Renewing Christian Engagement with the Arts (9)
The burden of contemporary Christian art
It will no doubt come as a surprise to some readers to learn that there exists a vibrant and growing Christian movement in the arts in our day.
Given impetus by the work of H. R. Rookmaaker and others, Christian artists have begun to rise up and, often at great sacrifice, and with very little support, have established a beachhead in the arts. They are radioing back fiercely to the rest of us, “The Marines have landed, and the situation is desperate! Send help soon!” but most of us are not listening.
Over the past two decades Christian involvement in serious art has begun to flourish, like flowers emerging after a bitter winter. Christians are active in every conceivable art – painting, sculpture, theater, art music, performance art, poetry, and fiction. Conferences, seminars, and workshops on Christianity and the arts are on the increase every year. Journals devoted to Christians working in or studying the arts are now in circulation. Exhibitions of the works of Christian artists can be seen from shore to shore. New books exploring the role of Christianity and the arts appear every year.
Yet for all this, the vast majority of Christians remain utterly unaware, if not completely indifferent, to the work of their brothers and sisters in this important field, opting for the kitsch of the Christian bookstore over the creations of serious artists.
A symposium on the arts published not long ago in the journal, Image (cited previously), provides a helpful overview of the state of the arts among Christian artists.[i] We will observe three primary apects of their burden.
A sense of momentous opportunity
Christians working in the arts are persuaded that this is a most opportune time for the Church to be actively involved in these various disciplines. And it is precisely the rise of postmodernism that encourages them. Poet Scott Cairns, who teaches at the University of Missouri, believes that the rise of postmodernism has rendered suspect all the assumptions of modernism which worked to marginalize Christianity after World War II. He writes,
My sense is that it has been during the past ten years that poets of faith have begun to embrace postmodern epistemological troubling as offering a disposition far more closely related to the mystical heart of our faith than were the previous, more familiar, literalizing, poem-killing presumptions and glib certainties that have, in our country, managed to trivialize both Christendom and Christ for more than half a century.[ii]
John Mason Hodges, writing on classical (or art) music, tends to agree. Modernism, he writes, “rejected the idea that faith could play any significant role in the search for truth and authentic human activity.” He continues, “in the last ten years, we have begun to see evidence that Westerners are reconsidering the spiritual dimensions of life.”[iii]
What excites contemporary Christian artists about the rise of postmodernism is that with it has come a renewed openness to matters of the spiritual life. With the old hegemony of science, reason, and technology now effectively exposed for its hopelessly utopian aspirations and inevitably dehumanizing methods, people are looking for more transcendent meaning and experience.
Witness the astonishing rise of New Age sects, the growth of Islam, and the burgeoning of seeker-friendly churches all across the land. Scott Cairns has observed a “widespread return of religious typology” to the world of poetry.[iv] Theodore Prescott, writing on the visual arts, is more guarded in his view, but considers that the appearance of spiritual themes in the arts at least “has been used to recognize an openness to transcendence, or the finite and broken mystery of human selfhood in need of redemption.”[v]
These and other Christian artists insist that now is the time to “strike while the iron is hot” as artists and others are looking to the arts for insight, guidance, and answers concerning matters spiritual and transcendent.
A sacramental art
In view of this, contemporary Christian artists believe their art must have a sacramental component to it – not that art becomes a sacrament; rather, it serves as a powerful affective and intellectual medium through which God may reveal Himself.
One catches this burden for a sacramental art in virtually every publication on Christians and the arts. Catherine Kapikian, for example, writing in the journal, ARTS, insists,
"It is important to say that revelations born by art and central to our faith reflect not only the Spirit of God in our time but also say that there are truths to be experienced by God’s people that yield more readily and perhaps only to the artist’s imagination and unique creative process."[vi]
Scott Cairns refers to this as a “sacramental vision” for poetry and the arts.[vii] Christian artists believe their work can speak into the new spiritual void opened up by postmodernism, and that their art can be a vessel of disclosure by God, Who, since He is continually speaking through the works of His own hands, may be pleased to speak through the works of contemporary Christian artists as well.[viii]
Christian artists point to response of even unbelieving consumers to recordings of Gregorian Chant and the popularity of films with religious themes as evidence of God’s ability to use the arts to capture the attention of a generation in search of some transcendence. My own view is that they are undoubtedly correct.
A re-integrative art
But art, if it is to be truly Christian, must work hard to integrate the distinctives of faith with the themes represented in works of art. Christian poets, Scott Cairns exults, are learning how “to trust their developing facilities with language to lead them into speaking discovered matter, rather than spouting familiar, safe, and therefore reductive, soul-crippling clichés.”[ix]
A. G. Harmon, writing about fiction, observes, “some modern writers of faith are able to resonate with readers regardless of those readers’ particular dispositions towards God. A number of these have authors have achieved an integrated vision.”[x] He continues,
The predicament of the computer age, the distance of the individual not only from himself, but also from a sense of self; the shrinking globe; the terrors of a scientific prowess that now exceeds moral sensibilities – all these provide the oil and egg tempera for another millennium of canvases.[xi]
This insistence on faith integrated into the arts necessarily entails the depiction of moral themes, and the promotion of distinctively Christian moral points of view. Writing about theater, Gillette Elvgren declares,
Judeo-Christian or so-called religious drama proposes the existence of a moral universe with moral absolutes; it attempts to deal with this value-laden universe through a dramatic action that is identified by conflict, passionate characters, and a hint of hope of human transformation or transcendence at its conclusion.[xii]
Elvgren salutes those playwrights who write, and those companies who perform, “plays that reconnect moral actions with consequences.”[xiii] Art, in other words, as we have seen, holds real potential for furthering the interests of worldview-minded persons, and of raising serious questions about the role of faith in morality and the whole of life. Many of the works of Christian artists are already pioneering clear and intense statements of faith into their works, as even a casual perusal of any of the current journals will reveal.
The challenge of contemporary Christian art
Contemporary Christian artist are throwing down a threefold challenge to the rest of the community of faith.
The challenge to become involved in art. First, they challenge us to become seriously involved with the arts. One cannot read a poet like Scott Cairns or Joyce Sutphen, or look at a work of art by Edward Knippers, or listen to a musical work by John Tavener without seeing that these people have worked long and hard to understand and master the disciplines of their particular genre of the arts.
They are aware of developments in their disciplines, of what others are saying and doing. Yet they are determined to establish a Christian presence in their discipline – sometimes in ways that might confuse or even disturb their fellow believers. And they have begun to achieve a measure of respect among their secular peers.
But we in the Christian community should be challenged by such dedicated individuals to recover some time in our own schedules for the study of the arts. This is not a frivolous undertaking; the time you spend learning about the various arts will not be wasted.
Study of the arts will lead you to a better understanding of yourself, the world, and the great need for God’s grace that exists today. You will learn a deeper appreciation for beauty, goodness, and truth as this aspect of God’s image becomes more perfectly formed in you. And you’ll find you have interesting things to talk about with friends – both Christian and nonChristian. Surely these are benefits worth seeking through devoting some time and attention to the study of the arts?
The challenge to a Christian world view. Second, contemporary Christian artists challenge the rest of us in the believing community to explore the issues of the day from the perspective of our own faith contexts, that is, to become more world view minded in our approach to the life of faith. Since the appearance of Chuck Colson’s book, How Now Shall We Live?, a decade ago, and even before that among a smaller segment of the Christian population, thinking about world view matters has been on the increase.
Christian artists, by integrating genre, themes, exhibitions, and workshops and conferences with thinking about critical issues from a Christian and Biblical perspective are rendering a valuable service to the rest of us. We could benefit greatly, both by taking more interest in their work and by learning to think like they do about the great issues of life according to our own callings and contexts.
The challenge to reach out. Finally, contemporary Christian artists challenge us to reach out to the postmodern generation in meaningful and relevant ways. I have been very encouraged by the number of books which have appeared in recent years to help Christians understand and learn to communicate with postmodern people.
Christian artists, at least, seem to be taking these exhortations seriously. They show us in their various works that it is possible to use the “language” of a people or an era to convey eternal, unchanging truths, without becoming compromised or corrupted by that language in the process.
Today there is a growing amount of Christian abstract art, found art, confessional poetry, and other forms of art which the postmodern generation can appreciate. If Christian artists can master the dialect of Athens, should not the rest of be able to do our part as well?
The state of the arts today should encourage us that it’s never too late to begin taking an interest in this important field. Contending voices, changing forms, critical issues and themes, new developments – all this and more should encourage us to jump into the fray, grab hold somewhere, and begin to let this important area of life become important to us as well.
Questions for Study or Discussion
- How would you describe your understanding of the “state of the arts” at this time? With which genre or forms of art are you most familiar? Is your level of interest in the arts what you would like it to be – or what it should be, given their importance – at this time?2
- Think of a work of art that “sticks with you” – perhaps a song, a book or a poem, or a film or painting. What is it about that piece of art that gives it such staying power with you? How would you try to explain the beauty of that work of art to someone else?
- Review the three voices discussed in the last three installments of this series – postmodern art, modernist critics, and contemporary Christian artists. Can you find something in each of these viewpoints which interests you? What, and why does it interest you? How might your own ability to benefit from the arts be enhanced by further investigation of these viewpoints?
- But do you see any dangers, or things to be wary of, in any of these three views? What, and why should you be wary of it?
- Do you find your interest in the art growing as a result of this series? In what ways? How might you begin to make some study of the arts a more consistent part of your own growth in the Lord?
For additional insight to this topic, get the book, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, by W. David O. Taylor. Or read the article, “A Profound Whimsy,” by T. M. Moore.
[i] Cf. the symposium involving Christian artists from a wide range of disciplines in Image, Number 22, Winter/Spring, 1999.
[ii] Image, ibid., pp. 61, 62.
[iii] Ibid., p. 88.
[iv] Ibid., p. 61.
[v] Ibid., p. 85.
[vi] Catherine Kapikian, “Art and the Holy: Stop, See, and Be,” in ARTS, Vol. Thirteen, No., 1, 2001, p. 18.
[vii] Image, ibid., p. 63.
[viii] Ps. 19:1-6, see on, chapter 4.
[ix] Cairns, ibid., p. 62.
[x] A. G. Harmon, Image, ibid., p. 64.
[xi] Ibid., p. 69.
[xii] Gillette Elvgren, Image, ibid., p. 74.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 77.