To say that the relationship between the church and the arts is complicated ... well, that’s putting it mildly.
Hundreds of years ago, the church was where all the best art was made. Many of the great paintings, sculptures and musical masterpieces that have survived across the generations were created for use among God’s people.
All of that goodwill seems to have been spent. Art is something that’s received or rejected on a very personal level, so it can be hard to create art for or in the church. If we don’t like it, we don’t find it valuable.
It can seem like a luxury. We recognize that we have limited resources and investing time, energy or money in the arts seems like putting a stained-glass window on a lifeboat.
And when we do engage the arts, we often do it poorly. We make “cool” and “relevant” our guiding values, rather than “honest” or “nuanced” and end up creating cheap knock-offs of art and music that has already existed in secular culture for years.
If we are to recover the relationship between the church and the arts, we have a lot of work ahead. But it is good work, and I believe it is work worth doing. Here are two brief reasons — and there are many more — that the church should care about the arts:
We care about the arts because we care about people.
Those who know me well will recognize this statement: To look at a piece of art and say “I don’t get it” is like looking the artist in the eye and saying “I don’t get you.”
That doesn’t mean we pretend to like every piece of art or style of music the same. Part of being human is having tastes and preferences. The point is that creative acts are personal acts.
They represent an artist’s best effort to explain something about their life or the world around them. They are attempts at understanding and attempts at being understood. That is something that as humans, and as Christians, we should always find supremely interesting.
We care about the arts because we care about people who engage in the arts. This idea should re-orient our thinking and steer us away from conventional but incomplete wisdom.
Often the church has treated art as something to bend into an evangelistic shape. Or the arts are a tool for study, a sort of windsock to help us gauge the direction of cultural breezes.
There is some merit to those approaches. But they are not ultimate. The arts are not something we manipulate to turn the conversation to Jesus as quickly as possible. They are not a cold or clinical tool.
The arts are the conversation. They are where we get to know the soul of a person, where we learn what makes them tick. Even if we don’t completely understand the work, it gives us insight into an artist’s hopes and fears, their conceptions of love, community and justice.
Because we find people hard to know and hard to love, we should be grateful when art does some of the heavy emotional lifting. Because we should be able to find something valuable and fascinating in every person, we appreciate how the arts help reveal that value.
Because we care about everyone made in God’s image, we care about the images they are making.
We care about the arts because we want to imitate God.
The end of Genesis 1 tells us that we have a job. We are to cultivate all the good things God has made. What’s more, we are to create new cultural goods from God’s good gifts.
When he spoke the world into existence, he made order out of chaos. When he speaks faith into our hearts, he calls us to do the same.
That doesn’t mean that every Christian must be an artist. But every Christian should be a cultivator. Whether that’s tending a garden, raising a child, making great coffee or stringing words together as a poet.
Artists have a unique role to play, and when they create things of beauty they image a God who did the same. The church should support the artists in their own midst as they engage their part of this mission. And we should support the artists in the wider community knowing that, even if they reject God outright, they have taken a step toward him by taking up his work.
We want to see pieces become something whole. We want to follow after a God who redeems the people he has found. And so we set about the work of putting paint on canvas, notes on staff paper or welding metal into beautiful shapes. Or we set about the work of understanding those very human artifacts.
In foreign missions, we are either “goers” or “senders.” There is no room to mark “none of the above.” And so it is with the arts. We are “creators” or “appreciators.” But we are not left out of the equation or off the hook.
The gifted painter and writer Makoto Fujimura once said, “The gospel is about the Creator God, who is an artist, who is trying to communicate. And his art is the church. We are the artwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works. If we don’t realize that fully, then the gospel itself is truncated and art itself suffers.”
Ultimately this is why the church must prioritize and patronize the arts. Because we are art. We are part of a great masterpiece that presently is being painted, being penned, being sung through and over us. And we want to recognize all the colors, phrases and notes that our God is using to do his creative work.