To many people I’ve come across in my journey thus far, art is not a vital part of the human existence. It can be an entertaining distraction from a dreary world, or a time-consuming hobby to be enjoyed on the side, but it is rarely thought of as an integral aspect of our humanity. Professional artists are thought of as people who refuse to get real jobs; people who need to get their heads out of the clouds and realize that their hobby should not be their main source of income. “Anyone can do art,” they say, “so why should we pay some to do it?”
This tragic world-view upsets me as both an artist and a Christian. The Church was, at one time, one of the most prolific patrons of the arts, commissioning soaring cathedrals, massive and beautiful murals, intricate statues and icons, and educational and entertaining plays. The Protestant Reformation, however, brought with it a fear of anything related to the Papists, and shunned many of the beautiful works that the Catholic Church had created. The iconoclasm of the 16th Century destroyed many works of art that can never be recovered, a shame that we must live with today.
The church needs art, and therefore artists, to turn the eyes of their congregations to God, honour the beauty of Creation and the glory of God, and to respect the call that God has given to the artists in His family.
The idea behind icons in the Catholic Church is not to worship a beautiful piece of art, but to see through the art to the God who inspired it. This is true of all great works of art. An stunning photograph of a morning landscape calls to mind the perfection of pre-Fall Creation. An evocative poem about the suffering of street people can awaken a love for our fellow humans. A Passion Play can bring the truth of Christ’s pain and love in a way that a sermon may never be capable of. Art is able to connect to people on a level that is much deeper than instruction and light conversation. Dr. Gordon Smith, in his book Courage and Calling states that the purpose of art is, “at the very least, to enrichen our lives from the inside out, to foster a depth of appreciation for the beauty of God and God’s creation.” This sounds like a calling that warrants more than a hobbyist’s devotion.
I understand the argument that the money that is required to create art could be spent on helping the poor and providing for the needs of those who are without. This is true, and the cost of a modern cathedral could probably pay for the feeding of a small impoverished town for a long time. This argument, however, ignores a different group of the poor, those who are poor in spirit. North America is rapidly losing its spirituality. Materialistic Atheism has taken over as one of the only publicly acceptable world-views, a shift that breaks my heart, for many are left without the eternal hope that Christ brings. Through this, many Christians have focused on the here and now, honouring God by serving His broken people. While this is commendable, I believe that we have let many areas of our lives slide away from a God-honouring priority. Many churches today look more like community halls, unrecognizable as churches if it was not for the sign outside. They do little to inspire awe and reverence for the Creator of the Universe in the way that the old cathedrals of Europe still do.
A college professor of mine told a story of two police officers seeking a place of prayer as one of their friends lay injured in the hospital. When asked by a priest why they chose the Catholic church, as neither of them were Catholic and several other churches were nearby, they replied “It looks like God lives here.” I would love for every church to look like God lives there.
The Old Testament nation of Israel understood the place of artists within its community. As gifted members of the society, they were given God honouring work to perform. In Exodus 35 and 36, Bezalel is chosen by God to be the official head artisan for His people. God filled Bezalel with His Spirit to enable the man and his associate Oholiab “to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers” (Ex. 35:35). They were then paid for their work from the offerings that the Israelite people brought forth. The people were so excited by the godly work of Bezalel, Oholiab, and their fellow artists that they gave too much money, and Moses had to turn potential patrons away.
Today, however, we do not see Artist as a legitimate calling from God, but we should. We, as Christians, have left society to be crafted by the secular world, and then complain that movies are too violent and sexual, that music is degrading and promotes a lifestyle we cannot endorse, and our legal system is turning away from the code of morality that gave it birth. Artists are the people who craft culture through music, movies, theatre, the visual arts, fashion, architecture, and the many other art-forms, and we need to support our artists if we want to make a difference in our society. We need not financially support every artist for their entire lives, but we should encourage and guide them whenever we can, for they are integral to both our church lives and the secular world they work in.
Christian artists, imbued with the image of God, are capable of leading His people towards a deeper love and understanding of the Creator. They can shine His glory for the world to see in ways that reach beyond the short days of their lives. They are able to change culture, if we only give them the platform from which to work. Artists are called by God to be artists, not hobbyists, and we need to accept that. They can reach out to the broken world with a message of hope, something the Church can always use for God’s glory.