The Purpose Driven Babel (What Is Art For? Part One)

I didn’t know it when I first wrote this, but this post begins a series of thoughts on art and fiction.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Rotterdam)_-_Google_Art_Project(Pieter Brueghel the Elder 1526/1530–1569)

In Genesis 11 we see the story of the Tower of Babel. The purpose driven people of the world wanted to make “a name for themselves.” So they gathered into a city and in the middle of that city they began to put brick upon brick upon brick to build a tower that reached to the heavens. They believed in the Law of Cause and Effect, if we do X then Y will happen. If we build our tower we’ll reach the heavens and our name will be known forever. Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair. And God seeing their efforts came down and confused their language – why it’s called Babel – then scattered the peoples.

A tower has a purpose and a function. It’s a symbol of power and prestige. A tower says, “Look what I, Man, have done.” A tower is an ascent to the Gods.

I think about functionality, pragmatism, utility, production a lot. Especially in my field these thoughts arise. I’m curious what the point of a song is, or a poem, or a sermon, or a painting. In the end it doesn’t matter. I wrote a new melody for an old hymn and for the first three months of Atticus’ life it put him to sleep every night. I never recorded it, other than he and Alyssa maybe a handful of folks have heard it, Atticus won’t remember it. What purpose or function does the song have?

Every Monday morning I contend with the feelings that I spent 40+ hours working for the production of an hour and fiften minutes of worship and then it’s over. No recording of the service, video or audio, can capture that moment. It’s simply over and another one’s coming and quickly it will be over. What function or purpose does it have?

What is art for? Does it need to be for anything? If it’s not for anything do we need it? What do a play, an aria, or a stand-up routine produce and make? What are their function?

Earlier I wrote that “…when I write – a poem, a letter to my wife, a prayer for my church – I’m hoping it’ll survive past me. Sometimes I think the creative impulse is a survival instinct.

You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Retun to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death –
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but be evening it is dry and withered.

Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90.3-6. 12

Our lives are like grass and we know it. So we build our towers, write our poems, sing our songs. “Look what I, Man, have done.” If we talk loud enough, impart enough wisdom, gather enough people, sing enough songs, make enough people laugh. If we do X then Y will happen.

We must make the most of the dash between the dates on our tombstone, but in the end the elements will weather the rock until it’s smooth and blank. Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair.


Sin is the ascent of man to God. From the beginning the lie has been: “You can be like God.”  So we eat the fruit, we build the tower, we guild the calf, we wander the desert. We follow the rules. We make up new rules because the old ones weren’t strict enough. We are purpose driven. We make contigency plans for when Plan B doesn’t work out. We believe in the Law of Cause and Effect, if X then Y – we will never die. Sin is the ascent of man to God, the belief that we can be like God, knowing good and evil.

But the gospel is God’s descent to man. He comes searching for us in the garden when we hide in our brittle leaves, he guides us with cloud by day and fire at night, he becomes a man and walks among us then dies our death.

In a few weeks we will celebrate the holiday of Pentecost when God gave us the Holy Spirit. It’s striking to me that in the story of Babel God confuses our tongues so that we cannot say, “Look at what I, Man, have done” then scatters the people, but on Pentecost He gathers the people together so they all hear the wonders of God in their own tongues. The gospel is a backwards Babel.

What is art for? I still don’t know. But I do know this: at the end of all things God will come to a new city that is of His own making, and in the center of that city will not be a tower to Him but His throne come down to us. No more towers, no more performing, no more striving, no more scheming.

I’m going to be thinking more about art and fiction. Check out part two: “The Good Catastrophe.

The Purpose Driven Babel (What Is Art For? Part One)

3 thoughts on “The Purpose Driven Babel (What Is Art For? Part One)

  1. bongolong says:

    Fascinating, Mr. Tommy! Yup, another deep one and to maybe make it a bit deeper…
    I want to try to answer your questions: “What is art for? Does it need to be for anything? If it’s not for anything do we need it?”

    Art is a moment. No matter how long it took to create that song, poem, painting, to the recipient of that art, it is the moment that counts. Now, that moment can be experienced every time a song is heard, a poem re-read, a painting viewed. Art is really undefinable, but the dictionary definition is “The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” I like that last part, “of more than ordinary significance” because that what art does, what is for, to make a moment more significant, to help make all those other not-so-significant or difficult moments bearable.

    Not all art needs to be for anything, some art stirs the soul, like a poem or a song, while others are simply “art for art’s sake” like a pleasant landscape painting.

    Do we need art? I have to respond with a resounding YES! Without those significant moments, life can be rather dull.


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