“Christians today often talk about influencing the culture through the arts. This often means, in practice, Christians letting themselves be influenced by the culture through the arts.”
Those are the opening words of Gene Edward Veith’s article “When Christianity Shaped the Arts” in the February issue of Tabletalk magazine.
In truth, most Christians just don’t care much at all about art. And they often don’t have a clue about how Christianity and art go together. But that is actually a new development in the history of the church (apart from the iconoclasm that occurred in the Reformation). As Veith goes on to point out in his article, “Evangelicals are often oblivious to artistic achievements” of the ancient church. For them, it was a vital part of their faith. For us, in our ever-pragmatic worldview and lifestyles, we just don’t find visual art “useful” to the mission of the church or the everyday lives of Christians seeking to be obedient to God and to be witnesses to the world.
In the ancient church, yes the pre-Roman Catholic church, “the life of the mind and the life of creative imagination were not just kept alive but were nourished and inspired inside the church, and in a way that would eventually win over and civilize the barbarians outside the gates. Today’s Christians would thus do well to emulate their [ancient] brethren.” (Ibid.)
The ancient church cultivated the arts in the midst of incredible onslaughts of war, social disorder, Muslim assaults, and the political upheavals. They saw it as one of the important means to advancing the mission of the church, that it was a means to survival. The church today, on the other hand has neglected the visual arts for far too long. The church has discarded the cultivation of the arts as somehow distracting to the mission, or unhelpful to our witness.
The sad state of Christian art has been reduced to something on the order of eagles soaring above mountaintops, churches covered in snow, and utopian landscapes of serene cottages by streams. That’s what passes as Christian art today, and that’s just about all Christians will let “Christian art” be. To further downgrade it, that art is then so over-reproduced that whatever aesthetic value it had to begin with is diminished terribly low through it’s sheer ubiquity. I commented to my wife leaving Wal-Mart on Monday to take a look how Kinkade (of whose art I own 2 prints) was now reduced to being on a spare tire cover for an SUV. Something about that just makes it seem banal, reduced in value, superficial.
But it looks like there are rays of hope on the horizon for the church and art.
MSNBC.com recently ran an article on how a renaissance has begun in the church. In it they interview Makoto Fujimura, who said,“I am a Christian. I am also an artist and creative, and what I do is driven by my faith experience.”
The report, “On the grass-roots and institutional level, evidence is mounting to support that view: Art galleries are opening in churches; prominent seminaries are investing in new centers exploring theology and the arts; and, graduates from evangelical film schools are making Hollywood movies.”
Yes, even the SBC’s own Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has done as much by establishing The Center for Theology and Arts, which is aimed at equipping “pastors and church leaders to think biblically about pivotal issues which dominate contemporary culture,” and will “will focus on the interaction between Christian theology and the various arts,” and on helping “Christians develop a biblical understanding of such issues as aesthetics, artistic expression and appreciation.” (source: BP)
Add to that, Fuller Seminary’s establishment of the Brehm Center, which “aspires to be an evangelical arts think tank, with five stand-alone institutes focused upon worship and music, film and moving images, art and architecture, drama, journalism and creative writing, [and] preaching.”
This has been a long time coming.
“These artistic evangelicals, though still relatively small in number, are striving to be creators of culture rather than imitators, said Dick Staub…There is a desire, he said, to avoid inventing a parallel arts universe with Christian knockoffs for Christian audiences.”
“For too long, Christian art has implied pale imitation,” Craig Detweiler of Fuller Seminary said. “We’re trying to get back to the days of the Renaissance, where the church was the patron of the finest art.”
Wow! A new passion for GOOD art! (Hear that CCM?)
Andy Crouch, editorial director for Christianity Today’s Christian Vision Project, said, “The very parched nature of evangelical visual culture is making people who have grown up in this culture thirsty for beauty,”
Yes, we are indeed thirsty for beauty. And thirsty for God-centered means to enjoy it. The pleadings of Francis Schaeffer in the 60’s and 70’s to engage the culture, including the arts, are starting to take root.
“If we as Christians believe that creativity and imagination is a gift from God, why have we neglected it for so many years?” said center director Steve Halla, a former Dallas Theological Seminary professor and a woodcut artist.
yes, Yes, YES! God did give these gifts to His creatures. But why are they neglected in the church? Is it because of a fear Christians have that was alluded to in the opening quote from Veith? Is it because Christians don’t really think you can do high-caliber art without becoming worldly? I’ll tell you that that is an assumption made by many Christians I have known. It is a fear of becoming tainted by the world. And one can somewhat understand their fear, when they look at how much that passes as Christian art is nothing but an imitation of the culture that’s been baptized in romanticized Christian cultural trappings and language.
I hope this news means that we are about to be delivered from the ghetto of Christian art as we now know it, and a recovery of the arts, a revival of creativity as the ancient church once knew it. We need an infusion of good, beautiful, enriching, God-glorifying art. Visual, literary, performing, crafting, etc. Paintings don’t need to be littered with obligatory images of crosses to be God-glorifying any more than furniture builders need to make only pews or communion tables to glorify God in their craft.
I am praying for this new renaissance of artists. I welcome them and hope to encourage them as much as I can. I want their art and craft to be driven by good, solid, enriching, biblically theological underpinnings, and crafted with the greatest degree of amazing craftsmanship and talent that God has endowed them with. And I hope that they will bless the church with their gifts, as well as be a light of God’s glorious beauty to the onlooking world. Christians, go make something beautiful! Artists, we need you!
ADDENDUM: For those of you who are truly interested in doing art well, and in helping facilitate a renaissance in art in the church, then you will want to read this short essay over at The Scriptorium, entitled: “On Great Artistic Ages.”