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.’”1
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).2
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
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
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?5
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
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.”6
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.7
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.
“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.”8
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.
1 Gene Edward Veith, Jr., The Gift of Art (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 53.
2 Roger L. Dudley with V. Bailey Gillespie, Valuegenesis: Faith in the Balance (La Sierra, CA: La Sierra University Press, 1992), 148.
3 A. Barry Gane, Valuegenesis II: Study 1—Core Report (Cooranbong, NSW: Avondale College Press, 2012), 86.
4 Ibid., 149.
5 Jo Ann Davidson is one Seventh-day Adventist scholar who has sought to thoughtfully address this issue. See, for example, The Bible and Aesthetics, a paper she presented at the Symposium on the Bible and Adventist Scholarship, Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic, March 19-26, 2000, and Toward a Theology of Beauty: A Biblical Perspective, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008).
6 H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, 2nd ed., (London: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 222.
7 In comparison, during the Protestant Reformation, Luther’s and Calvin’s theological standpoint made a very distinctive impression on the musical culture of their day.
8 Ellen G. White, “Preparing for Christ’s Return,” in Review and Herald, November 12, 1914. Reprinted as a Week of Prayer reading in Record, September 2, 2000:3.
9 See Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), 518-519.
10 P. T. Forsyth cited in Franklin M. Segler, Christian Worship: Its Theology
and Practice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967), 81.
Wolfgang Stefani, Ph.D., is a pastor in the Park Ridge and Flagstone
Seventh-day Adventist Churches in the South Queensland Conference
of Seventh-day Adventists, Australia.