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Epic Theology

Finding God through the lens of an artist

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A Response to Mark Driscoll

As it turns out, I am not the only one writing on art and faith.

Mark Driscoll, a pastor in Seattle, has written on Four Ways Artistry Can Become Idolatry. I deeply respect this man for his faithful preaching of God’s Word throughout his ministry, and I appreciate his in-your-face, take-no-prisoners style of teaching. Not everyone has the respect for him that I do, and people seem divided on whether or not Mark Driscoll is a good pastor or not. Even though I do not agree with everything he says, I am on the side that defends his ministry.

Today, I want to discuss the article I’ve linked to above. If you haven’t read it, please stop, go click the link, and read the post. Then come back to join the conversation. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, let’s dig through what Pastor Mark has to say about art and idolatry.

Smashing Idols

Driscoll begins with a brief personal and church history as it regards art. The Catholic Church has always approved of and utilized art for the glorification of God. In the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, the Church was one of, if not the biggest patron of the arts. Works such as Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have rarely found their match outside the world of the Church. There have been dark times (such as one pope removing all “indecent” parts of sculptures in the Vatican), but nothing compared to the iconoclasm associated with the Reformation.

When the Protestants saw some church-goers worshipping the icons of the saints, they decided the best plan was to remove and destroy all art in their churches. Many pieces were smashed, burned, or torn to shreds to protect the laity from falling back into pagan-like worship. Mark Driscoll understands this. As an artist, I think it is a great shame. We are left without thousands of masterpieces, the spiritual work of artists trying to worship God through their talents. There had to have been a better way than to destroy everything that COULD have led a brother or sister to old and sinful ways.

God Loves Art

I totally agree. God is a Creator and gave us the commands to create beautiful works of art. We have a tendency, however, to worship that which we have created, including pieces originally intended for the glory of God. The point of icons, however, is not to be an object of worship, but as a means through which we are able to draw nearer to God. We are to look through the piece of art to the Creator who inspired it, and perhaps learn a little of His majesty, power, and beauty in the process. This is a matter of teaching this appreciation of icons to our congregations and helping them to not worship the object but the God it points to.

As for Mark Driscoll’s four ways art can become idolatry:

1. When We Claim That Art is Mediatorial

I really think this is a misunderstanding of what an icon is. Nothing about the icon itself is more holy than anything else in creation. It is a tool, not to bring God closer to you, but to draw closer to Him. Just like a set of worship songs at the beginning of a service can help bring a congregation to an emotional place to hear the Word of God, so too can art allow us to place ourselves in a place to hear from our Creator. We must be careful, I admit, but I think all of our spiritual endeavors must be undertaken with a certain degree of caution. It is so easy to substitute the creation for the Creator, and vigilance is necessary.

2. When Any Attempt is Made to Portray the Father

Adam and God from the Sistine Chapel
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I don’t think I understand Driscoll’s argument on this one. As long as we do not worship the created portrayal of the Father, I don’t see this as idolatry. I agree that God the Father cannot be accurately portrayed, but part of the work of the artist is to explore the unportrayable. We often depict Death as a person, which is wildly inaccurate. I think it is perfectly acceptable for the artist, whether he or she works on the stage, in film, or on canvas to try to communicate his or her idea of who the Father is.

3. When there is Confusion Between the Creator and the Created

I completely agree. There is only one Creator. Everything else is created. Nothing that I, or any other artist, can create will ever come close to the awesomeness of God. And we need to be very careful that we recognize this fact and keep it in our minds when we appreciate great art.

Labyrinth_at_Chartres_Cathedral
Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I don’t know, however, if Mark Driscoll really knows what Prayer Labyrinths are for. They, like art, are a tool to be used for contemplation. The end goal is not to turn completely inward, but to go on a spiritual journey. They were created as a substitute for pilgrimages for those unable to travel long distances. When properly used, they allow the believer to follow along a path that leads them through the prayers and thoughts of those who have come before. The aim is to draw nearer to God, not deeper into oneself. If it was, I could completely agree with Pastor Mark, but my understanding of this spiritual practice does not allow for that interpretation.

4. When the Gathered Worship of God’s People is No Longer Word Based

While I agree that the creation of art should not replace the preaching of God’s Word in Sunday or Saturday worship services, there are other ways to gather and worship God. Perhaps artists come together on a Thursday night to draw or paint together for God’s glory. I would probably include some Bible reading during this event, but would usually forgo formal preaching.

“I am for artistry when it is subservient and obedient to God’s Word.” As a faithful artist, I couldn’t agree more. My art is not my God, it is one of my paths to glorify Him.

I love Pastor Mark’s preaching and respect what he has to say. I hope this post has allowed another voice to enter the discussion. Now, I would love to know what you think about Driscoll’s four points above. Where is the line between art and idolatry? How do we honour God with our calling while maintaining a safe distance from worshipping the created thing? Please chime in!

Blessings

Why the Church Needs Art

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.

Blessings

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