Does art matter? If so, why?

A call for Christians to create
By Alastair Gordon
IVP. 118 pages. £8.99
ISBN 978 1 789 742 367

This book encourages every believer, indeed every human being, to recognise and use their creativity. We are made in the image of God, and creative is part of what he has made us to be.

The author is an articulate evangelical believer and an award-winning painter, recognised in the mainstream art world. He brings his great enthusiasm to underline the vital role that creativity has in human life, beginning with the importance of beauty to human flourishing, observing that in God’s creation of trees in Genesis 2:9 aesthetics (‘pleasing to the eye’) comes before utility (‘good for food’). Art is also vital in memorialising events and people; finding expression for emotions that defy words; posing questions that some might prefer to dodge.

The book does not pretend to offer an explanation of how art ‘works’ or how to read a painting. But using examples from his own life and work, as well as from a range of artists from Caravaggio and Degas to Malevich and Norman Rockwell, he explores a series of justifications for the title. Art matters because we – made in God’s image – matter; because the world matters; because God has given us imaginations; because art provides glimpses of how life should be and one day will be. As Christians we need clear statements of faith; but our experience of daily life is often messy, and a painting, a story or a piece of music can on occasion help us deal with that messiness more effectively than can a propositional truth.

Gordon’s book is commendably short and clearly written, which inevitably results in some questionable generalisations. His assertion that ‘Art tells us what people really think’ probably doesn’t describe everyone’s experience of Tate Modern. The interrelationship of beauty, truth and goodness needs a lot more unpacking. And the author’s suggestion of a possible prophetic use of the arts raises a bunch of questions.

But what the book lacks in detail, it makes up for in passionate advocacy for Christians to engage actively with their own creativity, and to encourage the work of professional artists.

It is an important addition to earlier works such as Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible, Rookmaaker’s Art needs no justification and Steve Turner’s Imagine. These authors helped to gain the arts an accepted place in the evangelical world, but this has not yet been turned into active engagement. The recent failure of any church or Christian organisation to buy up Liviu Mocan’s extraordinary sculptural group Archetypes, made in celebration of the Reformation in 2017 (reviewed in en October 2018), is a sad example of how far we have yet to go in putting our money where our mouth is.

The book is illustrated with a number of the artist’s own works for which you would otherwise have to pay a lot of money.

Read this work, embrace the creativity God has given you, and encourage your church to explore actively the powerful role that the arts can play in your life and witness.

Nigel Halliday

Nigel Halliday, writer, Saltford, Somerset