Christian Art: Helping to Spread the Gospel, Part I of V

John Donne, Painting, Poetry, Rogier van der Weyden, Testimony of Art Impact
In this article I will address two questions concerning evangelical art and the impact it can have in helping to spread the gospel message. 

     The first question is this, “Can art that relays Christian truth help lead people to Christ?” The answer to the first question is a simple, “Yes!” Christian artists absolutely can contribute to spreading the gospel message and help unbelievers understand God’s truth. Consider, when we view art—whether it is a painting, sculpture, play, or film—we are looking at the world through the eyes of the artist. A painting of a lovely flower or a peaceful landscape both tell us that the artist appreciates beauty and nature. And, of course, this is good. Thus, an artist’s worldview will be present, even if it’s not a piece that is overtly Christian. But, I will discuss this point more in an upcoming article. For now, let me give an example of how one painting changed the life of the journalist, Peter Hitchens.

     In 1981 Hitchens found himself gripped by the 15th century polyptic by Rogier van der Weyden titled, Last Judgment.

last judgment rogier van der weyden

In the center panel you will notice that Christ has come in power to judge the souls of man. Under his feet is a small orb, representing his power. The Archangel Michael stands beneath him with a scale and is weighing the souls of mankind. Those on the left, who are not weighed down by their sin, because they have been saved, are being ushered joyfully into heaven. However, in the lower right panels there is a very different scene taking place. Take a moment to let the art pull you in and feel the weight of it.

Image result for last judgment van der weyden damned

Here we can see that those who were judged and found to be in their sin, are damned and running toward hell. Other than a few people being pulled by their hair into the pit, none are being dragged or pushed—they’re going of their own accord. It’s a disturbing image but the fear of hell should disturb us. This is exactly how Hitchens felt. He relays in his book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, that he didn’t expect to be moved by the painting when he read that it would be on display. Nevertheless, when he finally stood in front of this sizable, eighteen foot-wide painting, it drew him in and his eyes hovered over the figures running toward hell. Here is Hitchens’ reaction:

“I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions. On the contrary, their hair and, in an odd way, the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me and the people I knew. … I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.”[1]

In his youth, Hitchens became an atheist but by the time he reached thirty, he had begun thinking about his own mortality. It was around this time that he saw Last Judgment. This painting left such an impression on Hitchens that it acted as a catalyst, compelling him to seek God’s truth and eventually, he accepted Christ as his Savior. This is a perfect example of how one painting, which conveyed God’s truth, impacted the life of one man to see that truth and seek Christ. And God only knows how many others, like Hitchens, were impacted by it.

     The second question I want to address is, “How big of an impact can Christian art have in conveying God’s truth?” I would argue that it casts a wider net than perhaps a book on Christian apologetics. Certainly, we need and do have excellent apologetics material and scholarship, which have helped strengthen the faith of believers and compel non-believers to pursue God’s truth. But, I believe the arts have an advantage that these resources may lack and that is the simple truth that art draws people in.

     As a society, we are surrounded by the arts, most of which is probably sending a message, and I would argue that the majority of people are significantly impacted by it. The arts have the power to speak to and grip the heart in a way that a sophisticated, logical argument for Christianity may never accomplish. The arts can speak volumes about reality and send powerful messages. Thus, if the art we create is sharing God’s truth, it can compel people to consider why they believe what they believe and assess the truth, or lack thereof, of their own worldview. It may be rare that someone, particularly a non-Christian, will pick up a book on Christian apologetics in their lifetime. But, I think it more likely that they will go with a Christian friend to see a Christian movie, or go to a museum and encounter a painting like Last Judgement, or read a book like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, or read John Donne’s beautiful Holy Sonnet 10:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.[2]

The arts touch us, they transport us, and they allow us moments to see the world through another’s eyes. Thus, I argue that Christian artists have a unique opportunity to convey the Christian worldview and reach the masses. And, perhaps, it will compel viewers to ask questions and go in search of answers.


[1] Peter Hitchens, Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith (Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), Kindle Location 1139. Kindle Edition.

[2] John Donne, “Holy Sonnet 10” in Shadow and Light: Literature and the Life of Faith, Second Edition, ed. Darryl Tippens, Stephen Weathers, and Jeanne Murray Walker (Texas: A.C.U. Press), 412.

The Passion Paintings of Trace Bucky Mcnutt

Passion Art

Trace was a precious friend who passed away earlier this year. He was unashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ and was passionate about sharing his testimony of transformation and hope. One powerful way that Trace conveyed the message of hope was through his amazing paintings of the passion of Jesus Christ. The one I have chosen to display below is titled Vivid Victory. How does this painting impact you?

“VIVID VICTORY”

by Trace Bucky Mcnutt

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Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt

If you get the chance, pick up a copy of Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. In his prologue, he explains how Rembrandt’s beautiful painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, transformed his life. It is a beautiful example of how great evangelical art has the power to impact someone’s life for the better, to strengthen their relationship with Christ, or reveal truths that put doubts to rest. Take some time today to read Luke 15:11-32 and then take a few minutes to look at this painting. Does the painting help you to see the love of God? Pray and talk to God today.