Evangelicals, Art, and the Sacred/Secular Divide


by John Ellis

Wrapped up in American evangelicalism’s heritage is an (un)healthy stream of Neoplatonism. To be fair, during the fourth and fifth centuries, Neoplatonism did help rescue Christianity from the contra-Biblical dualism of Manicheanism. However, some strands of theological thought also adopted Neoplatonism’s flirtation with Gnosticism’s rejection of the demiurge’s creation. That has carried over into post-Enlightenment thought, and so American evangelical’s suspicion of the demiurge’s creation is one of the main reasons for why Christian movies (and Christian art, in general) fall so far short of aesthetic excellence. Ironically, and more on this in a later article, Christian movies frequently reveal that many within American evangelicalism have circled back to a least a partial embrace of the ancient heresy called Manicheanism.

Now, for those who aren’t philosophy nerds, allow me to interpret some of that and rewrite it in normal-people language. To begin, Michael Kruger offers a good and brief explanation of my overall point. He writes, “It was common for gnostics to draw a sharp contrast between the physical world (which is evil) and the spiritual world (which is good).”[1]

American evangelicalism has the tendency to create a divide between the sacred and the secular. Things that are defined as “spiritual” are given a place of prominence while things that are defined as “material/earthly” are judged as unworthy of time and attention and are frequently viewed with suspicion. Because of this, many Christians have a hierarchy of things and activities with the “spiritual” things and activities at the top; the farther down the list they go, the more their suspicion grows or even their contempt. For example, if a Christian musician who is known for singing praise songs decides to write and record an album about his love of coniferous trees, he will receive condemnation for failing to use his gifts for Jesus. He will be accused of selling out because he now makes “secular” music instead of “sacred.”

The divide is further illustrated by the made-up category of “full time Christian service.” Pastors, missionaries, Christian school teachers, et al. are elevated to a position of spiritual prominence over vocations like lawyers, construction workers, and public-school teachers. The thing is, all followers of Jesus are engaged in “full time Christian service,” which is why I described it as a “made-up category.”

If God has called you to be a plumber, then don’t stoop to become a vocational pastor. Work hard as a plumber for God’s glory in full faith knowing that your labors are good, right, and point to the Creator. Likewise, if God has called you to labor in a foreign land as a missionary, then don’t stoop to become a lawyer. And on those days when your lawn needs to be mowed, push or ride your lawnmower as a doxology to the Sovereign Creator of the cosmos who has called us to tend to His creation and exercise dominion over it. Failing to mow your grass because you believe that studying theology and fasting are more “spiritual” and, hence, a better use of your time is sin.

Extending into entertainment choices, this bifurcation of the sacred and the secular is why it’s not uncommon to hear well-meaning Christians utter a version of, “While I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to listen to secular music, life is short and it’s more eternally beneficial to listen to sacred music.”

Same goes for movies. The absence of objectionable elements (which is a list that varies from person to person, by the way) combined with an obvious evangelistic message are the two most important variables many Christians consider when deciding what to watch. Often, the only two variables considered. Who cares if the acting is barely above amateurish, the direction wooden and uninspired, the camera work flat, the score unnecessarily ubiquitous, the editing subpar, and that the overall product is an aesthetic mess? “It has ‘Christian’ as an adjective and I don’t have to worry about my kids hearing any cuss words,” is the answer from many evangelicals.

That mentality reveals a belief that only function (the message/spiritual) matters and that form (the aesthetic/earthly) is subservient at best and unimportant at worst. Sadly, I’ve had the experience of professing Christians look me in the eyes and flatly assert that we should only be concerned about function because form doesn’t matter.

Circling back to my opening paragraphs, elevating function at the expense of form reflects the Neoplatonism that wreaks havoc in American evangelicalism. This construct states that the message (the spiritual) is a higher calling and worthy of more honor than the form (the earthly). Put another way, elevating function over form is a tenet of the sacred/secular divide. Except the Bible doesn’t support the belief and practice of those who believe and practice the sacred/secular divide, which, to be clear, is Neoplatonism.

When combatting the Neoplatonist sacred/secular divide, there are many places to which we can in the Bible. Pointing out that Genesis reveals that God created the material universe and declared it good makes for a sharp rebuttal. It is also helpful to remind people that Romans 8:19-21 says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (ESV).”

After Adam sinned, the curse of sin and death fell on all of creation. And if we want to get hyper-literal, it was the spiritual part of Adam that began the rebellion against God, not his material part (see the footnote for clarification).[2] The will (the soul) is where Adam’s rebellion was initiated. The material part of him, his brain synapses that fired and set off the physical (material) movements that ended with him eating the forbidden fruit, was a causal chain that began with the rebellion of his soul (the spiritual). As a result, both the soul (the spiritual) and the body (the material) fell and were cursed.

Thankfully, even though both body and soul suffer under the curse, God saves body and soul. Both the spiritual and the material are important in God’s economy. He did create them both, after all.

The earthly is not inherently wicked. For sure, material things are often used for wicked purposes. What’s more, it’s true that many earthly/material things are on a different teleological track than how God originally created them. The good news is that upon Jesus’ return, all things will be returned to God’s intended teleological track, including the spiritual dimension of God’s children. The Neoplatonist sacred/secular divide denies that both soul and body are fallen and under the curse of death.

However, the best way to pushback on the Neoplatonist sacred/secular divide is to point to Jesus.

The Second Person of the Trinity took on human flesh. Human flesh that he will always possess. Robert Letham writes, “[Jesus] has a human body and soul, which he will never jettison.”[3]

Later in the same chapter, Letham adds:

“Christ will never divest himself of his assumed humanity, or else we could not be saved. The incarnation is not for the years of time alone but for eternity (WSC 21; WLC 36). This is so because as our Savior he is also the head of his church and will continue to be so without end. Moreover, as the Mediator of creation, he has assumed the full authority given to man in creation, lost and misused by Adam but now fulfilled in his ministry as the second Adam.”[4]

But what does the fact that the dust of this earth is currently sitting on the Throne of Heaven have to do with art? Well, to begin with, a dismissal of the importance of form is a dismissal of the importance of Christ’s humanity.

No doubt, some, if not many, will recoil at that claim. But, think about it.

Any minimization of form is a confession of adherence to the sacred/secular divide. That, in turn reveals an unhealthy attachment to Neoplatonism’s suspicion of the material world – the earthly. If you regard the earthly with suspicion you must also regard King Jesus with suspicion. And you must also regard the final Resurrection with suspicion, too.

In the man Jesus Christ, in his humanity, we see the picture of the reality of the glorious goodness of the spiritual and material joined in perfect union. By shattering sin’s curse, the Second Adam is the author of the new creation. Those who repent of their sins and place their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are born again – born into new life in the Spirit. And a new life that will culminate one day in the final Resurrection when Jesus returns. At that point, those who are in Christ will have their sanctification completed. As part of that, we’ll be given a new body – a real, physical body. What’s more, in the new heavens and the new earth, we will be tasked with using our real, physical bodies to offer doxology to God through a variety of activities, most likely including work. If you elevate being a vocational pastor over being a plumber, you’re going to be in for a surprise after the Resurrection. Likewise, if you elevate form over function and embrace bad art because the message is good, you will be in for a surprise after the Resurrection, because God cares about form – as will be revealed in the final Resurrection and, frankly, has already been revealed in the Bible.

The first time God introduces Himself to the readers of His Word, He does so as an artist. And if His role as the Sovereign Artist over all creation doesn’t convince you that God cares about form, what about the Story of the Bible?

God chose to reveal Himself in a beautifully rendered piece of art that expertly weaves together a variety of genres (not to mention the fact that God also reveals Himself through His artistic expression of the universe and everything in it). And if God cares about art, so should His people. Art is, after all, part of the Christian’s birthright.

Bad art trades that birthright for a pot of porridge, because bad art lies in at least three ways: 1. Bad art lies about who God is. 2. Bad art lies about the nature of reality. 3. Bad art lies about God’s love for aesthetics (beauty).

As already mentioned, God is an artist, and artistic expressions reflect who He is; artistic expressions reflect God’s attribute as Creator and His love of beauty. Art that tells us that God doesn’t care about excellence in form is bad art. Art that presents a picture of a God who is unconcerned with the act of creation is bad art. Bad art lies about God.

Bad art also lies about the nature of reality as currently reflected in the tension between the original goodness of God’s creation and the effects of sin and death on creation. Much of the preferred artistic expressions among evangelicals is saccharine and paints a picture of the world that removes the Curse as much as possible. Theologically, removing or even merely ironing out the Fall has negative effects on our soteriology (including our doctrine of sanctification), ecclesiology, and eschatology. People may think that their Thomas Kinkade prints are harmless, but they’re wrong.

The third way that bad art lies is in how it denies that God cares deeply about aesthetics. If you doubt that God loves beauty, and if looking at a tree or a bird in flight doesn’t convince you, read God’s instructions to Moses for how to build and decorate the Tabernacle.

Exodus 31:1-10 and 35:4-40:33 reveals that God doesn’t just love art, He cares deeply about aesthetics and loves a variety of art and lots of it. And He loves art that is rendered in an excellent manner. Yet, sadly, many of God’s children embrace bad art in the name of their faith.

For the most part, the music that dominates the Christian radio airwaves, the Christian novels that fly off the shelves of Christian bookstores, and the movies that Believers clamor to watch are poor to just flat-out bad examples of art. That’s a fact. Much of what’s classified as “Christian” art is art that lies about God.

The sad irony is that many Believers are unaware that they are embracing bad art. They’ve been so unwittingly conditioned into the Neoplatonist secular/sacred divide that they genuinely don’t see a problem. Unfortunately, many of those who know better, artists who are Christians, have learned the hard way that when a friend or family member asks them about such-and-such “Christian” movie, the person asking is looking to have his or her opinion affirmed. In most instances, fellow Believers don’t want to hear the professional thoughts and opinions of artists who are Christians.

So, what’s the solution? Should Christian artists who care about form and function defer to the majority of Believers? Or, should we cloister together away from the broader Church and make vibrant, courageous art that honors God? You know, circle the wagons and seek isolation with like-minded Christians. Or, rather, should we courageously continue to carry the banner for excellence in aesthetics, encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ to pursue God through pursuing good art?

As difficult as it may be at times, I encourage fellow artists who are also disciples of Jesus to serve and love our brothers and sisters in Christ by encouraging them to learn and embrace a better theology of aesthetics. Challenging the Neoplatonist sacred/secular divide that informs much of evangelicalism’s interaction with aesthetics, Christian artists need to be willing to be the frontline of defense against heresies that are encroaching on the Church, specifically American evangelical churches. We should be willing to do the hard work that is frequently accompanied by personal slight of exhorting fellow Believers to embrace their artistic birthright that comes with being a child of God. Of course, this means that, by God’s grace, we must continue to keep our hand on the plow that God has given us, striving to make excellent art that glorifies God.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Michael Kruger, Christianity At The Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 122.

[2] I’m not a fan of this argument. Dividing the soul and the body (the spiritual and the material) is an unbiblical anthropology. As Christians, we believe in what’s called a holistic dualism. God created the spiritual and material aspects of our being to fully interact and be indivisible. In fact, death is the separation of the soul from the body. My point with the statement is to ask those who embrace the sacred/secular divide that if they’re going to be suspicious of anything, why not the spiritual dimension of humanity instead of the material?

[3] Robert Letham, Union With Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011), 21.

[4] Letham, Union With Christ, 39.

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