A New Members’ Class: Why Christians Should Join the Art Museum (without Leaving the Church)

art, museum, paintings

Several years ago, when our oldest daughter was just three, we visited the Art Institute of Chicago. Our visit to the museum capped off a wonderful summer day that we had spent primarily strolling along the river and through the parks that dot the city’s urban landscape. But for our family, the most memorable event from that day took place inside the art museum.

As we walked through the galleries, we came upon a large, impressive depiction of Christ on the cross: Francisco de Zurbarán’s The Crucifixion (1627). In itself, this is hardly surprising—the crucifixion, of course, has been one of the most prevalent themes in the history of Western painting, to the point that it is nearly ubiquitous in art collections: a kind of museum prerequisite.

In his painting, Zurbarán—whose works feature religious themes and who is sometimes known as the “Spanish Caravaggio” for his use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism—captures the truth of the suffering and death of Christ. Indeed, upon seeing the painting, our daughter pointed and declared, “Boo-boos!” Given this prompt, we took the opportunity to tell her—again—about Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf. It also helped our theological discussion that hanging on the adjoining wall was Francesco Bouneri’s The Resurrection (1619/20), which led her to declare, “He’s alive!” Thank you, to the curator who hung these paintings so close together.

I have found the presence of these kinds of works in art museums to be both strange and wonderful declarations of the gospel in the midst of an artistic world that is sometimes hostile to the good news of Jesus Christ. Sometime after this experience, we decided to become members of the Art Institute.

When speaking of membership, Christians primarily and rightly refer to membership in the one body of Christ, the church—or, perhaps more often, membership in their particular ecclesial tradition or their local congregation. As Paul declares, writing to the church in Rome, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12:5, NRSV)

Of course, as Christians, we are members not just of the church, but of many different groups – families, communities, companies, reading groups, graduating classes, cell phone plans, fantasy football leagues, and many other professional, social, and personal groups. My suggestion is that Christians should also become members of art museums or similar institutions, such as the symphony, the theatre, or the cinema.

There’s no doubt that membership has its privileges, and we have enjoyed some of those benefits (e.g., discounts, member shows, special opening times, members’ lounge access, etc.). But we didn’t join the museum for a lounge; we joined it in order to support the arts, to help provide access to the arts, and so that, on a personal level, our family can engage more regularly with art.

Underwriting this decision is the theological conviction that this is part of our Christian witness because it supports the expression of God-given gifts that testify to God’s grace and goodness whether or not a particular work features religious content or themes. Human artistic creativity points (albeit indirectly) to the divine work of creation, which was brought about through the activity of the triune God—not just the Father alone, but the Son and the Holy Spirit as well. And while creation was the first of God’s works, it is not disconnected from the rest of God’s acts; rather, it is the opening chapter in salvation history. In a sense, then, humanity’s artistic creativity points to the truth of the creating God’s sacrificial and redemptive love revealed in Jesus Christ, and supporting the arts enables the declaration of that witness.

Of course, as we have discovered, things are more complicated than that. Since becoming members of the Art Institute, we have faced several questions.

For example: as both a Christian and a museum member, what should one do if the museum displays a work of art with questionable themes or content, or if it presents something that is explicitly anti-Christian? Such a question may be easy enough for the non-member to answer, who can simply decide not to visit the museum. But it’s a different question for a member, who may decide not to attend a particular show or view a particular gallery, but whose financial contributions would be supporting art that he or she may find offensive in one way or another. Such risks are almost inevitable when one engages with the secular sphere, but I am convinced that Christians are called to be salt and light in all arenas of life, including the art world. When facing such questions, it’s also worth asking whether one agrees with all of the ways that one’s company, church, or family spends money.

This, in turn, brings to mind additional economic factors. Obviously, not everyone can afford a membership to a museum. And there are many other ways that Christians can and should provide financial support to explicitly Christian ministries (e.g., one’s local congregation, both local and global ministries, etc.), and by no means should support of artistic institutions imply an end to this kind of financial support. Navigating such practical questions is but one of the many challenges that all Christians face.

More importantly: however much we might enjoy our membership at an art museum, that membership pales in comparison to the reality of belonging to the church. What unites the members of an art institution is a common appreciation for art, while what unites the members of a church – and, more broadly, the universal church – is a common affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Whether or not we become members of the art museum, the symphony, or the theatre, we should never disregard or reject our membership in the one body of Christ.

But neither should we disregard the ways in which God can reveal the truth of the gospel through art and the ways in which humanity’s artistic creativity points to the creating and redeeming work of the triune God. Support of the arts, both in the church and in the museum, enables the witness of artists to be seen and heard. While not equivalent, these two kinds of membership both have the capacity to further God’s work in the world. As Christians, we should be more excited about attending weekly worship to praise God and hear from God’s Word than we are about the opening of a new art exhibit.

But I’ll see you at the opening, too.

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