It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.). Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts. A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,
In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource. We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts. We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).
I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art. None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God. It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.
First, these kinds of statements seem seldom to address the distinction between the church in its institutional, gathered life and the church as it is composed of individual believers with sundry callings and undertakings in the many spheres of life. Are these statements asking the church in its institutional life, led by its called and ordained officers, to incorporate the cultivation of the arts in their worship services and regular gatherings? To prioritize the flourishing of the arts as one of its own goals along with (or as a means to) making disciples, baptizing them into the triune name, and teaching them to obey all that the Lord has commanded (Mt 28:19-20)? Or, are these statements simply encouraging believers (who, it must be noted, will have quite different levels of interest in the arts) to participate in the field and to produce quality art that sheds fresh light on various aspects of life in God’s world in ways that will hit home with both believers and unbelievers? If the former, does the absence of this corporate cultivation (and of the prescription of this cultivation) in the New Testament generate a difficulty for calls to corporate Christian engagement with the arts? Might it be that such a call improperly foists an extrabiblical responsibility upon the church and its leaders, even if individual believers can profit greatly from reflecting on artistic work and can serve others by producing such work?
Second, these kinds of statements tend not to address whether the arts are somehow meant to be privileged above other areas of human endeavor. What does it mean to ‘support those with artistic gifts’? Should we support artists especially or more intentionally than we support those whose daily work lies in the realms of medicine, toilet-cleaning, bookkeeping, education, and so on? Does the sheer fact that art so powerfully drives home the beauty of God’s creation, the weight of human suffering, and so on require that the gathered church specifically take up the practice and promotion of it in its corporate life?
What are some thoughts on this?