Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Evangelicals and the Arts

Here is a recent article from Touchstone Magazine that I’ve seen rewritten under various titles for most of my Christian life. It starts out like this:

The modern Christians who are important writers are all from liturgical churches: Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox. The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a mainstream Evangelical but a Lutheran—again, from a liturgical tradition.

Try to think of a conservative Baptist, a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian, a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Evangelical Free Church or the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company. (Some have mentioned writers who used to be in those churches—but the phrase “used to” in the observation is telling.)

The liturgical churches foster a lot of schlock and kitsch of their own, but they also nurture great writers and great writing. So far, we Evangelicals have not. In fact, we often positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value.

This is something of a mantra in Christian academic circles, and I typically encounter this lament at least once every six months: where are the evangelicals, and why does their art suck? The kindly professors probably wouldn’t state it quite so baldly, being nice, proper academics, but the evangelicals would comprehend the question better because they don’t understand big words, so we’ll let the crudeness slide.

I've read these sentiments, and others like them, so frequently that they’ve become cliches. There's only one problem: they’re not true. They bear little relationship to reality.

Look, I love Flannery O'Connor as much as anyone. Kate will attest that I lobbied long and hard to name our first-born daughter Flannery in honor of Ms. O’Connor. She and the other High Church literary cherubim and seraphim – Graham Greene, Walker Percy, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien – have enriched my life tremendously. But Percy, the most contemporary of those writers, has been dead for fifteen years, and O'Connor, Greene, Lewis and Tolkien were writing fifty or more years ago. And you know what? In the intervening half century, evangelicals have actually produced some worthwhile work. Two of the most celebrated Christian novelists working today, Marilynne Robinson and Leif Enger, are writing from a decidedly evangelical perspective. Enger's Peace Like a River was named the 2002 Book of the Year in the L.A. Times, and was lauded in almost every review. Robinson's latest novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. This does not suck. And when you add in contemporaries such as Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, John Updike, and Anne Lamott, who really don't fit into either the High Church or the Evangelical categories, it seems fairly clear to me that non-liturgical, non-High Church Christians have as much of an impact on literature as their High Church contemporaries, and maybe more. And the odds are even more lopsided in the popular music world, where it is evangelicals like U2 and Sufjan Stevens who have arguably released some of the best and most popular albums created from a Christian worldview. In other words, the argument in Touchstone was valid thirty years ago. It doesn’t apply now, and it hasn't been true for a long time.

I will confess that part of it is that I don’t understand the categories. Why is it, for instance, that “liturgical” and “evangelical” are presented as mutually exclusive terms in the Touchstone article? In my church we incorporate elements of the liturgy and fixed-hour prayer into both our public and private worship, but theologically we would align ourselves along evangelical lines.

I also don’t know what to make of the many stereotypes found in the article – that evangelical art is often little more than religious propaganda, for instance. Sure, there is no lack of horrendous schlock out there. Just walk into the Christian Family Bookstore of your choice and peruse the puppy and kitty posters with Bible verses, or the rack of Precious Moments figurines. But the world the author describes is simply not the world I encounter. My church is heavily skewed, nay, infested, with artists – painters, poets, photographers, musicians, writers, standup comics, graphic designers. I would guess that artists make up 40 to 50 percent of the adult population, and many of these folks make their full-time living through art. They are not making “Christian” art or religious propaganda; they’re creating art, and they’re out there in the marketplace competing with everybody else. What I don’t know is how typical or atypical my church is. I don’t have any way to gauge how this compares with the evangelical world as a whole. So do me a favor. I’d love to hear from those of you in other evangelical churches, and find out how the arts are viewed in your church. Are they valued in and of themselves? Or are they viewed as “witnessing” tools? And for those of us in my church, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think the variables are within our church that seem to lead to a high view of the arts. Thanks.

8 comments:

Joel said...

Andy,

I completely agree with you in your disagreement of the Touchstone article.

My church, Grace Central (gracecentral.org) is a haven for evangelical artists as well. We have writers, painters, photographers, designers, musicians, etc. I think it stems from the church creating a culture in which art is valued, encouraged and lauded. God loves the arts as much as we do.

One way Grace Central creates that culture is by having an Arts Guild, which, among other things, puts on two Arts Forums per year. In fact, if you go to the terribly out-of-date website (a sure sign that we're a bunch of artists...), it refers to a forum we hosted with Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine. The Arts Forum isn't a witnessing tool. It's a forum to see art, hear music and read a literary journal. I'd argue that when art is used solely as a witnessing tool, it loses its status as art.

john r. williamson said...

hey andy,

good point. Marilynne Robinson is a tremendously gifted writer. i just read her for the first time this summer--her book of essays, "the death of adam". the best read i have had in the past 20 years.

joel, i have been impressed with many churches' approaches to the arts. Mars Hill in Seattle had some good things going. But they also had an odd ageism happening in their congregation (no old nor young people--just single people). it struck me as something like a cult.

how about anne lamott (not sure, but some high church denomination)and annie dillard (catholic)? how about garrison keillorhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garrison_Keillor, madeleine l'engle, grey revell, and joan didion? all episcopalians.

bd said...

Andy,

I think that problem is our cultures ever broadening definition of art. Unfortunately, most art these days is more "cake decorating" than enduring work that will continue to provoke serious thinking over the course of time.

Art is intellectually filling, inspirationally satisfying. Cake decorating is overly sweet, sugary and gives me a stomach ache.

Fred said...

I think you're slightly confusing the argument, with respect, at least, to the Touchstone article. The article clearly is with reference to evangelicals (the first couple paragraphs make that clear), and your examples come mostly from mainline protestant churches.

Updike was born into a Lutheran family, and took a tour of mainline denominations until he decided to be an Episcopalian in the 70s. Buechner is in the PC(USA), Dillard was a Catholic (and now calls herself a "Hadisic protestant", whatever that means), Lamott is Episcopal... etc. Even Sufjan Stevens divides his time between a PCUSA church and an Episcopal church.

My point is that although you have a good (unimpeachable) point that Protestants have been quite visible in the arts, you'd be hard-pressed to extend that to evangelicals.

However, (and this is a big however) I think that this is changing. Although your church probably isn't the norm, it also isn't an outrageous exception to the rule. Evangelicals are increasingly embracing the arts as more than witnessing tools, and it is only a matter of time (hopefully) until one of these breaks into the public consciousness.

Phillip said...

My experience with the arts in the context of the church has been less than desirable. I've probably visited about 50 churches in my life and only two or three of them have been visibly committed to nurturing artists to create important, challenging, beautiful art.

Certainly my home church does not. To the vast population of my congregation, music is a pretty tune, writing is simply words on a page to convey a message, and if you're going to do a "play," it has to beat the audience over the head with a gospel message.

Now, I love my church. The people are wonderful and my pastor is an excellent expository preacher who is devoted to Christ. My spiritual life has been nourished through my church.

But if I want to be nourished artistically, I have to come online or find good books to get such encouragement. My church wouldn’t understand my longing for a transcendent artistic experience. They would write it off as a waste of time.

I think the Touchstone article is very true. In the mainline denominations that I have experienced in my 19 years, it has been very rare to find a church that actively upholds the artist as one called by God to minister through artistic mediums.

I (and the great majority of my artistic friends) envy your experience in a church that does. One of my greatest longings is that I could find a congregation that would understand my desire to experience and make art.

Brother-in-law Bill said...

I believe Annie Dillard was raised as a Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, a real Presbyterian stronghold. Anyway, I first read her not knowing anything about her theology or lack thereof, and was immediately captivated by her incredible images. Later, I learned of her Christian background.

Anyway, I think the point that hasn't been made, in spite of all the evidence, is that Christians of various stripes are capable of producing fine art, and something of their Christianity invariably leaks through, regardless of their brand of church. And I trust that they eventually find a church full of people who love and appreciate them for who they are.

Tom said...

I haven't spent much time in evangelical churches in recent years, Andy, but I'd bet your church, while not unique, is very much the exception. From what I can tell, artsy-fartsy evangelical churches exist in certain kinds of towns (and even there they are, I believe, somewhat rare) but not in all.

I do agree that the examples given in the Touchtone article are generally dated. And speaking as a PC(USA) member (and spouse of a PC(USA) pastor), I find the author's suggestion that the high church/evangelical church distinction mostly exhausts the possibilities to be ignorant. It seems to me that what almost all of the contemporary artists you mention have in common is that they are members of the so-called "mainline" churches. Some of which are "high" but many of which aren't.

Oh, and for the record, Anne Lamott is a member of a PC(USA) church too. (-:

Gina said...

One word puts your argument rather in jeopardy: Solzhenitsyn.

Another for the liturgicals, on the popular end of the scale, is J.K. Rowling. Evangelicals can count John Grisham (I think). His writing is pretty good.