Birmingham Is Not New York: 5 Cautions for Arts Ministry

A growing number of churches today have some kind of “arts ministry,” ranging from hosting film discussion groups to funding artists in residence. Even more ministry workers are asking how to “engage the arts.” But confusion over “how to engage art” continues to concern me. As a humanities major at a conservative Bible college, I was troubled by questions about “Christian artists,” the second commandment, and art in heaven. After working in a church for a few years, I pursued a masters in modern art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As my time in Chicago took me deeper into art institutions of all kinds, I began to look upon efforts among evangelicals to enter the art world as needing some guidance from “the other side.” I don’t have all the expert answers, but here are a few points for reflection for those engaging the art world in a church setting. This commendable energy deserves a few words of caution.

1. Define Your Terms

Words like art, beauty, arts, and aesthetic are not self-explanatory. You don’t need a PhD in art history, but you should read at least a couple books on art and art theory, especially those outside the “Christian Imagination” genre. Having to define your terms will inevitably force you to clarify your intent. What kind of art are do you hope to include in your “ministry”? Performance? Installation? Painting? Costume design? Glitch? Quilts?

If your definition of “good art” is something like “that which shows the beautiful,” you’ve got a lot of work to do. There is no end to the books on “art theory,” but starting with something like Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? and the Cynthia Freeland’s Very Short Introduction to Art Theory will help give you some vocabulary to think through issues surrounding art in the 21st century.

Rather than Francis Schaeffer, reach for current contemporary writers on art. Schaeffer understood art as a zeitgeist of a given culture for his missionary efforts—no small accomplishment. However, by his own admission, Schaeffer was not an art historian and did not do the hard work of understanding the nuances and complexities of modern and contemporary art. Dan Siedell is a contemporary art historian and curator whose book, God in the Gallery (2009), is a lone voice in this wilderness. The church needs more voices thinking through these issues with the same kind of careful nuance Siedell brings. For those who feel certain they want to work in this sector where art and ministry interact, they might be more helpful with an art history degree rather than an “arts and theology” degree from a seminary.

2. Get to Know Some Contemporary Art

If you cannot name five contemporary artists, you need put all your plans on hold and get educated. If you intend to help artists think through how their faith relates to their work, you will need to have more examples in mind than Fujimura, O’Connor, Tolkien, Rouault, Bach, and Rembrandt. There are more than enough resources out there to help (see below). The excellent PBS series Art21 will introduce a wide variety of contemporary visual artists. But there is no substitute for experiencing art firsthand, so go to museums, galleries, performances, and discussions as often as possible—but please, be slow to speak and quick to listen.

3. You Will Not Win at the Art-World Game

If you dream of creating a gallery that ArtForum will gush over, stop. The art world is a conflicted tangled market that plays by its own rules. In the art world, you score points by making “good art”—that is, an object that strikes the balance between shocking and profitable and will be featured in major international collections. So if you are a hosting an art event at your church and believe it to be full of “good art,” you need to go back to my first point, because you have misunderstood the game. You are trying to score a touchdown when you’re supposed to be going for a try. They may look similar, but to anyone who knows the two sports, they are very different. Arts ministry workers must learn to be content to host events that will never qualify as “good art” but may achieve a different set of goals.


4. You Will Not Redeem Art

The language of redeeming art has become ubiquitous within the evangelical blogosphere. Evangelicals seem to possess a collective zeal combined with an even stronger confusion about how to “redeem” or “engage” art. I do not think it can be, but if you insist on attempting to “redeem art,” be as painfully clear as you can about what that means. If you want Christian artists to find clever ways to communicate the Christian message in their works, then say that. If you want to find contemporary bronze serpents that point to Christ, then say that. The grandiose language of redeeming art is unhelpful at best.


5. Birmingham Is Not New York

Start with where you are. If your church is in a region with a strong history of quilt making, that should be the starting point for your arts ministry. Don’t open with a white cube gallery space. Take a lot of time to listen to the artists and designers in your church to understand the history and legacy of the creative process in your region. Think outside just painting and architecture. Contra dancing, shape-note singing, and street art murals are a few of the examples of regional art that you ought to spend time thinking about and participating in. Before turning your narthex into a gallery, why not ask experienced woodworkers in your congregation to make a table for communion? Before trying to create a concert space where touring bands can play, support already existing local efforts to promote music.

Starting Point

This is just a starting point for anyone looking to participate in arts ministry. Hopefully these cautions will expose common blind spots and help you earn credibility for artistic pursuits inside and outside your churches.

Here are a few further resources for your consideration:

Art Theory

What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy

A Very Short Introduction: Art Theory, Cynthia Freeland

Contemporary Art

Art21 (video and website)


ArtForum (magazine and website)


Christians and Contemporary Art

God in the Gallery, Dan Siedell

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, James Elkins

Matthew Milliner (art history professor at Wheaton College)

  • Jon

    I thought this was fantastic insight and counsel. I will try to put this to good use.

  • Looselycult

    “Rather than Francis Schaeffer, reach for current contemporary writers on art. Schaeffer understood art as a zeitgeist of a given culture for his missionary efforts—no small accomplishment. However, by his own admission, Schaeffer was not an art historian and did not do the hard work of understanding the nuances and complexities of modern and contemporary art.”

    “If you intend to help artists think through how their faith relates to their work, you will need to have more examples in mind than Fujimura, O’Connor, Tolkien, Rouault, Bach, and Rembrandt.”

    Great post. The quotes above were the best part. Now, let the anti-arts ministry comment barrage begin.

  • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    Art 21 is a fantastic show to expose folks to contemporary art. A great recommendation!

    “The Methodologies of Art” by Laurie Schneider Adams, was a must read text from my Art School days.
    I would recommend that book too. My wife rereads it every couple of years.

    As a pastor with an arts background, I would personally be hesitant to wade into an ‘Arts Ministry’. Much respect to those follow the Lord into that work but for me, a burning bush would probably have to speak to me…

    A great post though.

  • Sam

    Hmmm…I’ll be over simplifying but the over all message of the article seems to be ‘If you’re a Christian you don’t know anything about art and need to educated from a worldly perspective’.

    >>If your definition of “good art” is something like “that which shows the beautiful,” you’ve got a lot of work to do. <>If you cannot name five contemporary artists, you need put all your plans on hold and get educated. <<

    Why would I need to know what "so and so" says about art. If art is self expression (and it is) then why should I care what someone who does not honor God has to say about what they consider art to be?

    This article really spends a lot of time telling us to lay down our medium/media and figure out what everyone else has to say before we begin something.
    If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, what do I care about what the "wold" has to say on this or any other subject.
    I know – that's a controversial thought.
    It shouldn't be.

    Studying technique is one thing. Following after philosophies is quite another.

    As a former art student and more importantly, as a Christian, I think I have a pretty strong grasp on what is expected of us Christians regardless of our pursuits..
    "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things." Philippians 4: 8

    • David

      @Sam, if this were Facebook, I would be “liking” your comment right now.

    • Laura

      “If art is self expression (and it is)”

      Totally, totally disagree. If this is your definition of art, no wonder you’re getting riled up about this.

      Why should we care what people in the world say about art? So we can interact with them and bring the Gospel to them where they are, perhaps?

      • Sam

        Laura, thanks for taking the time to interact with my post. However, I see something in your way of thinking that I’d like to address.
        Regarding my first point: We can have a wonderful philosophical discussion about whether or not art really is self expression (I challenge you to create something that did not come from you), but that’s not the biggest issue.

        The biggest issue is your second point: Namely “Why should we care what people in the world say about art? So we can interact with them and bring the Gospel to them where they are, perhaps?”

        First of all, nowhere in the Bible is art ever used for evangelistic purposes. On the contrary, art is used to display God’s glory and majesty. We are never given an example of creating art so we can “interact” with people and share Christ with them.
        On the contrary, the Bible is clear that “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Romans 10: 17

        So God has decided that the way He has ordained for people to get saved is for them to *hear* the Gospel presented to them from *the word of Christ*
        No mention of art there.
        Can people get saved by looking at art?
        I suppose but it will always be the exception and not the norm. The norm is someone speaking about Jesus from the Bible and someone hearing it and getting convicted.

        It’s interesting that with the clarity of that verse that people still would rather do anything than simply obey it. They would rather hide behind any other thing (fine art, music, computer graphics, anything) than do what God said would be His method of saving people.
        I think that speaks volumes on the state of Christianity today, and why this conversation (on this website) is even happening at all.

        • Laura

          No no no, you’ve misunderstood me. I completely agree that people don’t get saved by looking at art, or by any other means than hearing the gospel preached, and I said nothing about evangelistic art (honestly, I don’t even know what that would mean!). My comment was more directed toward your apparent total dismissal of the value of encountering and understanding so-called “worldly” views. I am asserting that we need to know where people are coming from in the arts so we can understand them, and by understanding them, better know HOW to take the Gospel to them by the Word preached.

          For instance, if I have a Hindu neighbor, it’d behoove me to bone up on Hinduism, right? Not so I could present a “Hindu”-ized Gospel, but so I could anticipate, in my speaking of the Gospel to her IN WORDS ;), any potential stumbling blocks and objections. Similarly, if my artist friends are absolutely saturated with a particular worldview, it seems totally crazy to me not to read up on that worldview, to know it even better than they do! Would you ever say, as you did above, “Why would I need to know what ‘so and so’ says about Hinduism?”

          Re: art being self-expression, I strongly object to the term because it implies, in common usage, a sort of skill-irrelevant emotional emesis, and because it’s *incredibly* reductive. What about technique? Voice? Quality? Skill? I can’t imagine you’d exclude those things — you seem like an intelligent guy ;) — so why make such a statement at all? I just don’t think you can say “Art = Self-Expression.” Is art personal? Duh. Does it express something about the artist? Duh again. But can we equate art and self-expression? Great big heck no.

          Thanks for the reply.

        • jfutral

          I find it interesting the notion that somehow the work of salvation, the “Word of Christ”, is somehow not a work of art. Seems to me the greatest work of art.

          @Sam, I want to modify your interpretation of the article to see if that helps you any:

          “‘If you’re a (Church) who wants to start an arts ministry to engage art and artists (Christians or otherwise), particularly about their art and you don’t know anything about art, you need to get educated and it serves well to also get educated from the world you wish to engage.”

          I mean, I suppose I can hope to continually work from a miraculous Gift of Knowledge or Wisdom on a regular basis, but for us mere mortals, education does wonders.

          Personally, my only problem with most church arts ministries is the artists become “projects”. The only goal in interacting with them is as a service to the church organization rather than loving them as you love yourself. Our desire really should be about engaging people not “artists”.

          Now, if you want to nourish their art and craft and truly help or guide them in their artistic endeavors, that is another good reason to study art. How helpful to a dentist do you think you could be if you didn’t understand, to some degree, dentistry? Would you start a “computer ministry” without any clue how to at least use a computer? A bus ministry without knowing how to drive a bus? Why anyone would think education is a bad thing is beyond me.


        • Kirk


          Coupla questions…

          Is not God’s piece of art, His creation, in a constant state of evangelism? I’m thinking about Romans 1 here. If so, how does that speak to the artist as they put their hand to their work?

          Is there not something more to hearing than simply the audible waves striking the ear canals causing a response in the synapses of the brain? “He who has ears to hear, let him HEAR.” It’s seems from those phrases from Christ there was more to hearing the Gospel than just an audible sound wave striking the ear canal. This is similar to the phrases used of people who see (whose cones and rods of their eyes work perfectly) but still don’t see. Couldn’t art participate in, and dare I say it actually bring someone to the point of hearing and seeing the Gospel?

          Peter Hitchens, the brother to atheist Christopher, actually talks about this very thing in his pilgrimage to Jesus in his book “The Rage Against God”.


          • jfutral

            Really great points, Kirk.

            Ancillary to that, I think it is interesting that someone would believe that the spoken or written word is not art.


    • thatbrian

      Well said, Sam.

  • Looselycult

    And we have a winner!

  • David

    P.D. Young, you sure seem like you have an axe to grind… Goodness gracious, brother. Your tone is uncomfortably condescending. Please go back to the drawing-board and rework your rhetoric.

    • P.D. Young

      I’m sorry you found it to be condescending. I had no intention of axe-grinding, but wanted to speak clearly and practically into a very confusing dialogue.

  • Paolo

    I can understand how some readers might find this post condescending. But I wonder if that isn’t a certain “snobbishness” that we associate with the art world that we’re projecting on this post. I didn’t read it that way, personally. I felt it was sobering, pragmatic, and as another commenter put it, insightful.

    Art is self-expression… and then some. There’s craft too, and poetics/aesthetics that have been informed by history, tradition, faith and politics. I think what Mr. Young is advocating is a certain working knowledge, a familiarity with the different voices present in this history-long art conversation, yes, even the ones that clearly stand in opposition to the Christian ethic.

    Another thing that I appreciate about this article is its plea for clarity–that is, let’s invest a little time in really unpacking some of these concepts, the meanings of which, all too often, are taken for granted (“art”, “beauty”, etc…). Also, his message on “intent” is important too. If by “arts ministry” you’re talking about giving people at your church an opportunity to express oneself through, say painting, or sculpture, or poetry, then you probably don’t have to engage theoretical texts on art. If say, you are trying to put up a ministry that is to serve as a space for Christian artists to enter into conversations regarding their mediums, their themes, even the tension they experience between their work and their faith, then yes, I think it could help to be well-versed in some of these texts, to be exposed to some of these ideas.

    I really don’t think P.D. Young has “an axe to grind” or is saying that we should subscribe to non-Christian “philosophy” of art. I don’t see this post as doing anything different from encouraging someone who’s going into apologetics ministry to be familiar with the most influential thinkers throughout history, and also with some contemporary ones. If I was to to converse with such an apologist, I expect this person to have a working knowledge of Plato, Nietzsche, Freud, etc… as he would Augustine, Kierkegaard, Lewis and the like.

    I appreciate the author’s efforts here, and I think he knew going in that there might be some readers who don’t quite see where he’s coming from. I suspect he might be ok with that. But please, brothers, let’s be “slow to speak and quick to listen.” Let’s not rush to argue.

  • Trevor Wright

    I think this is a great post for those who desire to engage the culture of the world as faithful disciples of Christ through an arts ministry.

    To do this to God’s glory we have to keep a couple things in mind. The first is to be people wholly rooted in the timeless truth of God, so that the art we make flows out of that faithfulness, and secondly the method by which it is communicated must be timely.

    This is especially applicable when thinking about Christians in art with the goal of engaging the immediate culture. This, I think, is where some confusion sets in. I don’t think that the above blog is an overarching standard by which all Christian art must conform. P.D. Young seems to me to be addressing those who have a desire to engage the immediate culture through the means of art as faithful disciples of Christ. Christian art in this sense, isn’t just about upholding the worlds standards of “good” art, but it’s never quite less than that either. Any influential Christian artist that desired to be influential in his/her culture and thus be considered a “good” artist has not only been an artist that had the truth of God on their side, but also worked hard at upholding the standards of excellence of their day; this was done in order for the world to pay attention to God in a way that they might not have, had not the artist spoken in their “language” as it were. That’s the goal of the Christian artist in this sense–to engage the immediate culture with the truth of God, as faithful followers of Christ, while communicating the truth of God in a language that the immediate culture understands.

    Truth is truth. But there are many different ways that truth can be communicated, and better ways depending upon what your goals are in communicating that truth. A sermon on Sunday morning has the potential to be a very God glorifying thing. A message by a Christian apologist to a room full of non-believers can be a very God glorifying thing. In both these cases the truth of God and the glory of God is the goal of the communication, but in both situations the communication is going to be very different. The former will speak more in a biblical language while the latter may have to use some words of the world–words that are not conforming to any philosophies or sin practice, but that may not have direct connotations with the bible. This is done in order to get those who don’t speak the biblical language to understand what the biblical message is.

    This is what is going on when Christians engage in art for the sake of engaging the immediate culture. We want to speak the truth of God through art in a language that the world not only understands, but admires. And this can all be done to the glory of God. And skilled artist who have this desire need to be discipling those who aren’t as far along in the process. To those who are in that place, and have the desire to engage in art as a follower of Christ this post is not only welcome, but helpful.

    If I’ve misunderstood the post, then I’m sorry, but I still had fun flushing out those ideas.

    God bless,

  • jake

    I appreciate this article very much. I realize some have commented on its condescending tone, but that is to be expected when anyone ventures forth to clarify terms and convey the complex nature of something as big as ‘art’ from the actual perspective of an artist – not just the musings of a theologian (though I can appreciate both). There is great joy to be had with the resurgence and recovery of integrating artists and their work in the life of the church, but there is an equal level of danger (you correctly point out) where the church en masse, under the guise of being missional or contextual, has become quite reductionistic, overly-simplistic and just as driven by the popularized consumer model for the creation and engagement of artistic culture. We would not expect theologians or local church planters to be the de facto experts or authorities, albeit helpful conversationalists, in the realm of business, science, medicine, politics, etc. (well, there are some of those freaky smart guys like Vern Poythress who are dual-disciplinary). This is where there ought to be more of an egalitarian dialogue among these various disciplines in order to better integrate faith and work intelligently, winsomely, and coherently – this is a model extremely lacking in the Evangelical world.

    This isn’t elitism or ‘worldliness’ subsuming the rule of faith and practice in the Church, but rather it is displaying humility on the part of congregations and their leaders to listen to the cultural milieu around them, enter their world and answer the questions they are asking (not ones we presuppose). The irony found in much of Evangelicalism’s ‘missional’ and ‘cultural engagement’ (yes, even in the Reformed world) is that it is often mostly Anabaptist and separatist at its core once you dig deep enough (i.e. Christian Imagination books becoming the only source for artistic foundations and principles and not reading those ‘worldly, secular, pagan art books out there’.). We have got to better equip one another and grow in the grace of listening and asking for help in a world that is rapidly becoming more specialized, multi-disciplinary, over-achieving and innovative. As you mention, it will not be helpful to force something like the Redeemer NYC model into places Mentone, Alabama or Lincoln, Nebraska – people feel cheated, unheard, and it comes off as kitschy.

    That being said, it might have helped to have a more balanced tone if you had mentioned the fact that the overwhelming majority of congregations reveling in the recovery of ‘truth, beauty, and goodness’ in their midst most often stems from a sincere heart; an analysis praising the sincerity of believers motives and intentions and parsing out their ‘this-worldly’ and naive methods offers a much better criticism and opens readers’ ears to the plausibility of your statements. The problem here isn’t the earnest desire and theological motivation to recover art within local congregations, it is the sophomore approach towards cultural renewal and engagement.

    Thank you for taking the time to offer us your insights, however!

  • steve scott

    I agree with most of what has been written and some of the responsive comments.
    About the enthusiastic but fuzzy language re: `redeeming the arts’ …Some want to define and defend the rightful place of arts in the church…others want to see the `sphere’ of culture brought back under the sovereign rule of God…and others want to reclaim the arts because of their role in strategically influencing society.All three groups throw around the `R’ word.
    Not only are words like beauty, aesthetics etc not self explanatory, but their definitions are changing NOT because a relativistic value system, but because the conversation is now taking place in a pluralistic, multicultural, globally connected world. This should also nuance our hearing of Phil 4 passage `whatsoever..’
    As for Schaeffer( and Rookmaaker) a bit of historical context places them in the company of others who were also using the arts as a window onto society, such as (Historical materialist) John Berger, whose `Ways of Seeing’ evidenced a somewhat economically grounded understanding of purported artistic `value’ So, yes, this kind of approach to the arts (be it Christian or Marxist) is somewhat reductive, but yes, it was also (late 60s) the flavor of the day. Things have come a long way since then, and there are several comprehensive bibliographies of books and articles that provide a broader/deeper approach to understanding the arts and their contexts.
    But (as I suggested above) the picture is `disruptive’ and rapidly changing. Missiologists and church growth theorists suggest that most of the Christians now live in the `Emergent economies/majority world’…..that places most of the Christian artists (and arts theorists?) in social and cultural contexts very different to ours. I pray that they don’t inherit our problems (they might have a different take on the place of art and the role of the artist for example)…and I wince when I occasionally hear them parroting `our’ solutions. Maybe (as in `begin where you are’) an enlightened `regionalism’ is all we truly have?

  • John Franklin

    Thanks for your post P.D. it is both interesting and helpful as a place to start.

    Though I am not sure that Tolstoy is the best choice for a beginner. Your comments on beauty seem to be influenced by Tolstoy. He finds the value of art and its justification in what it communicates morally taking the view that moral values are the highest values – not sure he is right about this either with respect to art or with respect to values – as human understanding of morality is very diverse and often faulty.
    The Christian art historian Hans Rookmaaker wrote a little book some years ago titled Art Needs no Justification – and that claim is rooted in a strong biblical doctine of creation. No need for moral justification here.

    What I want to comment on is your remarks about “redeeming the arts”. It appears that you think art is beyond redemption. (and I am a little confused about how you seem to equate redeem and engage). If you do think art is not redeemable that you too think that art needs redeeming but add that it is not possible. Could it be that art is not in need of redemption – but people are?

    One further comment on this “redeeming art” idea. For many in non-western cultures the arts within their cultures are often tied to practices of other religions or pagan rituals. For those folk who become Christians and wish to preserve the arts in their culture – they may speak of redeeming the arts – meaning bringing indigineous artistic practice – instruments,music, dance, dramatic forms and visual art into a Christian/biblical setting that it might glorify God. For them this would count as redeeming the arts.

    Finally a question – I don’t get to blogs all that often but would be interested in where you are finding the ubiquitous presence of talk of redeeming the arts. I have personally participated – with some reservations in just such a conversation which became a writing project.

    Thanks again for your post.

    John Franklin -

    • P.D. Young

      I wrestled with some good introductory texts, Tolstoy happened to be fresh on my mind. The list got longer and longer, so I figured just a few would be a good starting point.

      I have great respect for Schaeffer and Rookmaker, but they are a bit outdated and unhelpful when discussing contemporary art. I think anyone who has actually watched the films Schaeffer wrote about (i.e. Bergman’s The Silence) would be shocked that he even mentioned them publicly back then. They’re helpful for their moment its just a shame that its been over 40 years and there aren’t many new voices in the conversation.

      Most of the “redeem the arts” talk happens on the ground, but if you were to look at almost any book on the subject of art and Christianity that has come out the in last 5 years it will talk this way.

      • jfutral

        Tolstoy has some great pull quotes or sound bytes. I would suggest just as Schaeffer and Rookmaker were products of their time, so is Tolstoy. There is a lot of gristle in that book you have to chew through to get to meat. Not that it isn’t worth reading. Just a warning.


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  • John Franklin

    Thanks for your repsonse P.D. I am sympathetic to what you say about Schaeffer and Rookmaaker and in fact Siedell who you mention is seeking to offer an alternative to “death of a culture” talk in the context of modern art.

    Though you say “Not many new voices” well I am not so sure. Nick Wolterstorff has been writing about art and faith for a long time – but continues to do so and is an authorative voice offering a much different take on the subject. Also over many years Calvin Seerveld’s work is worth investigating – more recently Jeremy Begbie, Adrienne Chaplin, William Dyrness, Robin Jensen, Greg Wolfe, Stan Guthrie, Trevor Hart, Rowan Williams,Edward Farley, Frank Burch Brown,and Richard Viladesau – to name a few all write on Christianity and art. It seem to me these folk cannot be put into the redeeming the arts camp – not at least in the way you have described it. But maybe you meant just evangelicals – some on this list are in that group but not all. Not even Steve Turner’s book Imagine fits.

    Can you let us know who you have been reading? I am keen to be informed about the literature out there and any help you can be on this will be gratefully received.


    John Franklin

  • Erik L

    P.D., I really appreciated your post. We need more Christians jumping in on the “redeeming the arts” conversation like you have who have actual backgrounds in art. While many see it as condescending, I think you right in saying that those wanting to “redeem the arts” first need to be able to name 5 contemporary artists (though I wouldn’t be dogmatic about this sort of thing). As a sidenote, I think a lot more of this kind of talk needs to be going on with Christian music as well, like you alluded to at the end.

    On the flipside, I think it’s a shame that many (at least that I am familiar with) who are the most talented artists in our churches might not be able to name the second commandment that you mention. Just like theologians who don’t know much about art can talk sloppily about “redeeming” it, so too can many artists dub just about anything Christian, without having thought theologically through how Christianity and art relate. I think we need people trained in both doing some critical thinking and working in these areas.

  • John Franklin

    It would be helpful for the process if we could say what understanding of “redeeming the arts” is troublesome. I am not particularly an advocate for “redeeming the arts” but gave a example of where I thought it might make sense to speak in those terms – So what I am asking here is – how are we understanding this phrase…. is it those who want art to be explicitly Christian? that we are talking about.

    And Erik what theologians are you thinking of who don’t know much about art and talk sloppily about “redeeming”?


    • P.D. Young

      Here we have a couple different types of conversations. This particular article was less about me trying to give a working philosophy of art, as much as say that there are many working philosophies of art, and if your starting an arts ministry and aren’t aware of that you’re not gonna do well.

      I will say, a lot of the literature on “Christianity and the Arts”, is in the abstract. You see this in the very use of the word “arts”.

      I wholeheartedly recommend Matt Milliner’s blog post The Unmappable Terrain of Christianity and Art. It’s the best survey of the topic I’ve ever seen.

      This might be a topic for another article, but when I say “redeeming the arts” and why its problematic to talk that way, its because its unclear what people mean. Are they talking about non-human objects being salvifically restored? Having visual material being integrated into our worship services? Making people Christians through art? Creating objects that promote the Christian agenda and cause? This is why I simply ask people to clarify their language.

  • steve scott

    P D
    I was at art school in the late 60s-mid 70s, and saw Rookmaaker lecture at the Royal college of Art in 73…and I have to say that Schaeffer/Rookmaaker and co were critiquing cultural modernism at a time when in terms of actual practice (and some theory) we were already `post modern’… they were a bit late to the game even then…..
    I like all this talk about `redeeming’ as confused as it is it at least pushes people to define their terms and/or become a bit more transparent about what they want art to `do.’
    `Redeeming’ as I understand it was a marketplace term for buying the freedom of a slave (and by inference, I guess, anything of value )and the early church thinkers jumped on this `marketplace’ term (`redeemed’ it LOL) as a way of describing an aspect of what Christ accomplished on our behalf on the cross. Other phrases and bits of language these thinkers `borrowed’ had more to do with ceremonial purity, ransom paying etc……
    I imagine that when people today think about `redeeming’ art, they think of freeing it from a gallery system in which art is an end in itself, or a testimony to individual creative genius, or some kind of symbol of opposition to a `market driven’ instrumental rationality designed to make the current state of affairs seem like `the way things really are.’ Or perhaps they think about arts in other cultural contexts, adorning temples, statues, rituals and ceremonies……celebrating and propping up the wrong value system, the wrong traditions, the wrong Gods…whatever. So talk about redemption is about `buying back’ or freeing art making from its role in feeding into or propping up these somewhat wrong headed and diminished states of affairs….all the while acknowledging traces of what some call `common grace’ in the human creativity evidenced in these diverse manifestations. As for `the second commandment’ we can tell from the animal and plant imagery in the temple, the symbols in the tabernacle, and the clothing of the priests, that the Israelites had a more nuanced understanding of that directive than the later Iconoclasts did……although I’m not alone in thinking that some `contemporary `Christian’ art’ suggests that maybe the Iconoclasts were on to something. That notwithstanding, even the Golden Calf incident resulted not in the banning of images, but the commissioning of Bezalel. The craftspeople who worked with Bezalel most likely received their skill set training in Egypt (umm…`worldly standards of excellence..’ anyone..?) and Paul’s directive to `study to show thyself approved’ was never intended to be limited to NT Greek, or church history or…?It can and does involve hard work and lots of practice and thinking and discerning the signs of the times when it comes to culture.So, I `get’ the problematic around the term `redeeming’ but I think its a useful way of getting some important cards on the table. for example…What are we redeeming it `from’ and what are we redeeming it `for’..?? JF has helpfully introduced a number of writer/thinker/pracitioners in the arts who are among `the 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal’ so to speak….maybe one way forward is more people sharing books, links and so forth form the `great cloud of witnesses’ who have gone before us (or are all around us)
    My 5 fave (and I’m stretching contemporary to `fairly recent’) for right now are: joseph Cornell, Robert Raushchenberg, Esther Augsburger, Jospeh Beuys and Marcus Coates.

  • Melody

    As an artist I really appreciated this article.

  • Justin Barlow

    this is a site worth looking at

  • Buddy Eades

    First, thanks for starting the discussion. As one of the aforementioned people who desire to help establish arts communities in the church, I whole heartedly agree with the need for both ongoing education and most importantly contextualization of any ministry, community etc. There certainly is no one cookie cutter approach that fits each place.

    From a pastoral and discipleship perspective, relationships are our starting point always. I need to love people and then love their creativity. To build a gallery for artists just because you want to jump on the bandwagon of cool missional churches is totally wrong headed. To jump into ministry to creatives takes a calling and preparation just like moving to another culture to minister to a “people group.”

    First, take some time to talk to the creative people who live and work in your Christian community and ask them whether a context to create, collaborate, show, perform, serve, teach, or mentor would serve them well.

    Secondly love people who are creative and enjoy their art period. If in the process those people are drawn to their need for Christ then continue take the next step, ask questions, share your point of view. Maybe God would use you to bring them to faith in Christ.

    This discussion needs to continue. Good cautions. Agree w your basic points. It’s hard to be clear in a blog and cover all the bases.

    Follow up post or comment?
    I would love examples of poor use of term, “redeeming arts” and unwise examples of how people strive to do this.
    I would also love more thought on Winning the art game… vs a focus on what it means for Christians to make great art period and what “great” means and who decides!

    Thanks for the blog!


    I really appreciate this discussion. I look forward to reading Tolstoy’s thoughts on art; though judging merely by his fiction, I will do so with much fear and trembling!

    As a side note, one reason my writing partner and I chose Redeemedreader as our website moniker was because we wanted to emphasize our role as interpreters in “redeeming” works of literature. I think Christians ought to seek to glorify God in their art, an endeavor which shouldn’t necessarily exclude portraying spiritual realities such as typology of Christ, etc. But we live in a fallen world, and we are told that most people, including artists, won’t enter the narrow gate. In terms of sheer numbers, Christians will always be a minority and will usually be on the outside looking in. Thus, it’s imperative that we seek to be “redemptive” interpreters as well. That is, finding God or echoes of Him and His truth in the art/movies/etc. around us. I doubt we’ll all agree on how that should look in practice, but that’s where lots of study and prayer and good books and discernment come in.

    I especially appreciate your final point about the difference in Birmingham art and New York art. In high school, I wrote a story that won me a prize in my hometown arts contest (still the only one I’ve ever won to this day), but which so horrified my grandmother that she broke down into tears. Sometimes artists and writers have to pick a milieu, and in order to make a living, they have to stay within that milieu’s boundaries. (See what happened when the Dixie Chicks started talking liberal politics.) My point here is that a lot of the books you’ve recommended–i.e. Tolstoy’s book on art–might be helpful in some milieus. But for the average teenage kid or youth group leader trying to play guitar and sing about Jesus, I doubt it will do much good. Even a vague concept of “redeeming the arts” would have been a welcome relief in many of the churches I bounced around in over the years.

    Still, hope springs eternal, right?

  • Lauren

    Well written, P.D., thanks for sharing. The church used to be the center of the arts movement, but since the Dark Ages, that story has gone a different path. I believe the church has kept the arts at arm’s length out of fear and misunderstanding and vice versa, the feeling has been mutual. Luckily, I think that trend is changing. Art is both the most complex and simplest of things; what’s even harder is living in the tension between the two.

  • Sha

    Great, great piece, P.D., thanks.

  • jfutral

    If I might also suggest an excellent read:

    Art and Scholasticism
    by Jacques Maritain

    Definitely some intellectual heavy lifting here, so be prepared to look up a lot of words. Or maybe everyone really IS smarter than I am, as I have long feared. But, I think, whether you agree with the author or not, you will come out the other end better for it.


  • Nathan Joseph

    Hello people.
    I love you all!

    I just felt to express my opinion so I hope it doesn’t offend anyone as that is not my intention.
    My intention is merely to express an honest point of view which I hope may be helpful.

    I believe this comment is art, I believe the hands I used to type it are art and the brain I used to think it is art.

    I believe that a human does not need to read a book to create ‘good art’, who is judging what makes art ‘good’ anyway?

    Is ‘good’ subjective or objective? I believe it’s objective and defined by God himself in which case a baby smearing some paint on a wall can be good art if God thinks it is, the same way a university trained artist with many qualifications can create ‘bad’ art if God thinks it’s bad.

    If someone can’t read then does that mean they can’t make good art? Or what about someone who lives on a mountain and has never been to an art gallery or museum?

    I’m a Christian artist myself and I wouldn’t judge myself as a good or bad artist but I don’t think anyone else other than God can either. I make art which I like and with the intention of bringing glory to God in all the art I make.

    It seems to me that when people try too hard to put art in a box they miss the point that a box itself can be a piece of art.

    Honesty, integrity, love… things like this make good art in my opinion…

    I’ve never been to college or read art history books so maybe I’m just an ignorant, arrogant, “wannabe” artist with no right to have such confidence in believing these things.

    Anyway I’m probably not making much sense and can sense my mind drifting to the Bible study I’m leading later causing my comment to have long since left the path of linear thought so I’ll finish here.

    Grace and peace in the Lord and Saviour, JESUS CHRIST.

    Soli Deo Gloria FOREVER!

    • jfutral

      Some great thoughts, Nathan. I think you are correct in pointing out one does not need to read to make good art. I think the discussion of art making is an important one to have, especially in an arts ministry.

      I’ve long struggled in the tension between skilled craftsman and great art. I don’t think anyone would accuse B. B. King of having the skill of Andre Segovia. But that certainly does not diminish his artistry to be less than Segovia’s. But then King would also tell you his band are all well educated musicians and that is the advice he gives to young guitarists, to learn and respect their craft. The Levites were chosen because they were skillful.

      And great skill does not equate to great or good art. I’ve seen many well executed works that are fine works, but that is about it. The perpetual question in art is what is it about one painting, say of sunflowers, that makes it so compelling? Why is van Gogh’s sunflowers so much more than that painting of sunflowers over the hotel bed?

      There is certainly more to art than just being technically proficient or well read. I don’t think there is a formula for being an artist nor an arts minister or starting an arts ministry. Each person and artist should always be in prayer to pursue God’s heart and find their voice.

      I have simply found for myself that being passionate about something makes me want to know more about it, to study it and try to understand, sometimes with more success than others. I read about art and artists and study my craft because I can’t think of doing anything else. Some people might call that “a calling”, I suppose.

      And when I talk with other artists I want to be able to speak the same language they speak, understand the struggles they face in their art and everyday. Maybe, just maybe, somewhere along the way I’ve learned something I can pass on to them to help them work through something that is more or less important to them. As such, I hope God will use me to make a difference in their lives in some way.

      There is nothing new under the sun. So why not learn from those who have gone before? Both as an artist myself and in engaging with and learning from other artists, I find this desirable. I think Paul would call this “profitable”.

      Go as you are called.


      • Nathan Joseph

        Hello Joe,

        Thank you greatly for your reply.
        I’m very happy to read that you agree on one of the initial points which I made on this topic and I agree with alot of what you said when expanding upon my original point, in particular the part where you said; “Each person and artist should always be in prayer to pursue God’s heart”.

        I highly value your comment stating, “being passionate about something makes me want to know more about it, to study it and try to understand” and I agree strongly with this.

        I’m interested to know your opinion on whether “knowing more, studying and trying to understand” are solely academic pursuits or whether they can be accomplished merely through actual experience of the art which God has manifested all around us in this world?

        I believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God written through the incorruptible council of the Holy Spirit and therefore I fully agree with the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun” based on Ecclesiastes 1:9; however I also believe that Christ said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” in Revelation 21:5 and based on this combined with the infinite nature of God; I’m convinced of the possibility that God’s adopted children who were originally made in his image and then also given his Holy Spirit to dwell within them are capable of being truly creative in beautiful ways without the need to imitate that which proceeds them especially in terms of secular art. Would it not be logical that if God is the ultimate and (in the most literal and fundamental sense) only true creator, he therefore possesses everything needed to inspire and equip his children to replicate that creativity without the need of any individual being educated by “the world”?

        I realise that even the concept of emulating or imitating creativity is someone paradoxical but I’m interested to know your (and other people’s) perspective on this.

        Thank you once again for your interesting response.

        Please forgive any incorrect sentence construction or long winded explainations of points, my brain works in a strange way.

        Grace and peace in the name of the Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ

        • jfutral

          Thanks for the reply, Nathan. This is one of the things I love and why I have and do participate in arts/artists discussion groups. I love these discussions.

          I don’t understand why it is helpful to create the mutual exclusion of an academic pursuit and experiencing the art of God. As a friend of mine use to ask, how is reading a book not an experience? You also used some fairly charged adjectives that maybe indicate your own struggle—”solely” academic and accomplished “merely” through actual experience. Since none of my own study occurred in a formal academic environment, maybe I’m not the one to address this question. I will say I often regret not studying art in school and just as often consider going back to school to study art history. Particularly from the post-impressionists forward.

          Your second point about imitation I find the most intriguing. There are two perspectives I want to explore.

          First, I don’t think anyone has suggested imitating anything or anyone. That, to me, is the universal struggle of the artist, finding their own voice so that they do NOT seem to be imitating anyone. Not only has that idea driven most art movements throughout history, it is particularly relevant of the Modern era artists. That is the driving force of Modernity in general, each phase of Modernism is at war and opposition with what came before. So even the idea of creating something new is not new.

          Second, the craft or skill of art has historically passed from master to apprentice or mentor to mentee (less true these days depending on one’s view of academia). So there is a level of imitation necessary in order to learn the craft underlying the art. Even the supposed “self-taught” is learning from someone, even if that someone is not actively teaching.

          But I think the most important point you bring up is inspiration. Inspiration is a peculiar thing, characteristically and literally. What inspires me probably does not inspire you. But, what artist has not created from inspiration from God’s creation? Even the artist who seeks inspiration from within (as Lee Krasner once accused Jackson Pollock, at least according to the movie), is that not seeking inspiration from a creation of God?

          (edited to add) Also, in the context of your post (or anyone else’s for that matter), I am not sure who “the world” is.

          Just some thoughts,

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  • Nate Risdon


    Really appreciate the article. You articulated some key points for people to consider as they consider arts ministry. After reading point #2, I found myself listing (and counting) the contemporary artists I knew of and I bet many others who read you article did the same! Love it and love that you are encouraging everyone to get out to galleries and engage with current artists. Secondly, I couldn’t agree with you more on the confusion when using terms like “redeem” and “engage” when discussing art. These terms can actually be hindrances in many cases.

    My assumption is that for the sake of brevity, you chose to focus specifically on visual art, particularly “high art”. I would also encourage people considering arts ministry to study popular culture art forms/expressions. This is a “moving target”, sure, but it’s something that can’t be ignored when talking about arts ministry. Perhaps some others reading your blog have suggestions on good reads for this.

    Also, I want to address one particular point of yours that I partially disagree with – “For those who feel certain they want to work in this sector where art and ministry interact, they might be more helpful with an art history degree rather than an “arts and theology” degree from a seminary.” I completely agree that a person considering working in this arena should have a working knowledge of art/music/dance history and theory. I would argue alongside of you that you will undermine said ministry without it. Where I disagree with you is that these folks don’t equally need to have some training in ministry. While pursuing a Master of Divinity might be a stretch, at minimum a person in considering arts ministry should have some spent some time developing their ministerial skills in conjunction with a theological base of knowledge. Reading a set of books on how to minister to artist in a vacuum will only take a person so far, much like reading art history books and art theory books in the same vacuum will only be dipping their toe in the water. Without some focused study in both areas and a community of others pursuing similar ends to bounce ideas, concerns, etc. off of, they are undermining their efforts to have an effective, sustainable ministry.

    Again, please understand that I am not saying that everyone needs to go out and get an MFA and an MDiv. However, I am saying that there is value in focused study in both areas to give a person a strong foundation that will serve them and those they are ministering to whether that is Birmingham or New York.

    Full disclosure – I do work at a institute that is associated with a seminary and have seen the deficit that some students interested in arts ministry have in areas of art history and theory. I find that as troubling as folks in ministry who completely write off seminary education. There has got to be a happy medium between the two. Such is the fascinating challenge of ministering the artists in your community.

    Thanks again, for a thoughtful and engaging article.


    Nate Risdon

  • Hal

    As an artist, I wonder why we need an “arts ministry” when we don’t have an accountant, carpenter, plumber, school teacher, or any other profession ministry. Isn’t their work as important? Isn’t their work or activity meant to bring honor to God? Why single out “artists” for ministry. Let’s not get in the habit of making the “hand” more important than the “eye”. I think the apostle Paul had something to say about that.

    By the way, P.D. – Rookmaaker’s book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture is as good as you will find. And, oh, it was published in 1970.

  • Madelyn

    Could you more clearly explain #3? I’m really having a difficult time understanding what you mean, esp. the term “good art”.

    • P.D. Young

      Yes, its a very confusing problem. This is a huge debate about the philosophy of art. The metaphor between football and rugby is helpful here. In discussions of art we are inevitably drafting a list of rules for how to “play the game”. (i.e. Maybe your looking for an object that balances “form and content.”) My point was a warning to those who think that these rules what a work of art should be are self-evident and widely accepted. Specifically, that the Contemporary Artworld is playing by a list of rules that is mostly irreconcilable to any kind of christian. I know there are many who disagree, but I have a hard time seeing it any other way. I fear what is championed by evangelicals as a victory in the artworld is really being mistaken as a touchdown when it needed to be “a try”.

      The most obvious way to see this confusion is the all too common response to Contemporary Art, “you call that art?” How we answer that question gives us our definition/philosophy of art.

  • Meghan

    Hi P.D.,

    Love the article, as I am currently completing a thesis at a secular art school on the arts and christianity, and looking to go into arts ministry. I was considering getting one of those “arts and theology” Masters degrees that you mention in passing, but have recently been thinking that perhaps staying immersed in the secular contemporary art world (in Toronto), a la Daniel Siedell, might prove more fruitful.

    Just wondering if you have a website by any chance with more of your writings, that I could potentially cite for my thesis? Or other articles on the subject you’ve written?


  • Dave

    What I find unfortunate is how much Christians tend to only theorize about visual art and are following the academic culture bandwagon of art that is theoretically good, but doesn’t have a lot of pull on a practical level.

    What I propose is: More of us learn to draw and paint.

    Art as storytelling tool vs. decoration or referential experiment is the primary way that it represents and impacts our culture. With visual art in particular and its direct influence on culture, what is produced in Hollywood, webcomics and the videogame industry is measurably the most important art.

    Anyone can argue that art has subjective qualities and that’s fine. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that. Concepts are valuable. I’m not denying that contemporary gallery art has its place. But it’s when your kid watches their favorite movie or plays their favorite game that they are shaped by art media. Not nearly at all so much when they go to a modern art gallery. This is the same for the VAST majority of people in our country who turn on their TV or computers and are influenced by media 99% more of the time than they interact with a gallery.

    I believe if we really want to make a difference with art in a missional sense, Christian visual artists should learn the science of how to draw and paint.

    We need it as “arts ministers” and we need it to be useful hands in the culture who preach the Gospel to others in the entertainment industries (who especially in the visual arts are DOMINATED by non-Christians, atheists and new-agers)

    We need to learn, to greater or lesser degrees, the skills of the old masters, cartoonists, visual development concept artists, comic book artists, storyboardists, animators and illustrators and authentic culture shapers. And also learn how to tell real stories and quit drinking the kool-aid of the culture on this issue.

    A brief smattering of blogs with a show of the level of Contemporary Art I’m referring to:

    I believe by both following scripture and making cultural art (movies, games, etc), you naturally build a theology of the arts that is much more robust than being a theorizer. Theory and art history is fine. Also, architectural history or the history of refrigerators is great and you can honor God with the study of it. But if we want to make a difference now in our culture we should learn how to MAKE art.

    What I’m not saying is that all contemporary gallery art is a waste and all visual artists should be Retro-Classicists. What I am saying that keeping up with the “art world” and its theories can be a major red herring to work that would be more useful in a broad sense.

    If we’re behind the curve on the Contemporary Gallery Art chase, we’re even way further behind the curve on creating the Bread and Butter of culturally connected visual art. Sure, there are some Christians out there doing it professionally, but it’s far from something that really even appears to be on the radar to the broader church.

    My 2 cents.

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