It was the summer of a lifetime. An epic road trip all over the western part of the U.S. to gather pictures for a photobook project was an absolute adventure full of obstacles and amazing experiences. However, spending a week tent camping in Yellowstone when it got down below freezing every night and pouring rain is not necessarily something to be repeated anytime soon. But without a doubt it was definitely worth it.
While on the trip, it was impossible to not go through the pictures and begin editing them. There were so many great pictures from all the places visited, it was hard to choose the best ones. And even then, it was hard to narrow down the pictures to just include the favorites out of the best ones. In the end about two thirds were eliminated in order to keep the project within its limits.
One of the lessons learned through this project was a detestation for bison. But on a serious note, the most important thing learned through this project is that the value of a photographer who is a believer is not tied to whether or not there is a Bible verse attached to each of their photos. It is unnecessary to add a Bible verse to the bottom of every picture in order to validate its worth.
To explain, there have been well-meaning who have asked why there aren’t verses or quotes added to the pages of the photobook along with the pictures. (In no way is this saying that the pictures which do have Bible verses attached to them is wrong, but instead that the obligation of adding a Bible verse is unnecessary.)
First, photographers who are Christians are called to create to the glory of God. Their work is not necessarily “Christian? – whatever that means – but rather it is good art because as a Christian our work should always be good and meaningful because we reflect our Creator who created the world and called all of it good.
Paul talks about all of our work being for the glory of God. Nowhere does he add the requirement for a Bible verse to be added alongside our work. But instead he says in all things we should do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31) In Art for God’s Sake, Philip Ryken says, “Artists are called and gifted – personally, by name – to write, paint, sing, play, and dance to the glory of God?.
Every photograph is made up of time and light. Time; seconds, minutes, hours. Each photograph is a slice in time. Each a moment of history. The click of the shutter and as fast as the blink of an eye that moment is gone. Each moment of time is a precious gift. Something to look back on and remember. Never to be repeated quite the same.
Brand and Chaplin say in Art and Soul, “To be Christian is to be convinced that, however inexplicable it can sometimes appear, ultimately life has a meaning and a purpose. For the Christian, human actions are not conditioned reflexes, but choices in which the whole person – body, intellect, emotions and spirit – plays a part. Art, for the Christian, can never be meaningless?. And if the world was honest, nothing has ever been created without meaning attached and imbedded in it.
With that being said, every click of the shutter ought to have more dimensions than just its surface value. Purpose adds layers to an otherwise meaningless piece of art. If a photograph is created with purpose and meaning, it is worthy of being evaluated and given the attention it deserves.
Second, the job of the photographer is to know the meaning which has been captured in each image. Hans Rookmaker says all art should be created with purpose when he writes in Art Needs No Justification, “The same [referring to communicating through art] applies to the pamphlets being handed out, the posters being made. These should be well designed and in good taste; they are often the outsiders first encounter with Christians. In a way they constitute our outward face and appearance. Just as people show who they are by their clothes and the way they move, so these things (music, posters – in one word, art) are the things that form our first and sometimes decisive communication.?
If we truly believe each image has meaning and a purpose then we will be careful to make each click of the shutter count. “Often we are satisfied too soon, too easily. We pick up what the world does, change some obvious things, and then we think we have arrived. Our paintings are sometimes the same as theirs, maybe just a little bit less shocking or radical. But to be a Christian is not to be conservative or less exciting? (Art Needs No Justification). In fact, because we have access to the ultimate truth in Jesus Christ, our art should be radical and stunning. It should cause the viewers to pause and ask, “What is that? I want to know why those artists have an inside understanding of life.?
As a result, then, there will be less careless photos and more attention to the composition and the light which is captured by each shot because we understand that creating good art is more than merely copying what the world is currently producing. As a photographer, all of time: the seconds, minutes, and hours matter. Each moment is here and then gone. As Christians who are photographers we are to create by sharing a part of who we are as we capture the moments happening in our lives. This is not merely filling space, but using the gift of photography to encourage and build up those around us, specifically the church.
But how is the church built up when the world is so full of images which do not encourage and glorify God?
Before there is even time to blink the shutter clicks and yet another moment in time has been captured. No matter where you look there are pictures being taken and videos uploaded to the internet at such a high rate it is mind boggling to even keep track of. A moment forever frozen in time. A slice of time. A memory. The world is oversaturated with photos which do not have meaningful messages imbedded within them. Yes, there is meaning attached to every selfie image taken, but it may not be meaningful. There is a difference between containing meaning and being meaningful. But as one who has been given meaning by the Creator, the photographer who is a Christian takes images which have meaningful messages imbedded, whether this meaning is in the subjects of the photos themselves, or is brought into the photos by the photographer who gives the image meaning, because our goal is to create to the glory of God.
But what does it mean to create to the glory of God? Our culture is constantly changing and with it art is constantly changing as well – evolving to match the culture in which it resides. Who has the right to define what constitutes good art and what fails to make the cut? As a follower of Christ, however, we can rely on the example given by God to prove that art –good art– must have a purpose and a meaning.
If a photograph, painting, or movie has a purpose, Christian’s are obligated as purposeful beings to assess its value. David exclaims in Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.? There is value in creation because it declares the glory of God, which means that David is accurate in his assessment of the value of creation. He did not give it value, but rather the value was already there because God gave it value.
In the beginning God created the world and called it good. Genesis 1:31 says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good?. God added value and meaning to it before man entered the scene. He was not concerned whether or not man would appreciate and see the purpose in his creation before he called it good, but instead all throughout the Genesis narrative God declares each part of creation to be good right from the start.
God was not concerned whether or not man would appreciate and see the purpose in his creation before he called it good.
“But just like any other part of creation can point beyond itself to the reality of the Divine Maker, if we have eyes to see, we will discover him in the pounding waves, in the laughter of children in the whiteness of a sudden snow flurry, or simply in the work colleague who takes the trouble to ask how we’re feeling? (Art and Soul). The value of creation is not tied to man’s interpretation of it or its meaning, and not even its use for daily life or enjoyment, but purely because its creator declared it to be so.
In the same way a photograph can capture our attention and cause us to remember the work of God in our lives or in the lives of those around us. Shouldn’t we also be sharing the story of how God is working? Maybe it’s the story of how God has provided, or how God heals. No matter what the story is, the photographer has the ability to share the stories of what God is doing in the world around them with people who may never come in contact with the subjects of the photos themselves.
Some artwork, however, has lost a reflection of its creator. But all hope is not lost because art’s purpose and meaning can be revived by bearing in mind the example which was set for us since the creation of the world. But in order to create to the glory of God there are certain guidelines in which to stay to create something that God blesses. Not all photography falls inside these conditions. “God has a high standard for art, and obviously he does not and cannot endorse the content of work that is pornographic or propagandistic, or that violates his character in some other way. What is meant instead is that God blesses a rich variety of art forms? (Art for God’s Sake).
There is a very real difference between good art and bad art as Ryken says, but it is not something that is explicitly stated in Scripture. Instead the photographer must be aware of what is good art by looking at the world in which we live and noticing what God has created. These are real live expressions of what God considers to be good art.
What God has created is a real live expression of what He considers to be good art.
Many believers will have opportunities that the rest of the body of Christ will never be able to encounter and experience, they should use their gifts and abilities to bless the body of Christ. With the unique ability and gift to see the world and capture life in a way no one else can, photographers can capture these fleeting moments and use them as gifts that encourage and build up the body of Christ.
The question is, how does photography have an eternal impact on the church?
“Just as personal redemption has a now and not yet aspect, so does the redemption of the material world. God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, says Paul, but it does not stop there. He also ‘gave us the ministry of reconciliation’? (Art and Soul). This is experience based knowledge. It is being intimately known through rituals which become common experiences for us. There are countless examples of photographers who are using their talents to impact the Kingdom, but here are a few to look at: Tanner Wendell, Jon Courville, Annalise Holmes, Griffin Lamb, Jeff Wolsleger
Arguably one of the ways to best minister is through relationships. We are created to be relational in nature. With that being said, each person is uniquely gifted in a specific area and has the responsibility to share it with the body of Christ. In a culture which emphasizes the individuality of each person, we have the opportunity to change that mindset and reach out to others.
We are created as relational beings.
Paul challenges the Corinthian church with these words, “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body each one of them, as he chose…the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another? (1 Cor. 12:18-25). The gift is being able to see God work and capture those moments to share with the body of Christ as an encouragement and exhortation. “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church? (1 Cor. 14:12).
Each person has his specific function within the Kingdom and not one can be left out. Certainly some play the music, draw the likenesses, photograph the movements and write the stories. These are the artists. They have their rightful place in the family of God. Again, the life of the body of Christ, and certainly a renewal, an awakening, is impossible without these members called by God to do their job. As the body moves, works, thinks, speaks not for its own sake but called by God to be the salt of the earth, artists are not just servants of a Christian subculture but are called to work for the benefit of all. (Art Needs no Justification).
The body of Christ is made up of individuals who all have a specific purpose and job. No one job is more important than another.
To neglect the gift which God has given fails to serve the body of Christ. But we often look through our biblical spectacles to see two apparently opposing views: the secular world’s quest for the spiritual through art and the Christian world’s suspicion that art is too worldly to be spiritual.
But this is merely dualism. It separates God’s creation into distinct and opposing realms, one representing good, the other representing evil: holy versus profane, sacred versus secular, material versus spiritual. (Art and Soul)
Dualsim is another way of explaining legalism.
But dualism is merely a cop-out answer. It’s the easy way out. Because the heresies that dualism encourages are attractive. They are safe and uncomplicated. In contrast, living life that is both fully committed to our art and fully committed to Christ can seem like a precarious balancing act. For the photographer who is striving to glorify God in his art, that may mean a continued struggle for a biblical path, trying to find the rightful role of both photography and photographer in the world (Art and Soul).
This means there is no distinction between that which is secular and that which is sacred because all that we do is to be for the glory of God. The distinction of that which is sacred and that which is secular is not accurate, “They make a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, not recognizing that so-called secular art is an exploration of the world that God has made, and therefore has its place in deepening our understanding of God’s person and work? (Art for God’s Sake). Every moment one is important and no one type of art is godlier than another.
This is a delicate line to walk because there is a difference between creating art to bring people to your message, and creating art which is your message. Our job is not to create something that is blatantly labeled as “Christian?, but instead our art should point to the redemption which we have experienced. And if this includes the need to portray sin, our commission to be holy demands that we do not glory in it. It means developing work with a truthfulness and clarity that shows evil for what it is, without the need for pontificating or preaching. (Art and Soul).
Our art should point to the redemption which we have experienced in Christ.
Ryken says, “Art is an incarnation of the truth? (Art for God’s Sake). Incarnation is a term which the Christian community holds dear as it explains the mystery of God with us in Jesus Christ. Incarnation is the literal embodiment of something that is not normally human in nature. Photography is an example of how truth, which is not physical in nature can be brought into the physical realm and display a message in a way that is physical.
But even though photos can show truth in a physical way, the task of a Christian photographer is not to portray God’s plan of salvation in three easy stages. Very rarely indeed will we be called upon to tell the Gospel story in its completeness. What we can do is give plenty of hints. We will show that redemption can come in the darkest of places through the most unlikely people (Art and Soul). (Examples: Schindler’s List, The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking)
These examples show that it is possible to create stories which include a redemption story but without labeling them as “Christian?. To make an audience believe in the possibility of redemption, it is necessary to dig under the surface and show the cost. Unless there is a cost to redemption, the story loses its credibility as being true.
The photographer is responsible to create images which are redemptive. “They [the artists] create images of grace, awakening a desire for the new heavens and the new earth by anticipating the possibilities of redemption in Christ? (Art for God’s Sake). As the photographer creates images which honor and glorify God, the need to label them as blatantly Christian will cease to exist because the images will speak for themselves.
Just like Psalm 19 says that creation declares the glory of God all by itself, pictures of nature and people do not need to be labeled as “Christian? because the message is already being shared in the image itself.
This is photography for God’s sake.
The photographer knows a meaningful moment captured on film will be appreciated for years to come, but even though a picture is worth a thousand words, it is still important to pause and appreciate the moment in real time happening in front of us because it is only here that we can live out the reality of the Gospel to the fullest extent.
Two summers ago, while on a study abroad trip through Europe it was really important to stop and take a step back to actually enjoy being in places of beauty and history. The reality of merely seeing and experiencing through the viewfinder of the camera and not with our eyes is way too easy to do without even trying. Unfortunately this was all too true when the realization sunk in moments after walking out of the Sistine Chapel and realizing that I did not see the painting of “God’s creation of Adam?. Sheer disapointment. That moment cannot ever be repeated. It is gone.
As much as we might wish, it is not possible to travel back in time and change the message being shared in past moments captured on film. But if we are purposeful with how our time is being spent we will engage with those around us while capturing those moments.
The thing to remember is that the Bible is not a magic eight ball for us to shake and suddenly get the right answer of what to do in regards to our artistic choices and creations, but rather,
“…what the Scriptures give us is not a theology of the arts, but a biblical framework within which the arts, like all other human activity, can be evaluated and understood? (Art and Soul).
So is it wrong to slap a Bible verse on your photography and call it good? Of course not. But if as a believer your art can only be validated as being meaningful and worthy by adding scripture passages to it, then you have missed the point of doing all to the glory of God. Jesus said to the Pharisees in Luke 19:39-40 that if the disciples ceased from praising God and worshipping that even the rocks would cry out!
Job certainly understood this as well when he says:
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.
Does not the ear test words
as the palate tastes food?
Wisdom is with the aged,
and understanding in length of days.
James K.A. Smith said in his lecture at The Gospel and Culture Conference, “This is why Christian worship is central to Christian cultural renewal. It should be embodied, full-orbed, holistic, historic Christian worship that the message of the Gospel and the vision of the Kingdom is seeping into my bones, not just in a message I am hearing but through a picture I am absorbing through aesthetic practices.? (Culture as Liturgy) Listen to the whole lecture here.
It is time to see the reality of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
In Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, N.T. Wright says, “The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are the highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way?. This is our opportunity to dive into the reality of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The now and not yet. The opportunity to see the value in every moment and glorify God in everything we do and create.