A Microcosm of Why the Church and Art Have Trouble Getting Along

M y wife called this evening, upset. It seems that she accidentally kicked up some dust at church music camp this week.

The School of Fine Arts at First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, TN, is a unique, week-long opportunity for kids to get real experience with playing a variety of musical instruments. My wife Shar, a gifted musician and educator, was asked to lead vocal lessons in a musical theater style. Just two weeks prior Shar and our kids participated in a separate week-long camp production of Annie! at the same church. My ten-year old daughter was one of Annie’s orphan friends. (And did a wonderful job, I might add.)

For her musical theater voice curriculum my wife picked a resource of songs for children. It has a variety of well-known numbers such as “The Rainbow Connection.” (Love Kermit.) My wife checked it out, when not snapping our four kids into shape, then made some CD copies and had them distributed to camper moms.

The trouble started when one of the moms called the church to complain about foul language on a church CD. It seems she had popped it in the van stereo and was shocked when her children began to hear cursing from a church resource.

The song in question was “Little People” from Les Misérables. A child singer uttered a “damn,” and a CD-listening mom unwittingly exposed her own child to a miserable, worldly influence. The mom called the music folks at the church, and they called my wife, who in turn got tied up in knots, because she cares for people and wants to do things right.

So with my wife in Nashville, and me in Atlanta, I tried to help her through the moment.

This is where my neutral, supportive tone ends.

The thing is, I appreciate wanting to keep children from bad influences. I try to avoid letting my children watch hardened expressions of the human condition. So far they are a testament to the power of what my wife called the “funnel theory” of child raising: start at the bottom, letting very little in, and widen the input as they grow, so they are hopefully ready for adulthood by college.

Yet, isn’t the irony palpable? Of all of the songs on my wife’s CD, the only truly Christian narrative is Les Misérables. It is a powerful story of grace and justice and redemption – made all the more real by the miserable living conditions of the story’s characters.

Sure, the kids might say damn or bastard or some other dirty word. They live a dirty life. Are we to avoid talking to our comfortable, protected kids about such realities? Are they becoming better people through the safety of Kermit the Frog and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? Or are we doing a children a disservice when we focus on surface moral behavior and ignore the deeper truths that inform our ethical decisions? Art begins with honesty. Children are capable of understanding much deeper spiritual issues than we in the contemporary American church give them credit for.

Perhaps I am being unfair. The poor, verbally assaulted mom was just trying to get through her day. But, after I hung up the phone with my wife and called friend Gary Molander back to continue a conversation, I related what had just happened. We laughed together, and he said, “Isn’t that just a microcosm of the church and art?”


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

7 Comments on “A Microcosm of Why the Church and Art Have Trouble Getting Along”

  1. The really dirty thing would be pretending there is not a real world with real pain out there,while our kids are with us and we can help them understand that.
    But I do sympathize with that mom…when my kids were in junior high and high school, they often did junior versions of musicals, like Les Miserables Junior, that helped with some of the worry about exposing kids to things they were too young to take in…

  2. What can be done to change church culture (people’s hearts and minds) so that this type of incident is not representative of the church and art?

    1. Great question with no easy answer Jacob. To some degree it’s a discipleship issue, which makes it intractable. In other words, the nature of the church is that we will always have more stage 1 believers than stage 3 and 4 believers. Stage 1 believers are at a place of spiritual development where they need black and white answers. Stage 3 and 4 believers are more comfortable with shades of gray and ethical nuance, which is where art often lives.

      So part of it is making disciples. And another part is simply craft – we don’t need cursing to create “authenticity,” but what we do need is art that captures the nature of our human condition, as opposed to an excuse for moralizing.

  3. Good thoughts- thanks for sharing!

    I’d probably be inclined to substitute ‘the church’ with ‘many churches in which the residual iconoclasm of the reformation still exists’. That being said, in my own experience the disjunction between churches and their utilization or acceptance of art seems to have less to do with any categorical antagonism and more to do with a discomfort with certain types of art, which usually is parsed out as referring to modern types of art (and this more specifically is usually couched in terms of music). In many respects I would be somewhat sympathetic to this point of view, since modern art too often seems to barely hover over a substrate of nihilism, as we have largely rejected the classical and philosophical notion of beauty as convertible with the good and have substituted the relativistic and nihilistic notion of it being in the eye of the beholder.

    I think the greatest difficulty that many churches face in regards to art is that we have essentially co-opted the modern view towards art and beauty, but are not willing to go as far as they are in ‘selling’ it. And so we either make really lame copies of popular media that don’t go as far (e.g., without the sex, language or violence) or end up creating an equally lame attempt to moralize or evangelize (as you mention in one of your comments), since in both cases the goal is not to re-present the beautiful and the good but rather subsume the art within some lesser end.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jason, and your precision. I love it. To build on your comment and define myself more clearly:

      “church” = western, primarily Protestant congregations who descend from Reformation ecclesiology, though in my limited experience some contemporary Catholic congregations have adopted the same sensibilities

      “art” = usually “modern” (meaning of the contemporary time and not meaning a specific, philosophical era) works that reveal an unexamined acquiescence to relativism, that beauty is personal and subjective, and therefore has value only through self-reference or commercial utility.

      Your disinclination to acknowledge a “categorial antagonism” is hopeful and I encourage you to maintain it. I continue to devote my life to that which on some days I believe is a fruitless venture. In my experience, the vast majority of the time, art whose “purpose” is to represent what is beautiful, and to raise questions, and not serve as commercial utility, or didactic illustration, is questioned as unworthy of congregational resources.

      1. Thanks for the clarification and definitions- I think we are pretty much thinking along the same lines there. I think your characterization of modern art is particularly insightful.

        One interesting thing I’ve noticed in my experience in more traditional churches (both Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, especially of the historically ‘high church’ flavor) is that there seems to be a correlation between the particular parish’s/congregation’s efforts to contemporize and the antagonism between that particular church and art, either art of a traditional form or more contemporary forms. For quite some time it struck me as an odd concurrence, but then I noticed that the relativizing of art tends to mean that, as you mentioned, art only comes to have value as self-reference or utility. That may explain why modern church architecture has been particularly garish, or how we somehow get stuck with things like sanctinasiums. If we lose the notion of beauty as objective and interchangable with the good, we will have no choice but to either vacillate between the current notions of beauty (which usually ends up meaning what pop culture understands as beauty) or identifying it only with its practical use, which is just as bad.

        The sad thing is that there needn’t be any disjunction between art as a re-presentation of beauty, its didactic value and its utility (and I’m guessing you would agree). For example, an icon can be a work of art in and of itself, simply because of its artistry and beauty. It can, by virtue of that beauty, have didactic value since the beauty can highlight and draw out the various facets of any particular work. Finally, it can have utility; e.g., as an aid to prayer or meditation. The crucial thing is that if beauty is relativized, such an object (be it icon or other) immediately loses any possible cohesion between beauty and utility, since the beauty is not something that presents itself to and overtakes the viewer, but can only be deemed so in relation to the subjective stance of that viewer.

        So it seems to me that any antagonism between church and art is generally proportional to the philosophical meaning that once ascribes to beauty. I’d submit that a return to the classical notion of beauty (and all the transcendentals, for that matter) would do wonders for how churches approach art. But I digress 🙂

        On another note: as someone who has inhabited both sides of the disjunction, I think there is also room for artists within the church to make a more concerted effort to imbibe their faith more so as to be able to imbue their works with that faith, whether explicitly or implicitly. Speaking only for myself, it’s easy to kind of approach any particular piece as if I am the only one who can really speak into it, without allowing the wisdom and insights of others (be they living or dead) to contribute to my efforts. One thing that my collegiate training in pastoral ministry and theology has really helped with is to be able to ‘speak the language’ of the church, so to speak. The reason a lot of church art is so cliched, in my opinion, is that many involved in its production- whether they be the artists or the pastors- have a fairly superficial understanding of how the theological underpinnings of the Christian faith weave together and breathe as a cohesive whole. Many artists don’t really speak or understand that language very well, and so their productions can tend to not really capture the essence or the flavor as well as they could, devolving either into cliches or dissolving into meaningless abstractions.

        It can be hard sometimes to actually find artists who can articulate the faith or theological concepts visually in a deep and rich way, which is partially why (imo) so many churches settle for the trite and the cliched. I’d imagine that for many pastors and leaders that can be where some of the mistrust can come from. And while I wouldn’t excuse the bastardization of art for utility, I also think that artists need to be able to learn to express religious concepts both intelligently and beautifully. As I think of some of the greatest works of religious art, it seems to me that they would not have the pathos and deep spiritual meaning they have without an artist who was steeped in the language of faith and theology. That doesn’t mean Michelangelo (as an example) was a theologian, but rather that his worldview was so steeped in that world that it couldn’t help but express itself. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories also come to mind as a more contemporary example.

        Anyway, sorry for the lengthy post- I just really enjoy discussing this subject and so whenever I find an opportunity to do so, I cannot help but do so. Thanks! I’ve always found your comments and insights to be great food for thought, so keep it up!

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