Welcoming the Stranger: Art, Worship and the Church

Many Christians today have embraced the arts, and other cultural forms, as arenas for apologetics and evangelism.  The arts are a medium through which Christians can get the message out.  The world needs to hear the gospel, so why not put the gospel in the places (movies, books, music, etc.) where they will hear it?

The call for Christians to reform culture is a constant (if not repetitive) theme in much popular Christian writing. For example, in her 2010 book Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Meaning and Morals, Nancy Pearcey declares:

Where are today’s counterparts to Bach? Where is the music and art that expresses biblical truths so eloquently that it invites people to embark on a search for God? Christians must go beyond criticizing the degradation of American culture, roll up their sleeves, and get to work on positive solutions. The only way to drive out bad culture is with good culture. [1]

Pearcey’s point, it seems to me, is that Christians should step off of the judgment seat and actually get involved in the music industry, or the film industry or whatever.

I have no serious objections to exhortations like the one that Pearcey offers. This may be a healthy corrective to a Church afraid of getting dirty in the messiness of a broken world. I do worry, however, about what is not being said. I worry that this strong motivation to reform culture will train us into seeing culture only as a problematic ‘other.’ We need to remember that, if we are to fully embody the gospel, our posture toward culture must include an element of hospitality.

Being hospitable toward others is rarely safe, and it often requires us to be a little flexible with our boundary lines. The expanding and shifting nature of the identity of Christ’s followers in the New Testament, for example, is a constant source of tension.  Can Gentiles belong to the people of God? Can the uncircumcised be covenantal partners with God? Who is my neighbor, and do I really have to love my enemy?

A Church that is hospitable toward the arts will not only ask how it can reform the arts (‘get the message out’) but also how the arts can reform the Church. The Church has much to gain from the arts, even in those corners of the art world where we might least expect it.

One way that some contemporary writers approach the arts more hospitably is by situating these cultural forms in the context of worship. For example, Dan Siedell, in his book God in the Gallery, writes:

Altars to the unknown god are strewn about the historical landscape of modern and contemporary art …. This book is the result of choosing the way of St. Paul: to take the cultural artifacts and to reveal and illuminate their insights into what they are only able to point to, not to name. But point they do, and they should be examined and celebrated as such.[2]

By emphasizing that works of art point toward (perhaps have their telos in) God, Siedell unravels the narrative that modern art is simply the result of secularism.

Another example is found in Linda Stratford’s essay for the edited volume Art as Spiritual Perception. Stratford refuses to interpret Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, No. 30, 1950 in purely secular terms. Instead, following the historical clue that this painting was originally intended to be shown in a church, Stratford asks, “how might a church context shape one’s interpretation of this piece?”  The consequences of taking this methodological turn are at once both fascinating and profound. No longer is Pollock’s work, as Hans Rookmaaker would have it, the triumph of modern autonomy[3]. Instead, Stratford suggests that one can view Autumn Rhythm as a representation of the incarnation.[4]

By looking for common ground between Christian worship and the arts, Siedell and Stratford do the difficult work of welcoming the stranger. They challenge us to see the arts as bound up with a religious journey that is (to some extent) continuous with the Christian faith. Their methodologies are more hospitable toward the arts, and so their writing is both promising and unsettling. It is promising because it opens new and interesting ways of interpreting works of art, but it is also unsettling because it casts a light upon and questions the Church’s identity.

Jim Watkins is Featured Artist Editor of Transpositions. In 2012, he completed PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA.  His  forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.

 


[1] Saving Leonardo (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2010), 268.

[2] God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 11.

[3] Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 164.

[4] “Spiritually Charged Visual Strategy: Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm,” in Art as Spiritual Perception (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 251.

 

2 Comments

  • Kathryn Pigg says:

    I would like to read the 4th reference on the Jackson Pollock work. I am a retired pastor, visual artist, member of CIVA, and Pollock is a favorite of mine. I am also aware of the rhetoric against abstract artists. Is there any way to see this reference? My searches are not being rewarded so far.
    I am forwarding this article to colleagues. The term hospitality is a helpful one.
    Kathy

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Kathryn, thanks for this comment and I am glad that you find the term hospitality to be helpful. Linda Stratford’s essay can be found in the edited volume “Art as Spiritual Perception” (ed. by James Romaine). The book can be purchased on Amazon, and you can actually read a large amount of Linda’s essay by looking “inside” the book when you are on Amazon. I do not know of another way to access the essay. Coincidentally, I have also written an essay for the same book, and my contribution is on Joseph Beuys’ “I Like America and America Like’s Me.” If you are interested in 20th century art and it’s relationship to Christianity, you might also like that essay. I hope that this helps!

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