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On art and the church

It is no secret that the  American church is at a crossroads, friends: an intersection between faith and culture, between the gospel and entertainment. Clearly, God has seen fit to bless this time in history with unprecedented advancements in technology. We have the internet, the film industry, the music industry, and the list goes on; and the world has made good use of each. The question is, how will the church respond.

As technology has progressed so too have the various art forms. Graphic designers, film-makers, and photographers have seen their collective abilities revolutionized by improved computers as the new technology allows for the quick transfer of ideas,  improved precision, and a new found ability to edit. Unfortunately, today artists and creators are taking advantage of these tools to the detriment of our society. A perfect example of this is the ever-growing, ever more popular, ever more accepted porn industry. But, while this is an extreme example, there are others which are less obvious but equally dangerous.

Look around today’s entertainment industry. We are living in what I like to call the Blue Screen Age; an age of explosions and car chases and one liners super imposed into the unrealistic paradigms of an industry which avoids engaging honestly with humanity, instead driving for the almighty dollar. Essentially money has become the driving force of entertainment. And since we go they keep building.

Take a look at recent cinematic successes. Atop box office sales during the last few months have been Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, Spider Man 3, and 300. Now, while each have their own merits, they also are based upon the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The majority of the millions of viewers who hourly inhabit theaters to enjoy these films do so for the action, the explosions, the chases, the perfect bodies, the stars, not the thought provoking and convicting elements of the stories.

Conversely, films which are thought provoking and meditative like Terrence Malice’s “The New World” quietly drift out of theaters in a month or so and go straight to the used rack at Blockbuster, pushed by complaints of “slow,“ “not enough happens,“ and “what’s with all the shots of trees and grass.“

Alas, we have lost sight of what art was meant to be.

For centuries art was religious in context. From early cave paintings to Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to Eastern Orthodox church ikons, art was created and enjoyed in a worshipful and thoughtful manner. It was meant to open our eyes to the wonders of the world, the supernatural, and the relationships between the two. But history has been unkind to art.

As the church became corrupt and subsequently many societies, bereft of quality teaching, left their own religious contexts behind the art forms were left homeless. Without a specific context, they became bastardized, used purely for entertainment purposes; thought and meditation were no longer enough.

With the advancement of technologies, particularly in recent years, the masses have begun to demand more, more, more. We demanded that we be fed large amounts of dessert, in the quickest possible way, what ever was left over we would throw away or wipe off our bloated chins. We have grown fat and yet we eat more. We have become drunk and yet we drink more.
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In the midst of the turmoil which plagues our culture and which, in fact, plagues living, art can be a powerful medium of truth and peace. But if that is to be case then the Church must play a large part, the people of God must play a large part. Indeed, that is our calling as Christians: to create– having been created in the Imago Dei, the image of God– beautiful, and true, and honest, and worshipful art to the Glory of God and His kingdom. Whether I am a potter, a painter, a film-maker, a photographer, a wordsmith, or a blacksmith, my calling is to create. And my calling is to create consciously and purposefully for the Glory of God.

If I am to be successful in this endeavor then I must understand how to receive art, how to view it, for if I am to create good art then I must know what good art is. C.S. Lewis, a great literary critic who was known more for his apologetics, wrote in his book “An Experiment in Criticism” that we must become “experiencers” of art. His point was that we must let art speak to us, allowing it to speak as it wishes. We must be willing to listen, to be quiet, to be patient. He wrote “the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” He points out the obvious fact that unless we do so we will never know whether or not the work of art is worthy of such surrender, whether it is “good.” If we are going to create good art then we must learn to receive art.

However, this notion of “receiving” art, though it may seem passive, certainly is active. What we must do is look. We must, with all the faculties of our imagination at work, watch for the natural elements of good art. For example, we must look for the use of color and light,  or perhaps the elements of good story telling,  or maybe the precision of excellent direction, even the power of rightly used metaphor. Lewis referred to these as those things which make up the “complex harmony of the whole canvas.”

When we learn to identify these elements and begin to ascertain their goals then we begin to understand the piece of art. Having done so, we must let them speak to us. The first part we do often enough, I think. The latter, I think we fail at. Once we have learned to engage this way with art then we can apply that about which the art has spoken to the creative process- and to living.

I recently began to explore films simpler in scale (at least technologically) than the average Hollywood hit. Films made by men lauded as great film-makers; men who have a firm understanding of the spiritual and metaphysical power inherent in their form. Men like Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Terrence Malick. In these lesser known artists I have found a wealth of wisdom, insight, and grace. They are good. Watch their films. If you watch them carefully and allow them to speak to you, I think that you too will find that they have powerful things to say and you will find yourself encouraged and uplifted and better prepared to create to the Glory of God.

Let us no longer seek simply to be  entertained or to simply entertain. Let’s get away from this business of creating to make money and instead create to Glorify the Creator of the universe, the Creator of all creators. Let us no longer bastardize the art forms the way the porn industry and parts of mainstream Hollywood and many others do.

If the Christian church actively and purposefully and imaginatively seeks to use the technology God has granted us in a positive and powerful way, remembering the possibilities of the art forms (their true power) and remembering to let each form speak, then perhaps she can change that which has been done. Perhaps she can curtail the work of the entertainment industry as it is today and set it upon  a course which will change lives and save souls.

Pascal once noted that we have each been given this time, this place, these talents, and this life for a reason. Let us seek to use our time, our place, these abilities, and this life to create good art.

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2 thoughts on “On art and the church

  1. It is difficult to get the news from poems.

    Yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.

    ~William Carlos Williams

    Good overview, but I want to see specific examples. Like: There is an artist named Wolfgang Laib who makes art out of things like marble, milk and pollen. He spends months at a time harvesting pollen by himself from the flowers, not allowing anyone to help. Look at his work here: http://www.speronewestwater.com/cgi-bin/iowa/artists/record.html?record=10 My favorite is The Five Mountains Not to Climb On.

    Jessica

  2. David Naylor says:

    Hi David – found this article through a Facebook link. Here’s my thought: if it focuses attention on the artist or the work, my contention is that is not truly art.

    In my take, true art reflects the Person Who created it – not the artist who molded the clay or the painter who slapped on the pigments – but the Person who invented the concept of Art.

    That of course is God – the original Painter of Light.

    If a piece of artistic effort causes people to focus on the method, materials, placement or political meaning, then the small-letter-a-artist takes center stage.

    If the work focuses on something unclean (porn, for example), the ultimate point of the piece is only the cravings and heart-hungerings of both viewer and viewee, which continually turn inward and only grow smaller.

    But if a piece of art brings about a quietly breathless, contemplative amazement in which the observer tries to pin down the abstract in concrete terms – enough to understand or take it in – where the observer’s self opens and the whole sense of the work expands – where a person tries to grasp the greater meaning that the piece alludes to…then I think the spiritual aspect of art has been tapped.

    If the human heart is trying to look AROUND the piece of art to see what’s behind it, that to me indicates a spiritual search that acknowledges the One Who holds a true patent on Art. In this case, the human artist and the work are eclipsed by the nature and purpose of Art, which is to reflect and teach about the nature of God because it was created by Him.

    God continues to call humans to see Him as He is – and yet He is content to remain cloaked, revealing Himself in unique ways. Sometimes we hear His words in a sermon, and sometimes we see His Personality in a sculpture.

    People may not automatically associate art’s longing with God or Jesus Christ or the Church. But they can, if we select art disciplines which allow the glory of God to shine around and through, so that no one focuses on the work, but on the search that the Artist instigates through His secondary creations.

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