For centuries the church was associated with some of the greatest artistic accomplishments in the Western world. Not only the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s Pietà, but also myriad faith-based folk songs, spirituals, and devotional art. Today though—at least in the culture of the USA—we are constantly barraged by messages of consumerism, consumption, and end results. This is not an environment in which creative and artistic thought readily flourishes: the quick and easy is favored over the complex and challenging; a ready response arrives before earnest reflection; and a nuanced idea is passed over for a black and white view of the world. Unfortunately, we often see these same patterns reflected in our churches.
As someone who splits his time between theater and theology, I often reflect upon the ways in which our sanctuaries are not always all that welcoming to creative folk. In fact, it sometimes seems as if churches are trying to create an environment in which creative thinkers and makers are uncomfortable. What follows are some of the most sure-fire ways to become unappealing to artists and those with creative and artistic sensibilities.
1. Demand that Artists Stay “On Message”/ Think that Art is Propaganda
If you conceive of art solely as an extension of your marketing department evangelism team, then you might well think that church is about selling a shiny, new God-product and that art will help you do it. Michael Gungor, the lead singer of the “liturgical post-rock” band Gungor, summarizes the problem well:
There is a tension to the Kingdom of Heaven that is here but not yet here. That tension ought to give way to poetry. To lament. To art. Sure, there is room for some celebration, but if our faith has nothing else to it than positive messages and encouraging clichés, perhaps it has become a Band-Aid rather than a surgery.
When we assume that the Arts will just do what we want them to do for us we are confusing Arts with crafts and Artists with Craftsmen. There is certainly a place for both, but they are not the same.
2. Assume Artists Ought to Work for Free
Whether we like it or not, the Puritan Work Ethic has influenced much of the USA such that many still conflate worldly success, hard work, and the output of concrete products or goods as an observable sign of personal salvation. One consequence of this is that there is a great value placed on those who are money-makers, but little on thinkers, crafters, and dreamers. When we assume that those gifted with some form of artistry should just give of those things without compensation, we re-affirm a kind of class system that devalues their contributions.
3. Forget Isaiah 55:8-9 and Acts 17:29
It is important that we remember that any time we attempt to name, explain, or represent God we will not be wholly successful. In Isaiah God speaks through the prophet and says “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” In Acts Paul reminds us that “we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Even the most lofty, complete and beautiful of our craftings and art is not to be compared with the fullness of God or the Passionate suffering of Christ. When we think that our praise songs describe God “correctly” or completely—or that our sanctuary art represents Jesus accurately—we diminish the power of art to speak at creative registers that are more about poetics than proof.
4. Overemphasize Isaiah 55:8-9 and Acts 17:29
There is a long and glorious thread of anti-Artistry which can be traced throughout the history of Christianity, but perhaps it was at no greater peak than in 754 AD, when the Synod of Hieria resulted in this gem:
If anyone ventures to represent the divine image of the Word after the Incarnation with material colours… which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil)… let him be anathema!
Luckily we’re not as likely to find those who say that religious art is inspired by Satan, BUT… there are certainly those out there for whom there are echoes of this thought: church music must be an organ, not guitars; art in the sanctuary cannot be “modern;” God can’t be found in hip-hop. Whenever we rule out the possibility that God can be speaking to us through faithfully created work we are not only doing a disservice to those who make that work, but to ourselves for being deaf to God’s moving spirit.
5. Ignore the Truth that We were Made in the Image of a God who Creates
We read in Genesis 1:27 that “…in the image of God he created them…,” and yet we live in a culture where the most discussed things are often what we buy, own, and vote for. If one of God’s defining actions is creation, and if we are made in the image of that God, ought we not value that act? This isn’t to say that artists are any more godly than accountants, but they certainly aren’t any less either. When we learn to lift up the gifts of those who create we may very well find that God has been there, speaking in their work the whole time.
How about you? Have you worshipped places where you’ve groaned at some of the ways that the Arts have been used in worship? Or maybe you know a place where the Arts and a robust Creativity are essential to the life of a community. Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts.