As Seventh-day Adventists, we believe we have a wholistic message to share with the world in the end time. We believe this message is relevant to all aspects of human nature and experience in the twenty-first century and that, ultimately, the gospel touches and can heal every part of the human life. Indeed, as Jesus stated, He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
Consequently, we are convicted that we have a distinctive, Christ-centered doctrinal witness to take to the world, a unique picture of God and His relationship to humanity. Health and lifestyle outreach programs, hospitals, clinics, and health food enterprises seek to impart our vision for personal and community well-being. Adventist educational institutions share the special character of Seventh-day Adventist educational philosophy: the harmonious development of the physical, mental, and spiritual powers. Through Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), we reach around the world with a message of social concern and compassionate service.
But, what is our distinctive Adventist message in the artistic arena or the aesthetic realm? What is our Adventist understanding of “the beautiful” or “the lovely”? It is fascinating that, at a time when the arts are impacting society more and more profoundly through mass media, we give the impression (and sometimes even openly assert) that when it comes to the arts, apart from religiously-inspired content, there is really nothing uniquely Adventist that needs to be witnessed to or said. Essentially, we are saying that it is okay to follow contemporary culture in these areas. Many of us feel quite comfortable aligning with Gene Edward Veith’s view that, apart from spiritual themes, “Christians need not be overly scrupulous in regard to types of art [because] art as art is essentially neutral. [Hence,] for aesthetics, although not for theology, a Christian may ‘go to the Sidonians.’”
Perhaps it is significant that the effects of this stance are increasingly evident in our church communities and in approaches taken to worship and everyday lifestyle practices. The comprehensive Valuegenesis study of the 1990s that surveyed thousands of Adventist youth revealed that less than 25 percent supported so-called church standards in the aesthetic arena (including music, dance, literature, theatre, computer games, and movies).
The follow-up Valuegenesis II study in Australia (2012) confirmed: “The majority of Adventist young people do not agree with traditional expectations in those areas.”3 The results among adults were similar. In comparison, health-related ideals such as avoiding tobacco, drugs, and alcohol while maintaining a balanced, healthy diet and exercise program were overwhelmingly endorsed.4 In other words, Adventist lifestyle practice was not rejected per se. However, it is hardly an exaggeration that over the past several decades, the closing verse of the book of Judges is generally indicative of Adventist attitudes to the arts, particularly music: “And every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25, KJV). This probably means we are not sharing a unique witness with the world in this arena either. Perhaps it is time for us to ask ourselves some questions: If Seventh-day Adventists are called to share the truth about God and His relation to humanity in this generation, should there be a distinctive aesthetic component to that message? When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” did this “truth” or “way” include anything about the aesthetic realm or is there really no aesthetic truth to which we should witness? Is there no unique Adventist Christian perspective and discipleship in this arena of human life and experience?
Maybe our dilemma is that we don’t know what the aesthetic truth is. But, is this a problem of ignorance or do we truly think it is actually unimportant, especially given the myriad life-and-death concerns that pervade our world? Or, perhaps the real issue is that we are increasingly reticent to address a
thorny, subjectively-perceived issue in a pluralistic, postmodern, multicultural society? After all, who is going to enunciate the boundaries or create the vision of what “ought to be,” especially when there is such a diversity of views in the church, let alone the surrounding cultures?
But, the issue of what to do with the aesthetic realm won’t go away if we ignore or shelve it because, at its heart, it is a scriptural concern. Philippians 4:8 commands us to think about the lovely and the admirable. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (NIV). We can readily understand the exhortation to think about the true, pure, noble, and right, but “the lovely” and “the admirable”? How will we decide what to contemplate here? For many, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and is purely subjective. However, Psalm 96:9 and 1 Chronicles 16:29 push this point further by admonishing us to worship the Lord in the “beauty of holiness.” Does holiness have a beauty or splendor of its own? Clearly, the Lord wants us to have some notion of what the “beauty of holiness” is because it is apparently intended to give direction to our worship. Notice, we are not asked to worship the Lord simply in recognition or acknowledgement of His holiness.
In Psalm 27:4, the psalmist says he longs to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord”. In other words, he wants to take a long, lingering look at the multi-faceted loveliness of God. Again, this yearning is surprising. We might expect that he wants to contemplate the mercy, love, grace, or even the justice or goodness of the Lord. But, this is not what he says. Why the “beauty of the Lord,” especially if this is so subjective and difficult to define? These texts seem to suggest that “beauty” and “loveliness” and other such aesthetic descriptors are not inconsequential facets of God’s nature and way of being and acting.
This is made very apparent in God’s instructions for the building of the sanctuary and the design of the high priest’s garments outlined in Exodus 28:2-5, 40; 31:2-6, 11. Under inspiration, Moses describes Aaron’s garments as being “for glory and for beauty” (NKJV) or “for dignity and honor” (NIV). Apparently, color, design, and style were not random matters of individual whim and fancy but divinely specified for a purpose. To fashion the sanctuary and associated furnishings and accoutrements, God gifted people through His Spirit with artistic skills and craftsmanship in a variety of areas to provide more than just functional artifacts. Evidently, this artistry even extended to skill in creating aromatic oils (Ex. 30:22-25). During David’s reign, detailed prophetic direction was given regarding the development of Israelite worship music (2 Chr. 29:25).
Aesthetic values must, therefore, be worth understanding and relating to because they are part of God’s revelation of Himself. They reveal that He has His own aesthetic preferences and ideals. Were they unimportant, Israel could simply have been encouraged to copy what was done in surrounding cultures. Instead, God detailed fairly precise instructions and tasked His people with following His directions, including His
aesthetic ideals (Ex. 25:8, 9). Yet, how often do we really attempt to understand those ideals and grasp their meaning?
The reality is that, as Seventh-day Adventist Christians, if we do not grapple with and come to some understanding of the meaning of “the beauty of holiness,” if we do not develop and articulate a clear conception of aesthetic values informed by divine inspiration, we will inevitably be overwhelmed by the very effectively-presented, daily impact of the world’s definitions and expressions in the secular advertising industry and mass media. I think we would all recognize that this is a present reality.
Furthermore, if we do not find some way to pass on a clear spiritual vision of the aesthetic realm, future generations of Adventists won’t even consider the need for one. Sadly, in 2017, an Adventist view of music, literature, movies, and dance does not exist for many Adventist youth who already embrace what everyone else does in these arenas.
Despite the difficulties of defining and understanding the arts and aesthetic virtues, paradoxically, it is often the arts alone that remain as a concrete witness to Christian thought in a particular age. When all the sermons have been preached, all the Bible studies have been completed, and all the believers’ lives are over, the arts—including literature, movies, music, architecture, sculpture, and painting—stand as a continuing testimony to future generations. They witness to the faith of the people and the time that spawned them. But, here is our challenge. What will be the enduring artistic legacy of Christianity in our age? And, more particularly, what will contemporary Adventist artistic involvement tell future generations about us? Will it reveal any distinctive impression of Adventism or will the following comments be true of us also:
“We may study the present situation, point to the fact that our culture is collapsing, not withstanding its technical achievement and great knowledge in many fields . . . yet we must never think that it is just ‘they,’ the haters of God. We must realize that we as Christians are also responsible . . . . To look at modern art is to look at the fruit of the spirit of the avant-garde: it is they who are ahead in building a view of the world with no God, no norms. Yet, is this so because Christians long since left the field to the world, and in a kind of mystical retreat from the world, condemned the arts as worldly, almost sinful? Indeed, nowhere is culture more ‘unsalted’ than precisely in the field of the arts—and that in a time when the arts [in the widest sense] are gaining a stronger influence than ever through the mass communications.”
Are Seventh-day Adventists “salt” in their artistic cultures around the world or are they merely participants, followers, or cyphers? Sadly, as you read contemporary scholarly appraisals, most academics see no distinctive stylistic contribution or direction in music or any of the arts being made today by Christians in general or Seventh-day Adventists in particular. We are seen as artistic imitators rather than leaders, offering no unique aesthetic witness, no viable alternative to what is happening around us in the twenty-first century.
Some may question whether it really matters. In light of our distinctive Adventist belief about the Great Controversy, I believe it does. Writing toward the end of her life, Ellen G. White admonished:
“In both the Old and the New Testament the Lord has positively enjoined upon His people to be distinct from the world, in spirit, in pursuits, in practice, to be a holy nation, a peculiar people. The east is not farther from the west than are the children of light, in customs, practices, and spirit, from the children of darkness. And this distinction will be more marked, more decided, as we near the close of time.”
She is, in fact, only reiterating here something she saw as a scriptural concern, evident in passages like 1 Peter 1:13-15.9 Can we honestly conclude that this counsel excludes aesthetic issues? I believe not. History teaches us that if we don’t take a proactive stand to be distinctive on lifestyle matters, we will, by default, morph into the general trends of society. As P. T. Forsyth insightfully observed, “Unless there is within us that which is above us, we shall soon yield to that which is around us.”10
As elders and leaders in God’s work, we must think about discipleship matters in the times in which we live. In forthcoming articles, we will explore more closely the issue of musical discipleship from an Adventist Christian perspective. We will try to understand why music matters and learn to practically apply principles that will bring “glory and beauty” and “dignity and honor” to our worship and lives and also provide an appropriate and meaningful aesthetic witness to our God who gave us the ability to appreciate and create manifestations of the beautiful, the lovely, and the admirable in sound.
This article was published in 2017 in the fourth quarter issue of the ‘Elders Digest’ an – Adventist Magazine