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Monday, June 17, 2013

Ecclesiology and Art

I have for some time believed two things that flow from my theology of the Church:
Firstly, education, when properly and most appropriately conceived, belongs to the Church. Secondly, the arts, when properly and most appropriately conceived, belong to the Church.

Both of these statements are distillations of long conversations, essays, and arguments with myself over the years, and they certainly need explanation and context. However, these two statements have helped me to develop a practical ecclesiology that is, I believe, consonant with my beliefs about God, humanity, culture, and salvation.

For the sake of this essay I’d like to consider the second of my two axioms: the arts belong to the Church.

What do I mean by “the arts?” Different cultures define art differently, but in general the arts means those categories of things which human beings create. In America we generally divide the arts into three major groups: visual arts, literature, and performance arts. There is much more to the varied and contextualized art forms of a specific culture, but for the sake of this essay let us consider the arts to be those things that human beings intentionally craft and into which they pour their personality and skill.

What do I mean by “belong to the Church?” This phrase has gotten me into trouble; so let me explain it in terms of theology. First, consider that Christianity holds as a fundamental tenet that God, the Father of Jesus Christ, is the Creator of all things, including those things that make us “human.”[1] If God is indeed the originator of the human spirit, then our creative impulse certainly exists as a consequence of our resembling the Creator – a concept Christians call the Imago Dei or Image of God. Our resemblance to God has been corrupted and tarnished through the presence of sin, yet something of that image remains within us. This remnant is that which allows the Church to see every individual human being as an object of worth to God.[2]

The Church, as keeper of Christian theology, therefore views the creative acts of human beings as expressions of the Imago Dei, regardless of how sinfully tainted that expression may be. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most wonderful artistic expressions in history have been produced within the influence of the Church – architecture, music, visual arts all owe a tremendous amount to the Church.[3] Certainly art in all of its forms has existed outside of the Church both temporally and culturally; Christian theology is wide enough, though, to allow for the creative impulse in humanity beyond the reach of evangelism because of the foundational belief that all of us are made in the image of God.

Therefore, Christian theology allows for art in all its great variety and quality to represent the Image of God in humanity. Thus art, when we rightly conceive it, belongs to the Church.

Now to follow-up on my immediately previous post.

I noted in “The Pastor and the Man of Steel” that “Christian” movies strike me as being particularly awful. Examples include “Fireproof,” “Flywheel,” “Courageous,” “The Omega Code[4],” the “Left Behind” franchise, and just about everything produced in the 1960s and ‘70s. I do not mean to insult or denigrate one particular studio or another, but there aren’t that many from which to choose.

Scott Nehring has written a piece for RELEVANT magazine exploring this very issue.[5] I do not wish to plow the same ground, nor do I aim for the same conclusions. Nehring does suggest, though, that the momentum for Christian filmmakers should be the fact that “We have something genuine to offer that secularists can only dream of: Truth. Life in Christ feeds the hungry spirit and gives definition to life. No amount of existential claptrap will ever compete with the nourishing truth of Christ.
If a film claims to be Christian, it was supposedly done for the glory of God, but we do not glorify God by making lousy movies. We need great films.”[6]

Why, I wonder, do we need to declare a film or book or other expression of creativity explicitly “Christian?” Do we use that term to excuse our inauthenticity when we depict life as essentially a series of problems that the sinner’s prayer can solve?

What makes our stereotypical “Christian” expressions of art so bad is that they are just that: inauthentic. They dance around the real issues of life, death, and salvation in the name of some moralistic code that is more impermeable than a Baptist’s wallet. It’s not the production value, the budget, the lighting, or the scripting that makes many of the aforementioned films so unwatchable. It’s the irrelevance of the themes that makes them so bad.

Christian theology is broad enough to find the themes of salvation and redemption in art that is not explicitly or intentionally “Christian.” Further, I believe that the Gospel is powerful enough to withstand evil and sin portrayed in major studio films. We do not need to develop or reinforce an industry that is the “Christian” alternative to Hollywood. We do not need to privatize a culture of Christianity that has “safe” parallels so that our people may become more and more insulated from the reality of just what Jesus Christ came to save. We need poets, playwrights, sculptors, painters, dancers[7], singers, and most certainly preachers who express their Christian convictions in the best of humanity’s art.

We need good art. We need quality in the stories we tell and complexity in the ways we tell them. We need the presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be as relevant to the people hearing it today as it was to those who heard it proclaimed at Pentecost: messy, complex, real. Our art as Christians should reflect the Image of God in all its power and vitality; we should also not shun the essential stories of humanity because they come from a studio on the Left Coast.

All of this, though, hangs on the spiritual maturity of our brothers and sisters. I can hear Paul now, tee-totaling his way through the meat market in hopes of not scandalizing anyone and tarnishing his witness.[8] I also hear him on Mars Hill, reinterpreting the best of art and philosophy of his era to demonstrate how all of it all of it reflects humanity’s need for a savior.[9]

We must go to the greatest of lengths to help our people grow in the Spirit into something approximating spiritual maturity. The idea of a Christian enclave filled with Christian alternatives to the world has largely been exposed as failure. We have lost our ability to stand as a witness that God is the origin and Creator of all humanity, all creative expression, and ad Redeemer of those expressions. The solution is not to give up on the Church; it is to be the Church authentic. The solution is to be so deep into the Spirit that we are prepared in season and out of season to speak a word of Truth to a world that is constantly expressing the image of God in a fallen, sinful state.

The solution is to make disciples rather than movies.

[1] Please hold off on issues related to theophany or the Problem of Evil.
[2] See my previous post, “Thinking About Suicide.”
[3] There are many sources on this topic, so I will refer to only a few. See Seasoltz, R. Kevin, A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Sacred Architecture and Art, New York: Continuum, 2005; Finney, Paul C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; O’Malley, John W. (ed.), Humanity and Divinity in Renaissance and Reformation, New York: Brill, 1993.
[4] I had to include this one and will also take this opportunity to again apologize to Bo Thornhill, Matt Lynch, Ryan Mount, and Mark Carter for convincing them to see it with me in the summer of 1999. My bad.
[6] Ibid.
[7] On a related note, I highly recommend watching the audition episodes of “So You Think You Can Dance” and see just how powerful these people can be in their creative expression with no words.
[8] See 1 Corinthians 8.
[9] See Acts 17.

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