Art Devoid of God
As a serious Christian and a dedicated musician, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about what it means to have God in my art form. How does He provide the inspiration and the content of every piece of music I play? How can I honor Him with every note? How can I involve Him in the process of practicing and creating? How can I seek Him and His Kingdom through playing music? I purposefully focus my mind and heart on worshiping the Originator of all beauty through playing the flute. This mindset gives me motivation and purpose; discipline comes more easily when I realize that I'm exercising a God-given gift for the glory of the Giver. My Father shows me that I can find Him and see His heart through music--so how can I not pursue Him with joy?
But the purpose of this post is to discuss what my art would be like without God. This is a hypothetical situation, because, thankfully, I do have Him. But there are several reasons why it's valuable to consider the opposite: 1. It helps me more clearly understand my faith--light is even brighter when contrasted with darkness. 2. Many of my fellow artists exist and create without God. 3. Any pursuit or profession devoid of God is in the end meaningless; pondering this makes us more dependent on the Author of Life--and being more dependent on Him is the goal of our lives.
A quote from C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" inspired this discussion. The narrator of this book finds himself in a beautiful country that is "lower Heaven." Dead souls travel here and are offered a choice: will they stay in this country and travel into the mountains, into eternal life with God? Or will they return to a miserable, gray Hell, devoid of all purpose and meaning? The narrator observes a redeemed soul trying to convinced a dead artist to stay and learn to love and seek God. He appeals to the artist's awareness of beauty--if the artist sought after beauty on earth, how much more true beauty will he find if he stays in Heaven? But the artist disregards this appeal and begins talking about his mediums and his reputation. Eventually, he chooses to go back to Hell, where he can keep painting and keep filling his soul with himself.
The narrator's guide, another redeemed soul, explains this scene: "Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn't stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower--become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations" (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce). This is the plight of the non-Christian artist. Any pursuit without God--whether painting, singing, construction, cleaning, gardening--ends up as worship of self.
I do think, however, that art deserves its own category. Many other professions take care of people's physical needs, but art serves the spiritual and emotional parts of us, the parts we can't see, but that motivate and drive our lives. Art speaks into the deepest parts of us and has influence over how we think, feel, and perceive. With God, art is a very selfless pursuit: the artist wants to bless humanity with beauty, helping people see a beautiful meaning in their lives that springs from a beautiful Creator. Without God, art turns inwards. As Lewis says, every artist begins with a thirst to communicate beauty--but the act of communicating itself soon becomes predominate. The more you create, the more obsessed you become with the process of creating, and the more you lose sight of why you're creating.
I have no right to make these claims without evidence. But I have the very strong evidence of my own life. Yes, I am a redeemed artist, but I still forget the truth sometimes and focus on myself. When I forget why I play the flute--to showcase God and draw closer to Him--I immediately become self-absorbed. I obsess over my mistakes, and any improvement I make bloats my ego. The act of perfecting something to prove my worth becomes my idol. Without God in my music, I play music only to prove that I am a worthy human being who can do something better than my peers; I am driven by nasty, competitive thoughts; I find myself looking down upon or envying other flute players. My practicing becomes a weird cycle of motivation and discouragement: motivation to practice hard so I can be the best, discouragement because I can't meet my own standards. I become obsessed with details of my art, and forget for Whom I should be playing.
I also see this in the lives of my fellow artists. So many musicians think their worth is equal to their performance. Thus, they obsess over the process of creating so that they can produce what they think is a perfect product. Communicating beauty, although it may have motivated them at first, falls into the background--the performer himself and his performance are his gods.
I see no way out of this mindset besides surrendering yourself to Christ. When He takes over your life, you realize that you have an extraordinary worth apart from your performance; Christ loves us because He created us--He sees us as inherently valuable and precious. Knowing we are unconditionally loved frees us. Christ frees us from worshiping ourselves--for without Him, the end of any pursuit is self-worship. Without Him, we will never find true fulfillment in anything we do; we will never be real artists, because desire for approval and acceptance--not freedom to communicate beauty--will drive us.
But even where He is not openly acknowledged or worshiped, God is still in the arts. All art begins as a search for beauty, and all beauty originates in Him. There is hope for anyone who chooses to dedicate himself to the search for beauty. May you not be overcome by the temptation to worship yourself, to forget why you paint or sing or compose or play your instrument and turn your pursuit inwards to prove your self-worth; instead, may you begin your artistic quest with the desire to find beauty, and encounter your beautiful Creator along the way.
Will we let go of our self-worship and follow Him into the mountains--or are we so absorbed in our mediums that we've forgotten how to recognize beauty? Will we accept the offered redemption, or would we rather stay imprisoned to ourselves? Art devoid of God is slavery to idolatry, but art with Him is freedom of expression.
"When you painted on earth--at least in your earlier days--it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here [in Heaven] you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came" (the redeemed spirit to the dead artist; C.S. Lewis, "The Great Divorce").