Can We Let Artists Be Artists?

By Dan Drage

The Christian church doesn’t inspire me. Unless one counts reaction against something to be inspiration. No, overall I find the Christian church quite dull and unimaginative. 

If you’re reading this far, I trust you’ll respect me enough to hear me out. I’m an artist. Perhaps that says it all right there. And this is precisely what I’d like to talk about. Being an artist may account for my distaste with the Christian church.

I am a part of the Restoration Movement. I have been for 33 years, since I was 3 years old. One could argue that I’m out of touch; after all, my family and I have been living overseas, in Asia, for more than eight years. (Full disclosure, we are financially supported by seven Christian church congregations, as well as many individuals within the movement. I’ll touch on that more later, but suffice it to say, we are not involved in the weekly goings on of any church in the United States.) 

In part because of that, I make no sweeping claims, and I certainly hope to be surprised by some manifestation of Christian churchness that I have yet to encounter. Whether I’m out of touch or not, though, I hope my critique leads to growth.

 

So why the strong reaction? 

Does it matter that our churches are not hospitable, nurturing places for artists? What might it look like for a church to be a people who are inspiring to artists? Before digging into these last questions, I think it’s important to address the first question (the one in the heading): Why the strong reaction?

10_Drago_JNIt could be the tendency most Evangelicals have for shunning anything that smacks of ritual. Liturgy-as-drama, the reenacting of our story together, could be so much richer than those convenient, unnatural “Jesus pieces,” as my high school self secretly called Communion wafers. Needless to say, Jesus himself is neither convenient nor unnatural. I won’t suggest here that the Reformation threw the baby out with the bathwater, and we should all return to Mother Rome. But I will say the baby stinks. And be it soapy water or meaning-enriched gatherings, we could use some fresh surroundings. 

What we surround ourselves with in terms of enactment and story can very much inspire. And the lack thereof can leave us wallowing in the mud. Which leads to another hole in my church experience: matter.

As far as I’ve read, Iona Community founder George MacLeod is to be credited with coining the term, “Matter matters.” When I came across this little phrase while reading Ron Ferguson’s biography of MacLeod, I caught my breath. What a revolutionary idea! But why was this so shocking to me? Doesn’t our theology include the incarnation? What if our church communities lived in such ways as to affirm the physical, material resurrection of Jesus? Would this not by extension affirm (among many other things!) that the material world, the foundational medium for art, is also worthwhile, even sacred? 

How could we better practice our theology, which is quick to steer clear of Gnostic dualism, which sees God not ending all our hard work in a ball of fire but rather coming to dwell with us? If you can’t imagine how this looks any differently from your current setup, ask an artist.

These contribute to my strong reaction. And on top of it all, I am uninspired by the Christian church because of this: certainty. What’s wrong with certainty? Is it not right to be certain about core elements of our faith? But there it is: faith. Hebrews 11 notwithstanding, faith implies the unknown, it leaves the door open for mystery. 

Why would I, an artist, be interested in being a part of a people that barely tells its own story, has nary a care for physical matter, and has conveniently tied up all doubts? Why not just set up studio in the nearest Walmart?

 

Why does it matter?

I believe it matters not because artists need the church. Artists are no different from anyone, for we, every one of us together, need the saving story of God in and with God’s people. 

Rather, I believe it matters because the church needs artists. You need our unique perspective and contribution. To paraphrase one of the influential artists of the second half of the 20th century, Jannis Kounellis, the central and most awesome power of the artist is the regaining of the sacred without sentimentality. Our role is never to create the sacred. That is clear, and has been since before Aaron gathered gold from the people and fashioned an image of a calf. But three chapters later, in Exodus 35, the people are again donating their materials: precious metals, yes, but also various textiles, goats’ hair, acacia wood, and oil. This time it’s for constructing the tabernacle, which God’s presence makes sacred. The tabernacle, as fully itself as ever a piece of architecture was, was not the least bit sentimental.

What do we regard as sacred? Is it acceptable to regard, like the Hebrews did, material objects as sacred? Now we’re getting into dangerous ground.

Indeed, artists are not safe.

We’re liable to ruffle feathers. We threaten the status quo. I’ve long had the impression that the church tends to use artists only as long as they’re domesticated, housebroken: keep them producing chewable materials, pretty decorations that match the color scheme. Don’t let the artist’s own voice out. Otherwise, who knows what kind of heresies we might unleash!

“A good work of art inevitably calls the viewer’s own belief system into question,” say David Bayles and Ted Orland in their monumental little book, Art & Fear. Here is an appropriate place to again ask that final question: what might it look like for a church to inspire artists? Are we sure we want to? How are we threatened by that which is different, that which calls our dogmas into question?

 

Can we listen? Can we learn?

As a Christian living cross-culturally, I’ve struggled to practice the basics required by this lifestyle. I know I need to be a learner in this foreign environment, that my American ways are not inherently better than the local methods. But it’s hard. 

This culture challenges my senses, even of what is appropriate. Local friends whom I work with, whom I love and respect, (wait for it) chew with their mouths open. This is somehow supposed to convey to me that the food is particularly delicious. It doesn’t. 

In my position as “one sent,” I tend to lord it over my colleagues, to have the correct answers to bestow upon them. That’s what I’m here for, right? But I wonder, isn’t the real reason I’m here to love by listening, to care by learning to understand their different ways and different experiences?

And I wonder, is the church willing to give artists a fair listening so that mystery is once again welcomed?

Learning the local language is invaluable in connecting with and influencing a people; we know this. It is no big leap, then, to suggest that those church leaders who want to connect with and influence artists ought to go to where artists are. Go to shows, to art openings, visit galleries. But don’t go as a bulldozer, networking and scheming for how to host an art association event at your church; rather, listen. Learn. Value. Care. Allow the art to impact you, to influence you.

“The church doesn’t do this to make Jesus look cool,” Joanna Taft, of the Harrison Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, told me as I toured the center. The Harrison Center is a clear demonstration of a church showing hospitality to artists. It is a nonprofit arts center that is intimately and physically connected to Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. But the truth of Joanna’s statement made me laugh out loud with joy. Thank you, Joanna, for not using artists to market your church!

The Harrison Center provides ample studio and gallery space for artists, secular and Christian alike. While a church could do worse than follow suit and build an adjacent art space, I want to emphasize the attitude at work here: letting artists be artists. Let them track “unsafe” ideas, challenge assumptions, doubt. Allow their fingerprints to help regain, uncover, the sacred—even the sacredness of physical matter—with your community. Entrust them to that ancient, ever-young carpenter.

Jesus. Mysterious, uncool, physical God. Now that guy’s story inspires. 

 

Dan Drage, along with his wife and two daughters, live as cross-cultural Christians in a country in Southeast Asia. He and his wife walk with a team of local believers in doing community development work in Jesus’ name. On Wednesdays he makes art. 

 

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