Over the past couple of years I have been observing a shift in the relationship between arts and the Church. My casual study was turned into concentrated soul searching as a fellow artist was told that his art was no longer relevant to the Church (as a whole). This was extremely hard for him to hear, given the history and heart of this artist. Years of work have been dedicated to sharing the Gospel with the world at large as well as recognizing that everyone, including the Church, has ears with which to listen and a heart to be stirred into response. It has not been an easy road, as many people would prefer, but it has produced growth and driven this artist to deeper faith and belief.
But this idea of relevance and irrelevance to the Church is much deeper and significant than I thought. Is it possible to be obedient to Christ while appearing irrelevant to the Church? Is irrelevance the “suffering” that is sometimes endured in order to gradually move a people to a different place that they would fear to go on their own? Let me try to explain.
Artists are valuable to any society because, as Steve Garber said, “Artists get there first.” They shape the soul of the society. He argues that artists are the “antennae” of society, always sensing where it is going before anyone else. The artist is on the forefront of culture, expressing through various art forms the soul of society. G. K. Chesterton refers to art as the “signature of man.” In his view, art is not “art for the sake of art” … it is instead the tool exclusively used by man to reveal the heart, mind and soul of man. Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish literary historian, once said, “Sing me the songs of a generation and I’ll tell you the soul of the times.” We learn about civilizations—past and present—and history from artists, whether painters, sculptors, writers or musicians. As a result, artists are sometimes praised and sometimes vilified as they present their perspective of the world.
In regards to art and the Church, there is a further difficulty. While its importance has been appreciated over the centuries, art has remained controversial in church history. There are many gray areas that come to the surface as art is incorporated into the worship of God by the Church (in corporate and personal settings). Art has been embraced as well as discarded by the Church at different times. It has been recognized as a tool to help as well as harm, and therein lies the heart of the dilemma and a reminder of the effects of the Fall.
Today, art and the Church are at a critical point in relationship. The Church for the most part has accepted and even pushed to the front a new idea of worship music … incorporating popular music styles with words of praise to God. In some ways this is no different than years past. However, the effect of this relationship has spilled over into the CCM industry and involved business with worship. There is much to say on this point, but I’ll try to remain focused on the issue at hand: How does the relevance of art to the Church relate to the current trends of worship music in the Church?
We have already established the importance of artists and the intricacies of the role of the artist. In this light, I would argue that the Church has in many ways lost sight of the depth and power of the arts and relegated it to a small position within the Church. Its role is no longer to investigate and express the soul, whether darkness or light, joy or sorrow, suffering or peace … its role is to fit within the confines of safety and comfort. It often expresses a view of the world in the context of a pre-Fall world—without neglecting the act of Redemption—while leaving out the difficulties experienced by man after the Fall (the already and not yet in which we live). Another issue is that the artist, in this role, no longer gets there first, but merely walks alongside. The uniqueness and strength of art is stripped away and limited, against the very principal and purpose of art.
Jesus, without taking away any of His other characteristics as part of the Trinity, was an artist. He was a carpenter and a storyteller. He described the world through His eyes, as Creator and Redeemer-to-be. During His life on earth, He definitely “got there first,” shaping the soul of society in His art. However, His art was timeless, shaping the soul of the world of today as well as the world of every age. In this sense, was Jesus always relevant to the Church? Yes, in that He was relevant to the purpose and original foundations—God’s design—of the Church. But He was always irrelevant in some way to the manifestations of the Church in His day, or else He would not have stirred up anger and been crucified. He did not establish a new law, but artistically reminded people of the unchanging law of God in His kingdom. He gave new expressions and shapes of the soul committed to God. His art was radical, even in the eyes of the Church at that time, but only because it removed the layers of unnecessary clothing that had been added to the wardrobe of His bride. In hindsight it is clear that the Church of His day needed His “irrelevance” in order to fulfill His job as an artist, and greater yet, as Redeemer.
The “Christian” artist of today, in any form of art, must follow this example and continue to get there first. In relation to the Gospel story, “there” is usually a return to what has been forgotten and left out rather than a new territory. The world is always changing, searching for the next new idea or thing that can provide fulfillment and happiness. As believers, we know that the Gospel provides a view of the world that transcends any age. The world can try to ignore it, but that does not make the claim of the Gospel untrue. The Gospel is as relevant to the world as it was in the beginning and will be to the end. Relevance must be gauged in line with the Gospel—what we believe—and nothing else. If the Church is not supporting artists committed to this goal, it will only be able to follow the culture, and cease to effect culture. Artists need the Church in order to read the world in light of the Gospel story. But the Church needs artists in order to remain intentional, purposeful and most importantly “in” the world.