5 Questions for the Arts in the Church

(Note: I lost my wedding ring last Sunday and it has providentially re-appeared today. I can't tell you how happy I am. I feel like that woman with the lost coin in Jesus' parable.)

Christians from the very beginning of the church have had to answer five questions about the role of art in the church. These questions are of a fundamental sort. They do not determine what exactly we will do with, say, visual art or music. They will reveal rather what we believe to be truthful and necessary for the well-being of the church. The answers to these questions are by no means straightforward. A great deal revolves around how we interpret the Scriptures. Our personal and ecclesial histories will factor in. But as you look back on history and as you look around you at the practices of contemporary churches, everybody will have answered these five questions, whether consciously or unconsciously. Whether we've articulated our answers is a separate matter. The fact remains: our actions have answered the questions for us. Here they are.

1. What is stated explicitly in Scripture about the arts?

2. What is stated implicitly in Scripture?

3. What is warranted by history?

4. What is pastorally salutary?

5. What is good for the unity of the church at large?

Pick any art form in any particular manifestation and work your way through these questions. Take something easy for starters, say music. Let's attempt a brief exercise. Let's slot in answers for music.

1. Really this question comes as a two-headed hydra: What does Scripture prescribe and what does it proscribe? Plenty, for example, is said positively about music in the Psalter. But how you perceive music's proper role in the church will depend on a) how you interpret passages in the NT such as Ephesians 5:19 and b) whether you believe the NT's relative silence on instruments suggests a positive or negative estimation of instruments. The language of Hebrews about "shadows and figures" vis-a-vis the OT will also loom large. You will find plenty of passages in the prophetic literature which comment "negatively" on music. Is this commentary a universal disapproval of music or only of the misuse or abuse of music?

2. Psalm 150:3 commands us explicitly to make music with the "strings and flute." Does this imply that any instrument which is produced by the manipulation of strings and wind counts as a biblically viable way of worshiping? We know from history that the organ did not receive a universal welcome at its inception. We also know that the electric guitar (strings + amplification of wind) has earned less than enthusiastic reception in certain churches. What does the Bible imply about good uses of music and the instruments with which we make our music?

3. Appealing to the practices of Christians throughout history is always a powerful argument. What did the apostolic church do? What did the early church fathers do? What did the Medievals do? Or not do? What did the transition from chant to polyphony look like and what arguments were made to defend its harmonic entrance into the church's musical worship? Are all instruments "equally valid" in their service to the liturgy? The tuba, the tympany, the didgeredoo, the sitar, the saxophone? Yes? No? On what grounds? Are all instruments somewhat like the "one body, many roles" of 1st Corinthians?

4. Here the pastor plays a crucial role. A pastor may believe from #1-3 that the Hammond B-3 organ should be incorporated into the church's service. He may live in a particular city in a particular part of town where jazz features largely, say New Orleans. He may have a pile of jazz musicians eager to serve the liturgy. They may be ready to make that electric organ jive to the theological and emotional contours of David's psalms (not vice versa, mind you). But the pastor may also have a congregation made up entirely of senior citizens. These saints grew up in the Baptist tradition and knew only the peacable sounds of a "traditional" organ. For them the H B3 would be strange. For this pastor it would not be pastorally salutary to dump the Hammond B cold and fast on a people for whom those sounds will distract instead of usher their souls to God.

5. But perhaps in the long-run it will be good for the unity of the church at large to welcome to B-3. Perhaps the church will remember that every generation will bring its own new instruments into the hallowed courts of worship. To thoughtlessly reject them because they are "strange" and "new" will distort not only what the Bible allows, even encourages ("sing to the Lord a new song"?), but it will also needlessly alienate a population of young people who are zealous to offer their whole selves, jazz tunes, organ sounds and all, to God--much like those revoluationary monks in the Middle Ages who introduced multiple melody lines into the brothers' nighttime prayers.

But perhaps not. How you have answered the first three questions will inform your actions related to #4 and #5. And somestimes #4 and #5 will work retroactively on #1-3. Sometimes our experience of something will cause us to read Scripture differently. We will see new things in the biblical text. They were always there but our cultural context prevented us from seeing rightly.

Or perhaps not.

And a great deal of this will have to do with your notion of authority: who, why and on what grounds.

These are some of the issues that I want to explore in next spring's retreat for ministers/leaders to artists. Stay tuned. Dates are March 4-7.

Speaking of which: Luci Shaw has agreed to be our second speaker. Total yay for that.

And now back to doing research for Lauren Winner on, in her words, "all scholarly articles related to correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams." Good times.


Popular Posts