In Exodus 31, the LORD tells Moses that Bezalel will be filled with the Spirit of God — the first time the “Spirit of God” dwells within an individual — so that he can make artistic designs for the LORD’s dwelling place among the Hebrews. Here, the Holy Spirit acts the muse* for the Hebrews in order to inspire them to create beautiful things dedicated to the LORD.
Ever since then, godly people have struggled to understand what constitutes Inspired art from human, non-Spiritual art. When the Hebrews produced Inspired art, they used the finest materials at hand (fine linen, gold, silver, etc.). When they produced bad art, they fashioned crude idols out of common items such as mud and clay. The lesson here seems to be that beauty results from Godly inspiration — if it doesn’t come from God, then the Hebrews were led to fashion crude images made from the ugliest and cheapest materials.
But, of course, that is too simple. There is plenty of art deemed “beautiful” by the art critics of history that had nothing to do with the LORD; indeed, many beautiful things created throughout history were dedicated to other gods, in pagan temples that has nothing to do with the LORD and his people. Indeed, as this writer expressed weeks ago, there is a struggle even today to understand the nature of godly art from the ungodly.
St. Augustine of Hippo was one such person who struggled with these issues. As Leah Easley discusses in her essay for the Summer issue of the All Saints’ Center for Theology, “St. Augustine: Theologian of the Arts,” Augustine rejected all forms of pagan art even as he embraced certain aspects of pagan philosophy — which possibly led him to embrace a flawed Christian aesthetic. As Leah explains, Augustine’s Neoplatonic impulses led him to favor the immaterial things, the things that existed in the ideal world rather the material things that express a crude, third-rate version of the ideal. In other words, Augustine’s artistic tastes were so caught up with heaven that they were no good on earth. This led to a rejection of the concrete, the sensible, and the sensuous, and this rejection has, according to Leah, “echoed down the ages.”
As part of the Think Tank, Leah’s essay invites us to explore the definition of a Christian aesthetic that produces beautiful, godly art. As we have seen from the story of Bezalel, God privileges art as a way for His highest creation to express their worship. It is then important for the church to reflect on the role of art in its liturgy, its churches, and even in its devotional life. So, we welcome your comments as we work toward the construction of an aesthetic pleasing to God.
* The idea of the Spirit of God as Muse from the story of Bezalel was first pointed out to me by Michael Lee in the comments section of my post “Without God There Is No Art.”