Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The arts and the church

The Gospel Coalition has published an article lauding the work of a church in Chicago that puts great emphasis on supporting Christians in the arts, to the extent that when on a 'tight church-planter's budget' the leader decided to stick his neck out and use that budget to pay for an artist-in-residence. But for all the enthusiasm of the article I remain thoroughly unconvinced. Here's 3 reasons why:

1. Lack of biblical support - this is the gaping hole in the article and the ensuing discussion (in fact one contributor goes so far as to say that I'm asking completely the wrong question by raising this question!). But there is no hint that the early church went in for this sort of thing - in fact, we don't even know if they used instruments to accompany their singing! We are told, very simply, that the gathered Church is to read the Scriptures, preach, pray, sing and administer the sacraments. Why are we so desperate to make things so much more complicated? One contributor, who replied to my comment on the article kindly explained that, 'we lack the proper container for the two [truth and goodness]. Truth without beauty becomes harsh and dogmatic. Goodness without beauty becomes pious and self-righteous. Beauty provides the form by which these things can be held together...' That sounds coherent, but where on earth do you find that in Scripture? The NT writers seemed to expect us to be able to hold truth and goodness together without art. The church is commissioned to make disciples, not works of art. Making disciples requires the proclamation of God's word, not painting or great music. This leads me on to my second gripe...

2. Confusion of the role of the Church and the role of the Christian - I am all in favour of Christians being fully involved in all of life to the glory of God. I love the arts. Only the other day I was virtually salivating over Makoto Fujimura's project to produce an illuminated edition of the Gospels - it looks so beautiful that I would just love to have my own copy! (Better start saving - buying art isn't cheap.) I am well aware that much of the music of J.S. Bach that I love so much was subsidised by the Church, but that doesn't make it right. I don't think the church is called to do these things, but individual Christians should be fully and joyfully involved in all these areas of life. I think we would see that more easily if we substituted the artist momentarily for the politician - should the church subsidise politicians? After all, they do vital work, and Christian politicians are badly needed. I think we'd all cry out, "Don't do it! The church shouldn't get involved in politics - that is for individual Christians!" Just because Christians should do it doesn't mean the church should. God has told us to live as Christians in every aspect of our lives, and he has told the church to proclaim his gospel. Let's keep it that simple.

3. An unjustifiable privileging of the artist - talking of politicians shows this attitude up. Why only artists-in-residence? I know that artists have a strong sense of their vocation, but why stop at artists - other people work with equal passion. What about a historian-in-residence? Or a steam-train-enthusiast-in-residence? Or a scientist-in-residence? Well, these things just aren't as trendy, and besides that, artists have a long history of viewing themselves as outsiders and victims, and are therefore prone to complain about the fact that they are outsiders in society. The problem is they've started bringing their complaints into the church now. I know that the arts have often been undervalued amongst evangelicals, but that legitimate concern doesn't mean that you can whine about not being able to have your work in the corporate gatherings of the church (and paid for it by the church). The rest of us all have significant parts of our lives that are not exhibited in the gatherings of the church - so why should the artist be a special case? That isn't exclusion; it's being in the same boat as everyone else - and that's no bad thing in the church. Carl Trueman puts it with his characteristicly enjoyable prose here.

The good news is that the calling of the church is pretty simple, and it doesn't require a rich mega-church setup, boasting artists and all, to be able to fulfil it.

Monday, 8 November 2010

How to avoid the real issues

Five Anglican bishops are to join the Roman Catholic Church we are told. To be sure, the Anglican Church is in a mess, but what are we to make of this move? It is surprising? No. Does it make sense? No. Does it avoid the real issues? Absolutely.

Surely if you are able to accept the doctrines of Rome, you have either changed your mind or you were never a real Anglican - the 39 Articles are quite clear (see Articles 11, 14, 22 and 28 for obvious examples). It seems that the really important things to us today are the peripherals - 'Can I maintain my traditions?' was the question asked. As long as the Anglican Church will let me do that, fine - but if not I'll just switch allegiance. Who cares about the doctrine of Scripture, the work of Christ, the role of Mary and the saints, or the doctrine of the Sacraments? Does it really matter whether or not I can honestly uphold the confession of my church in its plain meaning? What matters is whether I can maintain the traditions I love! If so, I'll settle - wherever that happens to be. Am I upholding Scripture? Absolutely - look at this sprinkling of Bible verses to prove my point!

Tut, tut - but I suppose we evangelicals always knew that those Anglo-Catholics were never strong on the Bible, eh? Yet the next day I was dismayed to find evanglicals playing the same game as I came across the material from the Lausanne 'conversation' on gender roles. Sadly 'conversation' seems to be a rather loose term - it was more an announcement of egalitarian principles with no complementarian contributors that I found (and I think I've watched all the main contributions). There was no conversation, no grappling with the crucial texts - from what I saw it would be more appropriate to call it the 'Lausanne announcement' on gender roles. Egalitarianism was the presupposition, and then supported by creating a kind of cloud of possibly-relevant biblical and theological points mixed with a large helping of false dichotomy (it's either women involved in every ministry of the church or none). This method enables the speaker to say a lot that sounds biblical whilst avoiding the issues at the heart of the question. (For example, 1 Timothy 2 got a sentence or two from just one speaker who mumbled that particular point so badly I had to listen to him 3 times to work out what he said!)

Now I'm all in favour of a very positive view of the roles of women in the church, but certainly not in this theologically dubious way - a method which could easily be turned to make the Bible accept any cultural assumption we want it to. It's exactly what Steve Chalke (in)famously did in 'The Lost Message of Jesus' in order to deny the doctrine of original sin - just talk about Genesis 1&2 as if Genesis 3 didn't exist! Now, this certainly isn't an original observation from me, but it's worth repeating - if Lausanne wants to take this approach to Scripture and sensitive cultural issues, how long will it be before they are taking the same approach to condone homosexual practice?

The end result - Scripture is submitted to the authority of our culture. I can talk about the issues in hand with an open Bible, but all the while avoiding the real issues it raises. Is that what it means to be an evangelical? I think not.