On Maundy Thursday I opened a community art exhibition initiated and hosted by Bairnsdale Uniting Church. The theme to which local artists were invited to respond was ‘spirituality in everyday life’ which drew excellent contributions from sculptors, photographers, painters, quilters, woodworkers, banner-makers and more.
It is encouraging that more and more churches are rediscovering the place of the arts in the life of faith. It is fair to say the relationship between Christianity and the arts is deeply mixed. Christian faith has inspired sublime artistic response in a wide variety of arts – music, the visual arts, drama, liturgy, poetry and so on.
But sadly, in Protestantism in particular, with the exception of music (and even here I think of the ‘wee frees’ objection to musical accompaniment to singing in worship), there has often been indifference, even hostility towards the arts. This is reflected in the austere architecture and furnishings of many Protestant churches where visual adornments are minimised in order to focus attention on the Word.
The Welsh Anglican clergyman and poet RS Thomas, wrote:
Protestantism – the adroit castrator
Of art; the bitter negation
Of song and dance and the heart’s innocent joy –
You have botched our flesh and left us only the soul’s
Terrible impotence in a warm world.
My clearest memory of the advent of the Uniting Church in 1977 was the arrival of colour into church. Overnight, Ministers no longer wore black Geneva gowns but sported white robes garlanded with coloured stoles. My mother, a dancer in her professional life, started strutting her stuff in the sanctuary of our post-Presbyterian congregation. Members of the congregation were nearly as shocked as her children! Mum subsequently danced at the baptisms of our children. Recently, in her ninth decade, she resumed this ministry, with some others, in her local congregation.
I remember my first visit to a Baptist monastic community near Geelong. I was struck by the amount of artwork in their worship place, the enormous investment of creativity and care that they invested in the aesthetics of the worship space in its construction and furnishing. In the statement of their core values ‘beauty’ was high on the list. That was confronting but deeply evocative for one raised with an essentially puritan sensibility towards the arts.
This ambivalence towards beauty and the arts reflects various influential themes in the Judeo-Christian traditions.
The monotheistic revolution introduced by Judaism brought with it heightened sensitivity to the danger of confusing created things with the Creator – ‘idolatry’ was regarded as the great sin. Episodes of destruction of religious art (iconoclasm) have dotted church history. The monotheistic fascination tends to be less with nature and its beauties than with human beings, the future of the ‘elect’ and what is in store for them. To be sure, the arts have survived even in this theological environment; but often the Church has left the arts to one side, not regarding them as elements essential to Christian piety.
Further, most streams of Christianity carry an ascetic (as opposed to aesthetic), pleasure-denying dimension that tends to suppress beauty and cultivates fear of desire.
Those rare theologians who have reflected on beauty relate it to the very nature of God. The Christian idea of beauty emerges from the understanding of God, the holy Trinity, as a community of love whose life is one of shared joy, regard, delight and fellowship. Creation bears the marks of beauty of its Maker: God saw that which God made and declared it good. And the doctrine of the Incarnation surely challenges dualistic and ascetic dimensions of Christianity by affirming God’s commitment to that which God has made: ‘Good is the flesh that the Word has become’ (Brian Wren)
The divine image in human beings is reflected, among other ways, in the creativity of human beings. ‘Beauty is intrinsic to the life of faith because it is a feature of the divine image which has been distorted by sin and restored by redemption.’ (Darley). Could we think of salvation as the restoration of the human image in Christ, the recovery, perhaps, of an original beauty?
Beauty is not something we consume but must ponder, receive and allow to shape us. Artists are communicators of truth, conveying messages and meaning.
Churches need to find ways to give the arts space to do their own work as they engage with testimony of scripture and with the wealth of Christian tradition in order to ‘hear a music that you would never have known to listen for’ (Seamus Heaney). Our churches can benefit from the extraordinary integrative power of the arts, their ability to reunite the intellect with the other facets of our human make-up – our bodies, our wills, our emotional life.
As western churches face the enormous challenge of how the faith ‘once delivered’ is going to be shared in a society increasingly alienated from the institutional church and increasingly ignorant about the Christian faith, to neglect the arts’ potential to convey the beauty of God and the gospel, and to affirm God’s gift of creativity, would be curious, perhaps irresponsible.