Monday, January 08, 2007

Lowbrow Protestants vs. High Church Aesthetes

In the circles where I run, it's been stated as an axiom so many times that it's virtually unquestioned. But I confess that I find myself perplexed by the whole lowbrow Protestant vs. enlightened Catholic/Orthodox/Episcopalian view of the arts that is often set forth as indisputable fact. I just don't see it. It may have been true at one time, and certainly Reformed theologians such as Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker wrote a lot of books several decades ago that were intended to counter a dismissive view of the arts that probably once characterized Protestantism. But is it true now?

Yeah, yeah, I know. On one side of this debate we have Michelangelo and Bernini and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, and on the other side we have Carmen and Jesus Over the UN posters. But we also now have Marilynne Robinson and John Updike and Sufjan Stevens, artists of the highest order who are operating from a distinctly Protestant perspective. In other words, I don't think the assumed dichotomy is true now, and I don't think it's been true for a long time. We're now more than a generation removed from Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker, and there is some evidence that their message stuck with the now balding, aging hippies who first heard it, and their children who have taken the pretty ball and run with it.

It's worth noting that many of the po-mo/emergent churches that are now all the rage take a very high view of the arts, and that art is an integral part of their worship services. The Cornerstone Music and Arts Festival (among others) attracts tens of thousands of (mostly) Protestants every year, who groove to their favorite bands and listen to lots of lectures about, you guessed it, the value of art. On a local, personal level, I am surrounded by church members and friends who have recording contracts, who display their paintings and sculptures in art galleries, who sponsor poetry slams, who own concert venues, and who write for national publications. And they are Protestants, and yes, even Calvinists to a certain degree, one and all.

Are there still more Protestants who don't give a rip about art than those who care about it passionately? Probably, but I'm not convinced that theology has much to do with it, and my guess is that there are also more Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Buddhists, and good old-fashioned Capitalist Consumer Materialists who don't give a rip about art than those who do. The solution, as always, is to look for and hang out with the people who do. But I'm not convinced that you'll find them more easily if you also look for candles and incense in the sanctuary.


Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in the Episcopal church. T Bone Burnett was, too. Bruce Cockburn is an Anglican. I think that the liturgy does encourage a certain appreciation for metaphors that translates into deep art. How can a church that is focused on praise music produce great artists? I'm not sure I get it.

Andy Whitman said...

Sorry for an indirect response to these two comments, but I'm short on time, and as you'll see, I've already rehashed this elsewhere.

Let me note two things, one minor, and one more important.

1) (Minor) -- As far as I know, Sufjan Stevens attends a Presbyterian Church. He certainly did when he attended Hope College in Michigan, and he did a few months ago, when my friends ran into him in Brooklyn. But I don't know him, and I could be wrong.

2) (Major) -- I'm picking nits with this argument, but hey, I like to pick nits. I have no problems with liturgical churches, and if you are able to draw closer to God and to other people, and to produce better art in the process, then more power to you.

A friend on another mailing list wrote:

>Francis Schaeffer et. al. are relative latecomers in
>Protestant distrust of the arts. The Protestants (and
>I'm using the term here as short-hand for the
>NON-liturgical descendents of the Reformation) have
>mistrusted the arts since the beginning. In fact, the
>most early Protestants regarded the arts as
>In one of his comedies, Shakespeare pokes fun at the
>Puritan Malvolio. The Puritans wanted to close down
>the stage - and with the rise of Oliver Cromwell, they
>did. Under Cromwell, the English Puritans trashed
>Anglican churches (which had once been Catholic
>churches before the English crown outlawed Catholicism
>and took over its churches in England, Ireland, and
>elsewhere). They were, in essence, iconoclasts -
>devoted to destroying religious art, which they deemed

And I responded:

What you're saying is historically true, but I'm saying that the anti-art stance that once characterized Protestantism is no longer there, and hasn't been there for a long time, and that many of the best and most influential "Christian" works of art are, in fact, created by Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular, and have been for a long time. I'm saying that the "high church leads to high art" mantra isn't borne out by current reality.

Francis Schaeffer didn't distrust the arts. He loved the arts. He and his L'Abri compatriots labored long and extensively to counteract the prevailing distrust of the arts. And there is plenty of evidence that he succeeded. I don't want to make too much of Francis Schaeffer. He was just one man, and the Church is far, far bigger than Francis Schaeffer or L'Abri. However, he was enormously influential with the Jesus Freaks of the sixties and seventies, and the Jesus Freaks, for better and worse, have grown up and become the leaders of denominational, non-denominational, and post-modern/emergent churches. And many of these churches have re-instilled a love for and appreciation of the arts within their members, and have done so based on the incarnational theology that I believe is essential in properly understanding art.

Obviously, great art has emerged from liturgical churches. It helped to have a 1,500-year head start, and it hurt to have dour utilitarians like Cromwell around to put the kebosh on creativity. If one were to look at the entire history of the Church I think one would have to conclude that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have inspired and sponsored far more great art than their Protestant counterparts. There's really no contest.

But ... and it's a big but, I wouldn't necerssarily say that that's been the case in my lifetime, and I would argue that it's certainly not the case over the past twenty or twenty-five years. The best "Christian" novel of the past ten years -- a novel that is both highly representiative of the Christian worldview and breathtakingly, lyrically beautiful -- is Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," and Marilynne Robinson is a staunch Calvinist. I really can't comment about the visual arts because I simply don't know enough. But in music it's a Protestant/Evangelical landslide. Yes, there are saccharime and lobotomized praise choruses out there. But one simply can't discount the presence of U2, both in terms of cultural impact and musical quality. And Bono is a supreme Evangelical. Sufjan Stevens, a good Dutch Reformed boy from Holland, Michigan, created the best album of 2005 (at least according to the composite ratings of about 50 secular music magazines), and still managef to slip in inescapable references to Jesus and total depravity. Calvin College -- obviously a bastion of staunch Reformed thought - puts on the best Writing and Music conferences in the world, Christian, secular, or Venusian, and their cultural arts program ought to the envy of every university. They certainly bring in more, and more interesting, musical talent than, say, The Ohio State University, which has fifteen times the number of students as Calvin, and I assume a correspondingly larger budget.

In contrast, I am aware of precisely one band working from a distinctly Catholic perspective -- The Innocence Mission, who are wonderful, but who don't have nearly the cultural impact of the others I've mentioned. As far as I know, the Orthodox Church's contribution to the overarching arts culture comes from John Tavener and Arvo Part, two phenomenal contemporary classical composers, whose work is necessarily limited to a small but deeply appreicative audience.

So yes, I'm certainly trying to debunk the "high church leads to high art" fallacy. It was true at one time. It's no longer true. It's time we adopted a new mantra to match the new reality. The best art, art that is centered on a Christian worldview, is being produced by the unwashed (but fully dunked) low church masses.

Anonymous said...

Andy, sometimes you seem just as stridently "ant-hip" as the writers are stridently "hip" at Pitchfork, the website you loathe. Why is it so important for you to always label and categorize the sources of art? Should we now compare the relative merits/productivity/popularity of African-American-based arts to WASP-based arts?

I know you always enclose "Christian" in quotes when used as an adjective but, ironically, you continue to use it as an adjective without quotes. Now you can even reduce the label to Protestant or Catholic. Are you aware of this contradiction, or are you too busy grinding your axe?

By the way, this whole business of pigeonholing artists by their often tenuous religious affiliations is silly. Most of the ones you mention are looking way beyond that in their art, and would only find your labelling puzzling.

C's Mom said...

Not going to enter this particular fray except to say that "Gilead" moved me incredibly -- great, beautiful novel worth re-reading and re-reading. We'll have to talk about it at some point because I love to talk great books.

And yes, Calvin College's festivals are wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Karl says...
Andy, Wow remembering back to previous posts I’m surprised you use the term “Best”. Art is just so subjective. As I read your post and the comments that follow I have to ask if these shifts in the view of art are truly religious or just a trend of the times. What ever time they may be in at the time.

As we look back on history we can see clearly that history is cyclical. What is old will become new again. In the church it usually follows corruption. I think if you look at each of these great theologians and truly try to understand what they are saying, you’ll find that they have well founded reasons for their stance on the use of Art in the church. Art starts out being something that is useful by God and then we humans screw it up and try to make it better. The outcome is that we always corrupt it into something useless or worse detracting from the word of God. We shift away from the Art for a time until we realize that we are missing something. We then turn back to Art, try it again, until we corrupt it and the cycle starts again.

So I guess the eternal question is… How do we do art the right way in the church? Better still… Is their a right or wrong way?

Bethany says...
I have been a vocalist, technician, and educator-in-the-arts; thus also a director, designer, teacher, and producer. I was raised in the Church of the Brethren, a conservative denomination with Anabaptist and pacifist roots. I spent time significant in the Evangelical Friends-Quaker- church. I have visited churches of many other denominations both as a performer and as an observer because I have wanted to see how others "do church").

I guess my response goes in a far different direction from the other commenters to your blog post:

In my opinion, physical expressive arts are still under represented- drama and dance, specifically. (Though monologue and storytelling drama have been incorporated- often as the pastor becoming a Biblical character and preaching from the point of view of say, Paul).

For some it's difficult to separate production from performance and so they use none of it. Since they don't want the worship service to be a production, they don't touch any of it.

Congregations are not totally made up of people who learn through the auditory/ listening style. Yet most often, churches employ the one-man-speaking-to-all vehicle for their message. Sadly, the learning styles of kinesthetic and visual are often overlooked.

It is easiest for a pastor, worship pastor, or teacher to lead in the learning style with which they are most familiar- the way THEY learn. For instance, if a pastor has an auditory learning style, than s/he often preaches without visual aids. Or, a worship leader with a combination learning style of auditory and kinesthetic will not care that the words on the screen match what is being sung by the congregation, but will care that no one seems to be clapping, raising their hands, or in any other way physically expressing their worship. (Unfortunately, some worship leaders gauge their "success" on this).

It is best for any leader to try to incorporate all three learning styles into their message/lesson/leading. In doing so, it reaches and "sticks" with more people and it reinforces the message to those whom have combination learning styles.

The advertising industry understands this. Educators hear it over and over at workshops and seminars. But many churches have no clue as to how to best teach/ reach ALL facets of their audience.

The arts are a palate of tools that can be used to widen understanding and to assist meaning. Often elements, such as drama and dance, are neglected as the planning of a service takes place.

Then again, most drama and dance (other than improv) take planning and rehearsal. Leaders need to schedule when they want the artistic element(s) to allow the artists time to create and prepare. In today's emergent churches, only what can be done quickly, and with little planning are valued; it is not cared if things are "dirty" and not well done... to the detriment of the audience.

But, that's a post for another day.

Anonymous said...

interesting discussion here. i would tend to agree that Marilynne Robinson and U2 are hugely important. the beautiful thing about God's creativity is that it is not denominationally exclusive. and who knows what bob dylan believes, but he still has something to say.

Anonymous said...

John Updike is an interesting case. He writes his books from a full blown Protestant perspective, but I have never seen any of his books in a (evangelical)Protestant book store or library. Maybe he is recognized and accepted within the mainline communities, but he is unknown entirely within more conservative churches.

Francis Schaeffer, to me, is a mixed bag his passion for anything western, pre-20th century was very liberating for me. Such as he admired "The Birth of Venus" just because he thought it was beautiful. But for Eastern art, or anything "existential" he went back to being a stern, old reformer and didn't see how it might be of any value.
Rookmaaker didn't have that problem, but maybe one percent of Protestants know who he was.

I agree that there are some fantastic Protestants are making wonderful art, but only a small number are accepting it. On the other hand, more younger prods are embracing Marilynne Robinson, Sufjan Stevens, et al.

Anonymous said...

The Blessed Sufjan Stevens is not only an Anglican, but an Anglo-Catholic!

Pax Vobiscum!