Mediocrity and Excellence: An Issue for Art in the Church

An issue that I continue to run into as I research the Christian church’s support of the arts is that of the quality of the art object, particularly the assumptions that artwork in the church is usually ‘cringe-worthy’, and high quality, interesting art in the church is hard to find. In 1981, Franky Schaeffer (son of Francis Schaeffer) published a book titled Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, arguing that because of the Church’s dualistic view of the sacred and secular as well as its utilitarian reduction of the arts, it has lost the pursuit of quality in the arts and, as the title suggests, is addicted to mediocrity.[1] While Schaeffer’s argument is reductionist and perhaps a bit harsh, I wonder if it has shaped a corresponding shift in ideal: the pursuit of excellent art in the church.

Willow Creek Community Church, a large non-denominational church in the Chicago area, has significantly informed the way that this ideal has come to pervade certain streams of evangelical thought. Pioneer of the “seeker-friendly” church, Willow Creek utilizes the arts as an important part of their strategy for making a seeker’s experience of church comfortable and inviting.[2] While their emphasis has shifted over the past few years, part of their legacy in the arts, I think, is replacing the addiction to mediocrity with the aspirational pursuit of excellence in all that they do, including the arts. In addition to holding excellence as one of their core values as a church, when it comes to defining what excellence is, they do so with explicit reference to Schaeffer’s accusation.[3] Instead of mediocrity, ‘excellence’ is closely aligned with ‘our best’. In a book written about Willow Creek’s arts ministry, Rory Noland writes: ‘Pursuing excellence means we do our best with what we have, to the glory of God. He is worthy of our very best… [God] modeled creative excellence for us. Seven times during the Genesis account of creation, God stands back, looks at what He’s created, and says, “It is good.” It’s obvious that we serve a God who delights in creativity and values doing things with excellence.'[4]

I want to focus on two reasons behind this shift towards the pursuit of excellence in the arts followed by a couple of questions to get discussion going:

1. Excellence is meant to be an antidote for perfectionism. Because we know that in our fallenness we will never be perfect, excellence corrects this pursuit by suggesting that the artist’s aim is to do the best he/she can with what he/she has. By being released from having to be perfect, artists in the church should be free to develop their skills and even be given space to ‘fail’ on the road to getting better. This happens within the framework of giving God our best. For Lynne and Bill Hybels (founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek), this should be natural for the Christian: ‘We sincerely love the church, because we see it as the bride of Christ. And so it’s only natural for us to want to offer our best. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 it says, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” We strive to honor Him with the sacrifice of our service…’[5] Conversely, for Noland, ‘[i]t doesn’t honor God when we bring Him less than our best.’[6]

2. Excellence has evangelistic potential. Noland writes: ‘Excellence is also a powerful witness for Christ. Most non-Christians who ever end up in a church expect the music to be lousy and outdated.'[7] Excellent art challenges the presumed expectations that a non-Christian would have when coming into a church, and this display of excellence has the potential to point to Christ. It also combats the converse of excellence – mediocrity – which, according to Schaeffer, results in ‘the ludicrous defacing of God’s image before the world’. [8]

While the first reason might bring freedom and release, I wonder where the second reason leaves the artist. While it might give the arts an evangelistic justification, is God’s image that fragile? Can/should the artist bear this responsibility?

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


[1] Franky Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts (Westchester: Crossway, 1981), 23-29.

[2] For an interesting evaluation of Willow Creek’s approach to church, see G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996).

[3] See Rory Noland, The Heart of the Artist (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 133-134 as well as Lynne Hybels and Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church: The Story and Vision of Willow Creek Community Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 211.

[4] Noland, Heart, 132. Contemporary use excellence rhetoric is demonstrated through the website of Holy Trinity Brompton, a prominent church in London and developers of the Alpha Course. They write: ‘At HTB, all contributions form part of the fulfillment of the Vision. This means that each person aims to contribute to the highest level of their capability; we aim for perfection and settle for excellence.’

[5] See also Hybels and Hybels, Rediscovering Church, 211.

[6] Noland, 136.

[7] Ibid., 132.

[8] Schaeffer, 44.

 

8 Comments

  • Debby Topliff says:

    Sara, thank you for raising this topic. The other side of the coin is who discerns excellence? Can we expect the prophetic and creatively avant guard to be recognized and welcomed by the established gatekeepers? Last week I saw the partial reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and couldn’t help comparing that grandeur with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      Absolutely – those are great questions. The challenge I have with the mediocrity v excellence debate is that both terms seem to be relative in theory but in practice, there is a standard they are working against. What is the standard for excellence, and conversely, what makes something mediocre? Is ‘doing the best we can with what we have’ a sufficient definition, especially when it is worked out in practice? What if someone’s ‘best’ doesn’t ‘measure up’ to the quality the non-Christian experiences outside the church? In practice, is the excellence the church is seeking defined by the marketplace, the art world, popular culture? And related to your second question, should the established gatekeepers (with maybe little knowledge of the avant garde) be expected to be able to discern excellence in a field they might know nothing about? A follow-up blog post is brewing in my mind… while I appreciate the aspirations of excellence, I am suspicious of where we end up.

      • jfutral says:

        I think we have over-played the “excellence” card a bit. It sounds great, but the question becomes excellence in/with what? Technique? Vision? Aspirations? Content? You can’t just say “excellent art” because then you have to define “art”. How well have we done that, especially for such a quantifiable-crazed Modern culture?

        Saying “doing the best we can with what we have” is problematic because it starts off by making excuses for not doing our best.

        Maybe excellence is more an attitude than a measure. “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” to me indicates how one does something and less what is actually created. But even that gets twisted when I hear pastors and church leaders proclaim “It’s the heart that matters, not what we actually present”. But then I thankfully heard on pastor say “You know that thing in you that makes you want to do the very best? That’s a right heart.” A “right heart” is not an excuse for poor quality.

        And here seems a place leadership can show leadership by properly contextualizing a person’s effort level to the purpose level. An art showing or performance of beginners should not be confused/conflated with more seasoned experience.

        Just some thoughts, no real answers for a question that plagues me even after 30 years in the business.
        Joe

  • David Hooker says:

    Sara- thanks for the article. I would agree with you that the question seems to beg more and more questions. I really like the ones you raise in the follow-up to Debbie’s post.
    I do think defining excellence requires approval from expertise outside of the church community, although that expertise should take into consideration/understand the context as well as content of the work. If the work of art is not compelling–at least on some level–outside of the church, I think it fails to be truly excellent (I hesitate to say this, as it takes away a kind of security blanket I think I have used in the past). That is not to say the art of the church has to mimic the prevalent art of the culture. I personally feel the art of the church falls into this trap to much of the time (the desire to be seeker-friendly, for example, can cause this).
    Excellent art also challenges the status quo. This is probably the most difficult hurdle, particularly for Protestant chuches, even more difficult when the word “evangelistic” gets thrown into the mix. At that point we are looking for art that would explain our “worldview” to others, that is theologically “correct.” We tend towards artwork that comforts rather than challenges our own ideas. The work has no life of its own, no free will, and therefore fails to be excellent.
    I look back at the work of Caravaggio and think about how it was both incredibly evangelistic and powerfully challenging to church leaders. I also find it hard to imagine him getting a commission from any protestant church today, the broken man that he was.

  • Bob says:

    Your description of excellence as an antidote for perfectionism and your further explanation of what you mean is terrific (one might even say excellent–no pun intended!). It is a really freeing thought that has applicability in many settings and could really ratchet down the anxiety that many feel as they try to be perfect or try to complete the perfect project or task. Thanks for this insight.

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      Thanks, Bob, for your comment! If you want to consider further the difference between perfectionism and excellence, there is a chapter in Rory Noland’s ‘The Heart of the Artist’ that deals with this. I found it particularly helpful.

  • jfutral says:

    Excellence as a cure for perfectionism sounds great but is still a bit problematic. Excellence for a professional dancer often becomes perfection in technique. Not saying that is proper (performance quality trumps technique almost any day), but it certainly is a reality. So, again, excellence in what?

    I don’t even want to venture into the whole “evangelistic potential” as that has cause so much harm and I still have the scars to prove it. Not that this is your intent. I think it is the wrong direction of thinking. But then I find most academic theological thinking and writing on art, theology, and faith to be a bit backwards anyway.

    Joe

  • Manuel Luz says:

    I apologize for being so late to this conversation…

    “How important is excellence? Maybe we can best answer this by posing the opposite view. What is it that we communicate when excellence is not a part of our artistry?

    “When we create art that is uninspired and marked by mediocrity, then our art fails as metaphor. The tenor of our art (i.e., the technique and medium by which we attempt the art) cheapens the vehicle (i.e., the content of our art). And as a result, our art can imply that our Creator is also mediocre and uninspiring. And we become easily dismissible, losing our place at the table of serious artistic expression.

    “When we produce art that is derivative to that of the world (e.g., the Christian music industry developing artists in the same specific styles as popular secular artists), we imply that our faith is derivative as well. Rather than a faith that is spiritual and transcendent, alive and other-than, our faith appears a faded image of the real, a second-rate and easily ignorable subculture.

    “If our art reflects a worldview that is out-of-touch to our surrounding culture, then we imply that our beliefs are also out-of-touch with reality. Our art becomes quaint and innocuous, and our faith becomes irrelevant. We live in the complexity of worldviews, and the Christian worldview can and must stand in response to them with substantiality and Truth. We lose our place at the table when we appear irrelevant to our culture.

    “If our art offers simplistic solutions or it tends toward excessive sentimentality, then we appear naïve at best and insincere at worst. For honesty in our art demands that we are honest in representing the brutal realities of life. Certainly the Bible stories did not shy away from war, violence, pride, homosexuality, and adultery. If we aren’t true to these realities in our artistic expressions, we appear superficial, prudish, and unsubstantial.

    “If our art propagandizes or browbeats, then we only appear to propagate the Christian stereotype. Like the wild-eyed street corner evangelist yelling into his bullhorn, we become merely an annoying voice in the crowd. Our art will appear self-serving and agenda-driven, our faith will appear dogmatic, and our motives appear insincere and close-minded.

    “These are the dangers associated with believing that art must serve the Gospel, instead of seeing art as an expression of the Gospel. These are the dangers we face when we do not strive toward excellence. But, seen another way, these are the challenges—and opportunities—that face the artist of faith.”

    More here: http://manuelluz.wordpress.com/2013/08/03/excellence/

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