Fault Lines: The Relationship between the Artist and the Church [Part Two]

Martrys' Church - St Andrews (photo by author)

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on the relationship between the artist and the church. The first post ran on 2 October and the final post will run on 30 October.

In the first part of this series, Dave Reinhardt raised the issue of the scars, the ‘ghost lines’, that marked the sometimes painful relationship between the artist and the church. In this post, I want to pick up where Dave left off and consider how we have come to understand what this relationship is through the stories we tell ourselves about the way things are.

In Part II of The New Testament and the People of God, NT Wright compellingly writes about the place of story in human life; stories ‘provide a vital framework for experiencing the world’ because they characterize the worldview we use to perceive reality.[1] Thus, stories have power for they shape how we interpret subsequent life experiences.[2] While Wright applies this to the study of the New Testament, I want to apply it to the story of the artist and the church. What is the overarching ‘story’ being told as we – artists, church leaders, theologians – navigate this intersection of theology and the arts? How is this forming and shaping how the artist and church understands its relationship to the other?

As I’ve read for my research on art in the church, I’ve noticed a recurring narrative present in the [mostly Protestant evangelical] discussion that confirms the painful relationship that Dave suggested in Part One. To this end, here are some quotations (with their dates of publication):

1978: “The problems of Christian artists are often greater because…they often lack the support of their own community—their church and family. To them artists seem to be radicals or idle no-gooders. They are branded as being on the wrong track even from the start.”[3]

1981: “The church’s attitude toward the arts, the narrow-mindedness of it, the demand for slogans and justification, the utilitarianism, the programs, the guilt-ridden view of all life is unchristian, unbiblical, ungodly and wrong. Do not let this suppress you, as a member of this generation of creative people, the way it has suppressed so many in the recent past. You must press on.”[4]

2001: “We begin our conversation with the recognition that, in recent history at least, art and the Christian church have not been on good terms. In fact, when considering Protestant churches in general, while there are exceptions, it is fair to say that this tradition has had a troublesome history with the visual arts.”[5]

2004: “Instances of friction—even direct conflict—between artist and institution are almost as common as examples of cooperation and appreciation. The works of visual artists have been viewed with suspicion, confusion, and fear by church authorities who denigrated the visual arts and suppressed them as much as encouraged them.”[6]

2011: “There is a difference between what ‘the church’ wants you to do and what God wants you to do. Do what God wants you to do. Go and create, even as you were made to create.”[7]

This narrative addresses the very real historical tension between the artist and the church and what some artists still experience. However, my concern is when the story continues: “…and the fault of this lies primarily with the church.” According to the quotations above, the church is: unsupportive, judgmental, narrow-minded, utilitarian, oppressive, suspicious, and stifling. It is this starting assumption that concerns me most for I see it having (at least) two detrimental outcomes:

The first is one I saw in my own life. Having had a positive experience of being an artist in the church, I found myself at conferences being told that, as an artist in the church, I was a “prophet in exile.”  The marginalisation felt good; but it was not true. And yet, that metaphor began to inform the conception I had of my own story. I found myself feeling angry when no anger was warranted. This leads me to the second outcome. If, as Wright suggests, the story-form that undergirds our reality is how we make sense of the incidents we experience on a daily basis, how does this negative artist-church narrative impact how we interpret current practice? Might current action be interpreted as “yet another failing” rather than as an “albeit small but step forward”? Does the negative narrative predispose us to filter present experience through anger rather than through a lens of grace? Has the story we tell ourselves made the artist a ‘victim’ of the church?

Some artists might have scars from working with the church. Some churches might have scars from working with artists. However, becoming a victim, I think, inhibits true reconciliation. In the final part of this series, Dave Reinhardt will, through reflecting on his own experience, suggest an alternative artist-church narrative, one marked by collaboration and grace.

Sara Schumacher is Editor-in-Chief of Transpositions and an ITIA PhD Candidate, researching contemporary church patronage of the arts. 


[1] NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 38-39.

[2] Ibid, 40.

[3] Hans Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 6.

[4] Franky Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1981), 59.

[5] William Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 11.

[6] Robin Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 78.

[7] Donald Miller, “Is Church Life Stifling Your Creativity?,” in Donald Miller is (January 5, 2011).

4 Comments

  • David says:

    Excellent series, Sara, and very well written. You’re leading me down paths to grow deeper in faith as an artist. This installment hits a little too close to home!

  • betty Spackman says:

    I have been so aware, as one of those ‘last generation’ artists that had to struggle for validation in the Christian community that the generation of young artists i have taught for the last 20 years in Christian Universities do not have the same issues we did. Although pockets of very real discrimination still remain there is a new freedom available for the artist of faith now – and of course, with that freedom, new responsibilities and new problems. The cry of pain and of protest was valid, even essential, from voices like Rookmaaker and Schaeffer but there are so many more things to be addressed at this point in time.

    Forgive me for quoting myself ( A Profound Weakness. Christians and Kitsch)…

    “The sacralization of art is just as problematic as the secularization of faith, though there are several reasons for this desire to get art into Protestant churches. One is that it would confirm that the Christian community is finally committed to accepting the artist as a part of the Body of Christ. For some who have been hurt by rejection this would certainly be a step towards healing, but I don’t believe that that is a good enough reason on its own. The time for licking wounds is over. We need to learn how to assess the value of our own work and not depend on the approval of others. Affirmation will come from God if we are being who he made us to be and doing what he made us to do. We should just be doing our work and not caring so much about recognition and acceptance—from inside or outside the church.
    …On more than one occasion I have heard Calvin Seerveld, a well-respected author of many books about Christianity and art and a professor of aesthetics, say that the church is not an art gallery but it is a place of refuge for the artist. His point was not that the church should refuse to have art on the walls but should remember its role. Artists, in wanting the church to acknowledge and accept and participate in the arts, should not expect it to house, support and exhibit them as well. It’s wonderful when it happens, but not if it prevents artists from growing up and getting out of the nest. ”

    I agree with you Sara. It just seems a distraction to the many tasks at hand to still be pointing fingers. Time to forgive and move on, to get back to the studio and pray for those rare people in life who will truly support and encourage and critique (!) your work. Offer what you create to the world and to the church but don’t be offended if you are misunderstood or rejected. There is no time for self pity or bitterness. Keep working in any way you can and let God be your Comforter.

  • Sara Schumacher says:

    Thanks for this, Betty. You articulate well the need to move on and also touch on what I think is even more key – a robust theological understanding of how the church participates as church in its relationship to the arts (ie, the church is not an art gallery is a significant thing to think through theologically and practically). I think that this would serve to adjust expectations for the arts from both the perspective of the artist and the church.

    I’m intrigued by your comment earlier on that with the new freedom for the artist comes new responsibilities. What new responsibilities do you see?

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