A discussion of professions, the arts, art media, and the glory of God
By Mark D. Harris
It is Christmastime, and Christians around the world are singing “Glory to God in the highest.” We rarely consider what they mean. In church, we may parrot the Westminster Shorter Confession, which states that the purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Again, the words ring true, but what do they really say, and how can we really do them?
Informed Christians understand that God’s people glorify Him in every obedient thought, word, and act. Doctors give honor to the Great Physician by ably treating patients, wives and mothers glorify their Lord by caring for their husbands and children, businessmen give honor to the Great Provider by selling good products and services at fair prices, laborers exalt the Lord of the Harvest with industry and loyalty to their employer, and princes exalt their King by ruling justly. In the right context, eating, sleeping, and recreation glorify God.
Both in my medical and in my pastoral responsibilities, people often ask me, “Do some jobs glorify God more than others? Is a preacher better than a taxi driver? Do some fields within professions that produce greater praise to the Lord?” Specifically, in the context of the arts, is one art form better at glorifying God than another? If so, which art form has brought the most glory to God? This article will discuss that question.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So reads the Bible in Genesis and the Gospel of John. He created everything in the universe, and He did so from nothing. Therefore, no created thing that exists in the material realm, or in the spiritual realm, such as angels, exists independent of Him. This truth must inform our exploration into which art form has brought God the most glory.
Our next task is to define, or rather describe, glory. We in the West often think of brightness and beauty when we imagine glory, such as the image of Jesus descending on a cloud, His radiance brighter than the sun. This is true, but there is another aspect to glory. The Hebrews thought in terms of כָּבֹוד “kabowd”, or “heaviness”, and dignity when they wrote of glory. For example, David might be “heavy” with power, Solomon might be “heavy” with wisdom, and Ezekiel might be “heavy” with courage. God’s glory was so heavy and so forceful that He could make mountains flee away and set the boundaries of the sea. “Bringing God glory” might be adding brightness and beauty, or adding heaviness and power, to Him.
We need to lay some other groundwork. God is infinite in each of His attributes, including His glory. As even junior high mathematicians know, infinity cannot be added to, subtracted from, multiplied, or divided. God’s glory is what it is because of who He is. All of creation, whether men or angels, can no more affect the glory of God than we can brighten or darken the sun. The idea of giving God glory is, in the absolute sense, ludicrous. We have none to give, and no one can add to Him anyway.
Why then does the Bible clearly command us to glorify God? The answer is shrouded in mystery, but part of the answer is that while God’s glory is unchanging, our perception of His glory does change. A man cannot dim the sun, but he can sit under a sun shade, go indoors, or even go underground. Doing so, for that person at that time, diminishes the perceived glory of God. We hide often from God’s glory, lest it expose our sins, our weaknesses, and our wicked hearts. Most men actually want God far less than they think they do. He is, after all, much more than any of us bargain for.
But the Creator of the Universe loves each and every person that He has created. He treasures all of His work, from stones and blades of grass to angels. The Lord wants us to glorify Him is so that we all will better experience His glory – so that we might be saved. Man may not want the glory of God, but we desperately need it. That is why our Lord calls us to glorify Him. But which profession, and in this case which art medium, exalts Him the best.
How can we decide which art form has brought the most glory to God?
One approach to deciding which art form has brought the most glory to God is to evaluate the medium used. The chemicals that produce paint and film, the stones that make buildings and statues, the sounds that produce music, the words that weave into literature, the movements that inform dance, and the combinations thereof, belong equally to Him. God made all of these things, and pronounced them all equally “good.” If stones, words, music, and chemicals are equally valuable to God, they cannot, in themselves, contribute in different amounts to His glory. As a result, it is impossible on the basis of the medium itself to definitively state which art form has brought the most glory to God.
Another approach to deciding which art form has brought the most glory to God would be to compare practitioners and works throughout history. We could list some famous artists in each field, or some of the greatest works, and estimate how many people they influenced. For example,
- Music – JS Bach, Georg Handel, Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley
- Literature – C.S. Lewis, John Bunyan
- Visual Arts – Leonardo Da Vinci (Last Supper), Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel), Rembrandt (Prodigal Son)
- Architecture – Hagia Sophia, St Paul’s, St. Peter’s
- Dance – Baryshnikov
- Theater – The Jesus Film, King of Kings, Ben Hur
One can easily see the failings of this method. I can only list what I know, and every other commentator can only do the same. Thus, there is an insurmountable selection bias in choosing which artists and work to include when evaluating which art form has brought the most glory to God. I don’t know many Christian dancers or architects, so few are listed here. Someone else will not know many musicians or writers. How famous would an artist have to be to make the list? Millions of painters, singers, and writers have produced fine works for the Lord over the ages, but how does one know who to include, or even who they are?
Other troubles loom large. Once someone makes the list, how do you evaluate their impact? A few possibilities come to mind:
- Authors – number of books sold, number of articles clicked on (using the Internet)
- Music – number of records/CDs/MP3 files sold, number of tickets sold at concerts, number of songs clicked on (Internet)
- Visual arts – number of works sold, number of views of work (online, gallery or museum visitors)
- Theater or dance – number of attendees at performances, number of works sold, number of internet visits
These measures of impact miss a lot. Much information is not available (how many people viewed Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper in March of 1719?), they don’t account for technology (how many internet clicks did Franz Liszt get on his music in his lifetime?), and they are largely financial. However, money is not well correlated with historical impact. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the second most popular Christian book in history, after the Bible, but it did not make a lot of money during his lifetime, and does not today. Lastly, none of these measures account for secondary circulation of any of these works – books sold second hand by private parties, paintings seen on someone else’ photographs, or music enjoyed at a friend’s house. Who knows – perhaps an obscure, 18th century watercolor is the most glory-giving work of all?
Our task of determining which art form has brought the most glory to God seems hopeless. Nevertheless, there is one last item to consider. God chose to reveal Himself to man through stories, through a book, and ultimately through a Man, Jesus Christ. Using human authors, God Himself wrote the Bible. The greatest artists in history have returned to the Holy Scriptures for subject matter, for inspiration, and for comfort. From Shakespeare to Thomas Kincaid, artists have turned to the Bible for what they needed in life and in work. Insofar as the Bible is literature, literature has given the most glory to God over history.
“Wait a minute!” some may object. “It is not fair to compare the Bible, a work of God, to other art works made by man.” This is true. None of us can approach the “Holy Other.” Considering these factors, and excluding the text of the Bible, it is impossible to definitely state which art form has brought more glory to God over history. Actually, I am sure that each art form, and each artist, are equal in giving Him exactly the amount of glory that He intended to receive from that medium, and from that person.
Man’s chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We do it in every act, every word, and every thought that is informed by His Spirit and is obedient to His word. The music superstar has no advantage over the trash collector in giving glory – beauty, brightness, weight, dignity, and power – or at least the perception of glory in the minds and hearts of men, to the Lord. The Bible, God-breathed and God-directed, is the written word or God even as Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. Nothing has a greater impact than these.
Comparing the art forms of mortal man, however, there is no art form that is better than the others. The painter has no greater claim to glory than the songsmith, nor the architect to the dancer. The piano impresario who brings money and fame to himself is a beggar compared to the minister who has been leading 50 parishioners in congregational singing for 50 years, but doing it with all his might for the glory of Christ.
God knows, and will someday reveal, those who have served Him well. For now, we press on as members of the Body of Christ, doing our work as He gives it to us.
Reach the nations with music and the arts. Discover how at: The Church, the Arts, and Shaping the World for Christ.