A lot of people ask me what I think is causing the general mediocrity and cultural irrelevance of Christian art today. I usually answer, “It’s complicated.” With a problem this systemic, a single error usually doesn’t deserve all the blame. That being said, I can pinpoint at least one particular error that deserves a very healthy helping of blame: Christian Platonism.
Most Christians today believe that spiritual things are materially unreal and tangible things are therefore spiritually irrelevant.
What is Christian Platonism? Put simply, it is the belief that reality is separated into two realms—the physical and the spiritual. This belief is usually accompanied by a denigration of the physical realm, but the separation itself is the definitive marker of Christian Platonism—and its main error. This separation is not a biblical concept. In biblical terms, the physical and the spiritual overlap, and in paradise, they will be fitted perfectly together again. God makes a distinction between them (in the same way he makes a distinction between a man and a wife), but he never intended for them to be separate. Hebrews 11:3 makes it clear:
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
In other words, the physical is spiritual. The tangible is spiritually produced. The distinction God makes is between the visible and invisible (2 Cor. 4:18). What is passing away is visible to us. What is eternal and unchanging is invisible. That has nothing to do with objective tangibility, however.
There are numerous verses (e.g., Heb. 8:1ff; Col. 3:2), incorrectly understood, that have given rise to this idea that the heavenly things are not merely invisible, but actually intangible. Most Christians today believe that spiritual things are materially unreal and tangible things are therefore spiritually irrelevant. Again, this is not a biblical concept.
Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are praying the eternal into the temporal. We are seeing the invisible by faith.
Faith is not some ethereal thing. And neither is heaven. Jesus, in his real resurrected body, is really and tangibly in the heavenly throne room of God (even if we can’t see Him at this moment). Keeping our minds on the things of heaven is not a matter of impractical intellectual meditation on things with no substance.
The point of our focus on heaven is not to abandon the tangible things on earth. It is to redeem them.
The real—the truly real—is heavenly. And it has come and is coming to earth. The point of our focus on heaven is not to escape or abandon the tangible things on earth. It is to redeem them.
So what does all this have to do with art? Well, there are two components of art—the visible form and the invisible content. In the best art, form and content are brought into indistinguishable unity. In some ways, an excellent marriage of form and content is the perennial earmark of all great art.
But what happens to art when a dualism of physical and spiritual rends asunder what God had joined in creation and what God intends to rejoin through redemption? Exactly what has happened. If the form is not important, it doesn’t deserve attention. If the content—the message—is the only important thing, then the form and sign need not be emphasized. Christian Platonism says that craft is not important. Only the message matters.
In fact, to many Christian Platonists, emphasizing the form becomes a “focusing on the things of the earth.” And this, as we all know in the church, is base and ungodly. We don’t realize that Plato would have told us largely the same thing. And Jesus does not.
To be clear, Plato and Jesus say the same thing about the current state of tangible reality: it is vain. It is passing away—perishing. A shadow. But here’s where Plato and Jesus part ways. Plato says, “The tangible is vain, so abandon and escape it.” Jesus says, “The tangible is vain, so redeem it by conforming it to my perfect image.” The difference between these two practices makes all the difference in the world. Here’s what Paul has to say about it in Romans 8:20–25:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
Art that emphasizes “not-of-this-world” “spiritual” content and a very narrow Gospel message fails to realize that good Gospel art is supposed to pull heaven down onto earth.
This has vast implications for art. The grand culmination of history involves, among other things, the resurrection of the body. Did you notice that? God is not willing to let this tangible world go. Because the physical is spiritual. It was from the Holy Spirit that God made everything that is visible. So we insult God when we denigrate this tangible reality. Art that emphasizes “not-of-this-world” “spiritual” content and a very narrow Gospel message (just keeping my focus on the things of heaven) fails to realize that good Gospel art is supposed to pull heaven down onto earth, not cut earth off from heaven. Christian Platonism paints a picture of climbing a Pietistic hanging ladder into the intangible Heaven helicopter just as our “fleshly coil” boat finally gurgles its final farewell from under the waves. That’s an inaccurate picture. Truly gospel-oriented art is not satisfied to abandon craft and material excellence. The tangible forms of art must be made faithful again. They must serve and support the content. Their sin-caused leaks must be stoppered with the whole-counsel Gospel. We are not saved from the earth. We are saved with the earth, or, more accurately, the earth is saved with us.
An analogy: Form is the vain and unfaithful wife to the husband Content. Platonism says, “Content must divorce Form.” Jesus says, “Content must redeem Form in love. My plan is for Form to be a faithful helpmeet to Content again. Because it is not good for Content to be alone.”
Have you ever wondered why the two sacraments have tangible modes? Why are the bread and wine and water even necessary? If we already have what the sign symbolizes (union and communion with Jesus), why would we need the tangible sign?
The small square of pita and the thimble-full of wine, delivered hardly four times a year and often in a separate service, all make it clear that, to the Christian Platonist, the sign doesn’t really matter.
Well, according to most churches, you really don’t need the sign. The small square of pita and the thimble-full of wine, delivered hardly four times a year and often in a separate service, all make it clear that, to the Christian Platonist, the sign doesn’t really matter. You were baptized as an infant? That doesn’t matter. We’ll re-baptize you. The sign doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the content.
I’m sorry to have to say it again, but this is not biblical. God honors signs. He never intended to separate the sign and the thing referred to by the sign. We did that in sin. And we’re still doing it. Though, ironically, we say it is for the cause of righteousness now. How tragically wrong-hearted.
The Word (content) became flesh (form). God sent His son in tangible form to reconcile the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:18–19). In Jesus, and through the revelation of the sons of God, the futility of the world will be lifted. That is the key to good art. Good art seeks to make the word tangible. Through faith, the Christian artist should seek to make the invisible visible. The main problem with Christian Platonism is that its art attempts to make the visible invisible. And in the process, both the form and content are lost.
When the church awakens from its current Platonic escapism, it will recognize that craft and tangible excellence are essential to the Great Commission. Pure and undefiled religion is not just a matter of words and doctrines. It’s a matter of bread and wine and buildings and practices (James 1:27). Without the form, the content is water without a cup. Without content, the form is empty and vain. Both are essential. What God has joined together, let no man rend asunder.