The "Weaker Conscience": to push or not to push
In response to my notes under the TAC entry, my friend Timothy High, who teaches art at UT and heads up the Visual Arts Ministry at First Evangelical Free Church, responded with a few observations. The first is to say that they've had to remove works that were "too dark in terms of ideological bearing." They were, as such, inappropriate for the worship space. The second note was about children. He writes, "at VAM Gallery, we say that no works are to be hung in the gallery which would be offensive or oppressive to the conscience of a ten year old child."
I love having Tim around. It's a great gift to share this city with him and to work as partners in the revival and renewal of the arts within the churches of Austin. I wrote him a response, thinking it'd just be a line or two. It ended up being bushels of paragraphs. I've copied it here for further discussion. It's one of those pandora's boxes that could go every which way. But the occasion gave me a chance to practice clear thinking skills. We'll see if it's clear beyond my skull.
Tim, thanks for your additional thoughts. The thing we’ve bumped up against at Hope is not so much whether we would withhold a piece from being hung—we will—but on what occasions, what grounds, and to what degrees. Do we remove a work because it’s offensive to one person only, or to a percentage of people, to a majority? What if there will always be a person who is offended, do we still not hang work? What is their role and ours in helping each other grow in the understanding of work a “difficult” piece of art—in our ability to appreciate a work without having to like it?
What is our role as leaders to help expand a congregation’s knowledge and “taste” in art, whether in terms of form (e.g., not many like conceptual or abstract art) or content (e.g., difficult thematic elements which nonetheless constitute a legitimate arena of exploration for the Christian, such as sin and evil)? Recognizing that the context of our exhibits, the church, is not that of a general gallery, how do we discern what the range of purposes is for this space—a sacred space, a congregational space, a space which people don’t choose to visit per se, like a modern museum, but occupy because it’s our common worship space?
I look back at the history of the church and I see that art didn’t simply drop from heaven in one lump sum. Things developed. Experiments took place. Artists and pastors asked questions they’d never had to ask before. Decisions were made, patterns were formed, cultures were cultivated and, over time, solidified into living environments. For us as Protestants in North America, it’s as if we’re experiencing what the Church—our common Body of Christ—experienced in the first several centuries of its life. We’re asking old questions but we’re also asking new ones.
What is essential aesthetically for the Church? What is secondary? What is culturally universal? What is culturally relative and therefore a matter for each congregation to decide? For example: how we depict Christ. Do we depict him as a white, European male? Or as Chinese or black African? Do we represent him as an emperor or a blue-collar peasant-shepherd of Mediterranean extract? Does it matter? Why? Is this question absolute or is it subjective and altogether the domain of Christian liberty? What biblical, theological and historical reference points could help us make good decisions?
The conscience of a man and of a child is a powerful thing. It cannot be treated carelessly. To one man, drinking wine is offensive, perhaps for religious reasons, as was my case up until the age of 24 when I was confronted with a biblical reading that challenged the assumptions of my fundamentalist childhood. Perhaps he has suffered the terrible effects of alcoholism, and we, as shepherds who will be held accountable for our care of the sheep, dismiss to our own peril his feelings as “a private matter only.” To another, wine is a gift from God and the object of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles. Wine in the Protestant church is much like art: a complicated, vexing deal.
I think what I’m not willing to do is to let the “weaker conscience,” the “quickly offended conscience,” dictate all our decisions as pastor-leaders. The good of a community is not to be confused with what is comfortable to the lowest common denominator. The offended conscience might often be the pastor or priest. What I’ll want to do is to sit down with him, ask him why he feels and thinks the way he does, consider ways in which I can learn from what he believes. I’ll want to be humble. I’ll want to be teachable of heart. But I will also want to encourage him to listen to other points of view. I’ll want him to hear why artists—godly, God-fearing artists—feel that the depictions, for instance, of the nude is a beautiful, God-honoring act. The nude is an extreme example, admittedly, even for the other great traditions. But there are plenty of matters that push, pull and stretch our notions of what art is and what its place is in the context of the church gathered.
So my position is this.
Yes, I must always ask whether a work of art will be offensive. Yes, I must always consider the complex of reasons why this would be so. Yes, I must always seek to love the people of my congregation—by laying my life down for them. Yes, I must always love the “weaker” brother or sister with the best love I have to offer, which may often be a slow-going, exasperating love. Yes, I must love the children as Jesus loved them, not one iota less. Yes, my best decisions will be made in community.
And then also, yes, I must be willing to give my neighbor better art: art that is richer, more metaphorically complex, more mentally and emotionally and spiritually challenging. (I would say the same thing about myself as a preacher: a preacher must always be willing to give the people food that is more mentally, emotionally and spiritually challenging.) I must be willing to take time to teach a child how to read art discerningly. I must protect that child from things she’s not ready to experience. I must assume the best about my brother who is quickly offended by a work of art, that he is not naturally born stiff-necked or philistine but, with the right instruction and exposure to larger categories of art, that he is capable of growing. I must be willing to go slowly. I must be willing to be wrong. I must be willing to not do what I would love to do, or even what I think would actually be good to do, because there is a greater love, a greater wisdom at work.
As I remind myself often: Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. And conversely, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.
Anyhoo, I realize this is probably a more gigantic answer than you thought you would get. It’s certainly bigger than I thought when I began typing. Oh well. I guess the faucets opened unannounced and words started flowing. Weird the way of the muses.
I’d love to keep dialoguing about this. Hey, we could even turn the salient features of this discussion into a citywide/churchwide arts symposium. More learning, more growing—it’s a long and winding and exciting road ahead—why not.