My mother and I once sat at my kitchen table, reading the biblical directives found in Exodus 28 for the construction of the priestly garments.
“It’s easy to see how people got the idea of wearing their Sunday best to church,” my mother said.
It is indeed. The priestly garments were literally works of art. Among the descriptions of the beautiful tent of meeting, the ark, the altar and all the articles for worship, the garments of the priests are noteworthy.
The garments were “skillfully worked” of beautiful textiles (“gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen” Ex 28:6), and adorned with “chains of pure gold, twisted like cords” (Ex 28:14) and engraved stones of different colors, including the brilliant yellow topaz, red carbuncle, green emerald, blue sapphire, white diamond, purple amethyst, and aquamarine beryl. Gold bells hung between pomegranates woven from blue, purple and scarlet yarns on the hem of the priest’s robe. In the directions for the garments for Aaron’s sons, the purpose is reiterated as “for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:40).
Clearly, the Lord did not design the tabernacle, its articles and the priestly garments merely for function. These things were weighted with the symbolism of God’s covenant with His people. They were intended to bring glory to Him. But God’s own words make it clear that these garments were also designed for the enjoyment of their beauty.
God’s love for beauty is apparent not only in His Word, but also in His world. Who can observe the glories of creation without marveling at their variety and beauty? The ruby throat of the hummingbird throbbing at the feeder while its iridescent green back gleams in the sun, the brilliant purple of the first crocus splashing color onto a drab landscape, the rugged majesty of a snow-capped mountain soaring into the sky, these all direct our thoughts toward God and fill our minds with doxologies to His glory.
As imagebearers of the Creator God, we dimly reflect His creativity in our creative endeavors. In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers draws an interesting analogy between the Triune nature of the Creator God and human creativity. She writes, “…the artist’s experience proves that the Trinitarian doctrine of Idea, Energy and Power is, quite literally, what it purports to be: a doctrine of the Creative Mind.” Sayers identifies the Idea as the artist’s concept, the Energy as the artist’s creation, and the Power as the impact of the art.
Sayers continues, “To the human maker…it will also be natural to look beyond himself for the external archetype and pattern of his own creative personality—the threefold Person in whose image he is made….”
The threefold Creator God is the source of all that is good and true and beautiful. As His image bearers, we are called to reflect God’s goodness, truth and beauty in our creative expressions.
God called those who crafted the priestly garments “the skillful,” whom He had “filled” with “a spirit of skill” (Ex 28:3). God obviously ordains certain persons to be blessed with specific artistic skill that should be developed and implemented.
We read about one of the first skillful in Exodus 31. God “called by name” Bezalel and “filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.” Bezalel was a man of many talents, and a master of them all!
From His earliest dealings with His covenant people, God promotes artistic expression. In the introduction to his book, State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe, Gene Edward Veith, Jr. writes, “The Bible itself sanctions the arts, describing the gifts God has given to artists and recounting in loving detail works of art that were ordained by God to manifest His glory and to enrich His people.”
Throughout the history of Western civilization, Christians have contributed significantly to culture’s music, art and literature. But Reformed Christians sometimes fail to appreciate yesterday’s contributors or encourage today’s “skillful.”
Christians are called to think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). In the books we read, in our choice of clothing, in the furnishings of our homes, in the architecture of our churches, we are all surrounded by art, whether we recognize it or not. Our task is to develop discernment and learn to recognize the true, the excellent, and the beautiful.
How do Reformed Christians respond to God’s call regarding the beautiful? How do we view artistic expression? Do we think of art as the domain of secularists? Do we consider the fine arts a legitimate vocation? What can we, as individuals and churches, do to promote and support the creative expressions of artists who work within the context of a biblical worldview?
Makoto Fujimura, a New York City artist and one of today’s most visible Christians in the arts, posts thoughtful questions and reflections about art on his “Refractions” blog (http://makotofujimura.blogspot.com). His entry dated 3/4/2006 asks what he calls the “500 year” question.
He defines the “500 year” question as “a historical look at the reality of our cultures, and asking what ideas, what art, what vision affects humanity for over five hundred years.”
Then he asks: Would we see another Renaissance in the days to come? Would we have another chance to steward our culture, without losing our identity and faith in the process?
The above is excerpted from my article “The Arts: A Reformed Perspective” that appeared in the June 21, 2006 issue of Christian Renewal. It was the first is a series on Christians in the Arts, which examined questions related to the fine arts while presenting the perspectives of Christian artists, authors, poets and musicians. I hope to reproduce some of those articles here with the prayer that these articles will promote a more biblical perspective of God’s intent for the arts to be for His glory and “for beauty.”
© Glenda Mathes 2006