If we believe Christ came so we might have abundant life, then any work of art that draws us deeper into the fullness of life can, in fact, present the Gospel. This is because the Gospel is not one story among many; it is the Story, meaning any other story worth telling—and all art, no matter the medium, tells a story—will in some way reflect the Story of God’s love for humanity. It will reflect, at least partially, the Story of all creation, which is the Gospel narrative of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.
However, a person asking this question probably has something slightly different in mind. For example, he may really be asking, “Should my church promote art that does not explicitlypresent the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Why not focus solely on art that retells the literal story of Christ and thus furthers His mission of preaching the good news?” These are fair questions, likely rooted in the assumption that art does not work on our imaginations the same way as doctrine and is therefore more susceptible to a variety of interpretations and misinterpretations (though a history of division in the Church suggests doctrine isn’t spared this tendency either). Furthermore, what if our church promotes the work of a certain artist and that artist one day turns away from the faith or even becomes hostile toward it? How can we, as a Christian community, endorse a novelist who sometimes creates sinful characters instead of upstanding role models, or who crafts stories with complex themes that don’t fit neatly into a three-point sermon? Art and the flawed human beings who make it are not safe, so these scenarios are very real concerns for individuals and communities that do not want to cause “one of these little ones to stumble” (Matthew 18:6).
At the heart of these concerns is an important distinction we don’t often make in American Christian culture. It is the distinction between “sacred art” and “profane” or “common art.” Anselm Society Executive Director Brian Brown summarizes this distinction well in his essay, “What is the Place of Art in the Church?”:
Sacred art, art specifically designed to help cultivate moments like you'd experience walking into a cathedral or attending a well-executed Messiah sing in Advent, was created to help shape the liturgies of a community of souls and orient its loves.
“Common” art, i.e. everything else (novels, poetry, popular music, etc.) picked up where that left off and allowed for more personal, unique, diverse, and perhaps even controversial impact. (Think of it this way: sacred art is for corporate worship; common art, when it has a spiritual dimension however subtle, is for discipleship.) Common art calls the individual forward on a journey toward the throne room of God, and sacred art forms our ability to do what we will be called to do there.
Historically, the Church as an institutional body—as well as a literal building—was a house of beauty where souls on the journey to God had opportunities to encounter works of sacred art that served as signposts. We need sacred art—and in the United States in particular, it’s possible we need it desperately. Art that reimagines the Gospel of Christ and the stories of His saints for new generations has long been art for the Church, as well as art supported, even promoted, by the Church.
Yet we also need churches to encourage and foster common art that serves as our gift to the wider world. Even when art is not explicitly religious, any work that points to truth, beauty, and goodness cannot helpbut share the Gospel, though there may be more “showing” going on than “telling.” This is because art done well always stirs up questions, sentiments, and longings that point us toward the transcendent. Pope Pius XII, in a 1952 address to Italian artists, describes this inevitability:
The function of all art lies in fact in breaking through the narrow and tortuous enclosure of the finite, in which man is immerged while living here below, and in providing a window to the infinite for his hungry soul. Thus it follows that any effort—and it would be a vain one, indeed—aimed at denying or suppressing any relation between art and religion must impair art itself. Whatever artistic beauty one may wish to grasp in the world, in nature and in man, in order to express it in sound, in color, or in plays for the masses, such beauty cannot prescind from God. Whatever exists is bound to Him by an essential relationship. Hence, there is not, neither in life nor in art... the exclusively "human," the exclusively "natural" or "immanent."
In other words, a play or a painting that is “exclusively human” in the truest sense cannot escape God (even if God is never mentioned) because an authentic portrayal of humanity will always remind us of who we are: that we have souls, a moral compass, and longings that transcend what this material world can ultimately satisfy. In a world where, more and more, we cannot seem to agree on what it means to be human, perhaps what we need most in our current age is art that holds up a mirror. If, as the second-century theologian St. Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is man fully alive,” then maybe what we need at this point in history is art that reveals our true identity as human beings.
We need both artists who make sacred art for the Church and artists who make common art, human art, for the world. What we as a Church ought to be concerned with is encouraging all artists to “abide in the true vine” and live their Christian faith. When it comes to art that “presents the Gospel,” perhaps the Church’s primary responsibility isn’t giving specific works the stamp of approval, but forming artists who are shapedbythat Gospel:
The greater the clarity with which art mirrors the infinite, the divine, the greater will be its possibility for success in striving toward its ideal and true, artistic accomplishment. Thus, the more an artist lives religion, the better prepared he will be to speak the language of art, to understand its harmonies, to communicate its emotions. (“The Function of Art”)
The more the artist grows in faith, in relationship with God, and in community with other believers, the more he or she will be able to “speak the language of art.” The more the artist creates works that incarnate truth, beauty, and goodness, the more he or she will point to the divine. There is a reason the majority of people respond with wonder to the Sistine Chapel and with confusion or even apathy to Andy Warhol. Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Jane Austen are recognized as excellent writers not only because they worked on mastering their craft, but because their works reflect the reality of a world, which Gerard Manley Hopkins describes as “charged with the grandeur of God.” Even if God is never mentioned, even if the subject matter is “secular,” something in these works moves us toward mystery and transcendence. Great artists always tell the true story of humanity, the story of creation. Their works will necessarily speak of incarnation—what it means to live as body and soul in a material world infused with grace. Their works will necessarily speak of crucifixion as they grapple with suffering and make us question why evil exists in a world that’s also overflowing with goodness. Their works will necessarily speak of resurrection as they point toward hope, redemption, and the coming of spring. In short, great art will necessarily present the Gospel.
Ashlee Cowles is a wanderer turned pilgrim who writes Young Adult and Historical fiction, which you can learn more about at www.ashleecowles.com