I was listening recently to a young person play a classical piece on the piano, and it reminded me of myself as a kid—the thirteen-year-old version of me, the one who loved to play Mozart and Chopin and especially Bach. (Yes, I was one of those quiet, smart, piano-playing, nearsighted Asian kids.) In particular, it was Bach’s sublimely contrapuntal two-part inventions that I loved, probably for two reasons: one, I could play them really, really fast; and two, they were called “inventions,” which I thought was oddly cool.
Many people know that Johann Sebastian Bach, that quintessential Baroque composer and musician, famously ascribed the initials, “S.D.G.”, on many of his works. It is an abbreviation for the Latin term, soli Deo gloria, which meant to God alone be the glory, and it was his way of proclaiming that the musical piece was intended to glorify God and not himself or anything else. Whether it was a sacred cantata performed in the church, or a short invention composed simply to instruct harpsichord students in the parlor, his intention to glorify God through every work remained. Beyond the mere sentiment, one gets the impression that Bach truly meant what he stated, not only in the act of declaration, but through the very music that was expressed. He really gave the very best to God, and was content to allow God the glory.
Which got me thinking. What would it look like, if we as artists of faith, ascribed “S.D.G.” on everything that we did? What would look different about the way we expressed ourselves, promoted ourselves, ordered our schedules, set our priorities? What if we ascribed it to every aspect of our lives?
One of the things that stops us, I think, is our own theology. Not the theology we hear from the pulpit or read in our devotionals, but the pragmatic theology that we practice when we go about living. Deep down, I think we have this tendency to mentally foster an artificial divide between the sacred and the secular, between the things of God and “everything else.” Going to church on Sunday, listening to Christian radio, having a quiet time, or praying before a meal are sacred acts. But brushing your teeth, ordering a venti latte at the Starbucks, doing your homework or housework, or browsing the internet—well, those are in the “everything else” category.
And this applies to artists of faith as well. For example, if I write a love song to my wife, is that sacred or secular? Isn’t the intent of the Christ follower to glorify God through every aspect of one’s marriage? If I paint a painting of the San Francisco skyline, is that sacred or secular? Aren’t we called to go into a world that is lost and needs God’s grace? If I were to write a novel about a farmer trying to keep his farm in the midst of a drought, is that sacred or secular? Is not the struggle which defines the human condition part of the meta-narrative?
As artists of faith, we have a tendency to compartmentalize our works into sacred and secular, just like we compartmentalize the rest of our lives, and as a result, we fail our art. For lack of a better term, it is a practicing form of dualism, in which, practically speaking, we treat the arts inside the safety of the Christian bubble differently than the arts out in the world.
This wasn’t the way it used to be, of course. For centuries, music was simply music, and much of the best music was created by Christ followers who simply expressed the best of what they could do, soli Deo gloria. Under this paradigm, artists of faith were true culture makers, because their art was incarnated into the greater culture, not subordinated to the artificiality of the Christian subculture. Art was a reflection of what Francis Schaeffer referred to as the “totality of life,” and not simply to evangelistic truisms.
Personally, I think the world needs more love songs that reflect fidelity and agape. The world needs more city landscapes that quietly reflect God’s glory. The world needs more novels that depict characters praying for rain. As artists of faith, we need to consider every artwork an opportunity express the sacred.
What I do know is that it wasn’t Bach’s beautiful sacred chorales or cantatas that moved me as a twelve-year old piano student. It was just me and my piano teacher, banging away on the old mahogany upright in my living room, falling in love with his two-part inventions.
[NOTE: Just for fun, if you’d like to hear his 15 two-part inventions, hit this youtube link.]