By Brian Brown
As most of you are aware, beauty was accused of heresy and burned at the stake in most denominations a long time ago. As a result, most of even the best American Protestants and Catholics, under the influence of historical events few of them have ever even heard of, have Christian principles but secular imaginations. They believe the right things, but when they encounter a glimpse of a redeemed imagination (like this or this), they can only think helplessly, oh, if only I saw the world like that.
Art (by which I mean everything from architecture to songs to stories) is supposed to serve this function in the Church; helping us to see everything differently. For an increasing number of believers, the question isn’t whether this is happening; it’s what to do about the fact that it isn't. The question for them is how to get art back into the church, and what its place should be.
I can't solve those questions comprehensively in a short blog post, but I can provide a framework for beginning to answer the question in your own life, your own church, your own context. In this post, you'll find four principles that almost everyone has rejected for a very long time, and that we need as building blocks if we are going to build lives, raise children, and shape congregations marked by a redeemed imagination.
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#1. Goodness, truth, and beauty live together or die apart.
Once, the Church (under the influence of Augustine who in turn borrowed it from Plato) took this for granted. The Great Commission wasn’t a call to get people to pray a sinner’s prayer; it was to make disciples, that is, to form people from one thing into something else—and given the way humans work, that requires engaging every facet of who they are.
That’s why when you enter a church or listen to music or look at a painting or experience a liturgy from the first 1500 or so years of church history, you see theology, meaning, infused into everything. They didn’t just put up any old building and stick a cross on it; they didn’t just take whatever music they were listening to for fun and add Jesus in—they developed entire art forms specifically around Christian priorities and truths, and used those art forms in worship and community settings to share the Gospel even with people who couldn’t read, even with children who were supposedly too young, even with people who weren’t really paying attention.
When you look at so many churches today that have either gone heretical or are leaving their entire discipleship program to formal instruction, you can pretty much always identify at least one thing—goodness, truth, or beauty—that has been set aside in favor of practicality, or political fads, or wrongheaded theological priorities.
If we are to have churches that can shape redeemed imaginations, we need to stand firm on the truth no matter how unfashionable it gets, we need to do the even harder thing and remember to be good and loving while we do that, and hardest of all, we need to find ways to let beauty back into the church. We cannot be successful at one of these things without the other two.
#2. Pastors need artists.
In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the Ent (tree herder) Treebeard is asked why there are so few Ents. Treebeard explains that there are no Ent children, because the Entwives have been lost. He tells a heartbreaking tale, in which the Ents’ partners in shepherding the forest, who want to tend and garden and create peace, are devalued and forgotten and, ultimately, lost.
I see a heartbreaking parallel here with the state of today’s Church. The Ents, like pastors, can continue on tending to their flocks. But without the Entwives, there can be no Entings—without artists working alongside the clergy, there can be no reproduction, because there is no culture, no cultivating, no subcreation. Conversions continue to happen (in a shrinking number of denominations) by the grace of God, but church traditions and aesthetic structures have almost completely died out—in practice in American Catholicism, and in both theory and practice in American Protestantism. You can see the results in the number of people in Pew surveys who describe themselves as onetime Christians, and in the frequency with which Christians in the news seem to act or believe just like everyone else.
The pastors shouldn’t be alone in confronting this challenge. We need teaching, we need the sacraments…but we need something else pastors are not called to provide. Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, said flat-out that artists have a unique connection with God as sub-creators that they have the joy and the responsibility to live out.
What a calling! Churches today honor the pastors and teachers who formally instruct us in the Scriptures, and the evangelists and missionaries who invite lost souls into the Church, and rightly so. But a Church characterized by a redeemed imagination might also recognize and honor artists who can play this vital role in teaching us what it feels like to live as a redeemed human, not by telling, but by showing. These are not simply illustrators, people who put in visual form the things the pastor is saying this week or that we all learned in Sunday School. They are (or can be) co-laborers in a complex project, the shaping of God’s people, that cannot be done properly without them.
#3. The Church needs both sacred and common art.
So we need beauty as well as goodness and truth, and we need both pastors and artists. What does that partnership look like?
Before you start to answer that in your own context, you need our last two principles. First: the church needs both sacred and common art.
This is a distinction long made in literally every culture in every time...until our own. 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.
The two areas are complementary and equally important, and operate with different rules and different levels of creative freedom. We need sacred art to remind us that reality is not defined by what we can see in the secular world, and show us who we are. So it needs to be deeply intentional in form as well as message, and it needs to be created in close cooperation with the church. But common art, a much larger and more diverse category, can meet us in any kind of moment in life and form our everyday moments, sometimes in very serious ways and other times in ways that would be easily mistaken for "mere" entertainment. Common art doesn't implicitly come with the endorsement of the church, and needs to be able to ask tough questions, so t's important for common art to be able to breathe.
Most contemporary Protestant worship removes the distinction between sacred and non-sacred art. And what happens when you do that?
- You lose sacred art entirely—which sooner or later cripples your ability to conceive of the sacred. How can you be a force for the transformation of the world when your church looks just like your office building, your holy music sounds just like your jam music, and you can't conceive of relating to God in a way that does justice to both His holiness and the incredible gift of being brought intimately into that holiness?
- And on the common art side, you end up with what we have: the death of Christian art except as a delivery vehicle for “messages,” or worse, kitsch. This is equally true of “churchy” common art like praise songs and un-churchy common art like novels and movies. In such an environment, a real artist is at best irrelevant and at worst a threat to the status quo. If you're only creating (say) a story for the sake of delivering a trite message, don't bother with the story--just write out the message. Stories, and all forms of art, are for telling things that could not be told any other way.
So the pastor is alone in the church, the artist is ostracized outside it, and the result for the Church is, by now, many generations of Christians who have had to supplement their inadequate formation by binge-reading the godsends of C.S. Lewis and his friends. But the Inklings should never have had to stand alone so, and if more than a bookish few are to thrive spiritually as their devotees have, it is time for great art, and great artists, to make a triumphal return to their rightful place in the Church.
#4. There are four parties involved in art.
(More on this here.) As Anselm Fellow Diana Glyer has argued, we need to lose the idea of the lonely starving artist who creates a novel or painting out of thin air. There are (or need to be) actually four parties involved in art throughout its process from idea to impact: the artists (in community with each other!), the communities in which they operate, the patrons who fund the art or the artists, and the scholars and theologians who advise the artists as the situation demands.
All four of these parties need to be making meaning together. We can’t expect a piece of sacred art to be theologically accurate if the artist can’t be in conversation with an aesthetically literate pastor or theologian; we can’t expect churches to be able to afford good art if all of us (especially but not only the wealthy) don’t put our money behind such things, we can’t expect to have stories and songs that powerfully tell our children who they are if the artists are at the fringes of our communities, and, for you artists, we can’t wait around for a community that effortlessly accepts and never challenges us—if we can find a few pastors and laypeople who can accept with us the ideas we’ve talked about this morning, we need to take risks and give our churches a chance to make meaning together with us.
To recap: goodness, truth, and beauty live together or die separately. Pastors need artists. The Church needs both sacred and common art. And the entire church community needs to re-learn its role in the creation and impact of art.
The place of art in the church is everywhere, but we need to internalize these kinds of ideas and distinctions if we are going to be able to do it well.
Director, The Anselm Society
Brian founded the Anselm Society in 2013. He developed a love of Gothic architecture at Princeton University, and a love of Jane Austen while sneaking out of bed to watch his parents' movies from the hallway at age five. He has spent over a decade in the nonprofit sector helping organizations grow, and nearly a decade in Colorado Springs, which he has eventually grown proud to call home. Every good picture of him was taken by Lancia Smith. He and his wife Christina share their appreciation for beauty with their two small children, Edmund and Edith.