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I had the joy last weekend of spending some time with Harold Best, author of Music Through the Eyes of Faith and Unceasing Worship. Harold, at 79, is one of the sharpest-thinking people I know. His years as the dean of Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music have given him a wonderful breadth of knowledge and experience related to the arts. Each time we chat, I walk away with my head spinning.

A couple of years ago, during a conversation at Sojourn, Harold laid out a framework that has helped us immensely in clarifying the relationship between the arts and the church. We spent much of our time together this weekend talking through it, and I think it’s worth sharing here.

For Christians thinking and talking about the arts, there are three broad categories for conversation:

  • Art for the church
  • Art from the church
  • Art facing the church

Art for the church needs to be seen as first and foremost as the work of a servant. Creativity is never supposed to be the centerpiece of the gathered church. Instead, it’s a servant of the liturgy, a servant of the ministries of word and prayer. Michael Card, in his great book, Scribbling in the Sand, describes the work of the artist in the church as an act of foot washing. Certainly there’s a place for skill and excellence, and certainly there’s a role that can be played by artists to affect to the congregation with the emotional wow and wonder of the arts. But that strength is only a servant and a signpost, pointing to the glory of Another.

Art from the church is the work of the artist in the surrounding world. Here, artists pursue their calling and maximize their gifting. Christian artists should seek to be the best they can possibly be, in their field, to the glory of God, a task that is no different than the work of a doctor, teacher, or mechanic, who are each called to pursue their work with integrity and excellence.

Art facing the church is the creative work that surrounds us, the cultural sea in which we all swim. Churches generally and Christians particularly must carefully navigate the issues of context and conscience in order to discern what they consume, how they consume it, and how they understand it.

Confusing the Contexts

Much of the tension in conversations about the arts involves confusion between the contexts. In art for the church, the work must be clear, overtly serving the purposes of the gathering community. It’s simply not the right place for some creative work—particularly that which is ambiguous or offensive (excepting, of course, the offense of the gospel). Creativity is a wonderful value, but not an end in itself for the gathered church. Unfortunately, Christians can be guilty of buying into a belief that “art will save the world.” They find themselves pushing the arts into liturgical life in a way that is at least awkward, sometimes out-of-place, and at worst, utterly confusing.

On the other hand, Christians will often take the principles that guide art for the church and confuse them with those for art from the church. When Christians seek to fulfill a creative calling, they face a mountain of pressure to make a certain kind of work. If a painting, a story, or a song doesn’t have a gospel metaphor, a clear moral lesson, or a rainbow worked in, some Christians will start to fidget and worry. J. R. R. Tolkien had to defend his work from this view, going so far as to say in his introduction to The Lord of the Rings that he hated allegory in all its forms. He wanted readers to know that what he wrote wasn’t that simple, didn’t correspond one-to-one with something they already knew. Instead, he wanted to tell great stories, believing that they possess power and truth that will resonate with deeper things, just as a Christian architect or engineer might want to make great buildings, honoring the Creator with their integrity and geometry, but not necessarily mounting a cross, fish, or dove on each one. It’s a pressure we don’t put any other vocation.

In truth, the standards by which most Christian media are judged would exclude many books from the biblical canon. The eroticism of Song of Solomon, the violence of Exodus and Joshua, the scandal of Hosea, and the emotional intensity of Jeremiah are not necessarily “safe for the whole family.” The book of Esther never mentions God by name. The Bible’s edginess makes many Christians uncomfortable. Perhaps the Word of God has something to teach us in principle about how much freedom there is to make work that is dark, erotic, or scandalous.

Art facing the church is no less complex. Here, we find ourselves in need of a robust understanding of Christian freedom. At one extreme, we are tempted with legalism, and at the other licentiousness. One man eats to the glory of God, another abstains. One man boycotts Disney, another shows clips from Fight Club during his sermon. Conscience and context become incredibly important as Christians seek to discern and decide what is appropriate for themselves and their families in the world of the arts, with a risk of being Corinthian at one extreme and Galatian at the other.

I have a personal passion for this realm. I grew up watching a lot of TV as a kid, and still acknowledge that I’m something of a TV junkie. I’ve always loved movies, TV, literature, and music. As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to see that there isn’t a speck of creation that escapes God’s fingerprint. Even in the dark corners of our culture, you can see that it all groans as in the pains of childbirth hungering for redemption. This is as evident in Mad Men as it is in conversation at the coffee shops I frequent. As Bob Dylan put it:

In the fury of the moment I can see the master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

When we know that this is our Father’s world, even the parts of it that rage against him do so as image bearers. A discerning eye can see anger boiling up from the God-shaped hole in their hearts. His handiwork shows up in the most unexpected places. When we learn how to look for it, the stories our culture tell through all kinds of media will unfold like a pop-up book, revealing more behind the façade.

There’s much more to say about each of these, and over the coming weeks I hope to unpack them more, enlisting the help of some Christian artists and pastors whose wisdom and experience will (hopefully) be illuminating.

What questions do you have? Where have you seen the tensions and the dangers of creativity and community? Who are the voices you’d like to hear chime in on this discussion?