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Ummmm…You got idols!!

Written by: on October 18, 2018

“Christians already recognized that while images could be useful in promoting appropriate worship, they were also dangerous. Not only were there the biblical warnings about idolatry, but there were also pagan and political connotations that needed to be avoided[1].” What a thought-provoking book on a topic I can honestly say I have never read a book on; the issue of art and Christianity. As a prophesied artist and poet, I have found much delight in using my gifts to glorify God; though more my writing than my artwork. For this reason however, I was very intrigued by the compulsion of Dyrness to impress the Protestant Christian value toward embracing the arts as a means of projecting their own spiritual connection with God. At the same time, I kept hearing those bells of warning that I believe he repeatedly eluded to, which has also made me uneasy many of times as I have seen overly ornate pieces of artwork hanging in various church buildings. For the sake of this reading, rather than referencing a number of outside sources, I would rather demonstrate the scriptures that were taught to me that led to such warning signs. However, in so doing, I should first state, I am not against artwork of a Christian nature…entirely; but when you are shown scripture the way I have been taught it, there is always going to exist hesitation.

As Dyrness mentioned, the primary stumbling block to some Christians in regard to the arts, is that of idolatry. The Old Testament is full of warnings and punishments that are brought to the children of Israel because of their worship of idols and images. “I will pronounce My judgments on them concerning their wickedness, whereby they have forsaken Me and have offered sacrifices to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hand” (Jeremiah 1:16); “Their land has also been filled with idols; they worship the work of their hands, that which their fingers have made,” (Isaiah 2:8). Over and over God voices His anger and frustration with an idolatrous nation. Scripture shows His repeated rebukes regarding their idols of clay and wood, and the punishments that they received as a result; after all, how can we forget the story of a golden calf fashioned in order to worship…and how can we forget how God made them drink that gold as a punishment? We were raised that even a cross that hung around your neck or a giant cross hanging in the front of the church building were not symbols of faith, but rather graven images that serve as idols to those who do not obey. I will never forget the mission trip I made to Mexico, which led me into a small Catholic church in the middle of a poverty stricken city, only to find that it was equipped with security cameras and alarms to protect the golden crosses and overly ornate Christian artwork hanging on the wall. It was not the artwork that bothered me as much as the significance given to the artwork rather than the homeless and hungry that I had walked past to get into the church building in the first place.

However, the offence was not just in regard to carved or crafted idols. In Daniel 3:5, it reads that the people were commanded, “that at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe, and all kinds of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up.” Aside from the normal debate over the legality of musical instruments, was also the question of whether music had the form of idolatry for those who became consumed by it. Ironically, 3 of my 4 children are fantastic musicians, and here I am, the preacher of a non-instrumental church. When my youngest son started high school, he came into my office one day with tears in his eyes, obviously distraught over something. Upon asking him what was wrong, he asked, “Am I going to get you fired?” I was puzzled of course, but then he said, “Because I like to play the tuba. I don’t want to get you fired.” Even at that age, he had learned a certain seriousness that was placed upon the art of music. (Just to answer the question…I didn’t get fired, and he still plays the tuba).

Even paintings have provoked aggressive responses though, because it creates the discussion of artist prerogative and expressionism and that of biblical accuracy. Does an artist have the right to bring themselves into the artwork, if they are truly trying to represent Christianity? Furthermore, is it fair to limit the creativity of an artist by telling them that they are limited to only depict that which is specifically stated in Scripture? About 6 years ago, I purchased 8 banners to line the walls of the auditorium where we worship; to be completely honest, I nearly held my breath the entire service on the first Sunday I displayed them. Though I chose simple scenic images with accurate scriptural references, I know how aggressively some members view artwork in the sanctuary.

So where do you draw the line? How do you determine if something is a violation or simply artwork that is intended to glorify God rather than to offend Him? I shared this story in Hong Kong with a few people, but one Christmas, my grandmother presented the entire family with a gift; when I unwrapped mine, I found that she had translated the entire bible…Old and New Testament…into poetic verse; that’s right, Genesis to Revelation in one incredible poem. So how am I supposed to view that gift?

  1. Grandma perverted the gospel for her own pleasure and delight
  2. Grandma loved the Word so much, that she showed how it touched her by reflecting that joy into loving words of poetry
  3. Put it on the shelf and let it gather dust like all the other books

Well, before I answer that question, I have to ask myself why I have written so many of my own religious poems through the years. Dyrness wrote, “Because of the historical relationship between Christianity and the arts…the involvement of Christian artists in the church is necessarily fraught with tensions[2].” This tells me that sometimes the best way to answer this question is cautiously. I believe there is a lot of artwork hanging in churches today that probably constitutes idolatry; and idolatry is wrong. In the same manner however, there are also many fantastic pieces of art that are expressions of love and connection to God, and as such, deserve to be seen in that manner. If anything, scripture is intended to be a guide to help us determine the difference between what is good and acceptable to God, and what is evil and offensive. Matthew 15:8 reads, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Therefore, the most important thing we must do is to make sure that our hearts are seeking to please God rather than ourselves…in all things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dyrness, William A.. Visual Faith (Engaging Culture): Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. P 32.

[1]Dyrness, William A.. Visual Faith (Engaging Culture): Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. P 32.

 

[2]Ibid, 14.

About the Author

Shawn Hart

15 responses to “Ummmm…You got idols!!”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Shawn,

    You make valid points and I hear the warnings about idolatry. Thanks for the Scriptures. I also think of the Scripture that says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21) which supports your final statements on the condition of our hearts being of paramount importance.

    Where do we draw the line on musical instruments? Is there a “joyful noise” to the Lord from any type? I am not aware of your denomination’s stances on instruments, but I would assume from your son’s concern, that you only use one or two types. That would be a fascinating conversation which I hope we can have some day…

    • Shawn Hart says:

      Our church only sings Acappella. Though the attitude regarding the “why” has changed over the years, the premise today still lies around the mode of authority and offense. However, there are many, like myself, that have come to see that it is not a forbidden item in Scripture, nor is it something that I believe God is displeased by or upset with. I worry about some in regard to their reasoning for it; often today I keep hearing the “I” factor much more than the “God” factor. It concerns me when we are so focused on making worship what we want it that we forget to study whether we are supposed to make it that way. All worship is still supposed to be about giving glory to God. I do not have to enjoy it, find it pleasing, or find that it makes me happy; all that I have to do is make sure that I am offering proper and appropriate praise to God.

  2. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Shawn,
    I’m so curious to hear more about your denominations beliefs regarding art, instruments, etc. I certainly want to learn, not criticize, different beliefs and cultures – I say cultures because even within faith traditions, there are cultural differences. It sounds like your denomination takes a very serious view of idolatry (with art & music) and I wonder if this same view of idolatry translate to things outside of church and into the “personal” (ie. homes, cars, clothes)?

    • Shawn Hart says:

      Jean, it is not that we find offense with everything; but rather that we seek to make sure that it is appropriate. 1 Corinthians 6:12 reads, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” I think this scripture has led to much scrutiny in regards to what is allowed and not allowed in our worship. Sadly, it has also led to a history of “law-making” that I believe is also wrong. Ultimately though, it is not the desire to disqualify anything, but instead, to make sure that all that we do is proper for worship and edification without being an offense to God or each other. Is it limiting? Absolutely, but it is limited by choice, not command.

  3. mm M Webb says:

    Shawn,
    Thanks for your transparency and personalized review of Dyrness’ Visual Faith. I think we saw some idolatry in HK at the Buddhist temple don’t you think? I know I got a headache watching if and even being in the presence of their visible forms of foreign gods. I shudder just remembering the visuals we saw.
    Is the lottery a type of idolatry I wonder? Watching the images on TV the past few days at the masses moving in unison, in a form of worship, to give money to the lottery god in statistically near-impossible odds against winning.
    Everything we do, our righteousness, and our art, in the context of God’s holiness is like “filthy rags” according to Scripture (Isa. 64:6). Nevertheless, in God’s economy He can make filthy rags beautiful for our good and His glory.
    If you think art can be used in idolatrous ways, I wonder what your thoughts are on the many toys and things we and our congregants’ lust after and buy on credit. I think it all really depends on the condition of our heart and mind about the item, but then there is more. What about those who look at us? Do they see Christ, or someone or something else? I wonder.
    Good post brother!
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  4. Shawn Hart says:

    Mike, there are so many things we can hold as idolatry today, and I try to warn my congregation of as many as possible. I remember a number of years ago when people were attacking Michael Jordan for losing $20,000 in a gambling bet. I also remember that about one month prior to that, Jordan had signed a $40 Million contract with Oscar Meyer. In a case like this, that bet would have to be held in perspective before accusation is brought (Not promoting gambling). I believe the topic this week is the same; there are some beautiful hearted people that do incredibly beautiful things with artistic expression, and I would never call into question their intentions. However, I also believe that talent was turned to idolatry over and over again in the Bible, and as a result, it should serve as a warning to all of us today. Just because we like, or because it makes us feel good and tingly inside, does not necessarily mean that it is good. We should just tread softly and study diligently.

  5. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Shawn,
    I do appreciate your ability to present your arguments without sounding harsh, that is a gift. I do think we as Christians can overthink some things, in my experience art and music can be one of those things. I think, as Jesus tells us, it is the from the heart of man evil things proceed. If art (in all its forms) is meant to worship and glorify God I would argue that God loves it, if it glorifies the man, then that is sin. What a beautiful mind your grandmother must have had (my grandparents have passed so sorry if I assume wrong) in giving you the work of her heart to glorify God.

    Thanks for your post brother.

    Jason

  6. Dave Watermulder says:

    Shawn,
    Thanks for your reflection here. I enjoyed the personal insights, and to see the ways that you and your church have thought about this, involved the scriptures, etc. In my own tradition, John Calvin once wrote that “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” A kind of “idol factory” that exists inside of us all. I believe anything, especially any good thing, can become an idol if we let it. At the same time, I think that when our hearts and intentions are right, most anything can also be used to glorify God and make Christ known. So, that’s an exciting thought, when it comes to this topic! Thanks, man.

  7. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Shawn,

    I wonder what you thought about this comment that Dyrness made on page 101: “In some mysterious sense, all art aspires to be worship.” How does that fit with the concerns you rightly express regarding idolatry? How might that fit with your own experience and the warnings from the Old Testament you highlight?

    • Shawn Hart says:

      Honestly, I believe those that built the golden calf had the best intentions…and I have a feeling that it was a beautiful idol. Sadly we know though, that sometimes more damage can be done with the best intentions. I am not discouraging art; I am just encouraging thought first.

  8. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Shawn, I did not know that about your church. Thanks for giving us a picture into your church style and the world. Yeah, you bring up a good point about where is the line. I’m not sure I could write a rulebook about exactly how it would look to have “lines” drawn over all different types of art. But I suppose the general principle would be “does it distract us from God, or does it focus us on God”

    • Shawn Hart says:

      You just drew the line Kyle; that is the same line we try to draw too. We have art in our church; we have ways for our members to express themselves too; what we try not to have is too many distractions from the real reason we are gathering in the first place.

  9. Chris Pritchett says:

    Great post, Shawn. I did not know you were an artist! Write us a poem, would you? Don’t you think that when it comes to idolatry and the church in America, art is the least of our worries? Instant gratification, pleasure, materialism, power and prestige…these are the idols we need to be looking out for. I’d much rather see a person with a cross around his neck than a Mercedes emblem.

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