Why Churches Need Artists
February 11th, 2020 | 19 min read
By Micah Harris
My church is accustomed to download a work of art corresponding to the sermon or the liturgical season and to print it on the bulletin. (This is something I love.) But, recently, we “discovered” a painter who had lived for years in our midst. We asked her if she would paint the art for the bulletin and, for a season, she painted a series corresponding to our sermons—which she had been hungry to do.
This raised a startling, obvious question that we had ignored until then. We no longer asked why the church needs art, or why it needs more art. (Don’t we have more than we can use already?) We began to ask: why do we, as a church, need artists?
Lest our discussion founder over some unstated slippage between different conceptions of “art,” let us anchor it, for our own purposes, by restoring a related word to its original splendor. Perhaps, after all, it is amateurs we need.
This, then from a cookbook which doubles as a most excellent work of theology, The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Farrar Capon.
Amateur and nonprofessional are not synonyms. The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers—amateurs—it can get . . . The Amateur—the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness a sin and boredom a heresy—is just the man you need. More than that, whether you think you need him or not, he is a man who is bound, by his love, to speak.
This splendid example, taken from the modest art of “cookery,” spans the sacred and the secular—caring nothing for such a distinction. It implies the loveliness of friends and family sat down to a good stew on a winter’s eve and, for those with the eye and the stomach for it, a cruelty that preceded it: a lamb cut in the throat then hacked at the joints with a cleaver and its muscles seared relentlessly against a hot iron until it was made suitable for our table. (We must quit telling our artists to show us one half of this without the other. For they are both true.)
When I speak of the artist, I am speaking of the amateur, in this sense. The one who loves, who thinks heedlessness a sin, and who is bound, by his love, to speak.
The amateur insists that the world should be seen and that we, its people, should look! Whether we speak of a wedding day—when the beloved appears at his finest—or of a body ravaged from cancer and chemo, it is the lover who looks. She does not avert her eyes from the splendor or the horror. The amateur sees. She hears. And she insists that we join her in looking upon the world we have and that we must love (or despair of life itself).
Why such attention to smudging away the line between art and craft? Why this blurring and blending of them in the person of the amateur? It is this: I fear that, in our churches, we have created a dead space between the craftsmen who paint the walls of our buildings—or decorate with ribbons for a wedding or strum a guitar—and the artists who carve a pieta or write the chorales for our Easter services.
This hard, middle place is one every artist must cross or where she must learn to live if she hopes to continue as an artist. At present, in our churches, the crossing is more rigorous than it needs to be. It offers few places to work, rest, and be loved. I have attempted such a crossing. And I found other beleaguered travelers along the way, seen only to each other and sensing that they may only become visible, as artists, to their larger community by making a nuisance of themselves.
We all have wounds, our churches seemed to say, but why do these people have to wear their wounds in the open? (Because there is something unseemly about any very honest art. Don’t we even give our nailed Christ a false scrap of clothing?)
Having demonstrated such facility with definitions, let us now define “church.” (What do I mean when I say, “the church needs artists”?) I mean this in both senses—narrow and broad. I mean both that our local congregations and the worldwide body of Christians suffer, today, for the lack of artists engaged in our midst. To narrow the focus slightly, I will speak loosely to a constellation of American, Protestant traditions because these are my people. I live and work among them.
We Protestants come from pragmatic people. In art, many of us are known for a kind of commercialized kitsch of the Thomas Kincaid, Precious Moments, and effeminate-Sunday-school-portrait-of-Jesus variety. We are wary of anything sensory lest it slide toward the sensual, the sensuous, and the sexual. We are wary of creating aesthetic objects that will become, in some direct sense, the objects of our worship. These twin fears of sex and of idols—expressed in a pseudo Pauline wariness of “the flesh”—combine with an overwhelming sense that virtue can be entirely defined as honesty, hard work, self denial, and deferred gratification. We call our response “redeeming the time” (because the days are evil). Under the influence of this brew, we are afraid to worship and to rejoice as we were created: as sensory, embodied creatures. We are afraid to see or feel so much of what is true, expansive, joyful, dark, and dangerous in ourselves as fallen humans created in the image of God.
We Protestants, as our great strength and our great weakness, are the first religious tradition premised on universal literacy. We are people of the book and, as such, we have largely dispensed with the visual, musical, and performance forms—the traditions and reenactments—the church used for the 1500 years before the first Protestant to tell its stories. Painting, carving, icons, architecture, drama. How else would the illiterate remember and tell the stories of their faith, except to make a giant flannelgraph of the world? (A flannelgraph—which, even as protestants, we still use in miniature for the pre-literate among us.)
But now we are people of words. And, as modern Americans, we are people of logic, propositions, and arguments. I have no objection to these forms. (I am an author and a protestant after all.) They are useful and pragmatic. But our words have behaved invasively among the other arts and, for this, I fault them.
Words never quite contain a thing and, without humility, they reduce whatever they touch. They define, name, and then go home for lunch, having disposed of the mystery in one matter or another. Even words, at their best, must deal in images and must carry music in their rhythm—an element of mystery, joy, or sadness implied in the lilt of a voice that would read them aloud. (We often speak of the “music of the language” or of “rich imagery” when we praise a novel or a poem.) If our words are to stop their invasion—to retreat from it and leave silences where the ancient flora can spread their tendrils again, in peace, they must adopt the humility of a literary art that knows its kinship and its reliance on the scenery, the music, and the performance of the other arts. Only by such means will we stop starving our artists and water a place for them to grow.
This is rough treatment for my community of course and, in some fairness, I would observe that, even now, all has not been lost. Even when so much of church is commercialized, we have retained the idea that our music should be led by musicians who are present with us in worship. We feel the impoverishment that would come from relying on recorded music, however rich or creative that music could be. Communion comes with responding to the voice of someone we know and with encouraging young musicians to grow up among us to take on this work. And, yet, nearly everything visual or literary, to the extent we still value them in our places of worship, has been commercialized. Our young people do not see, as they do with music and with preaching, that they must learn to paint, write, carve, act, dance, and blow glass or they will leave their church—and, indeed, the world—impoverished from the one they inherited.
So we asked a member of our congregation to paint and, for the next several Sundays, we saw that someone in our community had loved us and loved the day’s scripture enough to paint it for us. The resulting art, in my clumsy opinion, was usually splendid and occasionally not. And, in both cases, it did my heart and the hearts of our community good to know that someone in our midst had pondered the truths of our sermon passage and taxed her skill to show us something of it that would not fit into words (because these truths are worth that kind of cost). And she left artifacts that could be placed in our hallways and meeting spaces as a reminder of good, strong sermons that would have otherwise faded into the haze of sermons past—never to be recalled.
My church also has a craftsman who carves crosses. And you may well ask: after so long, do we not have enough crosses? I do not know, nor do I care. I would gladly slip all our crosses into the darkest ocean if the question ever needed an answer. Because our church needs its cross-maker. He designs a cross—usually from a rare piece of wood that shows some trauma in the tree’s growth—to go over this mantle or in that children’s chapel or to be worn over our rector’s robe during such-and-such season of mourning or dancing. In this, we have loved him and he has loved us. And both of us have slowed ourselves to ponder again the symbol of our faith.
I have come this far while giving only the briefest sketch of why, as a church, we need our artists. Let us now go to the core of the matter and observe that, without them, we fall prey to a defining illness of our time. We, as modern Americans, are a people who want the product without the producer. We expect milk without the cow, fruit without the tree. We want meat without the killing. We want art without the artist.
At its root, the problem is one of failing to love another person. The problem is one of failing to receive a gift, developed and offered with such care and at such a cost. (Why are so many sermons preached on the gift of giving and so few on the gift of receiving?)
In loving the great art of any great artist, we leave them alone in the long years of trying before anything worked. We avoid suffering through the bad art that serves as a prelude to good art, offering our artists only the cruelty of performance-based love. In some way, any good artist must live and work through this long loneliness. But must we leave them so friendless and unknown in it?
Few things are more bleak for the contemporary artist than to hear the question (which presumes its own answer): why would I read a modern book, look at a modern painting, or listen to modern music when I can find such riches from the past? Why bother with you and your new stuff when I can borrow great art from a museum or import it from a reclusive celebrity, with a proper mystique hovering about him, or from the production of some handful of superchurches somewhere? Why cultivate a relationship with a real woman (I speak here as a man) when I can find one so shapely, coy, and available on my screen—one who will not bother me, between times, with all the troublesome stuff of being human?
This way of being comes at a heavy cost for it passes over the richness of communion with some of our most perceptive people—of sitting near them while they strive for an exacting kind of excellence—showing the price worth paying to see and to handle something well. Striving to glimpse a truth and to shape the materials of our world in such a way that we too may glimpse it. As artists, we are afraid to ask but we long for you to see us and guard our work as something precious that the economic, linear, logical forces of our world would so easily sweep away.
The church, at its best, loves its artists because it is good to love someone and something like that and because artists remind us of that for the sake of which all the economies, armies, nations, and machinery of our world exists.
Artists need us relentlessly saying to them, yes! But no! You have more and better than this! And I will not let you go until you have done it for us! Because your art is necessary for us to remain fully alive!
The artist is the treasure. Their art spills over from our care for them and their care for us. Knowing this relieves us from the fear that we will find their art incomprehensible. So what? We love the person over the product. And artistic temperaments are among the temperaments of the people God has given us to love.
It expands a soul to learn to see and love the thing a fellow human has to offer, less because you love the thing and more because you love her. Artists tend to be the maddening sort of people who say: get to know me and let me remain an enigma. They are hard to love and this is why such riches—such growth—can be had in doing it well. It is also why we tend to pass them over for someone easier.
We learn to love an artist precisely because we do not comprehend the art. Because we need people among us who reach for what we cannot yet see—model observers and model listeners who can overcome our dullness in looking out upon our world.
After all, cultivating the voice and cultivating the ear are not so distinct as we suppose. To become a skilled writer demands that you must first become a skilled reader. Without artists working among us and speaking with us, the Great Works wither in our hands. We have no one who can see them well. We need a living Beethoven to show us a dead Mozart—to keep Mozart alive for us after he is gone.
We cultivate creators so they will see the Creation. And we press for excellence because man at the height of his skill gives glory to God. For he is a small god—which is to say, a shadow or an image of God in which, at the height of his art, the color and shape of the original almost show for a moment.
To quote Capon again: “Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God’s image for nothing.”
* * *
As a church, why do we not water this middle desert, nurture its inhabitants, and let them be seen? We need them for many reasons, not least because they serve as listeners and translators so that people on either side of this desert will no longer be quite alien to each other (much the way the millions of men who played amateur, high school football form the core of our culture’s love for professional football). We need those amateurs among us who can model good listening—showing the rest of us how to let our best creators’ works be seen and heard, loved, grieved, and restored.
Was the man who carved the gargoyles at Notre Dame an artist or a craftsman or did he live in the middle, between these two? I neither know nor care. But we seldom find that man in our churches now and we need him. Because our love is too small when we do not have that man to love.
But there is a way in which retaining artists in our midst becomes more powerful, painful, and urgent even than that. Years ago I sat, though I didn’t know it then, on the brink of many years of agnosticism. It was then that I read a quote I cannot find—one that has been paraphrased beyond searchability in my mind. Someone counseled me to make a habit of listening to others so that, if I ever grew dull in listening to God, He could still reach me through the voices of His people. To quote Karl Vaters, in his Christianity Today article, Why The Church Needs Artists More than Managers Right Now, “Artists don’t give us what we want. They show us something we didn’t even know we needed.” (The whole article is excellent and I commend it to you.)
There are reasons—a mix of good and bad, probably—that we hide from our artists. Artists can be cruel. They do not have a terribly good record of carrying themselves carefully—of speaking responsibly to their people. And, yet, pain should be taken as no proof that the thing said is not good or necessary.
Artists tend to be the keepers of our story. And they resist telling only the Authorized Story. In an unhealthy community, this leaves them to tell a counter-narrative from the outside; they find their community too small for certain truths. (Because they do feel compelled to speak—and to speak the truth as they are able to see it and not merely as they are told to see it.)
If they were to tell our whole story, would it not read like the Bible, with heroes who are catastrophically flawed, their glory and their flaws both laid bare? We respect this in the Bible but when such telling concerns our own people—our leaders and friends—who can bear it?
I believe artists are the nearest we have to prophets in our midst so is it any wonder that we prefer to keep their eyes trained outward—critiquing “the culture” or, within the church, focusing their energy on telling the stories of Christmas and Easter? It is quite comfortable to have them tell of Israel’s failings and God’s faithfulness—of Herod, the Pharisees, Pilate, and the Jewish power structure that could not stomach Jesus. We leave them to tell of how Israel stoned its prophets but do we not quietly hold a stone in reserve lest they direct their gaze back to us?
The church needs artists for the same reasons any really vital community needs them. To remember. To sustain an honest, critical voice from within—a critique from love, rather than the outside criticism of hatred and destruction. I believe the strength of a community can be seen in how it relates to its prophets. Are we able to love people who deliberately cause us pain?
And, yet, there is something pastoral in good artists. Something that thinks well and long about you—your joy and your pain—and speaks to that thing. There is something that makes me hesitate to force my pain on you merely because I hurt. Something that makes me pause for a moment after finding a thing that is true and makes me ask: is it good? And is it well spoken? It is the hesitation of a parent who corrects his child—however firmly—but first asks: am I venting my own hurt or am I caring for my child? Is this correction shaping him to carry his best self—however corrupted—in a hard world?
For a thing to be true and powerful is not enough. As artists we are responsible, as much as lies within us, that the truth should be a truth spoken unto life. (We have rich examples of this in the Biblical prophets.) Good art has a strange quality of being necessary. It stops being a frill that beautifies the implements of life and it becomes a thing without which we would not understand ourselves. And it becomes a thing that cannot be done for us by an artist from another place and time. (We need living artists in the same way we need living saints. Because St. Teresa will not hug you and cook you dinner while you grieve the loss of a friend. For this, you need a saint who still lives in the body.)
And it is there—in asking that truth, whatever it may be, should be spoken only unto life—that you have the skeleton of a deal between artists and their people—forming a community that knows how to be vulnerable in a rich way. I must ask you to speak the things that I do not know to ask for. And you must speak them—dark and wonderful—in a way that leads to life. If they must injure, so be it. But make it the injury of a surgeon. Wounded surgeons wounding unto life rather than wounded bullies visiting their pain on the weak and creating a new generation of bullies.
All this with grace for honest attempts, however clumsily done. Because, if we will only listen when people speak perfectly, we will miss all the flawed mouthpieces, speaking—and marring—God’s truth. (Because they must speak it. And, being human, they cannot but mar it in the speaking.)
So far, I have spoken mostly of religious art—of paintings for a sermon series, of crosses carved for the church, and of artists speaking truths to the church. And that is all very well, but what of all those secular arts with their frivolity, darkness, sacrilege, heresy, sexual innuendo, wearisome appropriation and mockery of religious symbols, and what-the-heck-does-that-have-to-do-with-God-or-righteous-living content?
Here we must confront the Church’s fraught relationship with beauty and its impulse to direct its artists only to what is beautiful or reverent. To show the dinner without the blood. To skip lightly over the corruption in our world and dwell on its redemption (and, above all, to demand that every work should end with redemption). To dwell less on what is and more on what can be. To place God, by name, in every story.
It is here, with this impulse, that we harm both our artists and the truth. Because, to make someone or something visible is good even when we cannot recognize it now as beautiful or as godly. Your artist may simply portray a thing that is corrupt and wrong. She may portray an unhealing wound.
But there is a reason for this. Restoration is not possible for ruins you do not understand. The answer loses its power when you have not dwelt long on a bitter question. And there are many lies more fruitful in the pondering than a truth. I do not know how bankers study to recognize counterfeit currency. But I do know that I see health most vividly when I am sick.
The righteous man really does study the mind of the sinner. For it is his own mind in shadow and, in an alternate reality, he still carries it in parallel with his redeemed self. The mountain climber is intimate with the valleys and he does not put a mountain in every picture. Because he knows that there is more time and pain in the struggle than there is in sitting on the summit. And the summit is cheap if easily gained. A frank portrait of our world will require many stories with no apparent redemption.
To quote Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 letter to artists, “Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but ‘fully reveals man to man.’” I believe this revealing of man to man is a work of Christ even when not branded with his name—even when it is done by someone who does not know herself to be made in God’s image. If I did not believe this, I would be neither an artist nor a lover of them.
An artist understands that there are many different art forms for telling different kinds of truth. And she seeks forms for the truths that are ripe to be spoken but that cannot be spoken in the form of a worship service, or a Sunday school, or a Bible study, or testimony time at church—truths that cannot be spoken while wearing a tie, a flower-print dress, or pearls.
A church that will not speak these truths or listen for them is a church that is smaller than life—one that leaves too much life to be lived beyond its scope, where its voice cannot reach (for the church’s voice seldom reaches farther into the culture than its ears can hear).
In loving our artists, we experience something urgent about ourselves that cannot be had in any other way—something that feeds a peculiar hunger for relationships, for truth, and for honesty that is the characteristic privation of our time and our place. And, in loving them, we nurture the vulnerable—often pain-ridden and heterodox—members of our body.
There are a number of writings on the role of art in our lives and in our churches. These talk about non-rational ways of knowing, the value of contemplation, the importance of bringing all our senses to worship, art’s uses in evangelism or in healing from trauma, theology of art—creators mimicking the Creator—and so forth. Several are quite good.
Several others are bad; confining, stigmatizing, or instrumentalizing art; offering dire warnings about the corrupt influences in various “secular” arts and condemning them for their characteristic despair. All these, I believe, participate in the troubling process of alienating artists and producing only saccharine or didactic “bad Christian art.” There are many other articles bemoaning that Christian art is bad (or defending it from the charge) and lecturing the church about its need to more-or-less “do art” to the wider culture.
In the middle of all these—and in this essay too—is left the question of how? How do we go about cultivating our artists? I have found scant content that is very good for answering this. A number of Christian arts societies have cropped up and made some attempt but they tend to talk about art rather than making art or making artists. This is understandable. Good artists are, after all, birthed through pain, from long endurance, and after long gestation. But I will offer this article as a starting point and commend Image magazine or Christians in the Visual Arts as places to watch and associate with others who are exploring the question.