By C. Robert Wetzel
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).
How are we to understand Paul’s distress in seeing the city of Athens full of idols? Surely he had been in many cities whose streets and marketplaces were adorned with numerous idols. Perhaps his anguished reaction was because Athens was regarded as the intellectual capital of the Western world, and Athenians should have known better. Certainly some of the city’s philosophers had known better . . . and found themselves in trouble for saying so.1 Perhaps Paul’s distress might be comparable to ours today if we discovered a coven of witches at a major university.
There is another way to understand Paul’s distress. Greek sculpture was unsurpassed in representing an idealized form of the human body, and the statues of Greek deities were, by and large, idealized human forms. Could Paul have recognized the persuasiveness of such beauty?
I think of films today in which irrational if not downright nonsensical beliefs are made beautifully persuasive. Perhaps Paul recognized the persuasive power of these beautiful artistic creations that supposedly represented some far-off Grecian deity. Certainly those of us who preach the gospel today must recognize what we are up against when confronted with artistically persuasive films and other art forms.
Early Christians readily identified with the Jewish abhorrence of idol worship. They knew the Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me” and, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4).
The Jews were primarily a people of the book, not visual arts. Not that they weren’t artistic. Witness the beauty of the Psalms, whether read or sung, and the artistic expression in such structures as the tabernacle and temple.
Furthermore the Jewish people certainly knew the power of symbols. For example, consider that pile of stones that served as a sort of monument after the Israelites crossed the Jordan river (see Joshua 4:6, 7). We do not know how artistic this pile of stones was, but there must have been some order since, “These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:7).
The First Church
Given its Jewish background, the Christian message was initially spread by the preaching of the Word. But even this involved storytelling, that is, the story of how God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, how he taught, how he died, and how he rose again.2
Music was certainly a part of the early Christian worship as evidenced by Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. One might suppose that, given the loose connection of house churches in the early history of the church, there was not much room for the developments of the arts as we know them today, other than music and storytelling.
It is not until the third century that we find a few frescoes, usually representing Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But in the fourth century we begin to see a flourishing of Christian art. This coincides with construction of the earliest church buildings made possible when the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan in AD 313.
Today one can still see some of the elaborately carved marble tombs from this era that portray biblical figures. Perhaps the fear of creating graven images gave way to the simple recognition of the power of the arts in teaching the basic meaning of the gospel.
The power of the visual arts in teaching children is obvious. It may have been the flannelgraph and chalk art of yesteryear, or the vivid multimedia presentations and clever craft packs of today. These art forms do for us what many of the more elaborate stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals did for their illiterate worshippers in days past. They tell the biblical story.
The Stone-Campbell Movement
In the Stone-Campbell Movement, as well as in most Protestant churches, there was an inclination to avoid the highly decorated places of worship of the Roman Catholic Church. This was especially true when it came to statues representing Jesus, Mary, and a host of “saints.” Occasionally a painting of Jesus or a biblical scene might find its way into one of our buildings,3 but even this could become a point of contention.
On the other hand, there have certainly been some extraordinary architectural achievements in our day. Some of these are likely to be a testimony to future generations of the strength of the vibrant Christian faith that produced them. And it is our prayer that there will be vibrant churches in those buildings, unlike those majestic but empty cathedrals found in so many European countries.
Music for the Mainstream
One of the many blessings of the megachurch movement is the opportunity to invest in the arts. There are actually congregations with ministry positions focused on the arts. Music, drama, and multimedia are blended to create rich worship experiences that have an affinity with contemporary culture. The texture of the music and the way it is presented may have a certain familiarity to the non-Christian visitor, but the message is thoroughly Christian.
It has been gratifying to see some of the new music being produced by Christian artists finding its way into mainstream American culture. For example, when I want some easy listening instrumental music, I sometimes turn to the New Age music channel on DIRECTV.4 From time to time, I have been pleasantly surprised to hear instrumental versions of songs I sometimes hear in contemporary worship services. In fact, as I was writing this article the station was playing an instrumental version of Marty Nystrom’s “As the Deer.” Why have the programmers included this music? Because of its quality. And it is likely that some of what we now call contemporary music will make its way into the treasury of hymnology that transcends generations.
On the other hand, there is a gold mine of Christian music composed over the ages that can still enrich the worship experience today. Granted, when it comes to music, there is no accounting for taste. But the church dare not confine itself to catering to only one particular taste.5
I am still grateful to the organist at First Christian Church in Hugoton, Kansas, almost 70 years ago who played a Bach “Prelude” during Communion. Of course, I did not know J. S. Bach or the music of the 18th century. But it was beautiful even to this boy, who was more accustomed to hearing gospel hymns, big band, and western swing. Since then, the music of Bach, especially his choral compositions, has provided me with many rich worship experiences.
My observations about music can also be said about film, painting, and other art forms. In recent years we have seen a number of films with strong Christian messages. Some of these movies are produced by capable Christian filmmakers, but others have been produced simply because they were thought to be good stories that people would pay to see.
As I write this, Roy Lawson and I are revising the syllabus for the “Theology and the Arts: Cinema” course we teach at the master’s and doctoral level for Emmanuel Christian Seminary. We developed the course, in part, in recognition that the ministers prepared by our colleges and seminaries will be preaching to people who are watching films.
The first concern of the church is to proclaim the gospel. The arts can facilitate that proclamation and make it all the more persuasive. Thus, we will do well to encourage gifted Christian young people to pursue a “ministry of the arts.” Young musicians, painters, actors, and writers among us need to be encouraged in the same way we encourage our young preachers. All of us who preach can be thankful for those in the congregation who responded to our early sermon attempts with kind and encouraging words, even when those early sermons bordered on being disastrous! And, just as an older Christian can find something helpful in the sermons of young ministers, so we might find our lives enriched by what the young artists and musicians among us are producing.
We will do well to recognize and recover the rich artistic gems produced by the church over the centuries. And we will do equally well in encouraging the gifted among us in their ministry of art.
1One of the charges brought against the philosopher Socrates at his trial in 399 BC was that he denied the gods. The other charge was that he corrupted the youth.
2Keep in mind that storytelling is also an art form.
3The most likely picture to be found in one of our church buildings was Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ.
4The new age movement may have produced a lot of philosophical nonsense, but its musicians did give us much enjoyable easy listening music.
5Yes, I have opened a can of worms here!
C. Robert Wetzel is retired chancellor of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee.