Lessons to Learn
I chose to read a compiled work called For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision of the Arts. This book focuses on the purpose, problems, misunderstandings of art in the church setting. The contributors range from Christian artists, to pastors, to lay people who appreciate art. Each contribution focuses on a new area or issue with art in the church setting. The main thrust of each essay had an aspect relating to why art is important and why the church ought to care. Andy Crouch illustrates this connection well.
“Art can be provisionally defined as those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility…what is Christian faith itself but the embodied conviction that religion is not, after all, about utility?”
John D. Witvliet extends this importance further, in writing that one “role for the arts” is to “express, challenge, and deepen our corporate acts of worship.” Witvliet later writes that great art has always been a part of the worship experience for the church, “Think, for starters, about Psalm texts, Gregorian chant melodies, the architecture of Gothic and Baroque worship spaces…” It is the role of the artists and the pastors to be sure that the art in the church is pointing to God, away from itself and the artist, so it can serve its purpose in leading us into deeper worship.
The essay written by Lauren F. Winner shows a perspective of one of the non-artists who supports the arts. Her perspective is described, she converted to Christianity from Judaism and there was a papercutting art piece she bought for $900. After a conference a girl approached Winner and told her how wrong she thought it was to have paid so much for a piece of art, implying that Winner had been frivolous in her purchase. The papercutting meant something to Winner, it helps her make sense of her conversion from Judaism, “and the losses it entailed.” Winner still buys art, she sees the huge impact it can have and has had, and she wants to support the artists “who, in all likelihood, [are] struggling to make ends meet and to make art.”
Pastors have to learn to minister to artists in their congregations, Eugene Peterson writes his essay on the importance of this lesson. The artists produce the art that pastors allow to be put into the service or displayed in the foyer. Peterson sees that the artist herself is important, not just the art she produces. He writes of three different artists who have impacted him as a pastor, and changed his view on artists in the church. He gives pastors a word of advice;
“Make friends with the artist. Let him rip off the veils of habit that obscure the beauty of Christ in the faces we look at day after day. Let her restore color and texture and smell to the salvation that has become disembodied in a fog of abstraction.”
Peterson is suggesting that artists are more than they seem, they prophesy and teach, they unveil and they reveal, they show us that which we can no longer see. His advice to pastors is a plea that pastors not overlook the beauty that the artist can unveil that they cannot.
“[Beauty] makes us feel humble because we have the sense that we have stumbled on something completely separate from us, something that existed before us and will go on without us.” The artist Barbara Nicolosi writes this as an artist who creates a piece can step back and see that it is bigger even than herself. Nicolosi later states that beauty is not easy or cute, it is not “Precious Moments figurines.” This truth needs to be more widely spread, all too often the church dives into sentimentalism rather than getting into depth with honesty about life and the issues people face. Good art can portray this and show the hope the Lord brings.
There is a quote by Alexander Shmemann that speaks to the purpose of art and beauty in our lives, “And when, expecting someone we love, we put a tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do not not out of necessity, but out of love.” How much more then should we have beauty in the church? Is not God more worthy of our love and the sacrifices we make to have beauty in His house? Peterson wrote about Bezalel in the Old Testament, building the temple, all of the ornate details he put into it, God did not scorn him, He instructed him in this. God gave him the gifts he had in wood-carving, and in engraving stones and metals. Jesus allowed and praised the ‘sinful’ woman who poured expensive oil on his feet. This shows that God does not see art as extravagance that is wasteful or useless. He takes pleasure in art as we have the tendency to, as He created us to.
Joshua Banner expresses the need for pastors to carefully nurture the artists in his congregation. He illustrates this with a situation he experienced with a young artist who wanted to display a pencil drawing done on a lined sheet of paper. Banner bought the young man nice paper and other art materials and asked him for more drafts, not to settle for what he first did. If Banner had displayed the young man’s first art piece without requiring him to consider it further, improve on it, and grow as an artist, he would not give him the opportunity or the encouragement to grow as he should, as every artist should. Too often the church allows poor art to be displayed, played, shown, without criticism and drawing the artist out to improve him/her. This is a detriment to art and to the artist.
Getting More Personal
My experience with art in the church has been mostly limited to music. My pastor’s wife in my home church in Vermont has a beautiful voice and plays the piano wonderfully. We have a small country church, picture white steeple church because that is what it literally is, with few in numbers. We sing a mixture of old hymns in the hymnal books and contemporary hymns that do contain meaningful lyrics. There is usually just the piano and Jennifer’s voice leading us in musical worship, and sometimes she will do solo performances in opera for special occasion services. This is the extent of art in my church experience. Fewer people means fewer artists in the congregation. This is why reading For the Beauty of the Church has been an enlightening and encouraging read for me. I can understand the different perspectives better, and I do see how art is important in the church to bring God’s people to worship Him, what an incredible gift it can be, when done well and right by artists in our churches.