In the Reformed world, transformationalism is the most prevalent view of Church-culture relations. This view espouses that because Jesus rules over all things, even culture is a part of Jesus’ kingdom. A general tagline for transformationalism is, “Christ transforms culture”. Practically, this view means that when a person becomes a believer in Jesus Christ, their habits, their work life, their customs, are all altered as the individual seeks to be obedient to Jesus. Now, even the Spirituality of the Church view agrees with this concept. But transformationalism implies, next, that as an individual alters their customs, the culture itself is altered. As the culture is altered, it is being reclaimed by Jesus Christ. This is one way in which Christ’s rule spreads visibly and tangibly in the world. Now, this sounds like a triumphant and optimistic view of Christ’s kingdom, and indeed, it is, however I question the biblical-ity of it. Despite that question, my main point in this short post isn’t to critique transformationalism. It is, instead, to offer a viable demonstration of how the Spirituality of the Church view is carried out in relation to culture, particularly the arts.
Imagine that you are an artist, and you become a Christian. How should you then make art? This is the subject of numerous books, all of which have varying advice and approaches. Some suggest that you must make symbolic representations of biblical themes and ideas. Others say that you must merely make art very beautifully. In short, I’d argue that there are two prevalent views today: 1. Symbolic Christian Art (Symbolists) 2. Aesthetic Christian Art (Aestheticians). Now, any adherent to the second view would hate the fact that I attached “Christian” to the
term art. They say that you can no more make Christian Art than you can have a Christian Toilet. Obviously, they are correct, however I simply use the term to mean “art made by Christians”. So, calm yourselves. Many people in the first group are very strongly anti-modernist. They believe that Modern art has destroyed a culture, and cannot be used honorably. Others within the group disagree, and employ modernist techniques and practices while they also use symbolism. The second group generally believes that Modern art is, as a whole, useful to the Christian, and uses aspects of the philosophy and aesthetic of modern art. The Symbolists employ a more worldview-based, common-sense-realist epistemology while the Aestheticians have what is often called a “sacramental” view of reality, or a more post-modern epistemology. Despite all of these differences, both groups agree that Christians have, as a common task as artists, to create works of art that compel hope in the gospel. The problem is this: to what extent does your artwork carry out that task, and to what extent do you as an individual carry out that task?
An Altered Approach
This is where the Spirituality of the Church is exceedingly helpful. It says that you should reconsider your purpose in making art. It is not the task of art to share the gospel. It is the task of individuals to verbally share the message about Jesus’ saving work. Spirituality of the Church argues that as members of God’s Kingdom, you also ought to live in a way that persuasively demonstrates the verbal message that you believe Jesus. But that ethical life doesn’t somehow prepare an unbeliever to believe. This means that whatever job a Christian has, it is not the burden of the job to convince others about Jesus. If you are a farmer, your production of soy is not going to convince the world that Jesus is risen from the dead. Rather, it is the burden of the person, the Christian, to share the message, and to support the message with a godly life. But what about art? Art is distinct in that it is a communicative thing. Soy is farmed for consumption, but art for contemplation (supposedly). So, doesn’t that make art distinctly responsibly for the communication of Christianity? Well, while visual art employs a kind of visual language, yet it is not sufficient to share the gospel. Yes, it may communicate certain themes. Yes, it may depict truths. But the medium is the message, and the medium is not fit for the proclamation that we are responsible to make as people. This will undoubtedly anger some people, but I argue it nevertheless. The gospel itself is expounded through auditory or literary means, “faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” What Paul has in mind is not a play, demonstrating Jesus’ work. He is not considering a movie, depicting Jesus’ work. He does not consider a novel, somehow relating to Christian themes. No, Paul has in mind the explicit, clear, and precise verbal or written presentation of the good news about Jesus.
In the sacramentalist mindset, artists often argue that beautiful aesthetics prepare a person to believe in Jesus Christ. In the symbolist mindset, artists argue that complex literary or visual symbols help persuade a person to believe in Jesus. Personally, I believe this is a unfounded idea, and akin to a kind of preparationism. While God uses varying means to ultimately convert a person, the burden of the artist is not to make their art for the evangelistic purpose. So Spirituality of the Church then compels an artist to say, “I can’t make art that compels a person to believe. I can’t make art that is persuasive. But I, as an individual, must do this with my ethic and my speech.”
The arts are unnecessarily burden by an evangelistic ethos–both in the symbolist and aesthetician schema. Yes. I say all of this, but then I must add something: we talk about what we love. Art is indeed communicative. As Christians, we will talk about our love for Jesus. But the problem I’ve been responding to is with our expectations. We should not expect our art to be converting instruments, though obviously God may use them in that manner. But, while the subjectivity of the visual language of art makes it unfitting for evangelism, at the same time art is quite fitting for a “discussion” of certain themes or ideas that the artist finds important. So, as a Christian, your art is about truths you find valuable. Beauties you love. Concepts that are fascinating. Typically, these ideas will be related to Jesus, yes, but not always specifically. There are Christians who make art about geography, theology, aesthetic quality, time, space, etc. You are free to make it about whatever subject is God-honoring. In the end, the Spirituality of the Church entails that you, as a believer, have the task of making your craft in a God-honoring way, and beyond that, in sharing the gospel personally, and living it out with godly character.