees, rivers, people, or places. There are countless wonderful things to behold during this life, but none of them cause us to commit the sin of idolatry. That is a problem of the heart.
So what does this really mean for you as an artist? It means you have freedom to paint, draw, design products, sculpt, and make films about all sorts of subjects. The second commandment simply tells us not to encourage or lead others toward the worship of anything besides God. God himself does not despise your gifts. On the contrary, he rejoices over your creativity and passion, which He gave you.
May we all be careful about what we worship with our hearts, and may we be careful to not denigrate the arts, or accuse them of leading us to idolatry. They have no such power, and never did.
Copyright © 2021 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.
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