Art & God (3)

This is a brief response to Matt’s previous post. I hope it provides some historical/cultural background to the issue of art in the church.

I think there are several reasons why the Christian culture seems to have an inordinate amount of guilt with regards to art and cultural engagement. Matt, you mentioned fundamentalism’s decampment from the arts, which in my estimation is no small part of the problem. In fact, I think you have the crux of the issue right there. Although there are many variables in the issue, in the end you are dealing with the broader aspects of truth and beauty, essential commonalities that resonate with every fallen human being. If the Church withdraws from those grounds, how can we show them a Savior who is perfect in beauty and truth?

Concepts of truth and beauty have changed drastically over the past couple of generations. In cultural chronology going back only a little more than a century ago, you have the movement of Modernism, which in a great sense rebelled against “traditional” forms of art and literature. In general, Modernism rejected the reality of the supernatural and the authority of the church or religion. Modernists asserted truth can be discovered and beauty can be seen, but only through objective power of the individual mind or scientific methodology. Modernism affirmed the reexamination of previously accepted forms of art and truth and beauty, and did so while maintaining that these were things with external anchors and standards outside of one’s self. While perceptions of art and beauty changed, truth was still considered discoverable, knowable.

As Modernism begot Postmodernity, truth joined beauty as being “in the eye of the beholder.” Ambiguity and contradiction no longer matter (or are even seen as desirable) since any notion of truth is relative to the sovereign eye of the individual. Comic books and computer screens can be just as good and beautiful as classic literature or the Sistine Chapel – it all depends on your point of view.

As postmodern plurality and relativity emerged in the early 20th century, the Church’s general reaction was not to engage or redeem – but to withdraw from all things “secular.” Modernism gave us the ol’ stinkeye, so we sulked off and sat in a corner while postmodernity took root around us. Faith in the Church became a buffer zone between the secular and the sacred. Parachurch ministries virtually exploded because the Church disengaged. Now, decades later, we have finally decided that it may actually be beneficial to engage people culturally for the sake of the Gospel… but we approach it like the annoying little sister who is just trying to tag along with big brother.

Think about it – for centuries, the Church drove art and music and cultural trends. Now, we simply try to imitate those things. While society in general and Western culture in particular rejoices in the value of the creative individual (see also, YouTube, Myspace, the blogosphere, etc.), the best the church seems to be able to do is make flimsy imitations (see also, GodTube, MyChurch, the blogosphere, etc.) We are not exactly a consistent hotbed of innovation in the areas of visual art, music, film and literature. I think we sense we should be doing more, but are really too lazy to put forth the effort of being truly innovative. So we feel guilty.

Why is it assumed that to reach the culture, we must be artistically engaged? I think the answer is because culture is artistically engaged. That is where unregenerate people are. The Church in many senses has become passive and lazy. We want the people to come to us because going to them takes effort, and – God forbid – maybe pain. Artistic engagement on whatever front or medium can be a powerful means of missional engagement. They are confused about truth, but are drawn to beauty. We have truth, but have lost a clear vision of the beauty therein. Truth and beauty are essential commonalities within us and are worthy ground upon which to advance the Gospel.

This, of course, begs the question – what is the relationship between beauty and truth? Comments are open.

Comments 3

  1. Jason, I thought you said this was going to be a brief response…nice post.

    I had a question. It seemed most of the art coming from the European Renaissance was highly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Was this the driving force you were talking about when you said the Church (I’m still confused with capital and lower case C’s….) drove art and culture?

    Actually, let’s make that two questions. How can the church get back to being a driving force for art/culture?

  2. j.hart,
    “brief.” haha – yes. thanks.

    1.) I think the Renaissance is a prime example of that, yes.
    2.) That, friend, is the question of the hour. How indeed? I think you see pockets of this sort of engagement here and there (for instance, I think of Mars Hill Church with the Paradox, which apparently had become a legit musical venue in the Seattle scene). The answer may not be the same across the board, in a methodological sense. I know how you don’t become a driving force, though: disengage.

  3. Pingback: seventwentyfour » Off the Wire on Art

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