Saturday, July 25, 2009

This is a Christian Picture (I Think)

It all started when I sent an e-mail to my artist(ic) friend Ron in Seattle, ranting about a video I found on YouTube showing some guy doing an improvisatory dance at the headquarters of the Christian organization I worked for in the early 80s. I found the dance embarrassing, stupid, and having nothing whatsoever to do with following Jesus. Ron found it "amazing" and "pretty darn beautiful." That led to several more e-mails as we discussed what makes for "Christian" art. It's easy for me to see how a Cranach altar piece is supposed to be Christian art, but I really don't know what to do with that YouTube dancer or even someone like Makato Fujimura (who by the way, like me, is an elder in a PCA church).
I may never get it figured out, but I was helped by an article I randomly discovered a couple weeks ago. Michael O'Brien is an artist and novelist. In his essay, "Fire in Our Darkness," which you can find here, he explores what makes fine art Christian. Following are a few tidbits, but if you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading the whole thing.

Most Church art is still produced by factories, not created by a sense of mission or desire to incarnate the unseen reality. Only the artist transfigured in faith and master of his medium can accomplish this. Father P. Raymond Regamy, in Religious Art in the Twentieth Century, says, “Nazi art, the socialist realism of the U.S.S.R., and the art that we normally find in churches are the three most dreadful manifestations of art that our century has witnessed.” There is a harsh truth here. Who knows how many have rejected religion from a subconscious revulsion to paintings of Christ they have absorbed since childhood. An effeminate Jesus and saccharin madonna may appeal at one level of a starved emotional life, but they do not reach deeper to liberate and heal. The face of God must be portrayed in Christ as mercy and truth combined. Unless it is so, religious imagery will be a closed door inhibiting our growth in the Kingdom. Bad art has the power to deform a people just as good art generates new reflection, growth, vision, and hope.


The artist is all idealist, and for him the ideal is the real, capable of transforming his world into what it should be. For Western man it is difficult to grasp this curious vocation. He misreads art as decoration, entertainment, or a tool for imparting information.


The popular modern emblems of faith are the rainbow and the much-abused butterfly. Yet they are losing their symbolic power because they have been used exhaustively to express a false joy, that of resurrection without crucifixion.


As a liturgical artist he will need to balance the tension between mystery and hospitality, a creative and healthy tension which should be characteristic of our places of worship. So often the parish church is a safe place where we go to keep intact our middle-class vision of existence. We want to tame God, to make the sanctuary an extension of our living rooms and ourselves into spectators — consumers — of the liturgy. We must re-experience the church as holy ground, welcoming and warm, but sacred. A place where we are not to be confirmed in mediocrity, but led to transfiguration. This is a particularly urgent need, because in liturgy the human soul should be opened to God, and once it has been so exposed it must be fed real food. Much of what passes for liturgical art fails to nourish because its makers have not found its source within themselves. There is talent but little or no vision. Church art rarely commands respect; it is seen by the world as a gasp from a dying Christian culture. If we are offended by these opinions we must now, more than ever, seek the origins and purposes of art and bring it to fruition in the prophetic heart of the Church. [We could say the same about church music, couldn't we?]


No renewal of sacred art in our times will come if the artist's gift, his spiritual gift, is regarded as a piece of merchandise with which to cover the empty spaces on our walls.

Picture: Makato Fujimura, "Splendor Joy"


  1. I know this blog isn't current, but for those who might reference it, I would suggest two short books as an introduction to the subject:
    Art and the Bible by F. Schaeffer
    Art for God's Sake by P. Ryken


  2. Modern dance is an art form and not everyone can do it. When it is done in church or in a Christian setting, most often it isn't done at a very high level of expertise. The young man at Glen probably took a few classes, but it was hard to tell if he was more than an amateur. When I am having to watch these kinds of performances, I usually find something important that has to be read,and luckily, a Bible isn't too far away so I can get caught up on my old reading program.

    There have been a few exceptions, like at a recent women's retreat and the dancer had real talent and athletic ability as well as a holy attitude in interpreting a praise song, that I actually appreciate a Christian doing modern dance as worship.

    On my blog I have an example of modern dance done well:

  3. Yes, I saw the Bach dancer, and he was more to my liking.