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Andy Whitman

Evangelicals and the Arts

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True story: Friend of mine was a flute instructor at said alma mater for a year or so. She told me about one of her students, who came in to a lesson and said: "The only reason to play music is to worship God, and I can't worship when I'm thinking about my technique, so I've decided to stop taking lessons." You want to know what's wrong with evangelicals and the arts, there's as good a nutshell summary as I've ever heard.
:lol: I needed that this morning, thanks Mando. I have been wondering for some time whether or not mainstream evangelicalism-- as it is taught practically-- sets people up for failure in life. Not just regarding the arts, but in business, marriage, and so on. I realize that's a pretty sweeping indictment, but I just wonder sometimes, sorry. Self-sabotaging philosophies like the one you mentioned, seem to get embedded deep.

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And of course it's impossible to identify a "rank and file" esteem for the arts across history for the simple reason that the rank and file had no access to the arts for most of the Church's history. It's hard to envision some poor, mud-spattered feudal serf looking for just the right painting to decorate the hut. It's only been in the past 100 years that most people have been able to buy reproductions of famous works of art, and have had both the money and the leisure time to devote to an appreciation of the arts. Scripturally, though, I think we need look no further than the detailed descriptions of the tabernacle in the Book of Exodus to conclude that God cares about the arts. Commentators can explain the symbolism and allegorical implications all they want, but sometimes a pomegranate is just a pomegranate. All that seemingly useless filigree was added primarily because it looked pretty.

I thought that most of the art done by Christians across history was public and displayed in churches and cathedrals were the mud splattered rank and file had plenty of access to it. Sure there was the royal palaces and stuff but a majority of art was done for public worship spaces. And if you didn't live near a big cathedral there was always the pilgrimage which was almost always centered around traveling to see some kind of public artwork.

Also if the Church hadn't come down on the side of the Iconodules in the Iconoclast contoversy in the 8th and 9th century the world of art would be so different as to be unrecognizable to us today.

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And of course it's impossible to identify a "rank and file" esteem for the arts across history for the simple reason that the rank and file had no access to the arts for most of the Church's history. It's hard to envision some poor, mud-spattered feudal serf looking for just the right painting to decorate the hut. It's only been in the past 100 years that most people have been able to buy reproductions of famous works of art, and have had both the money and the leisure time to devote to an appreciation of the arts. Scripturally, though, I think we need look no further than the detailed descriptions of the tabernacle in the Book of Exodus to conclude that God cares about the arts. Commentators can explain the symbolism and allegorical implications all they want, but sometimes a pomegranate is just a pomegranate. All that seemingly useless filigree was added primarily because it looked pretty.

I thought that most of the art done by Christians across history was public and displayed in churches and cathedrals were the mud splattered rank and file had plenty of access to it. Sure there was the royal palaces and stuff but a majority of art was done for public worship spaces. And if you didn't live near a big cathedral there was always the pilgrimage which was almost always centered around traveling to see some kind of public artwork.

Also if the Church hadn't come down on the side of the Iconodules in the Iconoclast contoversy in the 8th and 9th century the world of art would be so different as to be unrecognizable to us today.

Sure. But I don't think it would be fair to say that the rank and file "esteemed" art, and that was the context for my comments. Visual art was a teaching tool for a population that was largely illiterate. It was a way to communicate the story of the Christian faith. If it was esteemed, it was esteemed for religious reasons, not aesthetic ones. In contrast, many of the Popes were true patrons of the arts, and not only in the sense that they provided the financial wherewithal for artists to work. Popes such as Julius II and Leo X sought out the best artists of the era, commissioned works from them of both a religious and a non-religious nature, and proudly hung them in the papal apartments. And, again to put this back in context, Peter asked if there was ever a time in Church history when art was not esteemed for religious reasons. And the answer is Yes. The Popes not only collected works of art from the ancient (pre-Christian) world, but paid for new works from artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo that had nothing to do with communicating the story of the Christian faith. Witness Raphael's The School of Athens, a work commissioned by Julius II, where you will find Plato, Aristotle, and Diogenes, and many others, but not one recognizable biblical figure. It's currently on display in the papal apartment, where it's always been.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I don't think I'm making broad sociological claims, but I do know of three evangelical (or evangelical-like, in that they tend to be conservative theologically) colleges that regularly book non-Christian musicians to play on campus -- Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. I have no doubt that that they are the exceptions to the rule. But the fact that these student activities offices do what they do constitutes "some evidence" to me that evangelicals "get" the arts in ways that the rest of society does not, and that things are changing in the evangelical world.

"In a way that the rest of society does not"? But surely the artists you've mentioned aren't depending on evangelicals for all their gigs. In fact, I assume they most often play in places with no connection to evangelicalism.

And who knows, perhaps Calvin, Taylor, and Messiah are three cheeses in the process of sliding off the evangelical cracker.

I think we have a dichotomy -- arts-aware vs. non-arts-aware -- that cuts across all of society. We also have a trichotomy -- evangelical / some other brand of Christianity / some religious outlook other than Christianity (and that's simplifying things a fair bit). Our dichotomy and trichotomy intersect in various ways. I think it's true that evangelical teaching influences some of those intersections, but I don't think it's the only factor at work. We are raising interesting sociological questions. Anyone need a master's thesis topic?

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In a way that the rest of society does not"? But surely the artists you've mentioned aren't depending on evangelicals for all their gigs. In fact, I assume they most often play in places with no connection to evangelicalism.

Correct. But when an evangelical-like college (I don't know how to categorize Calvin either; fill in "Reformed" for "evangelical-like" if you wish) books more concerts, and better concerts, than any other college/university to which I can compare it, then I'd say they're onto something, and onto something in ways that go beyond what most Christian or secular schools can offer. No, I haven't done a scientific study, and there may be colleges/universities out that that can hold their own with Calvin. But from what I know, which is what goes on at most colleges/universities in Ohio, Calvin far outstrips them all. Sure, all of the musicians/bands who play at Calvin play at other places as well. But I'm not aware of any other school that offers both the quantity and the quality of music that Calvin offers. They really do it better than anybody else. Anywhere.

And who knows, perhaps Calvin, Taylor, and Messiah are three cheeses in the process of sliding off the evangelical cracker.

I think we have a dichotomy -- arts-aware vs. non-arts-aware -- that cuts across all of society. We also have a trichotomy -- evangelical / some other brand of Christianity / some religious outlook other than Christianity (and that's simplifying things a fair bit). Our dichotomy and trichotomy intersect in various ways. I think it's true that evangelical teaching influences some of those intersections, but I don't think it's the only factor at work. We are raising interesting sociological questions. Anyone need a master's thesis topic?

That would be a good one, wouldn't it? But here's a thought: I would like to believe, as Christians, that we have a philosophical and theological basis for aesthetics that is more coherent and robust than what the world can offer. Evangelicalism, by and large, makes a mockery of such a notion. Except in those lonely little outposts like Calvin and Messiah and Taylor, where they seem to take the idea seriously. These are three colleges with very different theological traditions (Reformed, Anabaptist, Non-denominational evangelical with roots in the Methodist Church), who have nonetheless arrived at a fairly similar philosophy of the value of the arts. This truly gives me great hope, as I hope it does others who value some of the theological traditions of evangelicalism, but who despair over the cultural withdrawal and abandonment that that theology often signifies. Wherever the dichotomies and trichotomies intersect, I'm actually encouraged to know that that there are Christians from divergent backgrounds working together to live out the implications of a Christian view of the arts.

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That would be a good one, wouldn't it? But here's a thought: I would like to believe, as Christians, that we have a philosophical and theological basis for aesthetics that is more coherent and robust than what the world can offer.

We certainly have the potential for such a thing.

Evangelicalism, by and large, makes a mockery of such a notion.

Well, it goes to show that there is as much potential within Christianity for an impoverished, harmful approach to aesthetics as there is for a coherent, robust one.

Except in those lonely little outposts like Calvin and Messiah and Taylor, where they seem to take the idea seriously. These are three colleges with very different theological traditions (Reformed, Anabaptist, Non-denominational evangelical with roots in the Methodist Church), who have nonetheless arrived at a fairly similar philosophy of the value of the arts. This truly gives me great hope, as I hope it does others who value some of the theological traditions of evangelicalism, but who despair over the cultural withdrawal and abandonment that that theology often signifies.

I'm glad it gives you hope; my own feelings are mixed. First point: that evangelical colleges are reaching outside the evangelical fold for good art shows that the decision-makers there have become savvy consumers of art, but at the same time it only reinforces the notion that evangelicals are still substandard producers of art. It's as if evangelicals were Salieri to mainstream art's Mozart, recognizing in others the excellence they themselves have failed to achieve.

Second point: let's be careful not to infer too much about an evangelical college on the sole basis of who gets to gig there. An evangelical college is a veritable tossed salad of constituencies. The hip dude booking bands is just one of those constituencies. The student body itself probably has three or four major constituencies; then there are the folks running other aspects of student life/activities, the campus minister's office, the religion faculty, the arts faculty, the faculty at large, the administration, and the fundraisers. To say nothing of the trustees, the donors, and the alumni. Finally there's the PR department -- whose job it is to make all the other constituencies appear to be on the same page when in fact they're almost guaranteed to be all over the map. Jeffrey knows how much fun this can be, even if he's not allowed to talk about it.

Edited by mrmando

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