Why the Church Needs Artists
When you think of Christian art, you probably think of things that emphasize the Christian bit more than the art bit. After becoming a Christian, I decided it was probably best to throw out all my Death Cab for Cutie and Wes Anderson collections, swapping in something a bit more sanctified.
Unfortunately, while Christian music/movies have mastered the art of cheesiness, they haven’t mastered the art of… well… art. That’s one reason I was so delightfully surprised by the first season of the online TV show, The Chosen. It wasn’t lame. I didn’t cringe. The actors could act. The dialogue wasn’t flat-footed.
But the sad reality is most Christian art blows. It really shouldn’t, though.
Art and the Bible
First and foremost, the written foundation of our faith is a literary masterpiece.
You don’t have to be a Greek- and Hebrew-reading Bible nerd to recognize that the library of songs, oracles, parables, and letters preserved in the Bible have been treasured as troves of wisdom and inspiration for millions—whether they’re theists or not.
Consider the simplicity of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). On the surface, it’s a story about how we should treat people in need: you really should help them. But peel back one layer by reading the parable in its literary context, and you see its true meaning.
Jesus is speaking to a Jewish lawyer about the law’s command to love neighbors. The lawyer agrees that the law commands this but asks, “Who is my neighbor?” The shocking answer given by the parable is that everyone is your neighbor.
In the story, two respectable Jewish people pass an almost-dead Jew in the streets. They pay him no mind. Then a Samaritan passes by. (Backstory: Jews and Samaritans had a multi-century blood feud between them.)
The Samaritan helps the Jew, binds his wounds, and pays his hospital bills. Jesus asks the lawyer: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?”
The lawyer cannot bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.” So, he answers, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus never explicitly confronts the lawyer for his racial hatred, nor for the narrowness of his charity, nor the stinginess of his justice. Instead, he tells a story, later recorded by Luke, that has confronted ethnic supremacy and selfishness across the world.
In other words, Jesus was a literary artist. He was a storyteller. Those stories created a sanctified imagination with his followers, some of whom—literary luminaries in their own right—recorded those stories to transform us.
Call All Artists!
Jesus was a carpenter. But you will never see a piece of furniture he built.
You have, however, encountered the countless stories and sermons he spent many waking nights crafting, rewriting, and honing until they became suitable vehicles for his controversial, confusing, upside-down announcement of God’s kingdom.
Too often, we imagine Jesus as a singular genius who generated these stories ex nihilo. But we know that’s not the case. A careful study of the Gospels shows that Jesus’s parables have many iterations. In one version of the parable of the talents, a king leaves to be crowned before returning to collect what he left behind. In a different version, he doesn’t. Jesus changed and sharpened his messages over time.
Again, none of this should surprise us. God has always been an artist. Our world is, perhaps, his singular most magnificent piece of art.
But he did not merely create stuff. He created creatures who could reflect his image by creating stuff. The very first person to be explicitly filled with God’s spirit was an artist called Bezalel. The Spirit of God empowered him to do art!
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.”
First, go ahead and add “artistic designs” to your spiritual gift list if it isn’t on there already.
Then ask this question: Why is this the first recorded action of the Holy Spirit in redemptive history?
The tabernacle was designed to be a small-scale reboot of the Garden of Eden. It’s decorated like the garden, including Cherubim, a tree of life, pomegranates, and much more. God was, of course, the one who made that original garden. Now he’s at it again, but this time through the skill and mastery of a human craftsman.
This leads us to draw two surprising conclusions:
- God not only loves art, but he also loves artists.
- God not only loves making art, but he loves making it through artists.
Making the Church a Home for Art
This is why it’s so sad that there is so much lame Christian art. Somehow, we’ve managed to communicate that the church isn’t a place for serious art, so the serious artists vacate for greener pastures.
The truth is that the church should be a Garden of Eden for artists. Their gifts should be celebrated, honed, supported, and encouraged.
The truth is that our most creative souls often find themselves on the outside of church. Their aesthetic sensibilities are treated as peculiarities or unnecessary extravagances. Their creativity is misread as trying too hard to do too much. We churchgoers, with our Philistine tastebuds, cringe at the Davids in our midst (who was described as “the sweet Psalmist of Israel” on his deathbed).
So maybe we deserve the cringeworthy art we’ve gotten?
To see artists flourish in our churches, we must give them space to experiment and be creative. We must willingly enter into their aesthetic sensibilities, allowing our hearts and minds to run along the grain of their creative vision.
Just imagine walking into Bezalel’s tabernacle, nudging your friend about the embroidery, and smirking about how much money he must have spent on that candelabra. Well, that’s the Holy Spirit’s handiwork you’re laughing at. Okay, maybe I’m laughing at it, too, sometimes. But I’ve come to realize that church is no different. It needs artists.
We must love the artists in our midst by valuing space for them and their art in our communities.