Part 1: The Relationship between the Church and the Arts
“That word has no place in Christian fiction,” she informed me.
I muttered my usual reply about authentic dialogue and attempted to steer the conversation elsewhere. Dear God was I ever tired of defending my work, and especially to other Christians.
“Why do they feel the need to criticize?” I wondered. “They don’t even make the effort to understand—they just judge it out right.”
Sound familiar? The trope of the misunderstood artist is, for the most part, justly deserved, and insofar as it rings true in society at large, it is equally pronounced, if not more so, in the Church.
The Church’s relationship with the arts is as old as the Church itself. Creative expression has always been an integral part of worship: the book of Psalms is poetry and music, David danced before the Lord, the Temple in Jerusalem and its fixtures were all works of great artistry. Many of the most famous works of art in Western Civilization were commissioned by the Church, such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which depicts the ubiquitous finger of God touching the finger of Adam. Literature also bares its stamp: Hugo’s Les Misérables and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov draw extensively on Church tradition and Christian spiritual themes.
Yet for all the happy stories of artists working within the Church there are also tales of animosity. Jonathan Swift published his writing under various pen names to avoid persecution. In one of the great ironies of history, many of the works commissioned by the Church during the Renaissance were later condemned by the Church for their depictions of the human body.
So how do we work on this? How do we, who are united in Christ, find a way to navigate this sometimes sticky subject of the Church and the Arts?
Ultimately, the Church’s relationship with the Arts is the relationship between its members. Art is a mode of communication—the artist uses their chosen medium to convey an idea, experience, or emotion. Communication is only valid within the context of the communicator and the one to whom they communicate, ergo, a discussion of the how the Church and the Arts relate is a discussion of how people relate.
The basis of relationship is commonality. We can all relate to other people in some way because we are all human. When we share more exclusive qualities, such as nationality, family, beliefs, profession, or interests, we have an easier time building relationships. When we share fewer traits, we have a more difficult time, and can even be antagonistic.
In the Church we have many points of commonality: faith in Christ, our humanity, sacraments, traditions. We also share basic emotional needs, such as the desire to be accepted, valued, encouraged, understood, and supported. The Body of Christ is designed to provide these very things to its members, and to use them to demonstrate the love of God to those outside.
So where does it all go wrong?
Most artists I know who feel frustrated with the Church’s relationship with the Arts affix the source of this as the Church’s leadership, which is a reasonable assertion to make. Generally speaking (and yes, I am aware that speaking in generalities is dangerous territory), creative-type people and authoritative-type people have contrasts in their personalities. Creative types tend toward less structure, seeking freedom from which their expressions can flow uninhibited. Authority types tend toward more structure, seeking order from which to manage their area of responsibility. Both types are needed. Order without freedom suffocates life under the burden of its structure. Freedom without order descends into anarchy. It is important we understand the complementary nature of these differences, which is God-ordained. When we can look at life from another’s perspective we gain the ability to better relate to them because we have taken it upon ourselves to develop commonality.
In the articles to follow I will attempt to elucidate each of these perspectives to the other party, but I would first like to offer this: Be the one to take the first step.
Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We all bear the responsibility of cultivating healthy community. Each of us have a personal perspective and each of those perspectives is valid because each person has value.
To put it another way: If you want to be understood, seek to understand others. If you want to be encouraged, be encouraging to others. If you want to feel supported, let others feel your support. Jesus didn’t say to treat others how they have treated you, which is reactive, but treat them how you want to be treated, which is proactive.
Pastor, Author, Nerd – Bill Beck serves as the lead pastor at Spring City Fellowship. He is the author of I Needed More and the children’s picture book The Clockwork Man.Bill also owns and operates Endless Press, a small, independent publishing company, and serves as the president of the Spring-Ford Pastors Association. He lives in Spring City, Pennsylvania with his wife, Krisie, their six children, and assorted pets.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org