Pope Francis said,
“In every age the Church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness, and the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to bring redemption and rebirth to a world touched by the tragedy of sin and death.”
Artists, then, have no small task in the Church. It is their job to spread the Good News through their chosen medium to help others understand Christ.
Embracing the arts is a way to grasp the beauty surrounding us as a gift from God and a celebration of His creation. Art needs to evoke feelings. It is our spiritual perception that interprets religion; the same goes for art.
Art teaches and brings together a whole community into a common goal. Working within a team to produce a work of art involves a social and communal aspect. Art can bring out our sense of identity and help us find new ways of thinking, seeing, and hearing. Art is something to be shared with the world.
Arts Help Us Better Understand the Gospel
Since the birth of Christianity, people have attempted to represent scenes and images from the Old and New Testament in their paintings, writing, music, architecture, and sculptures.
Choirs sing hymns about Jesus. Churches have spectacular stained glass windows depicting scenes from the New Testament. Painters—especially Renaissance ones—excelled at interpreting His life and His teachings.
Think of the Creation of Adam or the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. Remember the Calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio showing the moment Jesus inspired Matthew to follow him or Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son.
Jesus’ life inspired Leonardo Da Vinci to paint The Last Supper.
Christianity also influenced sculpting: La Pieta by Michelangelo shows Mary holding the deceased body of Jesus. Old Testament heroes also inspired statue creations like David by Michelangelo, depicting David before his fight with Goliath or Moses, also by Michelangelo.
This artistic inspiration did not stop with painting and sculpting, nor did it limit itself to the Renaissance. In the 1720s, the composer J.S. Bach created astounding instrumental compositions for ecclesiastical organs. His piece Passion According to St. Matthew is inspired by the Gospel of Matthew.
From the beginning, artistic representations of Christianity had two goals. Its primary goal was to glorify the beauty and teachings of Jesus. However, at a time when literacy was low, and any reading material was both expensive and rare, art also aimed to teach stories from the Bible to people who could not read. Having such important goals is why art took many forms.
Today, the arts have evolved to encompass films and other sorts of artistic representations and remain central to the development of our intellect.
Why the Church Needs More Art Now
Why now? Because the last fifty years has seen the public frame their perception of the socially conservative wing of the church by what it opposes, not for what it promotes. The church must be much more intentional about telling our story – who we are and what we do.
Throughout history, the church was the per-eminent patron of the arts in the Western world. It used the arts to build magnificent buildings. Architects learned how to build higher and thinner walls to give the sacred place a hint of the majesty of God and to allow the stained glass windows to be as large as possible. The many tri-fold arches and windows speak of the Trinity.
The musical scales we use, four-part harmony, and the musical notation system were all developed to facilitate church singing. The pipe organ was developed from a rudimentary set of flutes to an engineering marvel because (until the synthesizer was invented) it was the only musical instrument which could play a note forever with no diminishment of sound. That’s important because the lack of any decay in sound was likened to the eternal nature of God!
When literacy was low and Bibles were scarce, churches portrayed the biblical stories in art, particularly in stained glass windows. Parishioners could ‘read’ the Bible through their church’s art. Now that we read the Bible itself, art serves to remind us of those stories.
But telling stories is just one way to communicate. The arts, everything from architecture to music to literature to dance to visual and culinary arts of all sorts, are a great way to convey impressions and messages.
Art creates opportunities for varied learning. Music, poetry, preaching, and personal sharing connects to auditory learners. Physical artwork, photography, drama, dance, and sign connects to visual learners. Those who learn by doing can take active roles in preparing and carrying out art in worship services and through artistic elements which invite worshipers out of their seats to come participate in live art which is completed during the actual service. Many people learn through not just one style of learning but through many, and art is an excellent way to learn and engage.
As our Knox Vision States: We aspire to engage our neighbours through the arts, building a community without loneliness.
Art can speak to us in on an emotional level and help us relate to one another in our pain and struggles.
Tom Wright makes a great case for why the church should support the arts: “Part of the role of the church in the past was – and could and should be again – to foster and sustain lives of beauty and aesthetic meaning at every level, from music making in the village pub to drama in the local primary school, from artists’ and photographers’ workshops to still-life painting classes, from symphony concerts to driftwood sculptures. The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every town and village where new creation bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope that, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise.”
There’s something beautiful about art. It’s completely human, yet it reveals the mystery of the Gospel in unique ways. Arts captures attention. It invites people into a story. It could even be argued that this generation can only be reached through the arts.
Without art, our ministry wouldn’t engage culture. We’d sit in our church buildings, clench our theology and watch as the world passes us by.