The Artist’s Place in the Church
The relationship between the Church and the artistic community has been undeniably tumultuous throughout history. At times, the Church has been a patron of the arts, supporting and encouraging sculptors, painters, and musicians with generosity. Buildings like St. Peter’s Basilica, Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame, and the Hagia Sophia are considered to be some of the most beautiful examples of architecture in the world. They are a testament to the early Church’s belief that matter itself could be used to communicate God’s grace and presence to us, that sacred architecture and art could function as non-verbal statements of biblical truth. Architecture was not the only medium through which artists were able to express themselves in the years of the early church. Rather, the history of Christianity is also studded with paintings, books, and illuminated manuscripts, like the Lindisfarne Gospels. Yet, at times, the church has been indifferent towards the artistic community, seeing art as a waste of time—or worse—an expression of hedonism. Christian artists often feel caught between two worlds: the artistic community that supports and celebrates their vocation, and their church family that supports and celebrates their faith.
As a digital cinema major, I have become increasingly aware of the alienation between the Church and the art world . The integration of art and the Christian faith was never mentioned in Sunday school, sermons, or small groups. I believed that art occupied one sphere of my world and my faith another—they just didn’t go together. I can remember studying the beautiful Gothic architecture of ancient churches but found myself listening to sermons in a tan box filled with industrial carpet and metal folding chairs—not exactly inspired architecture. When I visited the homes of people in the church, the décor usually consisted of the typical wall cross collage in the living room and outdated family portraits sprinkled throughout the rest of the house. The seeming absence of creativity and color in the church and even in the homes of churchgoers felt suffocating. Films endorsed by my youth group, like God’s Not Dead, Last Ounce of Courage, and Old Fashioned, didn’t exactly stir my soul with passion for cinema—quite the opposite, in fact. The poor storytelling, lazy editing, and overall low quality of these movies made me dread having to make the “Christian film.” I glimpsed a future of working with churches more intent on hammering their theology down the throats of the audience than on telling a powerful story.
However, as I’ve progressed through my classes here at JBU, I am realizing that the stigmatism around art in the church is not something to dread or lament but to be excited about. Beyond creating art for the usual purposes such as beauty or provocation of thought, I am able to help redeem the relationship between the Church and the artistic community as well as the idea of “Christian art” itself. The question is, how will this redemption take place and what will it look like? What is the artist’s place in the Church? A great example of an artist who is creates beautiful art while promoting themes of Christian spirituality is Bono, lead singer of the band U2. I love his perspective on Christian music: “Creation screams God’s name so you don’t have to stick a sign on every tree . . . just because a song isn’t explicitly a “Christian” song doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritual in nature.” Bono often incorporates the raw emotion found in the Psalms—songs about peace, protection, laughter, hubris, rage, tears, humility, and unity—into his own music, insisting that modern-day praise worship is lacking the range of the human experience found in the Bible itself. Above all, he insists on being honest in the art you make. If you are honest before God in private, then you should be honest in the way that you portray your relationship with Him in your art.
What does honesty in art look like? I feel that honesty in art is portraying the most painful situations that humanity must endure in our fallen world and then focusing on the redemptive power God has over that pain and brokenness. This means showing the ugly side of the world: the prostitution rings, poverty, racism, starvation, rising divorce rate, social injustices, environmental destruction, and violence that desecrate the perfect world God created for us. These themes are crucial to communicate in Christian art because it should draw Christians’ attention to a part of the world or aspect of society that they had never considered before. Art should prompt them to begin thinking about and engaging in how they can play a part in redeeming this fallen part of Creation.
If Christian artists are more honest in their art, it is up to the Church to allow artists to most effectively communicate their truth. This means allowing art to be valuable simply because it can be beautiful and full of truth—we shouldn’t expect art to communicate in the same way a sermon does. The Church should not tolerate low aesthetic standards or art that doesn’t take risks, because God wants people in all vocations to give all they have to their work for the glory of God. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters” (Colossians 3:23). Artists themselves must be careful to not idolize self-expression and must resist having their art become an idol itself. The role of the artist is to honor God through the fulfillment of their vocation by creating beautiful works that ultimately point back to Him. It is up to the artist to be honest in the work they create and it is up to the Church to curate an environment where artists feel free to express that honesty.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of the Defendant or its staff members.