My fellow Kuyperian contributor, Dustin Messer, recently wrote some worthwhile reflections on David Skeel’s book True Paradox. Explaining Skeel’s take on art, Messer notes that in the Christian worldview, art must tell the truth about the world by witnessing to its entire story: creation, fall, and redemption:
“This story of creation, fall, and redemption permeates the Scriptures, and because the Scriptures tell the true story of this world, it permeates our experience as well. Thus, for art to be affirmed by the Christian worldview, it of course can—and must—touch on these themes. Granted, each and every piece of art won’t include each and every theme each and every time. A work which reflects the pain and depravity of creation is no less true than the work which points to the world’s inherent dignity and goodness, or a work which alludes to the balm and remedy brought by Christ, for that matter.”
Unfortunately, modern Christian forays into art seldom aspire beyond portraying the happy aspects of life in the world. Christians often treat art as something that exists only in the sphere of redemption—a discipline dealing only with the aesthetically pleasant. Rather than engaging the world, art functions as sanctified entertainment, leaving unexplored vast areas of human life. The full story of the fall is left untold—it may as well never have happened.
But the wonder of redemption is unintelligible apart from the horror of the fall. The reality of the fall is a truth no less than the new creation. Thus, if Christians are to tell the true story of the world, our involvement with art (whether as creators or audiences) cannot be limited to the brightness of redemption, but should entail confrontation with the darkness of the fall. Scripture certainly does not shy away from revealing the harrowing extent of the fall and its effects on all of creation.
A classic example of this is J. S. Bach’s masterpiece oratorio, St. Matthew’s Passion, whose final chorus is a lamentation on the death of Christ, entitled, “We Sit Down in Tears.” The Passion does not end with the resurrection, and so leaves the listener unsettled. Bach understood that profound art contains truth and tension, and even with a sacred work, he did not feel the need to append a happy ending so his audience would leave with good vibes. By concluding his piece with the burial of Christ (and dealing with the resurrection in a separate work), Bach enables listeners to feel the weight of sin and death and more fully identify with the sadness and despair experienced by Christ’s disciples.
For Christians, depicting the brokenness of creation is not lapse into nihilism, but rather a truthful, even hopeful, artistic endeavor. Simply acknowledging the reality of the fall presupposes that the world was created good, but that things are not now as they should be. Attesting to the darkness in the world can also illustrate the pervasive extent of the fall, narrate the misery and consequences of sin, expose injustice, point to the necessity of redemption, and accent the incompleteness of restoration until the life of the world to come.
Such a perspective ought to open up new vistas for Christian artistic endeavors and encounters. Life on this side of the new heavens and new earth will always partake of unresolved tension, and so artistic engagement with the fall will always be appropriate. Works of art presenting the depths of the fall can witness to the truth as much as works that are explicitly redemptive.