Friday, August 24, 2018

What Was Left Behind

Engraving from a pamphlet showing the destruction of sacred art (iconoclasm) by Calvinist zealots. Circa 1525-1527.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A recent article in Christianity Today urged a rather small audience with its title, “Christian Artists: Don’t Leave the Bible Behind.” The article was an interview by Jennifer Craft, who asked some questions of Jeremy Begbie, a Duke Divinity School theologian. The aim of the interview was to address “the mutually enriching relationship between faith and the arts.” The periodical’s audience is comprised primarily of Evangelical Christians.

Several people brought the article to my attention, but I was rather disappointed with the nebulous nature of the dialogue that was well-seasoned with highfalutin, artsy-fartsy verbiage. People with smarts sometimes speak that way. When digging into Begbie’s background, I discovered a list of credentials longer than my arm. Unfortunately, I also discovered his interest in ‘the arts’ is primarily on the musical side of things. So while his line of reasoning may well hover near the stratosphere, it means little down in the trenches where I work.

On the other hand, the fact that the subject is being discussed is probably newsworthy, especially in the generic Protestant camps of Christendom, where houses of worship are sanitary affairs, and where sacred art has been taboo for centuries. The same art that has for so long been a given within Orthodox and Roman circles, and which has been regaining steam among Lutherans, is still very much a puzzle among Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular. They simply are not sure what to do with it.

While living in West Michigan, I occasionally meet artists that are products of the Calvinist-rich region. I will rejoin a small group this September for a special event at the GRAM (Grand Rapids Art Museum) – the common denominator being works on the theme of the Prodigal Son, which are part of the Gerbens Collection owned by Calvin College. A few of us artists produced pieces in the collection.

It is interesting to see how Reformed artists – running a parallel course with Evangelicals – struggle with sacred art in the context of their denominational beliefs. Because they have historically eschewed the symbolism and conventions of traditional sacred art, they often attempt to reinvent what our artistic forebears established eons ago, and often slip sideways in the process. A crucifix, for example, may be considered out-of-bounds, but a blob of color will do nicely if it can somehow represent the redemptive act of our Lord. Creativity may be enthusiastically celebrated, but finding The Creator in all of it takes effort.

The arts – specifically the visual arts – are being approached by Evangelicals with a kind of abandon that smacks of both new-found Christian freedom and aimlessness. That can become a problem with the Christian artist. It is at that moment that the title of the article makes sense, but the reality of it is that the urgency is a few hundred years late, thanks to history's iconoclastic zealots, who threw out sacred art [among other things] with the bath water. The title's colon should simply be dropped and the statement be allowed to stand, as it has, for centuries – Christian artists don’t leave the Bible behind.

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