Christians are growing more and more interested in the arts. Across the country now, we find churches with art galleries and open studio nights. We see more emphasis on visuals and aesthetics in church, and a whole cottage industry is emerging in publishing resources for Christians and the arts. Though we have a long and rich history of engagement with art and culture, the dialogue has gotten more intense in the last ten years. On some level, this is probably a product of the growth of the emergent church, whose interest in the arts is often sacramentalized and strange. But it’s fair to credit the growth of “new” Calvinism as well. John Calvin’s view of culture and Christian liberty have been empowering factors to many Christians whose interests lie in the world of the arts.
But this renewal can be troubling. The word art describes the well-accepted traditions of Shakespeare, Bach, and the Italian masters as well as the disturbing world of Tarantino films, the pornographic art of Jeff Koons, and the odes to death in the work of Damien Hirst. Art has been deconstructing itself for quite a while, and much of the work that fills galleries and museums seems at odds with a Christian worldview. So while some churches are beating a drum that art will save the world, others smell smoke.
I stand as one of the guilty parties in this renewal. At Sojourn Community Church, where I serve as the pastor of worship and arts, we’ve opened two art galleries, hosted a wide variety of culture-building events, and cultivated a music ministry that’s recorded several albums of original music. In one sense, we’re a community that’s “all in” for the creative renewal in the local church. But in another sense, we share a certain theological suspicion of the arts, and can easily see how they can become a confusing distraction from the purposes of the church.
Navigating these murky waters, we’ve learned a lesson or two. To begin conversation on the arts here at The Gospel Coalition, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on a few of those lessons. Every conversation in the local church about the arts needs to begin at the same place:
Creativity Is Rooted in Creation
We’ve generally stopped using the word “art” at Sojourn. The term itself is kind of a hassle, simultaneously describing something made by a child, a German Opera, and a pornographic film playing at a gallery in Chelsea. Defining art is usually an act of hedging what gets in and what’s left out, and the arguments find themselves in territory that’s simply unhelpful for most churches.
The term is alienating for a variety of reasons. Those who are deeply invested in the arts will often find the local church’s “arts” programs unworthy of the term, while those who aren’t interested in the art world (often because of the art world’s hostility and elitism) will tune out any talk about the arts in the church.
Meanwhile, people made in God’s image continue to follow in his footsteps in all walks of life, whether they’re children making up a schoolyard song, a craftsman building a bookcase, or an engineer designing a runway. In each case, the creation images the creator, taking what he’s made, working with it, shaping it, and making it anew. Creativity, rather than a gifting for a limited few, is a universal trait of those made in God’s image.
In Genesis 2, God gives us the paradigm for all of our creative work. In Genesis 1, the pattern of creation had been ex nihilo, God speaking creation into being out of nothing. But in Genesis 2, God’s pattern changes. With Adam, God begins with the dust, shaping it into the form of a man and breathing his breath of life into him. With Eve, he again takes something else he’d made (Adam’s rib) and transforms it into something new.
As long as humans have lived—wherever they’ve lived—they’ve followed his creative pattern. Creativity is the human impulse to take what God has made, shape it, and make it new. Little boys chew crackers into the shape of guns and shoot one another across the dinner table. My toddler daughter turns everything—from little books to cheeseburgers—into a phone, pressing it against her ear and saying, “Hello?”
Painters take canvas, oils, and pigments, then order them in such a way that the viewer no longer sees them as mere materials, but as a landscape or a portrait. Creativity leads to new-making, and the creations that emerge are not defined by their substance, but by the creative work that’s reshaped them. No one looks at the Mona Lisa and says, “What a lovely arrangement of oils and pigments,” just as no one looks at a building and says, “That’s a well-assembled collection of brick, mortar, and wood.”
Music, too, is a discovery of God’s own creative handiwork. Early in human history, someone discovered that God made the world in such a way that just about everything hums and vibrates, emitting sounds and pitches of infinite variety. Those tones and pitches are ordered in rhythm and mathematical order, and songs are born. While we don’t know who invented the wheel or built the first fire, the Scriptures do tell us who made the first musical instruments (Genesis 4:21).
This creative impulse is utterly pervasive. We see it in computer programming and dog grooming, farming and plumbing, and of course, throughout the creative marketplace in music, movies, visual art, theater, and dance.
It begins with an act of discovery: We find that God’s handiwork has left creation brimming with opportunity. So with the gifts of imagination and creativity he’s given to us, we cultivate and craft it into something new. It’s as much a definition for work as it is for creativity.
Even what would appear to be an exception, like abstract art, proves the rule. As Harold Best has pointed out in Music Through The Eyes of Faith, God himself is an abstract artist. Abstract art is non-referential, the “pure” product of the artist’s imagination. Best reminds us that before the first giraffe was made (or gnat, or galaxy) there was no point of reference. So God’s ex nihilo work in creation is the only truly abstract, non-referential product of pure imagination. The artists who pursue such abstraction in visuals and music are merely thinking God’s thoughts after him.
And so it is with all our work. Everything is a faint, whispering echo of his own boundless brilliance. The same mind that created an orchid and called it “good” also created the eel, the meal worm, and the Grand Canyon. The diversity of the universe is a glimpse into the breadth of aesthetic appreciation in God’s mind. Each of us made in his image bears that creative gift, both in some measure of creative skills and appreciation. We bear it as a tiny reflection of his own vast creativity and skill.
On a micro level, each of us has different tastes. On the macro level, cultures emerge in radical contrast with one another. The universal gift of creativity blossoms into a cultural mosaic, itself a reflection of God’s vast skill and imagination. The Scriptures give us an image for this variety. It’s one of all cultures—a spectrum of diversity—gathering around a singular object of worship—our enthroned Savior—worshiping not as a monolithic culture, but as every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Let’s keep the phrase “every tribe, tongue, and nation” in mind when we discuss creativity. Unlike God, who simultaneously embraces the beauty and integrity of snails and galaxies, we find it nearly impossible to find love for the unfamiliar, or for cultures that we see as beneath or above our position. The tendency to moralize our preferences, or to moralize the familiar in religious contexts, is almost a reflex. While some of the so-called worship wars can be attributed to theological issues, I think a vast majority of it was simply a matter of moralized and fiercely defended preference.
The result is a traditionalism that is hostile to the contemporary, a hipster church that is hostile to NASCAR references, or a Western-centric way of thinking about music and liturgy that believes Westernization is the goal of missions.
This is a key issue in the future for any conversations about art, culture, or creativity. Christians need to remember that creativity is simply a fact, and all churches embrace creativity in one form or another. Likewise, all churches are embracing some value related to beauty, creativity and aesthetics. What has often been said of theology is true of creativity too: It’s not a question of whether a Christian or a church will have creativity; it’s what kind of creativity they’ll have.