A recent conversation at one of our evening gatherings at Grace & Peace forced me to realize just how often creative people are neglected in the church. While some people have started to talk about the idea of being a Christian in the Arts, it’s a topic that needs to be talked about so artisans of all types know they are valued in the church.
Now some people might point to talks and discussions at conferences about the idea of the arts in church, and say artists are given a privileged position, but this is not the norm. With a couple of exceptions, which get a lot of press, creatives do not have the same voice in our churches that many other vocations do (especially in the Reformed Community). Normally the recipe for Christianity and Art results in two main outcomes: Art meant to be used within the church and art intended for a Christian audience. The problem is that most churches don’t know what to do with artists who don’t focus on these two outcomes. Sure artists can be members of a church, and every once their perspective can influence a churches decision-making process i.e., “hey you’re a painter can you help us pick out the color for the new carpets?”. They might even get their own Bible study in larger churches but these conversations are not being heard by the larger church community. Let me outline 5 reasons why creatives need more attention from Christians. As we begin I will be using the term “Christian Artist” but I am not primarily speaking about an artist whose work is Christian in subject, but rather one who is personally a follower of Christ and an Artist.
Christian Artists, like all other followers of Christ, ought to have their entire life effected by their faith. But unlike many other parts of society, Artists have the ability to plainly communicate about spiritual and emotional subjects. Because of this Christian Artists have often been wrongly criticized for their choice of subject matter and style. We live in what Christian thinkers call “the Already and the Not Yet”, a time after the death and atonement of Christ, but a time before his final restoration of all things. Every Christian experiences this, we sin and yet we wish we hadn’t we see things that are wrong with the world and yet we know that one day Jesus will deal with them. The reason this affects Christian Artists is because many other Christians are of the opinion that there is a wrong focus when Christian Artists chose to examine the “Not Yet” of our world. Art that is dark or bleak, or which communicates pain or longing, is often seen as lacking a Christian worldview. The sad part is that this is painfully untrue. A Christian worldview needs a tension between the joy of new life in Christ and the pain of our current experiences. To omit where we are is to pretend that we are someplace we are not.
“What does it mean?” This is often the first question asked of an artistic piece, yet, it is often a question that cannot be answered. Art is not always created through planned or overly examined processes. Often an artist is seeking to express that which is impossible for them to explain. All of this means that as we engage with art sometimes there is an impenetrable veil that we cannot penetrate. We walk away from a piece with questions, left unanswered. For Christians this is an incredibly important skill to develop. There is a mystery to our faith, and when we assume that every question must always be answered, we create an unhealthy expectation of the Christian life. Art teaches us that we can have a genuine interaction with something or someone even when we are left with questions. Artists remind us that true knowledge and exhaustive knowledge are not the same thing.
Along side of mystery, creatives stretch the church to interact with imprecision. So often churches are led by people who would otherwise be engineers, accountants or other formula-driven careers.* Often when Christians interact with other ways of thinking we come into conflict over certain imprecisions. Sometimes what happens is that this imprecision is seen as a defect, which needs to be expunged. The problem is that as Christians remove this imprecision they end up ostracizing people who are not as precise as they are. The arts in general is more forgiving to imprecision. This means that Christian artists can often play the role of cultural peacemaker to those who have felt pushed away from faith.
While sometimes art is less clear, other times it brings a level of clarity which is otherwise impossible. A single photograph of a child weeping naked in the street can communicate the atrocities of a war, far more poignantly than a thousand word essay. When creatives are given the freedom to express their faith the results can be powerful and pointed means of communicating the truths of God’s world, even when the subject matter is not internally Christian in nature.
Creatives in many disciplines use certain terms, and ideas which can be beneficial to the Christian faith. Ideas such as balance, harmony, rhythm, scale, and many others, can be used to convey important ideas within the church. While some ideas have crept in over the ages, until we prioritize the inclusion of creatives in the church we don’t even know the gems which we are missing. Additionally the emotional “language” which is often communicated through art itself can be incredibly stirring.*For a glimpse at a pastor that comes from a different kind of formula-driven background check out this bioon Burk Parsons.