"We are the clay, and you are our potter": On Art and Faith
Updated: 5 days ago
My Christian faith is very important to me, and the way in which the Bible expresses notions of beauty and creativity shapes how I think about art and self-expression.
Here I offer some ongoing and rudimentary reflections on the relationship between art and faith - I have much to learn.
· Made in the Image of a Creative God
At the foundation of creativity within a Christian framework is the belief that we are made in God’s image and a reflection of His character and attributes. You only have to watch one episode of Planet Earth (still at the top of IMDb top rated TV shows along with Planet Earth II) to marvel at the immense diversity and ingenuity of our planet. Psalm 19 sings that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” The idea that God actively speaks to us through the stars and the sunsets might make you raise your eyebrows but the sheer complexity of our universe, seen in the anatomy of the smallest leaf to the grandeur of the Milky Way, speaks to me of God’s immense creative power. There are many things scientific rationalism has no answers to. These verses provide some context to the nature of human creativity and consciousness as a fundamental part of what is means to be made human by a creative God.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
- Genesis 1:26-27
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
- Psalm 19:1-2
· The Clay and the Potter
The metaphor of the clay and the potter is a repeated theme in the Old Testament. Sculpting is especially tactile and using a potter’s wheel to throw clay involves the use of both hands and great concentration. The Japanese have a wonderful tradition in tea ceremonies of first passing around the empty ceramic vessels to appreciate and admire their form before any tea is poured. It is this intense delight in both the process and outcome of creation that I think is captured in the sculpting metaphor and reflected in Genesis 1 when God “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (v31).
But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
- Isaiah 64:8
The metaphor is used in Romans and Jeremiah to suggest the idea of authority. It makes sense that after a shapeless lump of earth is transformed, its creator should be the one to decide what to do with it. Someone who hasn’t put the care and consideration into its creation should not be able to then appropriate it, unless it’s been given as a gift. As God says to Jeremiah below, only He has the divine right and power to judge and destroy and create 'ex nihilo' (out of nothing). And yet God does not use his omnipotence to destroy Israel. His people are in His hand, and as both the Old and New Testaments clearly show, God loves and rejoices in them.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
- Jeremiah 18:1-6
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?
- Romans 9: 20-21
Using a similar theme, in Psalm 139 David sings of how God has “knit me together in my mother’s womb” (v13) and his frame “was woven together in the depths of the earth” (v15). Like throwing clay, knitting and weaving require the use of both hands as each strand of yarn is intermeshed with the others. Watching master weavers, such as the Quechua weavers of Peru, is to appreciate immense skill in their attention to detail and ability to create the most detailed patterns. As the ultimate and only true creator, God has made our human bodies with similar care and joy.
· The Gift of Creativity
The idea of creativity as a gift to be enjoyed is central in biblical theology. Making art has no ostensible practical purpose and yet there is great pleasure to be had in the process of making. In the verses below from the wonderful book of Ecclesiastes, food, drink and pleasure in work are all gifts from God to man. The nature of a gift is that it is not earned and the giver delights when the gift is used and enjoyed. As artist Makoto Fujimura states, creation itself “is a superfluous act of generosity”; God does not need us to exist. In our culture that prizes constant productivity and tangible results (at our great cost) it is worth remembering that art should be joyful and not a burden or a means to an end. In the end, as Ecclesiastes makes clear, nothing we do will last; everything God does endures forever. As David Gibson notes, we are enclosed within time’s bounds, God is not. “We are each writing the story of our lives, but we are not the main author”. To know that everything we have is a gift, including creativity, is to recognise and acknowledge the main author who has put eternity into our hearts – a longing for the ultimately beautiful that will only be fulfilled in the New Creation.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.
- Ecclesiastes 3:11-14
As Terry Glaspey notes on the passage below, God delights in creativity, Bezalel is chosen to create something not simply functional but "exquisitely artful". Art points us to truths that are richer and deeper than rationality or empirical reasoning can explore. For Fujimura, art making is a discipline of awareness, prayer, and praise, pointing us to a greater glory and higher truth. We are invited to co-create by the ultimate creator, through art's ability to reach into the deepest human emotions and truths and enable their expression.
Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.
- Exodus 35:30-35
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
- James 1:17-18
· The Relationship between Beauty and Glory
The bookends of the Bible, the Garden of Eden in Genesis and the Holy City in Revelation are characterised by their pure goodness, untainted by human evil. Both emphasise material beauty as a reflection of God’s glory. Although beauty is not a necessary element of visual art, it is certainly something that a lot of great art embodies. To some, art is merely an impractical extravagance. Yet, like a great cathedral, the justification of extravagance has “everything to do with the object of our extravagance...the problem is not that we do not have an extravagant visual culture; the problem is that we do not believe in an extravagant God” (Fujimura). To neglect the beauty of the world around us is to neglect the glory of God; to make and see beautiful art is to lift our eyes up to the majesty of the ultimate creator.
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.
- Genesis 2:10-12
The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.
- Revelation 21:18-21
And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.
- Exodus 28:2
· Corrupted Beauty
Like all good things in life, art is no exception to being corrupted and manipulated by human desires. In Exodus 32, the idol of the golden calf is made from a large quantity of expensive gold jewellery provided by "all the people" yet takes away from righteous worship of God by itself becoming the focus of meaningless sacrifices. One of the principle dangers of art is the futile worship of it for its own sake.
Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
- Exodus 32:2-4
Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendour.
I cast you to the ground;
I exposed you before kings,
to feast their eyes on you.
- Ezekiel 28:17
Ecclesiastes 4:4 (below) is an incredibly striking verse. The author states that all effort in work ultimately comes from envy. As David Gibson comments, “deep in our hearts we want to be noticed and to be the focus of attention, and that desire is capable of driving all we do.” How can we think about making art in a way that is less self-centred? Artists such as Ibrahim Mahama and Theaster Gates who are invested in the circular economy and building up creative communities provide new models in which to think about the potential of art. Self-promotion seems to be interwoven with what it means to be an artist - all artist want their work to be seen after all. What would it look like for artists to model Christ in humility, selflessness and servanthood?
Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbour. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
- Ecclesiastes 4:4
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
- 1 Corinthians 2:1-8
· Moments of Stillness
Be still, and know that I am God.
- Psalm 46:10
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
- 1 Kings 19: 11-13
Good art rewards proper looking, encouraging the viewer to slow down and take it in. In 1 Kings, God speaks to the prophet Elijah in a low whisper in contrast to the chaos around him. Whilst clearly not exclusive to the arts, Glaspey notes that looking at a painting can help in becoming attuned to an interior silence and quieten down the 'cocktail party in our heads'. For Fujimura, art is a discipline of awareness, prayer and praise. Awareness and prayer require a stillness and opportunity for reflection that I often struggle to reach and have found comes more easily when looking or listening to powerful art.
Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Inter-Varsity Press, 2013).
Fujimura, Makoto. Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (Yale University Press, 2021).
Fujimura, Makoto. Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Inter-Varsity Press, 2017).
Gibson, David. Destiny: Learning To Live By Preparing To Die (Inter-Varsity Press, 2016).
Glaspey, Terry. Discovering God Through the Arts: How We Can Grow Closer to God by Appreciating Beauty & Creativity (Moody Publishers, 2021).
Schaeffer, Francis. Art and the Bible (Inter-Varsity Press, 1973).
Turner, Steve. Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).