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Brett David Potter is a PhD student at the Toronto School of Theology and has studied at Tyndale Seminary. Brett writes about theology, art and culture here and here.

July 2011

Volume 3

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Whenever we drive in another city, my wife and I get lost. It could be downtown Chicago or Guelph, Ontario; regardless of where we start from, we will somehow become disoriented and diverge from our neatly printed directions. A street will suddenly become one-way and spirit our car off to a distant suburb, miles away from our intended destination. Boulevards and avenues will start to criss-cross each other with no semblance of pattern or design, their names and directions constantly changing in an unpredictable tangle. The map invariably turns out to be hopelessly out of date, or not detailed enough to get us where we want to go. In such cases, as happened to my wife and I in Dublin, Ireland, the only solution (although admittedly a bad one) was to drive the opposite/wrong way on a one-way street back to where we had started.

This feeling of being lost in an unfamiliar city is similar to how many Christians feel when it comes to the “world” of the arts: painting, sculpture, film, dance, music and the various institutions of “culture” (museums, galleries, university art departments) which serve as the gatekeepers to this realm. There are a number of historical reasons for our unease in this ‘foreign’ territory, some of which are just as acute now as they were hundreds of years ago. However, just as travel to other places expands our minds and helps us appreciate the world in a new way, so too art and the “art world” are worth exploring as Christians even if there might be some necessary discomfort and disorientation as we find our way around. Besides, the need to “get out” of the church and into the world is one of the most important aspects of “missional” engagement with culture; just as the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, and within human history is “sent” into the world in the “form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), so the church is similarly “sent” in the power of the Spirit as part of the great missio Dei, not to be served (as if the world and its cultural riches were given to us to exploit) but to serve.

Off the Map

One of the greatest obstacles to “finding our way” around the world of the arts from a Christian perspective is the historical reality that theologians have not always been enthusiastic about the capacity of the arts to “draw us in.” Augustine, for example, clearly appreciated the power of beautiful music but St. Augustine, Botticelli, 1480was concerned that earthly beauty might draw us away from the glories of heaven, becoming an end in itself rather than a “stairway” to the divine. Through the centuries, various iconoclastic movements in the church (such as the one spearheaded by Leo III in the eighth century) have argued against the visual in worship, concerned that making images of Christ or the saints would lead to idolatry. This tendency re-emerged with particular force during the Protestant Reformation, where Catholic churches once full of sacred art were vandalized and painted over; some later extremists even argued against any inclusion of music, especially instrumental music, in church services. This, of course, does not represent the full range of the Christian tradition, which has given rise to some of the greatest art ever made: Byzantine icons, medieval cathedrals, Bach, Palestrina, Rembrandt, Dante. But it has been a recurring question in the history of Christianity, perhaps especially apparent with the post-Enlightenment movement of Western art outside of the institutional church to the “secular” sphere of culture, whether art and religion are essentially incompatible. For many Christians even today, art and creativity are at best an idle distraction and at worst a dangerous menace to genuine faith. When it comes to the unfamiliar “city” of art, many Christians may come to the conclusion that it is better to stay home – who wants to get lost in a place where you can’t even read the street signs!

A second aspect of art which has troubled twentieth-century evangelicals in particular is a theological system, inherited from figures like Carl F. H. Henry, in which “propositional” truths are the only valid means of speaking about God and creation. However, the truth that confronts us in a work of art is anything but propositional, instead drawing us into mystery and wonder; only the most pedestrian, Rembrandt, Study of Hendrickje Sleeping, 1654-55literalistic art is “propositional,” illustrating a simple factual statement. We will miss out on what art has to offer us if we want it to always be straightforward, clear-cut, an obvious representation of a Bible story with a concise, easily summarized “point.” In other words, if we spend too much time trying to figure out where we are and what we are supposed to be looking for, we are liable to miss the street we are supposed to turn on as well as the breathtaking scenery that awaits us around every corner. Being a little bit lost may be uncomfortable, but you might end up stumbling upon a wonderful place you never would have found otherwise. Secondly, getting lost might even help you find a better route to your destination… although if you’re traveling with me, it will more likely lead to a lengthy (but scenic) detour.

To go one step further in this analogy, we might want to suggest that the Bible is the roadmap which helps us find our bearings in the complex world of culture. But – although, we need to be cautious here, because maps are indispensable – if all we do is look at the map, we’ll never get a feel for the city! Going on a trip is not just about reaching your final destination, but the experience of the journey itself.

New Directions

The world of art has changed over the centuries, as has the Christian church. Fortunately, Christian thinkers from many different, previously insular church traditions are beginning to think (or perhaps re-think) through the relationship between theology and art. On the grassroots level, many churches are Mark Rothko, Red Orange Orange on Red, 1962thinking of creative ways to introduce the arts into the life of the community. Some have art galleries, in the foyer or a separate space, where art by artists from the congregation is displayed throughout the year. The church I attended in Vancouver, for example, had “art cafes” once a month where artists from the community could perform music, show a short film, exhibit artwork and discuss their work. In the UK, an organization called Ecclesiart has launched a bold venture to display works by prominent contemporary artists in church spaces (for example, Yoko Ono at St. Paul’s). A similar venture brought video artist Bill Viola to exhibit work in Durham Cathedral a few years ago. Such collaborations are not too widespread in Canada, but that may change! Other churches choose to incorporate the fine arts into their worship services, which can be an incredible deepening of communal worship or, on the other hand, a strange and uncomfortable experience. I remember trying to show an “experimental” video of an ultrasound in church to convey the mystery of the Incarnation; afterwards, confused congregants asked me if it was supposed to be an alien.

The opposite pole of this ecclesial movement is an outward, missional engagement with art in culture, a project which is still in its infancy. In the 1950s, my grandparents had to sneak around when they wanted to go to the movies for fear that their pastor would accost them on the street outside the theatre. Although that cultural situation has drasticallyDamien Hirst, For the Love of God changed and most Christians (including evangelicals) are willing to listen to “secular” music and watch “secular” films, dance, visual art, and drama still seem to be largely avoided by the church. This doesn’t mean, however, that spiritual themes aren’t being explored in the “art world” quite apart from the Christian church. To give just one example, the British artist Damian Hirst has become incredibly famous over the last few years for his meditations on mortality, religion and meaning. His “For the Love of God” (2007) is a human skull encrusted with over eight thousand diamonds, a provocative statement about death and the age-old truth that “you can’t take it with you.” Hirst’s other work is often morose, and with its emphasis on decomposition and decay certainly may be off-putting to Christians who have in the back of their minds Paul’s words about “whatever is lovely” (Phil 4:8). But just as the crucifixion of Christ was anything but “lovely” and “noble,” so art that plumbs the lowest depths of human experience is spiritually valuable because it enriches our understanding of our imperfect but still created world. As the late Pope John Paul II noted in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” art is a “bridge to religious experience” as it draws people into beauty, mystery and the “universal desire for redemption.” “Secular” art doesn’t just illustrate its own lack of God and goodness but is a good gift of God that we ought to receive, interpret and enjoy with grace.

Moving Forward

As Augustine recognized, art, or at least good art, draws us in to an experience involving our senses, cognition, emotions; indeed, our whole, embodied selves. We don’t want to just sit back and wait for a well-made play or film to be over; it “moves” us in both senses of the word, taking us along with the story as it unfolds and involving us as subjects in a profound, often emotive way. Even though we may stay fixed in our seats, or remain standing in the gallery, we are taken on a transformative journey. A painting El Greco, The Burgial of Count Orgaz, 1586like El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz,” for example, takes us up into itself by drawing our eyes from the static, earthly reality of death in the bottom of the image literally up to the swirling, dynamic beauty of heaven. Jackson Pollock’s “No. 5, 1948” draws us into a complex, pulsating space of interweaving lines and colours, immersing us in the “inner world” of the artist. If we are willing to be taken on these journeys, opening ourselves to the intimidating prospect of exploring a foreign city, we might find that the initial feeling of discomfort and disorientation pays off, and that we can enjoy becoming familiar with new territory. As with travel, we don’t just visit a new city to steal its cultural riches; instead, we do our best to understand and appreciate the beauty of what we are seeing, of course bringing our unique personalities and dispositions to bear on our surroundings. A missional, “sent” approach to the world must not be imperialistic and exploitative, but willing to “let go”; we need to find our way around the best that art and culture have to offer with minds, hearts and senses open to the experience.

Further Reading

  • Elkins, James. On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • John Paul II. Letter to Artists. Available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists_en.html.
  • Siedell, Daniel A. God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
  • Taylor, W. David O., ed. For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010.
  • Viladesau, Richard. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

2 Comments

  1. Bunny Ninaber
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    This does provoke thought. We are creative creatures. Art speaks of the spirituality within each of us. I have to admit, I have been somewhat hesitant to step into this realm. I will give it more thought.

  2. avatar

    Very important to know about mission with faith empowerement. The strengthening christian faith lead toward God mission, the world to be a part of the kingdom of God.

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