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Making a Case for the Resident Artist in the Church

It would be a serious oversight to limit our understanding of the impact of theology to strictly religious art, and overlook its pervasive role in shaping human understanding and artistic expression thereof

within any given culture-regardless of the subject matter at hand.

~John Walford


This post is inspired by Michael Minkoff’s talk Unmuzzling our Artistic Ox for the Flourishing of the Church given at the “Reforming the Arts” 2017 conference. What follows directly interacts with the lecture. Some of our arguments here spring from claims Mr. Minkoff has defended in his talk. View the lecture here:

Summary of the principal arguments:

  • Art is central to the presentation of God’s revelation of Himself;

  • art is on par with (though does not replace) propositional sermons in both capacity and necessity;

  • art persuades (or prepares) the heart before the mind has time for rational evaluation;

  • much of the text of the Scriptures are presented using artistic mediums such as poetry, lyric, parable, and performance art (even nature itself, as God’s artistic expression);

  • precedent for art being an essential aspect of community and religious life clearly established in the Scriptures (e.g. Moses, Nehemiah, Solomon)

  • Subjecting the Gospel message to the marketplace results in a corruption of the message because it must be tailored to suit the audience (“tickling ears”);

  • the preacher is not forced into the marketplace, and thus neither should the artist;

  • the vision (and the “visionary artist,” rather than the mere craftsman) must be protected and supported by the Church to avoid corruption;

  • the Bible is full of stories which do not find a ready audience in the world

  • he who pays the artistic bill sets the artistic standard;

  • helping artists to mature spiritually the Church is preferable to throwing artists to the world where they will be forced into the “cult of the artist;”

There are many reasons to agree with the premise that art is essential to the presentation of the Gospel, several of which are ably addressed in the lecture. We offer two additional arguments here:

Argument from Cognitive Psychology | First, what we understand of cognitive psychology supports the thesis. Jordan B. Peterson describes knowledge as a three-level construct: action, dream, and articulation. In this case, articulated knowledge would be best illustrated by the propositional sermon, where abstractions are articulated through rational discourse in clear language capable of self-critique and rational assent. But, significantly, before this sermon can happen, the knowledge exists in “dream” at the periphery of consciousness. It is this dream which permits man to make sense of the world around him, and of human experience generally, until he can at last articulate it rationally. It is the artist, the musician, the poet who acts both as mediator – and also facilitator – of knowledge. Jungian psychology, at least, would recognize the priori nature of art, in that the archetype speaks first. Thus, we can engage in propositional Christianity expressly because art has readied the mind to receive it.

Argument from Common Practice | Second, consider that churches are frequently staffed with paid musicians (whether vocal or instrumental) as means permit. In smaller churches, this may be as simple as the choir director or an organist. So-called contemporary churches will often maintain a sophisticated musical arts apparatus which may include a professional band, singers, and technical crew. Regrettably, these are overwhelming representative of the “talented craftsmen” Minkoff discusses. Rare is the visionary artist/songwriter whose compositions form the liturgical expression of their local church. Talented musical craftsmen are needed in the Church, to be sure. But we wonder, where are the talented composers who are producing, rather than merely performing, musical art in the Church? It would appear they are all in Nashville working in, and ultimately for, a worldly musical apparatus whose goal is profit, not worship. Gone, we suspect, are the days of John W. Peterson’s ilk, who at least worked for a Christian publisher, not merely the “Christian imprint” of a a-religious publishing conglomerate. Can we even imagine the likes of a Peterson at that house today? I leave it to the reader to judge how that musical output compares with the broader historic cannon of Church music.

Cultural Creation vs. Consumption | This pattern of church-financed praise bands, worship pastors, organists, choir directors, and sound board engineers concedes an essential point: that there is a need to support musicians financially, whatever the particulars of any compensation structure might look like. Thus, Blerkins isn’t setting out any new principle here about which churchmen are not already in general agreement. Rather, we are trying to clarify the nature of what such artists should be doing. To reiterate, at least some of the professional staff should be capable of – and be encouraged to – engage in a program of original compositions which speak to the liturgical and community needs of the local church. To borrow Crouch’s language here, we should be proactively creating culture, not merely consuming and performing it.

Of course, we would go further and suggest that what’s good for the goosely musician should also be good for the gandery visual artist. If, as Minkoff and I have argued, the arts are formative to faith, then surely a robust program in the visual arts is not only desirable, but necessary. Perhaps, ironically, the role is less visible (i.e. the presence of visual artist in the service is more subtle, less featured) but the impact of the art should occupy no less a central role in preparing and leading the congregant through a time of proper worship.

Forfeiture of Artistic Dominion a Primary Cause of Church Decline | The Church is desperately in need of this. In this age of falling numbers, nearly every Church is reaping the impact of an increasingly secularized, publicly educated culture. Membership is aging. Baptisms are declining. Giving is down. The long-term demographics are not pretty. And of those folks who are showing up – however occasionally – they are less and less interested in didactic, expository teaching, and instead they are looking for an experience. Expect the typical congregant today to arrive when the lights and spectacle are in motion, or when the supernatural rush of the Holy Ghost rains down, or when we roll out the free beer at Oktoberfest. Sunday School? Wednesday night Bible study? You’re kidding, right?

Am I saying that this decline and theological apathy are the result of church’s not hiring artists? Well, yes actually. Obviously, other factors are at work here also, and we have alluded to some of them. But the hard truth is that the secularization of art and music, and the church’s dependency on popular culture, is a direct – not indirect – result of the Church’s failure to: maintain artistic dominion by hiring visionary artists (not merely skilled craftsmen), to commission original works (rather than shop the CCM catalogs), and to use art to teach (not merely illustrate) the Faith.

In other words, it’s a failure of pedagogy. In ancient Greece, the pedagogue was the fellow whose thankless job it was to steer the adolescent boys to school by walking through parks and past temples and courts – and more importantly, to avoid walking to school by way the strip bars and chariot races and casinos. The idea was that the passive backdrop of culture also taught values, and the boys would pick up the wrong sets of values and habits if they were constantly tempted by the wrong sorts. I’m not saying that over the past 500 years that there weren’t hookers and hedonistic artists hawking their wares; but they competed for space against a vibrant and well-funded Christian artistic scene. More than a few artists, privately given to the tawdry, towed the teleological line in their art by day…if they wanted to get paid. And that, more than anything, is what we’re missing today.

How might this work?

Artist in Residence | One possibility: the “artist in residence.” This is not a new idea. Many colleges, museums, and other civic bodies have an artist who works on-site or in-house for a proscribed period of time: anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. The arrangement is usually that the host furnishes resources and an environment which they hope will result in artistic productivity. The artist grows in his skill and the host gains meaningful art. Although sometimes this may involve a salary, more frequently the compensation takes the form of a stipend, which may be advanced, pending timely receipt of the finished work. Where appropriate, it may include room and board or other in-kind arrangements. This model presents less risk to the host than an expensive salaried position, and it preserves an economic incentive for the artist. The artist is usually asked to apply his talent to a particular theme or subject of interest to the host. The artist, then, is a consenting participant and is economically induced to honor the ideals and values of the institution which has hired him. We can imagine this would bring about a generally satisfactory result.

The artist-in-residence is akin to the more historic notion of patronage, though in the case of patronage the benefactor simply covers costs and leaves the artist to it. The downside is there may be little to hold the artist accountable to a vision or articulated set of values. This, perhaps, leaves the visionary artist with a degree of freedom which may exceed his usefulness. It may be true that the vision is, in a sense, the artist’s – but that vision must be in service and submission to the Church. The prevailing “cult of artist” characteristic of today’s avant-garde should give us particular pause here.

Artistic Ownership & Control | Another issue which may need greater treatment is the nature of “rights” and ownership, which today are heavily skewed in favor of the artist. The Church needs to again assert her role, not only as a sponsor of art, but also as an owner and curator of art as well. The Church needs to reenter into this role with clear legal safeguards against abuse or theft, by which we mean to implicate the artist himself. Michelangelo, without question, signed his work; but he was never in doubt about to whom it belonged. And when the Church (perhaps a little tardily) noticed that he had forgotten to clothe the figures, it was entirely in the right to add a few well-placed fig leaves. We can hear the artistic purists gasping at the mere thought of it, but their sharp intake of oxygen only confirms how skewed this balance between artist and owner has become.

Conclusion | Imagine for a moment the impact upon art – not just religious art – of thousands of churches commissioning original paintings, statues, vessels, clothing, films, poems, hymns, landscapes, murals, stained glass, tapestries, plays, cantatas, operas, photographic collections, documentaries, histories, gardens, parks, and even the curtains – anything a visionary artist might create. Now imagine that each of these “artists” were to proclaim the Gospel through their art, even if only passively. Imagine a generation of talented visionary artists finding their artistic fulfillment inside the church, not outside in the world. Can you imagine how the cultural life and spiritual maturity of the Church would be transformed? The “dream” of this generation deepening the “articulated” understanding of the next. A generation of artistic ministers sowing seeds intended to be harvested by the tomorrow’s pastors. Salting the hay, as it were.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote that, “If it's bad art, it's bad religion...” The Church presently has it within its grasp to ensure that the next generation needn’t have to endure either.

Blerkins is an eclectic blog of scholarly reflection and cultural commentary for folks who still believe that Western civilization has merit; and that life is far too interesting to give up on, or waste on television.
Our audience tends to be people exasperated with the world but too idealistic to give up on cultural engagement; who swim in a world seemingly devoid of truth, yet are too ethical for hedonism.


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