Someone looking around at the landscape of American churches today might think to herself that art and the artistic spirit are relocated to the sidelines. She might see church more as a well-oiled machine or a carefully crafted production than a canvas for God's creativity. In some ways, she might be right.
But it hasn't always been that way.
Since the church's inception, art has remained as vital a form of expression for Christians as it has been for many others. From the early Byzantine mosaics to the medieval illustrations of biblical manuscripts, believers and churches expressed their love for God and communicated the messages and stories of the Bible in unique ways.
Church buildings themselves became works of art in the Romanesque and Gothic periods with looming architechture and intricate stained glass panels. Many of the more notable buildings from those periods are still standing today. The Italian Renaissance of the 14-1500's gave the world some of the most recognizable pieces of religious art from da Vinci and Raphael and Michelangelo. These works, like The Last Supper, The Creation of Adam, and The Transfiguration still captivate our imaginations and inspire new generations of artists.
Art would remain a mainstay for the church for many more centuries, but it began to experience a decline in interest and connectivity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As one writer put it, "The history of Protestant denominations shying away from visual arts for fear of idolatry, distraction, or idiosyncratic interpretation is well known. The 'worship wars' over music have been bitter. When churches have dared to include drama, painting, sculpture, or literary arts, the results have often been tacky at best and heterodox at worst." 1
One artist who wrestled with his faith, Vincent van Gogh, would leave his mark on the 19th century with his foray into post-impressionist painting. Arguably, his most well-known piece is Starry Night. The flowing blues and radiant yellows he so deftly used make for an entrancing scene.
But there is one building in van Gogh’s imaginary village with no light, with no divine presence-the church. Its silent darkness speaks van Gogh’s judgment that the institutional church was full of “icy coldness.” Like many people today, van Gogh struggled to find God in the confines of institutional, programmatic religion. Instead, he found himself drawn outside the respectable piety of the church to commune with peasants and prostitutes. And his devotion to Christ was inspired by nature-the radiance of sunflowers, the knuckled contortion of olive trees, and the silent providence of the stars. Rather than visiting the church van Gogh said, "When I have a terrible need of -shall I say the word - religion, then I go out and paint the stars.”2
Van Gogh saw Jesus as the ultimate artist, writing, "[Christ] lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists — disdaining marble and clay and paint — working in LIVING FLESH. I.e. — this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books.....he states it loud and clear..he made..LIVING men, immortals."3
Van Gogh saw a dwindling influence of the church as the possessor of the creative Spirit of God. The lights were out.
In his commencement address to the Biola University class of 2012, artist Makoto Fujimura spoke the following: "Art poses questions; art probes into our lives as living parables. So the question I ask of you is this: What do we do if Vincent is right; what do we do in a culture in which the light of the Spirit has gone out of the church buildings and instead went swirling into Nature and into the margins of the life? What do you do in a culture in which the church stands as a structural homage to the moral underpinning which keeps the world from falling apart?"4
I don't have an answer for those questions other than Christ, the "artist greater than all artists." Believers who love the arts today have an incredible opportunity to express the beauty of God, his world, and his people in amazing ways. Although we may not need churches to return to Gothic architecture or painted ceilings, we certainly need to return to an enrapturing, awe-inspiring Jesus who has made us, broken canvases, into beautiful things.
If you'd like to be a part of a conversation about God and art, you should come to CityView on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:00 pm at the Vintage Arts Center (4523 Magazine Street). Check out this video for more:
1 Sørina Higgins, “The Church's Role in Art,” Cardus, May 27, 2011, https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2792/the-churchs-role-in-art/.
2 Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), 10.
3 “Letter 632,” Vincent van Gogh - The Letters, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let632/letter.html.
4 Makoto Fujimura, “'The Starry Night': Biola University Commencement Address, May, 2012,” MAKOTO FUJIMURA, May 26, 2012, http://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/the-starry-night-biola-university-commencement-address-may-2012/.