7 Books on Art, Culture, and the Christian Life
Christians worship a creative God who put humanity on this earth to care for that creation (Genesis 1:26-31). As creatures made in the image of the creator, we get to participate with him in his creative work. And this is true whether you call yourself “creative” or not.
The conversation around how Christians should engage in culture and the arts has been a minefield for decades. Though we may intend to transform the culture around us, we can’t forget that culture, by its very nature, is transforming us, too.
So how do we step out as God-followers first and members of our respective cultures second? How do we participate in God’s kingdom-spreading, creation-redeeming work without being eclipsed by a culture that does not know God?
The task of art and culture making is not easy work, but it is a valuable, beautiful, and missional part of the Christian life. Here are seven books to help you figure out where to start:
1. Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts by Jerram Barrs
What makes art so moving? Why is it that certain songs, movies, paintings, and books have the power to move us to tears, stick in our minds for decades, or result in a spiritual experience? And what’s the difference between those profound pieces and everyday entertainment that we consume for fun, then never think of again?
Professor Jerram Barrs offers answers to these questions in Echoes of Eden. He uses personal experience, theological and biblical study, and examples from literature to advise Christians who want to engage thoughtfully with the art around them. His writing is underpinned by a deep, evident love for God that spills over into every area of his life, leaving readers with a deeper love and appreciation for God too. If you’ve never read Jerram Barrs before, now’s the time. Trust me.
2. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch
Part of the human experience includes a longing to make a difference in the world. And because we are both God’s image bearers and sinful, fallen humans, there are good and bad ways to act (or not act) on that desire. Christians are responsible for engaging with and transforming the culture around us—not critiquing, retreating, or conforming. But we haven’t always gotten this right. In Culture Making, Andy Crouch offers wisdom about how to move into the world around us with passion, confidence, and a God-honoring focus.
This book was my first foray into a biblical view of creativity and culture, and it transformed my understanding of my life and purpose as a follower of Jesus. I recommend reading with others—whether a group of friends, family, or your small group—so you can discuss together what it looks like for you as a community to make a difference for your community.
3. Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer
“What is the place of art in the Christian life? Is art – especially the fine arts of painting and music—simply a way to bring in the worldliness through the back door? We know that poetry may be used to praise God in, say, the psalms and maybe even modern hymns. But what about sculpture or drama? Do these have any place in Christian life? Shouldn’t a Christian focus his gaze steadily on ‘religious things’ alone and forget about art and culture?”
Francis Schaeffer, 1973
Dr. Schaeffer unpacks how art and its use in the Old Testament should shape the way modern Christians view it, challenging the idea that art is a frivolous, less-than-holy pursuit. Art and the Bible is a tiny book with a massive impact. It walked so the other books on this list could run.
4. Imagine: A Vision for Christian Art by Steve Turner
Imagine is an answer a common question, embodied by a young Nashville musician who approached author Steve Turner with a problem. “He explained that his father, a pastor, thought he should be using his music for the glory of God and that if he didn’t use it for the glory of God, he was sinning.” What should he do?
This book is unique on the list because it’s not written by a pastor or scholar but by a poet who loves Jesus and has had his view of faith and art shaped by his experience in the field. Turner’s bold vision for Christians involved in every level and media of the art world is a great, practical starting point for artists wrestling with how to integrate their artistic skills and passion with their faith.
5. Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy Begbie
What is music? How does it work? What does it do to us? What are we doing with it? Writing about music is a tricky task—language falls short of experience. But Jeremy Begbie—a world-class theologian, a Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, and a professionally-trained pianist—gives it a shot. After all, if Jesus is lord over all of creation, then he is lord over music. So we, as Jesus-followers, should try to understand the immense power music has in people’s lives (and faith!).
Resounding Truth tackles the question “What can Christian theology bring to music?” – considering what happens when we think biblically about music and its place in the world around us. Whether you’re a musician or a music-appreciator, this book will stretch your discernment skills, challenging you to consider how something as universal as music points, by its very nature, to the lord of the universe.
6. On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior
Until the 20th century, good literature made moral statements. These moral statements were there to strengthen the readers’ morality, and “reading well” included exploring this moral dimension of the piece. For most of history, literature shaped society, holding up a mirror to the reader to help them stay on the path of good. The trouble is, modern Western society doesn’t hold to moral absolutes like we once did. This means we don’t know what “good” is and have lost our ability to recognize the map to it that literature offers.
In On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior starts by explaining what literature can do for the morality of readers. Then she shows readers how to engage with it, exploring wisdom about classical and Christian virtues that lie within great literary works. The treasure she uncovers in books such as The Great Gatsby, Persuasion, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is instructive in and of itself. But the most exciting part of this book is the way Prior encourages readers to continue the work of “reading well” on their own beyond these pages.
7. Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura
What’s the point of beauty? What value does it offer? Why would our good Creator God attend to it? And how should we, as creatures made in the Creator’s image, fit beauty into our work and lives? Author-painter-theologian Makoto Fujimura argues that much of God’s creative work is gratuitous—unnecessary in a strictly utilitarian sense—and exists because of his generous love. The goal is abundant, soul-feeding joy.
Artists (particularly Christian artists) occupy a unique space in society. They are tasked with creating beauty and with reminding the rest of us of the value of caring for our souls and pursuing joy for joy’s sake. Culture Care roots itself in God’s joy-giving character as it issues a call to care about beautiful things. I finished the book feeling uplifted, inspired, grounded in the truth of God’s word, and motivated to live differently in response to that truth.