The Reformation, vocation and the importance of an artist’s craft

JT: How were the arts viewed during the Reformation? And how can certain biblical truths that flow out of the Reformation (i.e. the solas) influence an artist’s work?

MC: The best word to describe the relationship between the arts and the Reformation is tension. On the one hand, there’s was a reactionary spirit (and not an entirely unjustified one) that wanted to reject Roman Catholic sacramentalizing of the arts, particularly as it relates to icons and the veneration of the saints. At the same time, there were voices like Rookmaaker, Schaeffer and contemporaries like Calvin Seerveld and Dan Siedell who speak from a reformed perspective and advocate strongly for the role of the arts and the imagination in the formation of the church.

The Reformation’s core ideas—salvation by faith alone through grace alone—allow an artist a radical freedom. The work doesn’t define us; the gospel liberates us and gives us a beautiful identity, a wholeness that we can’t find any other way. An artist who knows this may not, in fact, become a better artist, but will certainly become a more healthy and whole individual.

JT: How does your faith inform and shape how you contribute to the arts?

MC: The arts, broadly, are simply another form of work, and they function much like any other kind of work. Like engineering, teaching and medicine, they exist to help sustain a flourishing human society. They stimulate, enrage, inspire and mystify us in order to evoke our deepest thoughts and feelings. In short, they keep vital and healthy one aspect of what it means to be made in the image of God: a flourishing and human imagination.

LP: Sometimes I feel like people talk about art and faith as if they are separate things. For me, it would be like asking how does your left hand feel about your right hand? They are both my hands. I use them together to accomplish the same goals. That’s how I feel about my faith and creativity. Being a fulltime artist, my faith impacts everything I do. I can’t separate them, even if I try. Art making is part of how I understand who God is, appreciate God as a creator and relate to him.

JT: What’s unique about being an artist and a Christian? What drives you as an artist to pursue excellence?

MC: Christians are liberated from their art. In almost any type of vocation, there’s a temptation to blur the lines between self-identity and the quality of our work. This can turn us into workaholics and can lead to a tremendous amount of anxiety about our work. If it isn’t good enough, then we aren’t good enough. As a Christian, I’m freed from that burden; my self-worth is found by being made in God’s image. So a Christian artist is free to try and fail, to receive scathing reviews and high praise, and to let it all wash off our backs, free instead to simply enjoy the work and learn from artistic success and failure.

LP: I don’t think of myself as separate from my other artist friends that don’t ascribe to the Christian faith. I think we’re all trying to make powerful art that impacts culture and society. I think pursuing excellence is our best tool in getting the most genuine response to what we’re trying to accomplish with our art. And I think it’s imperative that we do the best we can because God created all things with excellence including mankind, animals and plants. That compels me to not be lazy when I create, which can be hard because creating is life-giving and exhausting at the same time.

JW: It’s not uncommon in design to spend late nights researching, sketching and working on a project and realize that you’ve [just] worked a bunch of bad ideas out of your system. There are also some projects where the perfect idea comes to you as the client is walking you through the creative brief. Working in a profession that regularly requires these moments of inspiration makes it clear that I’m in no way in control and that every new idea serves as a reminder of God’s providence. The belief that all inspiration comes from God and the fact that he’s chosen me as the steward of this idea is a pretty convincing motivator for me to pursue excellence. I do so with the belief that I’ll be equipped and that excellence in my craft will create opportunities to point people to Christ.

JT: There seems to be a resurgence of the arts in evangelicalism in recent years. How has it impacted the ways you create, and where do you see evangelicals headed in the upcoming years?

JW: I couldn’t be happier to see things trending in this direction. In recent years, I’ve taken on projects with my church as an opportunity to push myself creatively and take risks in a way that I wasn’t able to five years ago. Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen what a design-centered approach can do to set companies like Apple apart in the business world. I think similarly positive results can apply to evangelicals once we’ve found the right ways to harness that power.

MC: I’m not sure how new the resurgence of the arts is in evangelicalism. You can trace threads of interest in the arts throughout the post-Reformation years, though it’s focus has shifted. At times, it’s in literature and poetry, at other times, music, and still others, in the visual arts. I think the “battles” about the arts will continue—some thinking of them as dangerous, others thinking about them as essential, and everything else in between.

Artists themselves will likely remain somewhat marginal, I fear. This is for three reasons. First, this is the normal space artists seek in society. They tend to want to stand a bit outside of the norm so they can speak prophetically to it. Second, the church’s confusion as to the value of the arts makes artists ambivalent about how much they participate in the life of the church. Third, the Christian subculture is rife with problems that make artistic practice difficult. It creates the impression that every piece of art must share the gospel, must not offend, and must make reference to some other artifact in culture. There’s a cheap commercialism that drives all of this, and so long as Christians are willing to settle for art that confirms their biases and doesn’t offend, it will continue, and many of the best Christian artists will find acceptance of their work apart from their Christian community.

LP: I think there are a few things that contribute to that [resurgence], like the internet and affordable studio tools. You don’t have to be famous and have label support to make a professional sounding album. We have more access to what’s being created in smaller subsets of the world. We’ve also seen people interested in the ancient church, language, traditions and liturgy. There seems to be a rise of people discussing deep ideas in art in regards to [their] faith. So is it a resurgence, or is it that we just have better exposure to better art? It could be both. And in the next few years, we’re going to see a lot of great art being made around the topics of oppression, freedom, standing up for and loving our neighbors.

JT: In what ways can the church help support the growth and cultivation of the arts in our communities?

MC: Love your artists. Attend their shows and gallery openings. Support them by buying their art and music. Ask questions when you don‘t understand, and hold artists to the same standard you’d hold an engineer or a teacher. One doesn’t expect an ichthus worked into the design of every Christian engineer, nor do they expect the gospel worked into a lecture on Euclidian Geometry. Likewise, the Christian artist is called to do excellent work that inspires and provokes. Their work may not be explicitly Christian, and that’s okay. The church’s role isn’t to critique this work, but to call the Christian to do their work Christianly: with character, excellence and humility. Lastly, don’t expect artists to contribute their work for free to your congregation. Respect what they do like you’d respect a roofer or a plumber, and when you want work commissioned, pay them a fair price.

JW: My former church had an abandoned building on their block that was going unused, so members helped divide it up into studio spaces for local artists to work out of and host art shows. While I realize that few churches have spare buildings lying around, the way they took action sent a loud message to the local art community— they made it clear that artists were wanted members of the community.

LP: Support and space. Tell artists that we support them and want to be here to have conversations as they’re working out ideas in their art. Allow them to have the space they need to create. Send them notes. Let them know you’re praying for them. Send them a meal. Creating something is a lot of hard work and takes a lot of energy and time.

JT: What advice would you give younger believers who aspire to the arts as a vocation?

JW: What makes artists special is that they see the world through a different lens than most. At times it can feel like you don’t “fit the mold” or that you’re not as valuable as those with more common, functional roles within the church. Your gift is a blessing, and you’ve been given those abilities to compliment those around you and bring glory to God.

MC: Seek to learn from the very best. Work your way up through the channels that have been established in the art world—small film festivals, local art galleries and music venues, small literary journals, etc. Do the work on a small scale, and never stop learning. Beware the instant-gratification and feedback you might get from the Christian subculture. Seek instead to make your way, slowly and steadily, in the world of the arts that you respect the most.

LP: Don’t be afraid of working hard. Really devote yourself to your craft. It takes time. There’s a degree of raw talent that needs to be there initially to make you feel like you have the ability to pursue art, but all of the great artists I’ve met and known are devoted. There’s a reality of time and energy spent on practice that’s inescapable. And be don’t be afraid to really fail. I have records I’m embarrassed exist, but I learned a lot from those records, and I’m still making music.

This article is from the latest edition of Light Magazine. You can check it out here. 

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Jason Wright

Jason Wright is a Product Graphic Designer for NCAA football at Nike in Portland, Ore. Read More by this Author

Latifah Phillips

Latifah Phillips is an artist, writer, producer and engineer. She is a member of the band Page CXVI. Read More by this Author

Mike Cosper

Mike Cosper is a writer, speaker, and podcaster. In 2016, he founded Harbor Media, a non-profit media company serving Christians in a post-Christian world. He's the host of Cultivated: A Podcast about Faith and Work, and is developing The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a podcast about faith and culture.  He's the author of Rhythms … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24