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Religious Art

So, on Friday, I left you with a question about reclaiming the arts. While I admit this is primarily a Christian concern, it intrigued me if anyone would have any ideas. Perchance you did, but no comments were left. I'll offer some of my thoughts on the situation, and see what you think.


For the majority of human history, art and religion coexist. Think of places like Stonehenge, temples in Egypt, Jerusalem and other places around the world. Many cultures also have skilled artisans creating the items to be used in religious ceremonies. Art was, and remains, the primary way humanity expresses its greatest emotions whether anger, hope, joy, sorrow or worship.

Even into the Middle Ages, art coexisted with religious institutions, in fact the Christian church was the largest supporter of the arts throughout most of modern history, especially in Europe. Buildings such as the cathedrals, as well as the decoration within such as the roof of the Sistine Chapel provide examples of that support. When you look at the images created, religious themes permeate whether it is the daily lives of Biblical characters and saints, or imaginings of the beginning and the end of the world.

Modern Americans cannot quite grasp the concept of power of religion over daily lives partly because we have dissected the two into separate spheres. This separation, I believe, is part of the reason so many Christians want to "reclaim the arts for Christ." They look back onto ages past and see the great cathedrals and paintings supporting Christian themes and values, and wonder where are the great Christian painters today?

Protestants and Art

In 1999, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter directed to artists (here). I first read this letter about five years ago when I began researching the Church and the Arts. The first sentence in this letter touched my heart, because I felt as though there was at least one Christian leader out there who understood artists:
"None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands."
I highly recommend the letter because it gives an even greater overview of art through Christian history. Also, for Christians who are artists, it provides a salve to wounds. Pope John Paul II understood the need for artists in the Church, as well as the calling, as he puts it, to the arts.

While the Catholic Church might understand art, many who call for the reclamation of art are Protestants - some conservative, some moderates, a few liberals, but predominately Protestant. This world made up of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and many others have an uneasy relationship to the arts. Not everyone, and not for all the same reasons, but there is the underlying fear of the papacy which sometimes bubbles out.

Protestantism began in the Reformation. It started with Martin Luther then spread across Europe and into the New World. In England, a group of Protestants under the Church of England eventually beheaded a king, and took control of the country during the years of the English Commonwealth. We know them as the Puritans.

Like all denominations within the Protestant umbrella, the Puritans had their liberals and their conservatives. During the Commonwealth, and also into the American Northeast, the conservative brand tended to hold power. Cromwell outlawed the theater, though music, dance and painting survived.

After the Restoration of King Charles II, the arts flourished in England once again. Shifting our attention to America, it appears that few people dismissed the arts from their daily lives. Theater remains a touchy subject, because some approved, and others did not.

It doesn't seem to be until the Twentieth Century when art and the Protestant church have a falling out. I will point out that it doesn't appear to be art specifically, but culture generally that the more conservative branch of Protestantism had its falling out. They had a strong power base during the Victorian Age, finally reaching their zenith with the passing of Prohibition in America. From that point, everything went to pot. Prohibition did not turn out like they expected it, the Scopes Trial ended up bringing evolution into schools, and culturally Americans began moving away from Victorian ideals.

Collectively, the conservative branch of Christianity left the public sphere, and retreated into their churches and colleges. They continued to support the Arts, but tended to focus on dead artists. Modern Art was decadent, confusing and ungodly.

The Modern Church and Art

Entering the Twenty-First Century, American conservative Christianity appears to have gotten a second wind. The first inklings of this came with the presidency of Ronald Reagan when the modern Christian industry took root. During the Eighties, we have the beginning of the Christian music, books, and art scenes.

In this world, art became part of a set of tools to reach the lost world with the Gospel of Christ. Drama was exclusively for the promotion of salvation, usually at Christmas and Easter; film had a similar goal, but tended to focus on the Church as did music and literature. In the 1990s, it became popular to have articles about "If you like this big-name-pop-group you'll like this lesser-known-but-Christian-group."

In the past fifteen years, however, conservative American Christianity has lost some of its evangelism, and started to focus more on "family friendly" and "building the church". It is into this world that the new push for reclaiming the arts has come. Christians are beginning to see the arts as a viable option for ministry.

So, are we to "reclaim the Arts for Christ?" Honestly, no. I think we should reintroduce the Arts to the Church, however. Art is a human activity sometimes religious sometimes not. Often, when Christians talk about reclaiming something, it's only to put a Christian veneer over the topic. Sadly, the veneer is simply a bunch of Christians taking a popular topic and making it "Christian" by adding a salvation message to it.

Relevant Magazine did an article on "5 Ways the Church Can Make Great Art Again". It's well worth the read, but also read the comments as well. It's telling that many of us want to see Christians in the art world, not simply in the Christian art world.

We don't have to reclaim anything, we simply need practice our faith in whatever field we choose to be in. If that means to be exclusively in a Christian category, then so be it, but the same is true outside the Christian sub-culture.

When I try to write "Christian" stories, they come across as being preachy. When I write a story without focusing on the Christian part, my Christian faith shines through. We understand the concept of finding one's voice whether in writing or art, part of that voice should be our faith. To be a Christian artist doesn't mean we have to preach the Gospel at all times or in all pieces of art we create. To be a Christian artist simply means to do whatever it is you do to the glory of God, and that knowledge is a weight off shoulders.


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