Christianity and the arts

Several recent essays remind us of the importance of the arts for religious faith and practice.

First, Richard Hays asks, “Why should we care about the arts?” He cites four reasons:

  1. “There is no escaping the arts. They create the imaginative symbolic world in which we live and move; we are constantly surrounded by images, music and stories.”
  2. Worship is nothing else than shaping beliefs and practices into artistic forms and more people (60% of the American population) hear live music in worship than in any other setting.
  3. Participation in artistic performances is useful instruction in faithful discipleship.
  4. Created in the image of a creative God, we are by nature fashioners of images and stories and it is through creativity that we make our selves more fully into God’s image.

I was reminded of the role of the arts in worship this past Sunday while attending services at the church in which I grew up. In many ways, the space is a generic Protestant church–there are no images in the stained glass or on the walls; the ceiling, pews, and front of the church are all plain. What differs from my youth is the presence of instruments in the church–a piano and drum set. But this past Sunday, the hymns were sung in four-part harmony as they were when I was a member. All of them were familiar to me and I was struck by the way in which this unaccompanied, four-part singing had been and perhaps continues to be, an important means for creating and shaping community. As one member shared a story that had to do with singing, I became aware of something else, too: through singing, members also take on particular roles in the community.

A conversation reflecting on the differences between Christian (in this case, specifically Thomas Kincaide) and Modern art poses similar questions. It seems that although most modern artists whose work hangs in great museums are not Christian, or even religious in any conventional sense, but nonetheless, many found that ideas or experiences of the transcendent were central to their work:

Artists who don’t have an orthodox Christian bone in their bodies are making paintings that they’re intending, even in subconscious ways, to function in this very specific, sacred, and you could say a secular-Christian, environment.

One of the conversation partners, Curtis Chang, observed that

When I visited the modern art wing recently, it struck me that there was far more silence and contemplation there than I’ve found at any church service …

Rob Goodman reflects on the differences between bad and good religious art in the course of a discussion of Terence Malick:

But I don’t want to be so hard on Malick’s failed comforter: there’s painfully little any of us can say to grief, or to any of the other human needs that inspire religious feeling. And I think it’s an inability or unwillingness to recognize that fact that is the deeper mistake of bad religious art: it wants to argue us into faith. It won’t rest without a moral, a message, a lesson to take home. But religious persuasion can’t work that way—because religious thought doesn’t work that way.

When we reach for our most fundamental beliefs—whether these are beliefs about a deity, or politics, or family—we aren’t likely to find words there. We’re much more likely to find images, metaphors, memories, half-felt impressions. We’re likely to find, that is, something far more slippery, more vague, more illogical than discursive argument. Words come afterwards—but the fact that they so often rest on a foundation of images goes a long way to explain why the most seemingly persuasive arguments fail so often: why we seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs; why we ignore evidence that does not; why being caught in contradictions often makes us hold on to them even tighter. Arguments rarely touch our central beliefs where they live, and the most perceptive religious thinkers understand this.

I think that’s one of the appeals of beautifully-executed Episcopal liturgy, words that are themselves beautiful, spoken or sung beautifully in a lovely space, all of which connects deeply to images and feelings within ourselves. Oh, it’s not for everyone, of course, but for those who seek beauty in life, may find beauty, and the sacred, in our worship.

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