Church vs. Art part 1: Then and Now

Through the ages, religion and art have been entwined. Some of the world’s most fantastic modern wonders have religious origins. Whether it’s the Tian Tan Buddha in Hong Kong, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, hieroglyphs inside Egypt’s pyramids, the stories told through Native American totem poles, or the statues of Grecian deities, much of the history of art is rooted in religious beliefs.

Once upon a time, Christians saw value in art. It’s in paintings at Megiddo and in Roman catacombs. Even the organized church encouraged it. They looked beyond the worth of art as a way to communicate and inspire; the church viewed art as something sacred and they commissioned the greatest artists of their time to create beautiful works that are still admired now – centuries later. Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie has the mural of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper adorning one wall and The Crucifiction by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano on another. Songs were sung in hymns, chants, and psalms. Grand cathedrals built across Europe were filled with statues (Michelangelo’s David or Donatello’s St John) and stained glass (Christ in Majesty in Strasbourg or Daniel in Augsburg). Even the cathedrals – like The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris – are architectural works of art.

Somewhere in the course of Christian history, the significance of art has been lost – either forgotten or ignored. In some branches of Christianity, art has become either shunned or reviled.

This isn’t a universally applied fact of all Christian churches. Crosses and crucifixes still hang in many sanctuaries and tabernacles. Some protestant churches feature portraits of Jesus. Several modern churches have found ways to incorporate theater into their weekly services. A few have opened their doors as galleries for the painters in their congregation. Even the church I grew up in held annual talent competitions for the youth to express themselves through writing, acting, sculpting, singing, and other arts. But the art that exists in the religious institutions of today is not held in the same esteem as the art of centuries past.

With some exceptions, the modern church seems to have a tenuous relationship with artistic expression.

There are denominations where members aren’t allowed to see movies at a theater (although adherence to that rule is fairly inconsistent) and if it’s not outright forbidden, it’s at least discouraged. Some churches have banned dancing. Some within the church have deemed one style of music or another as sinful. Jimmy Swaggart was famously condemning of rock music. He was critical of the recordings of his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, but his criticism was also aimed at Christian artists like Petra, Steve Taylor, and Larry Norman. He wrote a book, ‘Religious Rock n’ Roll – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ and compared rock music to pornography.

I dwell on Jimmy because his damning view on Christian art isn’t an isolated thing. We have a tendency to turn on our own. We try to discredit our most thought provoking writers. Donald Miller, Rob Bell, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Gabe Lyons, and many others have all been accused of presenting a false gospel or believing in something other than Christianity. They’ve all faced opposition from fellow Christians claiming these men do not have genuine faith.

We want Christian bands to be heard in mainstream markets, but criticize those that cross over as sellouts or lost sheep. Even after watching or reading Bono’s testimony, we argue about whether or not he’s a true Christian. We want to minister to the hip-hop generation, but we’re not willing to learn their language and prefer that they learn ours. We see graffiti as vandalism and fail to see how anyone could use that style of art to tell the gospel story.

It is sad to see Christians hold such a negative view towards art. It broke my heart when I heard that someone walked out from Lecrae’s set at the Rock & Worship Roadshow because they thought rap music was godless and had no place in a church setting. It confounded me when I heard a Christian talk-radio host declare that any artistic depiction of Jesus is idolatry. I am amazed that people still equate guitars as tools of the devil. It bothers me when Christians look down upon the talents of other Christians or reject creative discourse.

It should bother you too.

In the book of Exodus, Moses is explaining God’s commands to the Israelite people. There are two men – Bezalel and Oholiab – that were chosen to lead God’s people through artistic work. God’s spirit filled Bezalel with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and skill. Oholiab was given the ability to teach. They were chosen to work in metallurgy, stone cutting, woodwork, engraving, embroidery, and design. God ordered them “to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts” and called them “skilled workers and designers.” (Ex 35:30-35)

Art within the church isn’t just something that should be tolerated or permitted. It is something that should be embraced as an essential thread in the fabric of any religious community. It should be a fundamental element of the church and it is rooted in biblical command.

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