The Purpose of Poetry: What are The Arts for?

A portion of Makoto Fujimura's "In the Beginning"
A portion of Makoto Fujimura’s “In the Beginning”

The Bible has a songbook right smack in the middle of it. It’s called the Psalms. With 150 songs, it stands as the longest book of the Bible. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter of the Bible. Why is this songbook there?

There is another book that is entirely a song. It’s called the Song of Songs. This song isn’t even about God. It’s about romance and marriage between some newly married couple who apparently really like each other and have a very steamy relationship.

Even the book of Proverbs is mostly written in parallelism-style poetry. And if you go back to the book of Exodus, the first people explicitly filled with the Spirit of God are the artists that God commissions to create the pieces of art to be used in worship in God’s tabernacle.

“…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts…” (Exodus 31:3)

This seems to bring up the question: Why art?
The Bible never fully explains the full theological and developmental purpose of art. Whatever God thinks about art, in most passages of Scripture he seems simply to assume it rather than instruct us in it. But we can be sure of one thing: he is certainly not afraid to make use of it, and in certain situations, even to forbid it.

He forbids it for the purpose of creating any image of himself. God knows we are prone to idolatry, and he will not permit our created images of him to become idols. He instead creates his own art to bear his own image: humanity and the true human Jesus Christ who was the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

In Scripture, art is used in the contexts of holistic human development, especially toward the application of knowledge in true devotion, in true worship. We find art consistently used in worship. Art is used to worship God, but it is forbidden to use it to image God. The art used in worship had a few clear components.

First, it was beautiful. It wasn’t designed to be as weird as possible – or to subvert the culturally dominant stereotypes of beauty. The items were simply beautiful, masterfully crafted, brightly colored and shiny.

Second, it is exhaustive. In song, all instruments are called to worship. Psalm 150 points to the universal calling of all instruments to be used in the praise of God:

Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.  2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness.  3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre,  4 praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute,  5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.  6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD. (Psalm 150:1 NIV)

This is a pretty exhaustive list. Praise God everywhere. Praise him for everything. Praise him with everything. Praise him everybody. If Psalm 1 is a good introduction, Psalm 150 is a good conclusion.

But this still begs the question: Why? What is art for? What is its purpose?

I have some artist friends that probably would say that art doesn’t need a purpose. I personally think that’s a little pedantic. Artists don’t create art. They only create pieces of art, or examples thereof.

God created art, and he can certainly tell us, or imply to us what it’s for. And if the Old Testament’s illustrations of worship are an example to us, then art is for the holistic and ennobling expression and realization of truth through beauty. It is used to focus people on what is true, to encourage them to value that true thing rightly, and to regard that true thing appropriately and with proper devotion. It is meant to make reality more real and to help us ritually remember that which we chronically forget.

Some artists have always recognized the basic truth that human beings are the kind of creatures that forget the truth and destroy themselves. Artistry produces the artifacts of remembrance, and recollection is a wholesome road to redemption. Beauty is never so beautiful as when it adorns the truth. Just as nobility is never more noble as when it guards the right.

The great artist produces artifacts that ennoble humanity through beauty to what is good, true and right. She prompts redemptive recollection. He chisels through verse the re-framing of reality. Great artists tell stories that can be recognized within a bigger story we all live in but forget that we know. Good art is ennobling beauty that reveals or recollects the truth.

Is this true of the art you produce or ingest? Are you using art to form yourself or deform yourself? What kind of art do you surround yourself with?

How can we use the Psalms, or any art, for God’s intended purpose? And how will you create art for that same purpose?

His Voice Twists Oaks

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