When I mean art, I mean specifically the visual arts. I would say it’s pretty obvious that music is highly valued (arguably, often too highly valued) in the global church, but what about art, design, film, illustration and so on? How much do we really believe that art can add value to the Christian experience, and in particular within the context of the church as the gathered body of Christ?
Now, you may think, ‘Well, actually the church has a great history of creating beautiful artwork’, but that’s perhaps the problem, it has a historical, but not necessarily a modern interest in art. We can probably all name at least one piece of artwork that was inspired by the Bible, but in all likelihood it’s a piece of art that was created during the Italian Renaissance, or the Counter Reformation, five hundred years ago. If you asked someone to name a piece of well known Christian art that’s less than ten, even twenty years old, I’m sure most people would draw a complete blank. Even as a Christian creative I know of only a few overtly Christian artists who would say they wish to glorify God in their work.
If you’re not into art, I appreciate it can sometimes feel a bit intimidating, or worthy, or impenetrable, and sometimes just not to your taste, I understand that, but I suspect most of us do enjoy looking at beautiful, or interesting things as I argued in a previous post. If that’s the case then, why do we give it such little consideration in the church?
As protestants, I totally understand why we might have issues with art in church. Thanks to the Reformation, we’re rightly suspicious of anything that might – deliberately or not – encourage us to worship the Lord in a way that is contrary to scripture. It’s quite right that we cut out things that might cause us to fall, or distract us from hearing God speak through his word during a church service, but have we gone too far in the opposite direction, and as a result are we missing out on the power of art to help us experience new depths of the truths that we hear week in and week out?
In the past, visual representations of stories from the Bible were intended to help teach a largely illiterate people to understand the stories they were hearing each week in church. If you could see the things being depicted, I’m sure it would better imprint the story on your mind.
Often this artwork also served as a deeply personal devotional by the artist, one which expressed their faith as they understood it, and helped others do the same.
So what happened? The Reformation, mainly.
Amongst other things, Reformers were fearful of venerating saints or angels as equal or above Jesus, and also concerned that images of him could cause an unhelpful or sinful understanding of his nature, and therefore how he is worshipped. Also, reformers were rightly concerned with how much money was going on these projects (and into the coffers of the Catholic Church), and how little was going to actually helping the poor and needy. As a result, most reformed churches stripped this content from their buildings. While this was going on, the Catholic church went off in the other direction, and as part of the Counter Reformation created some of the most famous works of art of the middle ages.
There were other periods and movements that contributed to this distrust of art in the protestant church (the Puritans, anyone?) but most of the thinking came from the reformation period. Now, far be it from me to contradict the theological powerhouses who influenced this mindset, but I do wonder if in their haste to rid themselves of anything expensive or pretty from the church they threw the baby out with the bath water.
As part of the church that would consider itself reformed, I believe we have inherited a general distrust of art to this day, but am beginning to wonder if we’re missing something by being so wary of it.
I believe that art and creativity in general has a lot to offer to the Christian experience, and wonder if it’s possible to better implement it in our churches to help people experience Christ more deeply.
I’m not saying we rip up the current way of doing things, I believe Scripture encourages us to hear God speak through his Word, and to sing songs together, so I still firmly believe that preaching and singing are to form the main part of our gatherings. However, I do think there is something to be gained by incorporating art and design into our services.
For example, I’m sure most of you will have heard of the Bible Project by now, but a few years back, the church I was part of was starting a new preaching series on Romans, and during the service, before the sermon, played the Bible Project’s video overview of the book. It was mind-blowing, here was a beautifully animated and theologically rich film that helped me better understand the book of Romans and helped me engage more with the sermons I heard from that point onwards.
It was a piece of art (or at the very least a beautiful application of creativity) that helped me grow in my faith.
Obviously, this post expresses largely wishful thinking on my part, and I don’t have all the answers to how we should incorporate art into our services. Again, I also want reiterate I believe there is no replacement for preaching and teaching during a Sunday service, but I believe it’s good to think about other ways we can really help our church members to engage with scripture and the gospel.
With the amazing advances of technology we’re witnessing, there’s surely no reason why we can’t start to incorporate art and design more into our services, even if it’s only in small ways like the example above. Art and Design has the power to help people engage with the stories and sermons they’re hearing like nothing else, to offer context and perspective that fills out the truth of what is being preached to them. Part of the reason we started producing the resources was for this exact reason, to help people to engage with the Bible more, to make it easier to understand themes that run throughout the Old Testament and New Testament and are ultimately fulfilled in Christ. While we’ve only just begun, I hope to create more and more content that makes us go ‘Wow, I never saw that before’.
I believe that we could and should do all that we can in our services to help people engage with what they’re hearing, so that more people see the wonder of the Gospel and end up giving glory to God.