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.

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