Art as a Theological Text: 3 Approaches

Is it possible to read a work of art (whether it be a painting, a song, a dance, a comic book, etc.) as a theological text?  What is meant here by “theological text”?  And how, exactly, does one “read” a work of art?  These are important and complex questions that cannot be fully answered in a short blog post like this one.  What I propose to do is briefly sketch three approaches that some have taken to these questions.  These approaches do not appear to be mutually exclusive, but making these distinctions may help Christians be more thoughtful about how they reflect theologically on works of art.  I welcome your thoughtful consideration.

  1. Art as Knowledge: The first approach emphasizes that works of art communicate cognitive theological content.  Jeremy Begbie, for example, draws on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi and argues that works of art are, primarily, metaphor.  He writes, “A metaphor seems to add something to our understanding which cannot be wholly accounted for in literal terms.”[1] He points out that metaphor can actually be a “means through which our language is rendered more faithful to reality.”[2]Another example of this approach would clearly be the popular Christian use of worldview analysis.[3] One potential pitfall of this view is that it might assume a Romantic theory of creativity that is merely a reversal of the artist who expresses his or her own feelings.
  2. Art as Desire: This approach emphasizes the role of the work of art in worship as it reorients the worshipper’s desire towards God.  Some choose to focus on the way that works of art are bound up with the desires of the artist. Dan Siedell, for example, argues that “altars to the unknown god are strewn about the historical landscape of modern and contemporary art.”[4] All art making is an act of worship, but it may not be worship properly directed. Similarly, William Dyrness argues that “art that is serious always hungers to be a part of something larger.”[5] Others might choose to emphasize the way in which art (perhaps through beauty) elicits desire from viewers and listeners.  Another aspect of this approach is an emphasis on sacrament: art’s capacity to manifest or communicate God’s presence.  Richard Viladesau, for example, argues that art “is a symbol that refers us … to the unique source of grace.”[6] He points out that art’s “only power is aesthetic and symbolic, and this power depends upon the spiritual engagement of the viewer.”[7] Important questions to ask here might be: “If art can reorient our desires, does it also carry the potential to manipulate?” and “How does this approach deal with works of art that are ugly, tragic or horrific?”
  3. Art as Tradition: More than the other two approaches, this one emphasizes the role of art in humanity’s historical relationship with God. Some may take the view that art is not an essential component of being human, but is, in fact, an aspect of human culture that occurs after the fall and that will be transcended in the restoration of paradise.[8]Others understand art in terms of God’s gracious choice to accommodate himself to the limitations of human thought and action.[9] Depending on one’s view of tradition, one may wish to see art as participating in God’s developing revelation to humanity.  For example, David Brown argues that the strength of the Christian artistic tradition is “its capacity to transmit the biblical story in ways which at times could speak more powerfully to contemporaries than the original deposit.”[10]  This approach tends to emphasize that works of art may not simply be illustrations of religious beliefs, but also “primary expressions of religious ideas.”[11] Important considerations for this approach is how the Christian community relates to works of art ‘outside of’ its own tradition, and what criteria there might be for determining whether a work of art is revelatory.

[1] Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise, (London: T and T Clark, 1991), 238.

[2] Ibid, 239.

[3] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010).

[4] Daniel A. Seidell, God in the Gallery, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 11.

[5] William Dyrness, Visual Faith, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 101.

[6] Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts, (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 160.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Andreas Andreopoulos, Art as Theology (London: Equinox, 2006).

[9] David Brown, Tradition and Imagination, (Oxford University Press, 1999).

[10] Ibid, 324.

[11] Patrick Sherry, Images of Redemption, (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 167.


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: bruce

    Jim — a helpful distillation of several views.
    Have you considered Etienne Gilson’s contention that art is not communication or knowledge? He presents the fine arts as a properly basic aspect of humanness like being itself. Art is making, not knowledge — and though art can appeal to knowledge and intellection, it does so not in order to participate as knowledge but in order to serve beauty. Since beauty, like goodness or truth, is irreducibly basic — art is properly basic, and is something so fundamental that treating it as knowledge is a category mistake. As a maker of paintings, I find Gilson’s reasoning liberating. This is not because I am anti-intellectual. On the contrary it is because making beauty is a fundamental human act — and is sufficient unto itself with no need to be dignified by blurring the boundaries and making it dress up as a form of knowledge. Making is enough.
    Bruce Herman

    1. says: Jim

      Bruce, thanks for this comment. Gilson’s idea sounds interesting, and I could see how this approach could be more liberating for the artist. I wonder, is Gilson separating beauty from truth and goodness, as if the artistic act is beyond ethics or truth? Do you know of a book or article where Gilson spells out this idea? Its good to hear from you, and i hope you had a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

      1. says: bruce

        Jim –
        Happy New Year to you as well. A good Gilson text is THE ARTS OF THE BEAUTIFUL. Let me know what you think. Good to be in touch. Cheers, Bruce

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