It appears we are discovering that faith based messages embedded in the arts, which we thought had no perceivable Christian connection, can become a powerful tool in the hands of artistic believers. It can widen the scope of faith for those who can’t see God outside the confines of a subculture, while creating dialogue with those who have no faith at all, or at least who think they don’t. God created everything; the spiritual and the sacred, ecology and stewardship, art and creation; everything is interconnected as an expression of him.
The 20th century was a unique period in human history. It was the only century in which the arts and faith were separated and antagonistic. Before the 20th century, the arts were an important part of the spiritual. It wasn’t the exception but the rule. It was an era when Christ’s people drove culture as opposed to seeking ways to be culturally relevant. Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Last Supper, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and Raphael’s Epiphany, all cultural icons with deep ecclesiastical roots. Oh, and monks still make the best beer.
If we could broaden our minds as to what constitutes a church activity we might not limit the life of the church to an hour per week on Sunday mornings. When leaders do that it’s easy to see how some forms of art might have a hard time finding their place. But when we recapture the idea of church life that draws us into vibrant, daily, life-changing community, then we can begin to imagine an artistic element to our body life.
Cultural dialogue is something Christians should have been doing all along in society, but were prohibited in the last century because of a flawed worldview that segregated Christian inspiration from the mainstream. Captivating culture again and giving it meaning through the eyes of faith rest solely on the shoulders of the Christ-follower. But a flawed doctrine called dualism left ‘cultural dialogue’ an unexplored arena for over two generations.
The sacred/secular schism, called dualism, theologically elevated the sacred at the expense of the secular. But to consider the secular a threat to faith is to give enormous ground to the enemy before a battle has even begun. We have claimed so little in this world. We have been like children playing in a wooden sandbox on the edge of a beautiful white sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see (and we brought our own sand).
When people come to see art, they encounter God. Whether it’s watching a dramatic performance, listening to a new rendition of Amazing Grace accompanied by an acoustic guitar, enjoying a solo, or a sculpture or painting, something happens when people’s creative juices are primed by the arts.
Over the course of September, we have discussed what it means to be a left-brained church in a right-brained world. I think we leave no doubt that we are indeed a cerebral crew! But what does it mean when we privilege our head over our heart and hands? It means we are out of balance and need stabilization. Integrating the arts into our worship gatherings can offer one means of balance to our sometimes wobbly and uneven lives of faith.
I’m anxious to hear and see all the creative ways you redeem the arts in your church and your own walk of faith. Soli Deo Gloria!
Love. For the past six months we have been drinking deeply from the Epistles of 1-2 John in the rarefied air of the Rocky Mountains. The apostle wastes not an iota on trivia. The teaching that John stresses, in the starkest terms possible, is often barely acknowledged in Christian circles. The eternality of the Incarnation of Christ. The Cross. Love as the litmus test for all things Christian.
Love. People use the language of “love” for nearly everything in our world. Yet it is my observation that the genuine article, unfiltered, unvarnished, unconditioned love is unsettling even for Christians. It is “safe” to love ice cream, movies, cars, and Harleys. It is safe because it costs nothing whatsoever to “love” them. Yet we want to quantify, regulate, and restrict the flow of love precisely because we live in fear.
Love makes things unpredictable. Love makes things uncontrollable. Love makes things vulnerable. Love makes us not in charge. Love surrenders the power of domination. But in the real, genuine, unfiltered and unvarnished love … we are unconcerned with the unpredictability of love.
Listen to John. We know the text but it is the center of our “doctrine” as the apostle John’s?
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4.16b-21)
Many stunning things are in this potent paragraph. But perhaps most radical is that the apostle John makes obedience to the Greatest Commandment, the exercise of the Second! How often do we find brothers and sisters under the pretense of love and loyalty for God avoiding, withdrawing from, their brothers and sisters. John, not me, says it is a “lie!”
See we turn love for God into the same thing as loving our Harley or ice cream. Such love costs nothing. But John will have none of it (and the rest of the Bible says ‘Amen’). Such love is bogus, fake news, a lie. We meet the image of God in our sister and our brother, our reaction to the icon, the photograph, the holograph of God is how we react to God.
The truth is we do not “abide with our brothers and sisters” because we do not love them. First John addresses this from the first verse to the last. The heretics in 1 John are not just anti-Christs, they are heretics because they disfellowshipped and left their sisters and brothers (1 Jn 2.18-20).
Love does not fear our sisters. Love does not fear our brothers. Love does not fear aliens. Love does not fear socialists. Love does not fear capitalists. Love does not fear Mexicans. Love does not fear African Americans, Donald Trump nor Barack Obama. Love does not fear poor people. Love does not fear someone with a different opinion than me.
We love because he loves us. If you and I are “in” him then the love that is in him will be in us. This is why John points to the Cross when he speaks of loving one another, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another … We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3.14-16). Loving those with whom we differ is, perhaps, the most Godlike action a human being can ever do. Since we know love looks like a bloodstained cross given for our sister and our brother we ought to be able to tolerate each other.
Love. It is the deepest, it is the hardest, Christian doctrine to practice. Unfiltered, unvarnished, sacrificial Love, is the imitation of God. If we loved each other enough to die for one another, John says, we would have far less division. Indeed the apostle says that rejecting part of the family of God is tantamount to rejecting the Father (1 Jn 3.11-12; 4.11-12; 5.1-2). John calls us to stop pretending we love God when we so freely walk away from the gathering of icons of God (1 Jn 2.19). To love one another means we do what our Father does, we suffer for the sake of unity. To practice love we just might get bloodied.
Stop living in fear of each other. Live in love. But we continue to live in fear … Love casts out fear.
The day before Ash Wednesday I was having lunch at a delicious burger dive with two good friends when we started talking about Lent and what we would give up during the next 40 days of religious fasting. After one friend suggested we should all stop eating hamburgers, the other friend listed some specific commitments he was making this season of Lent and said there was also something he was going to add on: “I’ll probably do a couple hundred breath prayers every day.”
I was shocked: a couple hundred breath prayers every day! I had known about breath prayers for years, I had adopted some of them in my own life, and taught them to the college students in my classes, but that level of religious devotion was disorienting, and intriguing, but ultimately, inspiring. It set me on a journey that culminated in a new book called, “Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer.”
Breath prayers are short, mostly one-sentence, prayers that believers in God have been praying for centuries. These prayers are often repeated, and they are often aligned with a person’s breathing so that the first half of a sentence is prayed while inhaling and the second half of the sentence is prayed while exhaling. This is difficult to do while speaking audibly, so breath prayers are usually prayed silently, or with the breath, rather than with the voice. They are one way disciples of Jesus have been obeying Jesus’ instructions to “always pray” (Lk. 18:1), and Paul’s command to “pray continually” (2 Thess. 5:17).
While some believe breath prayers began in the repetition of the Psalms, the most famous breath prayer emerged from a combination of several people’s prayers in the Gospels that congealed into the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is known as the Jesus Prayer and was practiced for centuries by the Orthodox Christians of Greece and Russia even as other branches of Christianity had mostly neglected to use it.
The book “Pray Like You Breathe,” is a 28-day experience of prayer that borrows the language of Psalms to train in making breath prayers part of our daily routine, like a habit. Each chapter ends with a specific prayer exercise to do individually as well as discussion questions to think about if you’re reading the book with your family, Bible class, or small group. My ultimate desire is for the people who read the book to pray, and to pray “with all kinds of prayers …” (Eph. 6:18). So while there is no specific biblical command to pray using breath prayers, there are commands to pray like we breathe: naturally … out of necessity … sometimes desperately … and without stopping.
A young woman preaches grace and truth and receives death threats from other Christians.
College students are hurt by their school and then wounded even more on social media by other Christians.
A preacher spends weeks agonizing over a sermon, praying it will bring glory to God and encourage the Kingdom only to be criticized, isolated, idealized, or treated as an office manager or building keeper by other Christians.
We wonder why we’re losing our children, why no one wants to talk to us about religion, and what we can do to make things better in this world. Maybe we need to take a long look in the mirror.
We are the holy people of God which means he should be influencing our actions, reactions, and words regardless of whether they are spoken or typed.
What does holy look like when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t interpret Scripture the way you do? It looks like laying down your stones and choosing grace instead. That may mean withdrawal but it never means cruelty.
What does holy look like when someone has been offended? Regardless of your opinion on the subject, holy looks like listening and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint and story.
What does holy look like for a church and her minister? It looks like an adequate salary for the vital role served. It means making sure they can afford quality health insurance for them and their family. It looks like good communication from and with the leadership. It means walking alongside them in their work for the Lord and not expecting them to carry the entire congregation. It means friendship, encouragement, and love.
In every relationship holiness looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s thinking Jesus and inviting him into every situation.
Church, it’s time we step up. We are God’s people. We know holy. Let’s start living it. The world is watching.
I don’t spend as much time in my imagination as I used to. This was on my mind yesterday after one of our boys asked Missy if she knew where he likes to be best and he said, in his imagination. I wish I could say the same but the realities of life, the responsibilities of adulthood and a self-imposed busyness often keep me grounded in the more non-imaginative spaces of my mind.
I believe Jesus was an imaginative person. His teaching demonstrates this especially in his parables. Jesus’ parables were the powerpoint of his day, if that is even close to a fair comparison. Instead of images on a screen, Jesus painted vivid mental images that made his teaching easier to remember and pass along to others (which in my mind is the function of powerpoint – don’t use a slide unless it can do those two things).
Jesus also demonstrated this in his miracles. The main miracle that comes to mind is the double healing of the blind man and Jesus’ making a point to his disciples about whether or not they were seeing things clearly.
Jesus was highly imaginative. It seems to me this came naturally to him (he is the creator of the universe after all). It also seems to me that if Jesus was going to communicate imaginatively he had to spend time in his imagination when he wasn’t teaching…in his day to day life.
My sermon prep doesn’t really reflect that like it should. I pour over facts, details, and data all in an effort to engage a particular area of the brain that is essentially important but not all encompassing. What would happen if I took my class and sermon content and ran it through the imaginative process. We do this with children’s classes and education but less often in the “big room.” I do believe there isn’t a true dichotomy here – imaginative vs non-imaginative but I do believe I lean harder into one than the other and true balance will require me accessing areas of my mind that I normally leave untapped.
Over the next few weeks I intend to spend more time in my imagination, to engage a different aspect of creativity than I am used to and I encourage you to do the same. Maybe for you imagination comes more easily and there are more analytical areas you need to stretch and grow in. Spend a season there and see if it doesn’t enrich your thinking, your connection with the congregation and your relationship with God.
During lunch on Sundays my family usually discusses the sermon from earlier that morning. My teenage sons have heard their dad preach their whole lives and have come to expect the question, “What did you hear in the sermon today?”
Recently, our youngest son answered with, “I’m sorry dad, I have to admit I wasn’t listening today. Everyone was playing this game on their phones and I guess I was just too distracted.” This kid is smart and he is also a good schmoozer, he could have faked it and made something up, but he resisted – he told the brutal truth. He was unable to pay attention, much less glean anything useful from the sermon because he and forty other kids were simply distracted. Wade is a brilliant communicator, but he was not able to break through the digital distraction of the entire youth group. Something else had their undivided attention.
Our culture is changing faster than most churches can keep up. Not only are we losing the ability to pay attention, our culture has succumbed to what Richard Foster calls the new tools of the devil: the distractions of much-ness, many-ness, crowds, hurry, and noise (and I would add technology to that list.)
We live in a Postmodern, Post-Christian age that is technology driven, immediate, and impatient. As regular churchgoers it is easy to be mortified by the actions of the youth group playing games on their phones during church, but adults are just as guilty. We may exhibit more overt courtesy during worship, but adults are just as preoccupied and inattentive as our kids.
The arts are among the few powerful mediums with which we can break through the distractions, slow down, and speak into our preoccupied and frenzied culture. I believe that if we want to affect our culture as followers of Christ, then artists of faith are compelled to create culture.
The arts do not just illustrate theology but are themselves modes of theological expression and worship. Those of us raised in the Stone-Campbell movement come from a pragmatic heritage that believed efficiency and simplicity were necessary to spread the gospel. Art is neither simple nor efficient so it can feel superfluous and emotionally unpredictable.
Yet, we live in a visual world that is becoming more aware of art, aesthetics and design. Our culture is changing, however our worship experiences are not in step with those changes. I believe that our times of worship and the mission of the church can enrich and be enriched by the arts. Nearly forty-five years ago, Francis Schaeffer said, “A Christian should use the arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself” (Art and the Bible, 19).
There is a new generation that is discovering and calling for the arts as liturgical expressions of praise to God. Madeleine L’Engle argues that since the Master Artist has created artists, our duty is to make art that points others back to God.
Churches of Christ must reclaim what we have lost and once again become alert to the power of the arts. If the church is going to be successful in its mission to reach the current generation and the generations to come, it is imperative that it engages culture more creatively. It is time for the church and artists to work together to the glory of God and the beauty of the church.
But where are the artists? Some have left to use their gifts more fully in other churches, but most of us are still here. In every church around the world there are actors, painters, poets, writers, dancers, sculptors, potters, photographers, videographers, carpenters, weavers, and creatives of all kinds whose gifts and talents are laying dormant. They are valued out in the artistic world perfecting their craft and doing amazing work, but unfortunately there has not been a regular place for them to use their gifts in Churches of Christ … but this is changing.
It is time to unleash the arts to write, paint, sing, play and dance to the glory of God. It is time for artists and Churches of Christ to finally come out and play together!
Where are the artists? We are here and we are ready!
I’m not a cultured person, at least when it comes to the arts. I’m not interested in ballet, nor opera. Most classical music leaves me cold; symphony tickets feel like an upcoming jail sentence. A visit to an art museum is typically wasted on me.
I say that more in confession than in boast. I’d love to be better able to find the beauty in such things. I recognize the transcendent nature of the arts, how works of great beauty and creativity have impact far beyond their own generation. I wish they impacted me more.
It doesn’t help that I come from a church tradition that downplays the role of artistic expression in worship. We tend to have utilitarian buildings, with little focus on aesthetic values. Historically, we have rejected the use of musical instruments and “special” music (choirs, soloists, etc.). An artist finds little room for expression in most congregations within our fellowship. (Outside of children’s Sunday school, of course)
I think we need to recapture God’s love of beauty and creativity. We need to see that God’s Word addresses the senses and not just the mind. We need to find a way for individual Christians to share their artistic gifts with the rest of body; special times and spaces could be created for any such expressions that don’t fit our corporate worship time.
This involves broadening our minds as to what constitutes a church activity. If we limit the life of the church to an hour per week on Sunday mornings, then it’s easy to see how some forms of art have a hard time finding their place. But when we recapture the idea of church life that draws us into vibrant, daily, life-changing community, then we can begin to imagine an artistic element to our body life.
…we had a time of thanksgiving where members expressed their gratitude through poetry, visual arts, and music?
…our church meals included a gallery of photos taken by our members?
…we plastered our church hallways with our children’s drawings, like refrigerator art shared with the whole community?
…there were an annual composition festival each year for new hymns and songs of praise?
…our churches committed to a cappella singing found a way to make space for instrumental expression outside the worship assembly?
Those are just a few ideas from one of the least artistic among us. We need to spend time as a church dreaming of ways to promote creativity in our midst. The biggest what if would be, what if invited the arts back to church?
Even those of us with a lack of general culture can appreciate the giftedness of others in our midst. We can encourage them to use their talents for the glory of God, rather than making them feel that such things only belong to the world. Our churches will be all the richer for it.
I stood in the quiet chapel at Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas holding my breath in awe, gazing upward. The spiral stained-glass ceiling was mesmerizing. It winds skyward in bursts of jewel tones and is one of the largest horizontally mounted stained-glass windows in the world. I have seen pictures of it in books and thought it must be housed in one of the great cathedrals of Europe. I did not realize it was right here in my city.
The lower panels begin in varying shades of blue representing the color of peace. As the spiral climbs upward, the colors become warmer and meet sixty feet above the chapel floor in a circle of beaming yellow light. This magnificent work of art, entitled Glory Window, takes its name from Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1 NRSV). The creator of this magnificent window, French artist Gabriel Loire, meant for the ascending window to “express all life, with its difficulties, its forces, its joys, its torments, its frightening aspects. And then, bit by bit, all of that falls away and you arrive finally at a burst, an explosion of gold; you arrive at the summit.”
For me the Glory Window simply represents the presence of God through beauty, and I stood in the chapel captivated and weeping. At that moment I felt the powerful presence of something Other, and I could only think, “Praise God, Praise God, Praise God.”
It was a transcendent and spiritually formative experience to be fully engulfed in beauty which evoked true worship. I felt exposed and raw but wrapped in pure, overpowering love. I did not want to leave that space or break the moment of communion with God. The gossamer veil between heaven and earth parted for just a moment; I caught a glimpse of the glory of God, and I will never be the same.
The arts are a powerful force that have the ability to spiritually transform us and transport us into the presence of God. Art and beauty can be an expression of praise. The arts can provide a pathway to experience and relate to God. They tell stories, communicate pain, promote healing, speak truth, and call for mercy and justice.
The arts have a profound way of inspiring our minds and nurturing our souls through experiences that are beautiful and transcendent. Gregory Wolfe states, “Art invites us to meet the Other—whether that be our neighbor or the infinite otherness of God.” Art, like faith, helps us rise above the splintered and broken world in which we live and reach something more beautiful and more holy than ourselves.
One of the inherently theological aspects of the arts is through their search for reconciliation and redemption. Unfortunately, these deeply spiritual experiences have been rare in the lives of many Christians and almost lost in many Churches of Christ. Nearly all churches value and acknowledge the worth of music in worship, but due to a variety of reasons, other forms, such as the visual arts, have been marginalized over time and labeled suspicious or idolatrous.
Yet Scripture does not forbid making or enjoying art; it forbids the worship of it.
I believe we need a full biblical understanding and renaissance of the arts in worship and find a way forward for the integration of the arts which will enrich worship and lead to spiritual formation for Churches of Christ.
I am exploring these topics and more in my doctoral thesis at ACU. One of the issues my research will address is how Churches of Christ have been limited by a tradition that supposedly dismissed aesthetics, art, innovation, and creativity during worship. While there are many admirable qualities about the Stone-Campbell Restoration heritage, I suggest that Churches of Christ have lost the ability to tell the story in our culture, because our worship relies too heavily on intellect and reason and has divorced any transcendent meaning from the practices of worship. Our artless, prescribed acts of worship were suitable for a time gone by, but they are no longer adequate and are in fact detrimental to our witness in the world.
I propose there is a way to acknowledge our heritage while navigating a compelling future for worship integrating the arts for Churches of Christ. I invite you on this journey with me as we explore the intricate and beautiful relationship between art and faith.