Beyond Lines: The Relationship between the Artist and the Church [Part Three]

Martrys' Church - St Andrews (photo by author)

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part series on the relationship between the artist and the church. The first post ran on 2 October and the second post ran on 23 October.

In the second part of this series, Sara Schumacher reminded us that the stories we tell ourselves powerfully shape and inform our understanding of the relationship between the artist and church, concluding with a call to tell a different story, one marked by reconciliation.

This starting place of reconciliation makes sense as it characterizes the very mission of Jesus Christ. Throughout this series we have highlighted various lines (ghost, fault) both real and imagined. The concept of lines—us v. them—runs counter to the gospel and disregards the work of Jesus who made the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one by destroying ‘the dividing wall of hostility’.[1] This same Jesus ‘gave us the ministry of reconciliation’, a ministry which extends (or ought to extend) into the realm of the artist/church relationship.[2] In what follows, I would like to tell a different story to the one commonly told, a personal story, which highlights the beauty possible when artists are seen by the church as valuable members whose sensitivity and insight can serve to enrich the entire community.

Every year, in the lead up to Easter, members of one of my previous churches would begin preparations for perhaps the most productive time of artistic commissioning known to our church: the annual Tenebrae service. Tenebrae, also known as a service of shadows, features the progressive snuffing of a series of candles and takes place on the Friday before Easter. It is designed to allow for reflection on the darkness and abandonment of Christ during and after his crucifixion. In our church, the service was structured around the last ‘words’ or sayings of Christ on the cross. Those words were communicated by way of various forms of artistic expression, and, at the conclusion of each, a candle was extinguished until the sanctuary was enveloped in darkness.

On a number of occasions I had the pleasure of partnering as an actor and lay theologian with two visual artists in our community, a husband and wife team. In 2007 these artists and I were commissioned to artistically communicate the text from Luke 23:39-43 known as the second word, a passage which recounts the repentance of one of the criminals crucified with Christ.

The artists and I met together to plan how we might be able to integrate live painting with a dramatic representation of the criminal who repents. We were not only excited about working creatively within the  constraints of the text and the structure of the service but also encouraged by the sense of security we felt knowing we had been commissioned by church leaders who were for us. This advocacy on the part of the church combined with the artists’ decision to ‘focus mainly on the performance value without much concern for the final image’ helped to cultivate a certain freedom and joy for the three of us.[3] The result of our partnership was the creation of a visually stimulating and emotionally charged work of performance art which, in the words of one of the artists, ‘hopefully elevated the experience of the audience to allow a deeper connection with the events depicted’.[4] From our perspective, the process of working together on this occasion was highly rewarding and led us to want to continue to collaborate in the future, an opportunity we had the following year.

This brief story is only one of many I could tell about positive, grace-filled collaborative encounters between artists and the church, an experience others might also share. However, in churches where such partnership is not happening, are any of the reasons sufficiently powerful enough for us to fail to apply the ministry of reconciliation? In the relationship between the church and the artist, how might we seek to communicate grace both in our interactions and in our art?

 

This post was written by Dave Reinhardt who is pursuing a PhD at the University of St Andrews with a focus on the theological significance of embodied expression.  Dave considers his collaborative work with artists in the church to be some of the most rewarding work he’s done.


[1] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, a division or Good News Publishers, 2001), Eph. 2:14.

[2] Ibid., 2 Cor. 5:18.

[3] Visual artist, email message to author, 23 Oct. 2013.

[4] Ibid.

2 Comments

  • David says:

    In the relationship between the church and the artist, how might we seek to communicate grace both in our interactions and in our art?

    The number one barrier in communication I have observed between art and the church is listening. When an artist approaches a church with their idea/inspired calling to incorporate art into their faith, they must be careful how they frame their idea. If art communicating faith is what God calls us to as creatives, He will open the doors for us. Too many churches I engage with are conditioned to react defensively to new ideas. This results in creatives inspired to share their art being viewed as door to door salesmen who need to be watched rather than important parts of the body of Christ that deserve nourishment.

    In the same way, artists need to be patient with churches who lack understanding about how to view art and hear God through visual stimulation. If we would take time to patiently educate the church in art appreciation, the barriers of communication will begin to crumble.

    Pride and cynicism are cancers to the artist/church relationship. Unfortunately, history pushes us to embrace both in twisted perceptions of self-preservation. Resist the urge and embrace each others’ perspectives instead.

  • Dave Reinhardt says:

    Thanks, David, for highlighting the importance of artists and others in the church trusting God and listening to one another; and for the call for artists to extend grace to those in the church who may be confused or even suspicious about what it is they are hoping to contribute. This approach seems much more fruitful in the long term than simply retreating or harboring resentment. Thanks again for proposing a better way!

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