Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Arts and the Church

The Agora recently threw a discussion of the relationship between Arts and the Church - an uncomfortable one at best. The relationship, I mean, not the discussion.

There is a joke amongst musicians in the Christian Contemporary Music world: just how many JPM's (Jesus's Per Minute) does a song's lyric need before a Christian radio station will agree to play it on the air? The joke points not so subtly to a long-standing complaint from Christians involved in the arts, who often feel that local churches demand that 'Christian' art carry obvious evangelical overtones.

Of course, there are complaints that go the other way as well: many in the church fear that the inclusion of contemporary works of art, drama, music, etc. into corporate worship is a form of compromise with the world.

Both complaints have merit. And both complaints are based upon misunderstandings: often churches do not understand either the power or the limitations of art, and so church leaders can sometimes make demands of artists that end up destroying the art; often artists do not understand the nature of the Gospel itself, and so sometimes in their efforts to help Christians engage with culture they can end up compromising the church - and vice versa: often churches to not understand the nature of the Gospel, while artists can underestimate the power and limitations of art. Throw all that into the rojak, and what the Church often gets is sub-standard art preaching a sub-standard gospel. Which comes first, bad art or bad gospel? Sometimes it is hard to tell.

C.S. Lewis was a champion of the idea that there are Stories ('Myths') that transcend storytelling itself. From his perspective as a professor of medieval literature, even a very good poet or writer cannot elevate a two-dimensional story, or a collection of facts; by contrast, a fully realized, 'mythical' story can be told un-poetically or even in synopsis form, and will still seize the heart of the listener. From Lewis' perspective, the Gospel story is the greatest and most complete of all stories, of which other myths only partake in bits and pieces. Once the Church distills the great Story down to a collection of propositional - or pietistic - 'truths' (which may or may not bear any resemblance to reality), it is very difficult for even a very good Christian artist to resurrect the underlying story. But if the Church continues to tell the Gospel story, the propositional truths will remain evident, will become even more so! - and the hearts of those who listen will be captured by the beauty of Christ.

So what we find is a truly symbiotic relationship. Artists - Christians with a gift for storytelling - need the Church to preach the real Story to them, the Story which will elevate their art beyond the merely beautiful, or prophetic, through the mythical to the sublime. And the Church needs Christian artists to imagine and reimagine the great Story for each context and time, so as to elevate truth and theology beyond mere sermonizing to an art form that actually preaches 'the Gospel, in season and out of season' to everyone who will hear.

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