For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts
For the past year and a half I have served on the building committee of our Midwestern Lutheran church. Together with our architect we planned and then built a new sanctuary and fellowship hall in a remarkably short period of time. Little from my experience as an architectural historian prepared me for the conversations we had—and those we should have had—during this process. So I am especially grateful for this lively and thought-provoking collection of essays about art and the church. What should the church think about the art and artists among us, and what do they require of us? What role should the creative, artistic work of human beings play in our corporate worship and congregational fellowship? How do we know if art is “good,” or good for us as Christians? If we do not welcome such conversations and at least attempt to develop a deeper, theologically grounded understanding of art, we will miss the opportunity to play an active role in its creation and limit our worship and spiritual growth.
This book originated in a meeting of nearly 800 pastors and artists in Austin, Texas in April of 2008 at which they considered “Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts.” The collection includes an editor’s introduction plus eight essays that take up the major concern of the conference: developing “a vision of the arts that is theologically informed, biblically grounded, liturgically sensitive, artistically alive, and missionally shrewd” (23). Chapters include “The Gospel,” “The Worship,” “The Dangers,” and The Future” and four others geared to particular roles: “The Art Patron,” “The Pastor,” “The Artist,” and “The Practitioner.” The essays, editor David Taylor tells us, aim “to inspire the church, in its life and mission, with an expansive vision for the arts” and “to show how the many parts of the landscape of church and art can hold together” (21). At times the authors engage fine art, music, dance, architecture, and drama, and the book is full of wonderful and instructive examples of each. This is an enormous topic to be covered in 200 pages. And, not surprisingly, the authors do not always see eye to eye. But they do open up an interesting and important conversation in highly engaging and readable prose.
In the first chapter, titled “The Gospel,” Andy Crouch asks: “How is art a gift, a calling, and an obedience” (36)? Crouch, along with other authors in this volume, wants us to get away from a common Protestant misconception that art is justified only when it is “useful” for some practical end, such as education. He argues that Christians are called to develop a culture that is full of grace and brings our life into alignment with the redemptive work of God in Christ. Barbara Nicolosi, in her chapter, “The Artist,” writes that artists who grasp this truth will create beauty that reflects “wholeness, harmony, and radiance” (106). Lauren Winner’s valuable contribution, “The Patron,” shows us how important all of us can be toward realizing this vision. She also cautions us that to celebrate the “uselessness” of art might obscure the way beauty “materializes goodness and truth,” even to the extent that it helps us survive.
One of the most helpful essays in the collection is John Witvliet’s discussion of actual practices in today’s church, “The Worship.” He puts worship at the center of the debate and ably summarizes what distinguishes the best “liturgical art, art designed for public, corporate assemblies” (48). Witvliet acknowledges that the art of worship faces the difficult challenge of being both “profound and accessible.” To pass this test, liturgical art must “deepen the corporate nature of a Christian way of life and worship” (49). Art must unite and develop community, and for this to occur the artist must bend somewhat to the needs and capacities of the congregation. Furthermore, art must “deepen the covenantal relationship between God and the gathered congregation” (49). Art in worship must not be something to contemplate for its own sake, but must enable the congregation to know and love Godbetter. Finally, the best art is “iconic and idolatry-resisting,” pointing through itself toward a more profound understanding of the Creator. Witvliet illustrates all these points with real-world examples that prove the validity of his claims. In doing so, he shows why liturgical art is most successful when it arises from patient conversations between artist and congregations.
In the chapter titled “The Practitioner,” Joshua Banner, an arts pastor in a college community, encourages congregations to welcome and nurture artists. Banner himself, through sensitive and persistent ministry, draws these persons to the church. He writes, “the challenge for the local parish is to promote creativity in all its diverse potentialities” (134). As I read Banner’s essay I found myself wondering: Is a carpenter an artist? What about a gardener? Well, then, why not think of a surgeon or a plumber in this way? All creatively use their hands and sense of fitness and proportion to make things whole and beautiful. Why does a particular variety of studio artist require the church’s concentrated attention? One argument in favor of such special attention, made both explicitly and implicitly by many of these essays, is that the church has lost its connection to significant, living, edgy culture, and Christian artists are a way back to relevance. Most of the “art” our culture produces is often merely entertainment—escape and distraction, David Taylor points out—and this also characterizes much of what passes for Christian art today. Art that is good for us, on the other hand, Taylor argues, asks us to look critically at our cultural assumptions and practices.
These essays ring with a warning about art that is too easy—the word “sentimental” is often used critically to describe much of what passes for art in today’s churches. We also find ourselves in a time when, as Nicolosi writes, “there are lots of people doing creative things in the church whose work in the arts seems to me to be much more about their own spiritual catharsis” (105). So how do we discern what is good? Who should be our artists? And who will make this call? This is especially difficult given that there are multiple taste culturesout there in the churches. And, as a historian of culture (who admittedly cringes in the presence of much contemporary church art), I am wary of drawing lines between “good” and “bad” (or “challenging” versus “sentimental”). David Morgan’s excellent fieldwork on the reception of the popular religious art of Warner Sallman, whose 1940s Head of Christ is the most commonly represented image in history, shows the theological complexity a variety of Christians have found in this image, one that likely would not past the taste test these authors suggest.1 What might give one Christian “indigestion of the soul” (150) provides another with a surprisingly transformative, theologically grounded, visual apprehension of Christ’s sacrifice and love. This is why, when asking questions about what is “good,” we must be attentive to the fruit that art produces among us. This might not be “usefulness” in a material sense, but art certainly must do some good among us.
Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful chapter, “The Pastor,” shares his experiences with three artists who deeply influenced him over the course of his career. One was the architect retained by his brand-new, postwar congregation to build a suburban church. This architect listened to the congregation when others did not, became one of them, and helped them build something that was deeply meaningful because it reflected the congregation’s own spiritual needs and experiences. Today this midcentury modern building is unremarkable. It resembles thousands of others built in America at the same time, all for congregations extolling the same values Peterson remembers: simplicity, honesty, beauty, and “fit” with the community. This is by no means to deny the meaning the experience and the building had for Peterson and his congregation, only to emphasize that taste is both whimsical and historically contingent, and to argue for perspective and humility. Many of these essays suggest that process is as important as product; the center of a congregation’s meaningful engagement with art is the relationship between artist and the people of God, the conversations that take place, and the meaning that takes root, rather than any timeless value the work might possess.
In the final essay, “The Future,” Jeremy Begbie offers the reader a capacious and uplift-ing theological vision that gives this debate ultimate meaning and purpose. Rather than be resigned to contemporary culture, or to think we must somehow bring about “better” culture through our own aggressive attempts at reformation, we should claim “a future promised by God and available now” (167). Begbie shows us how, in this present/future, the arts are capable of remarkable things. In Revelation, “the spirit unites the unlike,” and we can invite artists to play a central role among us as we challenge our homogeneity and discover “the Spirit’s unity.” God’s future is also full of excess—an excess of grace, blessings, and joy. The arts can “remind us of this excess” by their generosity and resistance to subdued, utilitarian practices. Just as God’s redemption is unexpected, the arts can invert our experience and connect us to the whole picture of a redeemed creation. The arts reveal the goodness of matter achieved through the transformative “power of re-creation.” Finally, Begbie states, the Spirit improvises, taking what has gone before and, in creative and unanticipated ways, making it new and better, richer and more complex.
Here Begbie makes an important point: there is a deep and wonderful tradition of Christian art, architecture, and music, and we need to know it. He repeats T. S. Eliot’s question: “How can we be original until we’ve lived inside a great tradition?” (184). This important collection of essays reminds us how important it is that we connect to this tradition and bring it forward with freshness and purpose. These authors provide thoughtful, challenging, and hopeful guidance for the process.