What does it mean to be a Christian artist?
In a world where art is marked by experimentation and the glorification of all manners of evil, how can Christians reclaim art as an avenue for honoring God?
And does God even speak or work through art?
These are all questions that Hans Rookmaaker, a Dutch scholar, pondered in his little book, Art Needs No Justification.
It seems an odd title for a volume about God’s purpose for art and creative pursuits, but Rookmaaker knew what he was doing in this brief, but clear missive.
Rookmaaker was born in The Hague in 1922 and grew up studying architecture and engineering with the intentions of becoming a career officer in the Dutch Royal Navy. But his life changed when German forces invaded Holland.
As a student at the Naval College and therefore a member of the Dutch Royal Navy, Rookmaaker became a prisoner of war and spent months in a Nazi prison, where, against all odds, he began reading the Bible.
His encounters with Christ through the pages of the Word changed his outlook on life. “As I was reading, I gradually came to the conviction that the Bible reveals the truth to us,” he said as he studied the pages. “[It]…came to me with the demand to accept the gospel as a joyful message.”
Rookmaaker did indeed accept the Gospel as a joyful message, embracing his new faith even as he remained in Nazi prison camps for several years.
God provided innumerable opportunities for the new Christian to learn about culture and art from his fellow prisoners, who were often well-educated professors and philosophers who had questioned Nazi ideals.
When he was finally released from prison, Rookmaaker began a successful career as a scholar and professor, publishing several books detailing his thoughts on culture, art, and the role of faith in the modern world.
At approximately sixty pages, Art Needs No Justification is his shortest work. This book is a call to action for Christian artists, describing the need for excellence in art and creativity in the Church.
Rookmaaker begins by writing about the cultural shift from art as a natural part of everyday life to art becoming a science “that took the place of religion.” The Renaissance that occurred in Western culture from the 14th to 17th centuries transformed our understanding of art, he argues.
No longer was art considered “the natural beauty that was expected of humanly made things,” Rookmaaker says. Instead, art became “high art,” which was supposed to be “a revelation, a mystical solution to the deepest quests of mankind.”
And this is one of the causes of art’s downfall.
Rather than worshiping the Creator who had bestowed artistic gifts, society turned to worshiping the art itself, seeking answers to deep spiritual and psychological questions from the wrong source.
Of course, art could never provide those answers on its own.
And in response to this worship of art, Rookmaaker writes, the Christian Church retreated from the artistic sphere — which it had once dominated for the glory of God — at the very moment its influence was most needed.
Making art and acting creatively is part of being human, Rookmaaker argues, and “Christ…came to redeem us that we might be human in the full sense of that word.”
Leaving art solely in the hands of the world is a dangerous mistake in our theology.
“Weep, pray, think, and work,” writes Rookmaaker, urging Christians to recognize the cultural downturn of art and take up their artistic talents to use them for the kingdom of God in response.
After all, our relationship with God should impact every area of our lives.
How, then, should Christian artists proceed?
It is important for Christians to be present in the cultural, social, and artistic life of their time, but it’s not an easy task.
Guidelines for “Christian” art often tend to be legalistic and restrictive, Rookmaaker notes, rather than empowering for followers of Christ.
Many churches think Christians should only make art that conveys a clear evangelistic message. Any art that does not fit the mold of “outreach” or “preaching” is quickly discarded.
Rather than viewing art as a purely evangelistic task, it is important to remember that (in Rookmaaker’s words), “art needs no justification.”
Art is a gift from God, and it is He who calls artists and gives them special talents.
It is enough for Christian artists to pursue the work that God has called them to, Rookmaaker asserts: “Whatever we do, we do it as God’s children… The Christian’s art must be Christian in a deep sense, showing… excitement for the greatness of the life we were given.”
Rookmaaker offers a broad and exciting vision for art made by Christians, writing that it should be “more real, more honest” than art made by worldly artists. “It should be a commitment [to excellence],” he continues, urging Christian artists to hone their craft through hard work.
Rookmaaker does offer some brief, broad guidelines for Christian artists throughout the rest of his book, but he refuses to define strict rules.
He clearly believes that God relates to each artist in a special way.
Above all, his writing positions art as a revelation of God’s love for His people and for their creativity.
This brief book is a must-read for Christian artists at any stage of their career.
It’s a stirring and critically written argument for the necessity of art that recognizes the complexity of life and honors God on many different levels.
Purchase your copy of Art Needs No Justification today and accept the call to “weep, pray, think, and work.”