In Part Five we dealt with the history of art in Christianity in a brief sketch. We also made a highly personal analysis of our own experience in the 20th Century church. Now in Part Six, we examine the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.
Defining Christian Art and the Christian Artist
As this century dawns, the church is experiencing its own renaissance; a rebirth of the arts in the house of God. However, before we discuss a structure for the ministry of the creative branch on the Christian family tree, we must discuss the redeemed artist. What does it mean when an artist becomes a Christian?
“Christian Art” and “Christian Artist” are troubling terms for many, myself included, even though I had a group called Carolina Christian Arts for nine years. (I couldn’t resist the alliteration!) Madeleine L’Engle struggles with it as well.
“Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.” (Walking on Water—Reflections on Faith and Art)
But, like me, with my irresistible alliteration, she ends up using the term “Christian artist.”
“I am beginning to see that almost every definition I find for being a Christian is also a definition of being an artist. And a Christian artist? We care about what the children see. We are, ourselves, as little children, and therefore we are vulnerable. We might paraphrase Descartes to read, ‘I hurt; therefore I am.’ And because of the great affirmation of the Incarnation, we may not give in to despair. Nor superstition. …I love; therefore I am vulnerable.” (Walking on Water)
The distinction between the terms makes sense. Defining “Christian art” is most difficult.
- Must it mention Jesus? No.
- Must it have a biblical subject? No.
- Can it be fiction? Yes.
- Must it speak the truth? Yes.
If, as the saying goes, “All truth is God’s truth,” I believe a broad, inclusive definition is needed. Here is mine:
Christian art is that work which expresses truth and/or beauty as seen or understood by the artist as he is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
So, since the artist has the option not to participate in the Holy Spirit’s leading, not everything the Christian artist produces may be called “Christian.” Conversely, some things produced by non-believing artists may, in fact, be “Christian” if they were produced as the artist was unconsciously led and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
However, the term “Christian Artist” is not so flexible. L’Engle’s description is an apt one. This artist is
- committed to Christ,
- informed by the Bible,
- fueled by the fellowship of prayer,
- inspired by the Holy Spirit,
- vulnerable to a hurting world,
- shaped by his responsibility as an artist, and
- dedicated to the advancement of the Kingdom of his Christ.
I would say that is pretty specific.
The Tragic Disconnect
Here is where the tragic disconnect I observed in the church between artists and administrators begins. Many Christian artists fail to connect their creativity to their Christianity. This personal disconnect is magnified when the administrator has to deal with works he may not understand or behavior that seems to him to be, if not un-Christian, at least immature.
The re-connection must begin in the heart of the artist.
Becoming a follower of Christ has always meant un-learning the ways of the world. Each of the arts has developed its own set of pedagogical systems. Since the arts have not been consistently embraced by the church and with more than a century of secularization having now elapsed in Western culture, these teaching/learning systems exist quite outside the Kingdom of God. As we are trained in the schools, entertainment industries, and apprenticeships of this world we learn attitudes about our art, not just fundamentals and techniques of the art. While the fundamentals and techniques may transfer nicely to the church, many of the attitudes are incompatible with or even dangerous in the work of Christian ministry. In fact, “ministry” becomes the key concept. Is my artistic life a career or a ministry? Does my art serve me or do I use it to serve the Lord and others?
Hindrances to the Flow of the Divine
Let me deal with several attitudes that are learned in the world but are deadly in the church: pride, provincialism, ambition, and ungodly anger.
We begin with the greatest problem—pride. Pride is the essence of worldly art and the antithesis of Christian worship—at the same time! These two states of mind could not be farther apart. In the world, pride is taught to us when our art is taught to us.
- I know from experience and training that pride is a cornerstone of music education. As much as it is about learning to sing or play, it is also about first chair, first soprano, and first division ratings.
- Pride permeates professional art as well: the pre-downbeat ritual of the conductor coming out last and shaking the hand of the concertmaster, and “humbly” receiving the adoration of the audience; the backstage wrangling over who gets top billing in theatre and film; the “creative differences” conflicts that sometimes destroy projects and careers.
- In the schools of the world, musicians have learned notation and pitch, and pride.
- Actors have learned inflection, character development, stage presence, and pride.
- Dancers have learned rhythm, strength, control, poise, and pride.
- Writers have learned poetic devices, grammar, character, plot, and pride.
- Painters have learned color, line, perspective, and pride.
Before we feel too superior to those ungodly artists out there in the world, let’s take a look at the church:
- Whose name is above whose in the bulletin?
- Who gets the featured solo in the Christmas musical?
- Who runs the whole worship service from the organ or piano bench?
- Whose vision and personality takes front stage center?
- Who takes up all the service time because “the Holy Spirit took over?”
- Who makes worship leading a weekly report on how the worship leader is making it through life?
- Who consolidates his influence as a worship leader and turns it into a political power base?
- Who constructs the context of the worship culture on his own preferences?
Isn’t Pride also a good thing?
There are godly emotions that are sometimes misnamed as pride.
- Diligence is one. The artist really cares about his art. He works hard and at great lengths of time in isolation practicing his craft. He cares that his name is attached only to worthy objects. This diligence is good, even necessary to one’s development as an artist. But it is sometimes seen as pride.
- Joy is another emotion that can be misunderstood. I have seen artists sitting and looking at sets they have designed and painted. I know the look on their faces to be joy, but others might interpret it as pride. The same is true for the first division band or choir director or the academy award winner or the author signing books at a bookstore. This joy is so much a part of the image of God in us that we even see it at the end of each day of creation when God said, “It is good!”
What is the difference between caring so deeply about our art or taking profound joy in it and sinful pride? Earlier we said much about the Gifts of the Spirit. Now it is time to talk about the Fruit of the Spirit.
Galations 5:22-23 NLT
“But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
It has been well said that these attributes are aspects of the personality of Jesus. In other words, the Christian artist must be like Jesus.
- Talent does not justify un-Christian behavior.
- Pride is not found in the list.
In fact, one word summarizes all these wonderful words: humility. We are all told to imitate Christ in His humility. (Philippians 2: 5-11)
- Pride is the antithesis of worship; humility is the essence of worship.
- Pride is self-centered; humility is Christ-centered.
- Pride is career-oriented; humility is ministry-oriented.
- Pride is pushy and impatient; humility is kind and patient.
- Pride is pragmatic; humility is principled.
- Pride deflects the ministry of the Holy Spirit; humility draws it into the heart.
If the Christian artist of the twenty-first century wishes to walk that wonderful, spirit-led pathway that leads from one fore-ordained work to another, (Eph 2:10) then he needs to root out pride and cultivate humility. The difference between the two is night and day, dark and light, God’s opposition and His assistance.
1 Peter 5:5-7 NLT
“And all of you, serve each other in humility, for ‘God sets himself against the proud, but he shows favor to the humble.’ So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God,
and in his good time he will honor you.”
There is still one more thing about pride that makes it deadly to Christian art and keeps the proud artist from being useful to the Holy Spirit. The specific ministries of the Holy Spirit are summed up in these three things:
- to exalt the Lord Jesus, (John 14:26;15:26-27; 16:8-15)
- to edify the church, (I Corinthians 14:26) and
- to lead our worship in fitting and orderly ways. (I Corinthians 14:40)
When these are the purposes of the artist: to exalt the Lord, to bless the church, and to present appropriate and well-ordered art, then that artist is useful to the Holy Spirit.
If the artist is exalting himself, actualizing himself, and gives no thought to his effect on others, he is at definite cross-purposes with the Holy Spirit. The only purpose of the Holy Spirit in that artist’s work is conviction of sin in the heart of the artist himself.
Featured Image by Sergey Zolkin
This post was written by Collective Member Stephen Phifer. Full of passion for Jesus Christ, Stephen Phifer is a third-generation minister with more than three decades of experience as a pastoral artist, worship leader, and conductor. To read more of his pieces, be sure to check out his profile on Kingdom Winds here!