This question springs out of a modern dilemma. Today the true or “authentic” artist is popularly thought of as a maverick bent on challenging norms, doing something “original” rather than creating within a tradition. We’re told that anything, from the uplifting and holy to the grotesque and profane, can pass for “art.” This sense has bled into certain segments of the church, where there’s often a perception that artists, especially in the worlds of pop culture and academia, are bent on liberal indoctrination, hedonism and a repudiation of anything sacred or holy.
In the church, meanwhile, many evangelical Christians have developed a pragmatic view of the arts that is oriented toward their “use” to more holy and spiritually profitable ends like sermon illustrations, evangelistic movies, works of mercy, and the like. We’re told to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure and so on, and anything that falls outside of these parameters is to be repudiated.
In short, people both inside and outside the church think religion is about conformity and continuity, while art is about discovery and experimentation. These stereotypes set up a relationship of tension and antagonism. If neither artists nor pastors are fully comfortable with one another, each will become protective of their own goals and preferred modes of expression, hence the frequent—and tragic—divorce between the two.
How can this relationship between the pastor and artist be rekindled and restored? The first challenge is a theological one. There are few instances in Scripture in which we see art that “has come into its own” or is created mainly for aesthetic reasons—“art for art’s sake.” Neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers ever explicitly say “go out into all the world and create musical, literary, and visual masterpieces.” We simply don’t have a written, divinely inspired instruction manual for how to think about art.
Pulsing between the lines of Scripture from the first sentence to the last, however, is a narrative that tills a rich soil for the budding Christian imagination. The Psalms provide a rich collection of poetry. In the Old Testament God raises up craftsmen to build an aesthetically beautiful tabernacle. Or, to make it more personal, one artist friend of mine thinks of her creative work as following in the spirit of the story in Luke 7 where a sinful woman comes to Jesus and anoints his feet. She gives the Lord an extravagant gift through a profoundly loving expression of faith and trust, and Christ affirms it, calling it beautiful.
To extravagantly and beautifully lay our gifts at the feet of Jesus Christ is the biblical calling of an artist, my friend says. However it’s also the calling of a pastor, a lay congregant, and in fact every Christian. At the end of the day, we all share the same mission, to practice imagining the unimaginable, to develop faith to the point we can step outin faith. Like the different gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the body of Christ, artists are gifted with a unique expression of beauty and faith.
Earlier generations of church leaders and tradition have understood this. From the very first Old Testament covenant to today, history is replete with artistic endeavors informed and inspired by faith. Biblical patterns in language about “hearing” and “seeing,” for example, have opened up a beautiful cornucopia of expression across ecclesial traditions. We see a profusion of writers with the Reformed tradition, poets within the Anglican tradition, pop musicians within the Pentecostal tradition, and visual artists within the Catholic tradition. Rather than favoring one artistic mode over another, pastors can begin to care for artists well by recognizing that there is room for a remarkable diversity of expression across the body of Christ.
Thankfully there’s a movement afoot to integrate the church and the arts and provide artists with pastoral support and care to pursue their specific callings. Saddleback Church (of Rick Warren fame) in California has launched Saddleback Visual Arts to provide resources for a thriving culture of visual artists. The New Renaissance Arts Movement seeks to connect and equip artists and churches out of the belief that faith and creativity are designed by God to be practiced together. And of course our very own Anselm Society provides resources and hosts events in the hope of cultivating a renaissance of the Christian imagination.
What might this look like across churches more broadly? I asked the rector at my local Anglican church, who has decades of experience both in ministry and teaching art at the collegiate level, how he approaches pastoring artists. He said that in his experience it requires a specific kind of person within the leadership of a local church to organize and spearhead ministry to artists in that congregation. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the senior pastor, and it doesn’t require the resources of an extensive church network. His preferred practice is to identify people who are capable of doing such ministry within the church, and stand them before the congregation to recognize them publicly as ministers to artists and the arts. He then seeks to empower those individuals to oversee and serve the arts and artists within the church and beyond.
If artists are to have truly supportive pastoral care, the culture in many churches will have to change. There’s room for welcoming and supporting the artists in the body of Christ without throwing one’s theological convictions out the window. Two millennia of church history testifies to this. Like any other relationship, ministry and art have to share enough compatible values that they can walk together with some degree of trust and ease. Pastors must therefore understand the varied purposes and frequent ambiguities that marks the art world. It can be worshipful, yes, but also prophetic, a means of processing grief, expressing joy, marveling at beauty, stating truth in a roundabout fashion, and anything in-between.
The one thing it’s not, however, is a sermon. Good art never comes in a clean, agenda-driven, “preachy” package. If churches can understand this fact alone in their ministry to artists, they’ll have already won half the battle.
If there’s any comfort here for pastors, it’s that the needs and struggles of artists, strange folks though they are, are not something to fear. Like anyone else, artists need help from their peers and spiritual guides to grow in wisdom and courage and step out in faith to pursue their calling. For many of them, the discernment of their vocation is rarely a static thing but rather something dynamic and highly risky that they discover rather than determine. It unfolds through time, gradually, with fits and starts, highs and lows, steps forward and steps back. It’s not guidance or answers that the Christian artist needs in life so much as someone to walk with them, love them, celebrate them, and simply welcome them to the table—gifts, angst and all.
Andrew Collins is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the Trinity Fellows Academy ('17). He lives in Seattle, WA.