I was in a discussion with a friend of mine following a seminar in ecclesiology. We were going back and forth on the issue of art appreciation in the church and how it is good, yet narrow-minded. It is a wonderful thing that many churches advocate some kind of outlet for artists to show their talents. However, when we think through why art is heralded more than other activities that should be done to the glory of God, art has won out all too easily.
I realize this will probably rub folks the wrong way, especially my artsy friends. While there is a tendency to defend myself by saying, “I like Picasso!” or “I enjoy Vivaldi” or “I like swirls of red intermingled with hues of indigo,” by its very nature, the blogosphere will have some wiley folks that will cry out against my puritanical view. Before I say any more, I at least want to say this: I think it is a good thing to have some fotos and paintings and music and a film outlet for people to express their worship for God. With that said, can I challenge you, aspiring van Gogh, to think about why art has such a primacy in our current evangelical world?
I have heard of a church that has someone painting a picture during the sermon, and at the end of the preaching it is displayed before the congregation after the sermon. What does this say about the sermon? Is the painting then the high point of the sermon? Is the sermon merely building to the unveiling of the artist’s latest creation?
You may say, “Art, by nature, is meant to be admired and displayed.” Cannot the same be said for sports? After all, the Greek games were spectacular displays of power, grace, and beauty. Why don’t we have someone throwing a discus or doing pushups during the sermon to be able to show off their work ethic and discipline “for the glory of God?”
You may also say, “God has endowed art with a special quality so that it shows off purer beauty than a man shooting a free throw.” However, isn’t art merely metaphor for reality. That is, the artist tries to capture the beauty of the flower by painting it in a certain shade or with a particular background. Art is one of many forms that God has endowed with grace and the ability to portray his creation. After all, man is the ultimate portrayal of God’s grace on earth, isn’t he? Not to take away from Niagara Falls in the least, but man is the <em>imago dei</em> so that God’s rule on earth can be exercised and displayed. On the other hand, there is no real movement in paintings. They try to portray the massive waterfall with lines or colors, but they lisp in vain to capture the essence of the thing they seek to portray.
We should not diminish the importance of art, but we must not elevate it so that the artist has a louder megaphone than the athlete or student. There should be no hierarchy when it comes to displaying and doing all things to the glory of God.
Too many times people want to be known as sympathetic to the arts. It is true that aesthetics are an important part of admiring the natural world around us, but let’s keep the rhetoric to a minimum. It is telling that Scripture doesn’t speak at length about art. It puts primacy on farming…Could we be helped if we put as much emphasis on sowing and harvesting as we do on realism and abstraction?

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  1. Definitely some interesting ideas. I appreciate your perspective and understand what you mean. Ravi Zacharias talks about us being creatures designed to worship, and that everything we do was worship (of course it begs the issue *what* do we worship as we do?). I agree with your perspective; “Art” is not more important than other acts of worship, but as a Christian artist I have to consider how my art is worshipful before God. To that end, I wrote the following poem which I feel applies to my art but to the concept of sacrificial worship in all endeavors but especially ones involving the mind. It is based on the sacrifice of Cain and my assumption as to why it was not acceptable to God.

    a thoughtful germination: first fruits

    Needless to say, I believe you are on to something. Too long the concept of worship in the western church has been more spectatorial and not enough participatory. Art might not be what you can bring to the altar of God. Cain certainly could not bring a fat first-born lamb, but he could have brought the first fruits of his labor, which according to his story he did not. As Eric Liddell in Chariot’s of Fire said that “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” I believe as you that we can worship in many ways, but not everything we do brings pleasure to God. We must in our efforts, talents and pleasures seek to uncover how in each we can best connect with God.

  2. Matt, you naughty boy. You’re just being provocative. You don’t really believe this, do you? Art is not merely an activity, art is communicative by nature. The Bible is literature, which is art. Architecture is art.

    Art is a communicative medium, athletics are not. You mentioned that the scripture “doesn’t speak at length about art” because it is art; singers don’t sing about singing — they just do it.

    Thanks for stirring me up, though! I was getting a little bored watching Louisville crush Boise State…

  3. Of course I really believe this. Of course it is more than an activity. To say that it is communicative begs the question and exhortation I am making in the post. I think Alan makes an excellent point as to what I am pushing against (http://offthewire.wordpress.com/2008/03/19/bezalel-is-my-homeboy/#comment-8139).

    Too many people speak of art as though it has more transcendent value than other expressions of devotion. I am trying to balance the Christian tendency to buy into a view which is not biblical.

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Less Hype. More Humility.

Please. Embedded in our consumeristic culture, there is the assumption that newer is better than older–though I prefer aged beef and cheddar to new. There is the assumption that grand and renovated and powerful is preferable to meek and lowly and weak.

The church often adopts this form of communicating in an effort to gather people into its doors. “God is doing awesome things here at Church _______.” The fact is that God is doing awesome things everyday and everywhere. He’s sustained your life. He’s given you sight and hearing and legs. And if you have none or only one of these, he’s still given you life and a mind to engage the world around you. Truly miraculous. What is more, is God not also doing something in the old, decrepit church that meets faithfully every Sunday? Is God not at work in the mundane? Is the changing of laundry and washing of dishes and working through an argument devoid of God’s presence?

I see so many churches trying to drum up excitement about the latest outreach or project, when what our culture needs is the staying power and sobriety of faithfulness in the ho-hum drudgery of going to a job you hate or a marriage that is contentious. What we need is not more hype, but more humility. More service and less heavy-handedness. We need more gentleness and less power grabs.

If we don’t, what then becomes of the senior citizen who is tired? What becomes of the baby who is sleeping? What becomes of the unemployed and outcast and burdened? They are forgotten. They are seen as less valuable because they aren’t producing the kind of energy requisite for assumed faithfulness to the disciples’ call.

In reality, we need less loud voices and red faces and sweaty brows and more silence and calmness and a deep well of contentment.

The New Economics Will Be People

So I went to a coffee shop this morning and was struck by the utter efficiency they were churning out drinks. In fact the team lead said this much as encouragement to the six other workers behind the counter.

I walked in. Smiled at the barista. Was greeted with a blank stare as he continued to froth the milk and deliver the piping hot skinny latte with extra foam to the drive-thru. I walked to the register and was passed with nary a glance…even when the team lead said “Hello.” No she didn’t look at me, but made sure that her metric of greeting a guest in the first ten seconds was met. A box that is checked. That’s what I was. A large dark roast with no room for cream and sugar. And surely there was no saccharin here. There was utility and efficiency.

In all our pandering for growth our marketing of environment is nothing more than a marketing tool. The timers and grids for efficiency have crowded out the thing that matters. The only thing that matters in products.

You see, the products that are pushed are labeled as though they were made for you. In reality, the products being sold to you have (for the most part) been made for the manufacturer. People have merely become a means to the end of bigger, faster, better.

In the new economy, people will matter more.

They won’t matter because they need to matter to grow the business. Too often companies tell you that you’re important because they want your money. They don’t want to make a difference as much as they want their new car or luxury vacation.

I want to say this loud and clear. In the new economy, people will be the end in themselves. They will no longer be viewed as a metric or a number. In the new economy, mom and pop will be sought after. Because, after all, we all know that the verbiage of how you matter to company x is just verbiage. It’s merely eliciting a response for another end.

In the new economics, people will want to matter. They will flock to the place where they are known by name. And not just to tout the “community” of an establishment. Did you notice the subtlety of that one? No, people will know your name because they know you and you matter. Your name is not known just to brag that you matter and sell the belonging you too can have if you buy your next skinny latte with extra froth…hold the pandering.

We are not there yet because executives are still measuring. Measuring people. Yet, what the new economy will have to embrace is not a spreadsheet or a graph. They will be forced to embrace people. Not to grow their graph. But to grow their own soul.

On Conformity

As much as I hate to admit it, Christians push conformity. Conformity to the wrong things. Being shaped by a group and set of ideals is inherent to being part of a group–be it Christian, straight edge, atheist. But I am speaking about and to my tribe.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of being a part of several different denominations and have seen this shadow overtaking much of the piety of its adherents. It wasn’t meant to do so.

Do you homeschool? The correct answer depends on the group you’re talking to. Do you go on mission trips? Do you adopt? Do you run around incessantly from meeting to meeting showing how you are making an impact for the kingdom?

We have steered far off course when we get away from the simplicity of the Gospel. Of a life changed and being changed by the Gospel. That is, before Christ’s ascension, he said to merely teach all that he commanded. Yet. Yet, much of our passing on of information is not what Christ taught. They are various implications and applications of what he taught. And so,

Might I encourage you to be slow in conforming to the standards? Not just of popular culture, but of the popularity of whatever group you find yourself milling about. The shadow looms to block out the sun of joy and hope. It chokes out the simple call to humble obedience to Christ, changing out a yoke that not even the teachers can bear.