Faith and the arts

Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome (my photo)

At the start of this new year, my friend Talita from high school put on her debut concert as a singer-songwriter, livestreamed over Facebook (Thunder Bay, Ontario, is far from Durham, England) from the Urban Abbey. It was the story of her journey as a musician, and a good number of friends from high school as well as her dad and sisters made appearances on the platform, performing alongside her, including Ryan Marchand who is actually a rock star.

It was a wonderful event, and there was a strong element of Talita’s faith in the midst of the theme of her emergence as an artist. Many of the beautiful songs, including her own compositions, were songs of the Christian faith, reflecting the beautiful truths of our beautiful God. It was great to watch this event. And I am so glad that the Urban Abbey provides a space for artists — performers and others — to ply their trade.

But few churches and Christian communities really do. It’s probably seen by some as a hipster sort of move. Historically, however, churches have not needed to sponsor the arts so consciously as this — it was natural. Notker ‘the Stammerer’ was not Sankt Gall’s Artist in Residence (and certainly not a hipster), but he wrote them beautiful poetry. The mosaicists of Palermo were simply plying their trade. The anonymous liturgists of the Gelasian Sacramentary did not need to make special pleading in the church.

But today, spaces like the Urban Abbey can be rarely found.

In Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, one piece of wisdom Chris R. Armstrong imparts is for evangelicals to get into art more — that the Incarnation makes Christian art important. God Himself became His creation. All creatures matter. Not only this — and this is not from Armstrong but is Tolkien language also expressed by Sayers in The Mind of the Maker — but we are made in the image of God, and one of the foundational properties of theism is that Our God is Creator. We then, are sub-creators in some way.

Turning back to Armstrong, evangelicals have not always made good art. Think of the King of the Hill line about how Christian rock doesn’t make Christianity better but rock’n’roll worse. Armstrong mentions Richard Wilkinson’s study of English literature 1860-1960 that found the only orthodox Protestants producing high literary art worth mentioning in that century were C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both sacramental Anglicans. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worth thinking about.

How can we make great art and beauty a natural part of evangelical faith?

The Gospel — the evangel of evangelical — is the most beautiful true thing in the world. The God who dies. The myth that is real. The cosmic-rending reality of Incarnation. The piercing of the Virgin’s Mary’s soul. There is high drama here. It is worthy of great art, and great art has been made about Christianity forever.

People of faith have always made art, often of a very high degree of skill and beauty. Just think on the Parthenon and temples of the Acropolis, the Pantheon of Rome, the tales told of the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, or consider the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the calligraphy on the exteriors of so many mosques. Think of the Homeric Hymns, the Poetic Edda, the Rg Veda. Greek tragedy and comedy began as part of a religious festival.

Christianity, in its worship of the Triune God, has given us the beautiful prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the verse of Gregory of Nazianzus and Prudentius and Ambrose, the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance liturgy, the fine intricacies of ars anglicana embroidery, the hymns of Charles Wesley, of Romanos the Melodist, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Isaac Watts, of Notker the Stammerer, of J. M. Neale, as well as the architecture of liturgy — Hagia Sophia, St Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, the mosaics of Santa Prassede, of Palermo, of Hagia Sophia, of San Marco in Venice.

Beyond the formal worship event, Christianity has given us so much (and so much more than the following): The Dream of the Rood, Dante (!!), The Quest for the Holy Grail, Fra Angelico,  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Requiem, William Byrd, countless mosaics and frescoes throughout the Mediterranean world, the Christian Latin epics of Late Antiquity, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and so many more without delving into Protestantism.

For the churches descended from the Reformation have their own rich heritage in the arts. St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, the prose of the 1611 KJV Bible, Sir John Davies, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis (who was also Roman Catholic — he lived in interesting times), J. S. Bach, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Guite, and undoubtedly so many others who escape me just now.

Let us drink deep from the beauty of the beautiful God, and we shall produce beauty ourselves.

Helping people get rooted in old stuff

Christ the King at the centre, Notre Dame de Paris

In response to my last post, William asked how we expect people to present ancient/medieval/early modern — historic — Christianity ‘in modern or po-mo parlance’. This is a good question. We have to admit that there is a remove between ourselves and the pre-modern world, first of all. We have much in common with our forebears in the faith, being human and Christian and all that.

But our educational background, our educational system, our politics, the religion of our non-Christian neighbours, the philosophy of the surrounding culture, what art is — these things are different.

Two approaches to groundwork, then.

First, acknowledge the difference between us and St Augustine and discern accurately and lovingly our surrounding culture — the spiritual but not religious, people who actually like Brutalist architecture (or claim to, anyway), the hedonists, the perfectly happy agnostics and atheists, as well as groups that include both Christians and those who have yet to know Christ — feminists, vegetarians, Republicans, New Labour, the French.

What are these people’s desires and aspirations? For those who reject Jesus, why? What do they think of Him?

Then, if you know the Great Tradition, you can speak its truths in ways that will make sense. What does that look like? It looks like the Gospel as your close friends would like to hear it.

This sort of approach is what Robert E. Webber did with his ‘Ancient-Future’ books, consciously trying to use patristics to speak to postmodernity.

The other is almost the opposite. I, personally, gravitate towards this. Simply try to make the doctrines and practices of the ancients comprehensible. Ask yourself, ‘Why does this matter? What exactly is this doctrine saying?’ Rewrite a doctrinal statement in your own words. Or learn the ancient languages and translate the texts for yourself. Having digested them, try simply to talk about them as a normal human being. (This is hard for me — I am not normal.)

This second approach is more like Christopher A. Hall’s three books from IVP, Reading Scripture with the Church FathersLearning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers  or Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, that simply try to be straightforward introductions to the Church Fathers.

A bit like both is Chris R. Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians.

These books could be recommended to friends, parishioners, study leaders, whomever. Start a patristics study group and use one of these as an entry point. Or you could run a seminar for your church, like I did for Nicosia’s Greek Evangelical Church in 2013.

For me, though, I’ve always enjoyed grappling with the texts themselves. I really appreciate the books above and how some of them ushered me into the world of patristic thought. But in the end, people like me don’t want to see congregations reading books about the Fathers and medieval theologians, or about spiritual disciplines. We want to see fellow believers enriching their lives with the ancient, medieval, early modern texts themselves, and applying spiritual disciplines to their own lives.

To this end, one might need a budget and a bit of discernment. Or a good research library! Because I think annotated translations and commentaries being used by study groups are the next step. The naked text, as in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, can be hard to digest. Newer translations with footnotes or endnotes are extremely valuable. We use these for the Bible (and Homer and Cicero), so why not for the ancient and medieval inheritance of Christianity?

Of course, we’ll never agree with everything the ancients say. This is life. But if we aren’t seeking to be rooted and nourished by the living God as He has acted in and through his Church for the long centuries leading up to now, we will find ourselves caught up in all the fads of contemporary thought.

This final point is one that Thomas C. Oden made in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy — all of his best, radical ideas from when he was a liberal turned out to have already been done by the Fathers.