My favorite essay in the collection For the Beauty of the Church is “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?” by Andy Crouch (pp. 29-43). He packs so many insights into fifteen pages, with two main emphases: God’s creation and blessing of culture in the Garden of Eden and during the Last Supper, and the “unusefulness” of art (linked to the unusefulness of prayer and praise). Today I’ll cover the first of the two. All of this is a paraphrase of Crouch. I’ll save my thoughts for a later post.
Cultural critic Ken Myers defines culture as what we make of the world—in both a material and spiritual sense. It is literally making stuff out of the materials at hand, but it is also making meaning. In Genesis 2, we see God making something of the world—creatio ex creatio—in contrast to the creatio ex nihilo of Genesis 1. He could have created man from nothing, but instead he chose to create him from the dust of the ground, and woman from the rib of man. Artists likewise create out of what has been created. They call forth beauty from where it lies latent. In this way, they mimic the creative impulse of God.
Genesis 2 depicts God as the very first culture-maker. He combines, shapes, and transforms the stuff of the world, and he thinks thoughts about this stuff. He plants, waters, selects, protects, weeds, and nurtures a garden—he takes what is wild and makes it habitable. And then he gives this garden, this culture, as a gift to Adam, and tells him to continue cultivating it.
Not only does God value creativity and culture; he values beauty. The Garden of Eden wasn’t just “good for food”; it was “pleasant to the sight” (Genesis 2:9). When God said “it was good,” he meant that not just in a utilitarian sense (that it was good for something), but in an aesthetic sense (it was good simply in the beholding).
Enter Adam and Eve. They try to make something of the world that isn’t possible—self-sufficiency, to replace their dependency on God. Their first act after they eat the forbidden fruit is to sew together fig leaves and cover themselves. These hastily assembled garments were strictly instrumental, and were probably not “a delight to the eyes.” The perfectly whole and glorious culture that God had established begins downward spiral from there, as men seek ways of making the world serve their own ends rather than display his beauty and grace.
But God doesn’t abandon his role as Creator. He continues to create ex creatis. He even enters human culture as Jesus and, on his last night, lifts up a loaf of bread and a skin of wine, blesses them, and gives them to his friends. These two cultural goods, cultivated from wheat and grapes, become a sign and presence of God in the world.
Because the world is a gift and culture is a gift, art, too, which is a part of culture-making, is a gift, and can be used for God’s glory.
Read Part 2.