Saturday, September 11, 2010

quick reflection re: "Christian" art

We spent last night with a group of aspiring artists, trying out our work on each other in a kind of lab environment (which, thankfully, includes coffee and banana bars).  The event is called 8 minutes max, a place for artists to try out their new work on an audience that is for them.  Each participant has 8 minutes or less to sing a part of a new song, read an excerpt from recent writings, show their recent attempts in clay or paint or photography.  You get the idea.   The audience provides feedback, asks questions, gives out encouragement.  It's a wonderful event, really.  We're grateful once again for the mentoring of other ministries.  In this case Hope Chapel in Austin, TX (formerly home to arts pastor David Taylor and now under the care of Brie Walker Tschoepe)

One of the side benefits I'm beginning to see is a real-time environment to sharpen our critical thinking skills about art, faith and community.  Last night, one of the songwriters called out mid-lyric "This doesn't have to be a Christian song, does it?"  We laughed because it was intended to be a rhetorical question.  Really, though, what better forum for throwing the question around:  Is there such a thing as Christian art?

With only a few moments to give between presentations, I invited us to take the question seriously.  It was a bit of a pinball approach to a complex question deserving more like a symposium or graduate-level class.  But, the context was prime for the conversation.  

Overall, I was pleased with the responses:
  • Art is a thing, therefore it can not be "christian" or "non-Christian" (like our friend D.T. says, "show me a Christian banana").
  • The artist can be "Christian" or "non-Christian".
  • Having established that, can a work of art reflect the Creator regardless of the artist's intention?  Yes.  Every good gift comes from above.  All truth is God's truth, etc.
  • Once a work of art leaves the hands of it's creator, there is the whole arena of the art-"receiver's" perceptions/worldview. In other words, in making meaning of a piece of art, the person appreciating the work attaches his or her own faith lens to the work, allowing for many levels of perception.
  • When it comes to a Christian's intent to draw attention to the Triune God through his art, he is better served to follow Aristotle's values triad of truth, goodness and beauty.  As artists and as Christians we make choices to tell the truth or avoid the truth, to reflect or ignore goodness in all its abundance or lack, to discipline our work toward beauty or rest on the laurels of the cliche. The searching world will be drawn toward truth, goodness and beauty far more than toward a "Christian" label slapped onto a product.
What I wish I'd added was the element of Christian content in a work of art.  In other words, the work itself can not be "saved" but the content of the work can reflect the truths and principles found in a Christian worldview.  In this case, it was possible the songwriter's question about a Christian song could have been answered with a plausible criteria.  There might, in fact, be a time and place that we gather around works of art that are solely Christian in their content.  Sunday mornings are a good example of this.  The art we employ in our corporate worship are almost exclusively "Christian" in that they are crafted for the sole purpose of rehearsing biblical and historical views from the Church.  Another way to define this work could be "liturgical art".  Art made by the Church for the Church with the purpose of facilitating and training in biblical and historical worship

Off-the-top-of-my-head examples of liturgical art:
  • contemporary examples of liturgical visual art
  • David Taylor has been writing some great posts to encourage and challenge "liturgical songwriters" (a term he's coined and I think it's a good one).  Also, his book For the Beauty of the Church includes excellent chapters engaging a Christian worldview for the arts.

1.  Stained glass window inside one of the chapels in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC
2.  Sculpture outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC
3.  Brian Moss (a Christian fulfilling his avocation as an artist writing music for the purpose of corporate worship) and Jason Harrod (a Christian fulfilling his avocation as an artist writing music to tell stories of truth, goodness and beauty for anyone who wants to listen)
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