Art For, From, and Facing the Church

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?

  • Matthew C. Thomas

    It’d be nice to hear from Chip Stam!

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  • Caleb Gallifant

    Great insight Mike! I think a place things too often get jumbled is when churches take “art facing the church” and mindlessly integrate it as “art for the church.” For example, one can take a TV show, sprinkle some Christianese on it, and voila – art for the church! Can you talk about this a little bit? I know this narrows in more on creativity than just art, but I think the church massively suffers in the “art for the church” category. “Creativity” in art for the church is really just art facing the church with a new jacket on.

  • Emily Whitten

    I really appreciate this as a former editor. Two of the most important questions any author–or anyone who sets out to judge a work of art–can ask are these: 1) who is the intended audience and 2) what is its purpose. Most people talk about different subjects in a different manner depending on who they are talking to. The same is true of good authors.

  • Chestertonian Rambler

    I love your contrast of Art for and from the church, and the different ways art can glorify God.

    One question: do you have a place in your scheme for good negative art? In this scheme, it *seems* that Art Against the Church only comes from the world, and needs to be met with critically. But what about (for instance) Art Against the Church by Christians? I think of the music of Derek Webb, both with and without Caedmon’s Call (“There’s tarnish on the Golden Rule / And I want to jump from this ship of fools” where the “ship of fools” is the identified Church); the poetry of William Blake, with its incisive rage against a Christianity that hid evil rather than resisting it; even some of my favorite moments in apologists like Lewis or Chesterton (who brilliantly described a “Southern Baptist with his large Bible and his small wife.”)

    Such art becomes different from your summary of “art for the church” because it seeks to emulate Christ in challenging even church leadership when that leadership is un-Christlike. It is also different from the craftsmanship of “art from the church” because unlike Tolkien’s fantasies it discusses the church itself, and not always in a manner that hides its unchristian aspects. And again such art is not merely “navigating the cultural stream”–it tries to use the medium of art to hold a mirror up to the church, just as much art tries to hold a mirror up to its society.

    I’m a passionate defender of this sort of Christian “art facing the church.” For some time I have worked on Relief Journal and Coach’s Midnight Diner, where art for, from, and against the church jostle, rub shoulders, and even argue with each other. So where does our form of truth-telling find its place in your scheme?

  • Thom Bullock

    Excellent post, thank you for that.

    I think one of the areas that seem particularly murky is when art is presented as “for” when in fact is is “from” – perhaps more in music than in anything else, but increasingly in literature too. If an artist wants to present something that is excellent in their field, without having to “mount a cross, fish, or dove” on it, I think they should be very careful not to present it as being for the church – that is to say, artists who have made a career making stuff that is explicitly Christian should not be surprised when they suddenly want to express things in other ways and people have a hard time with it.

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  • Benjamin Jensen

    Excellent article, Mike. Really looking forward to more posts.

    Questions I’d like to see explored:
    – Like the book of Esther, should we sing a corporate worship song that doesn’t mention the name of God?

    – All things are created toward the worship of Jesus (Rom 11:36,Col 1:16). How ought the Church help its people to understand and define worship, distinguishing between what one might call “General Worship” (Christ in all things everywhere all the time) and “Special Worship” (specific, corporate worship in the local church)?

    I’d love to hear from Harold Best himself, Stanley Hauerwas, Fernando Ortega, Makoto Fujimura, Sufjan Stevens;
    and from some dead guys: Francis Schaefer, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Charles Spurgeon, JS Bach, John Updike, F.Dostoevsky.

    Thanks for your thoughts and praise God that he is the great Creator, and great Author of all things.

  • Janice

    Great article. I’ve done some study on Christians showing leadership in the arts. My Masters thesis discussed some of this. Feel free to take a peak at:

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  • Michael Bentley

    As Christian Reformed minister who spent his previous career as a designer and illustrator, this conversation is long overdue and not taken seriously enough. Cosper’s differences between the arts (their purpose and their origin) are good distinctions – so much so that I believe this should be the foundation for a permanent forum, as art relates to the Gospel in culture and particularly in corporate worship. The Church (and from my Reformed corner, especially) needs discernment on this issue as much as over any point of theology – precisely because the Church excels at ruining its theology by “christianizing” artwork facing the Church, or abusing artistic license in corporate worship.

  • Victoria Rough

    Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss this. I’m a theatre major and God has burdened my heart for the entertainment industry; but I’ve been struggling with being the best artist I can be while also representing Christ and glorifying him. I think that God created the arts for his glory as much as anything else, and the creativity in the artist is a reflection of Creator God’s image in man. Unfortunately, like everything else, man has warped it for his own glory, and it has created a God-defying, Bohemian society that is absolutely crying out for God’s mercy. I’ve been struggling with what material I participate in and how it affects my personal relationship with Christ and how it reflects him to my peers. But this is an encouragement to press on in my passion and what I believe God has called me to do, of course, relying on him all the way.

  • Bill Higgins

    Pastor Cosper, thank you for starting this dialogue about this really huge issue. Your thoughts were encouraging and compelling. This topic is close to my heart because of the path God has lead me down as an artist and designer. I have some points of contention not with the over-arching outline from Harold Best, but with some of the assumptions that you seem to be making about the arts and media and the Body’s handling of all of it. One of your first underlying assumptions seems to be that, because the Bible used “dark, erotic, or scandalous” imagery, accounts, and concepts we now have “freedom” to produce content that uses the same. The way you put this point could seem to say that those elements were somehow independent from the overarching biblical narrative and could be implemented simply as elements and be deemed virtuous. As you know, the eroticism of the Song of Solomon isn’t the point of the Song of Solomon. The sensuality and passion are completely fitting as metaphor to help paint as full a picture of the even more fantastic spiritual truths with which the author(Author) intends to inspire us.

    I think we have to be so careful to keep from even being perceived as saying that creating, consuming sensual material is good because the Bible uses sensuality. The Bible’s aim is to free people from the deceptively alluring and yet eternally inadequate attractions of the world and bring them back to the “all-surpassing greatness” or our Creator Heavenly Father – the One who has “pleasures at His right hand forevermore”.

    I’ve heard and been a part of discussions on this issue with brothers and sisters of mine and the same questions keep rising in me. Perhaps I’m off the mark on your rationale but I’d like to pose these to you for whatever they’re worth.

    Why is the question, when it pertains to Christians consuming media/art/content, seem to often be framed as something like “how much of the world are we allowed to consume?” How much is too much? Where is the line when it comes to prime-time or the box office? I hope you’ll forgive the partially rhetorical nature of some of these questions. The fact is this issue has compelled me for some time and the position that I hear many believers take causes me to wonder what exactly are arguing for?

    Does God Himself not ‘contain’ more than enough inspiration, satisfaction, delightfulness, romance, ecstasy, and pleasure than an entire planet could even dream of wanting? Has the Gospel and the Biblical narrative finally run out of material for blowing our minds and enrapturing our souls so that we need to take our business to the world? Don’t we have to be so careful not to sound like we’re just trying to come up with sophisticated excuses for abandoning the Well Spring of Life for the “mudpies in the gutter” as C.S. Lewis would say and selling short our Creator’s design for us as image bearers – ‘imagers’ of our glorious God. If the hearts of the un-redeemed are crying out for and inadvertently, subconsciously longing for the “touch of the master’s hand” – why aren’t we giving it to them – in OUR media and art? Why aren’t we teaching, discipling, mentoring those members of the Body with the gifts to create, how to produce new and fresh and compelling art movements (visual, performing and new media) that reflect the glory of God and the uniqueness of the Gospel? Not just godly work ethics and attention to craft that exceeds the world’s, but new ways to communicate the truth and incomparable uniqueness of the Gospel?

    If we as Christians have finally come back to the place where we can boldly say that we have freedom to enjoy God’s glory and truth in all the forms (artistic in particular) across the scope of existence – why shouldn’t we also boldly embrace the call from our Creator King to pick back up the arts and manifest the uniqueness of the Gospel. To fashion incomparable works of art and media that reflect that glory and truth to a longing and dying world.

    • Michael Bentley

      Bill, you ask some great questions. You end your post with a doozie:

      “why shouldn’t we also boldly embrace the call from our Creator King to pick back up the arts and manifest the uniqueness of the Gospel. To fashion incomparable works of art and media that reflect that glory and truth to a longing and dying world.”

      I don’t believe that the Church’s main problem is the “why,” but rather the “how.” I believe the Church needs to seriously address 3 core issues in its understanding of art as vocation and product.

      1) A scripturally-focused theory of the purpose of artworks.
      2) A scripturally-focused theory of the effect of artworks.
      3) A scripturally-focused theory of the production of artworks.

      The idea that created beings reflect the creative nature of our creator is pretty good theology (and anthropology). But I really don’t believe that the Church (as a whole) understands what art is for, what it does for us (and against us) personally and culturally, and what effort even constitutes “an artwork” – much less one that is validly in concert with the Gospel. Does the Gospel look like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Does it sound like Michael W. Smith’s latest CD? Does it feel like the felt-and-glitter banners we remember from 30 years ago? Should it be mass-produceable and mass-consumable (remember the “Jesus: Choice of a New Generation” Pepsi t-shirt rip-offs?)

      To some, the above examples are the only valid answers. To others, these are barriers to be destroyed by “new” or “contemporary” “Christian” art. I’d like to explore what options are available to God’s children in this area, and find a path through the destruction that the secular art world has left us in the last 100 years.

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  • Sharon

    would love to see the other articles you have done on this Mike where do I find them?

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