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.

Work, work, work

Work is prayer, and prayer is work. Service is love. This is the heart of the Benedictine view of work.

Ora et labora — work and pray, an unofficial Benedictine motto (not from Benedict).

Dreher doesn’t think the world is about to end, but he does think that Christians are going to find it harder to maintain a balance in the workplace in the years ahead. He thinks that if you believe in traditional sexual morality, you are going to find it harder and harder to keep your job in certain lines of employment. But I’m not sure.

First, I’m not sure because, speaking of the sorts of places where I work (universities), which are one of Dreher’s danger zones, I think that hiring policies should not give a flying fig about sexual orientation or if someone is transgendered or votes Labour or kisses icons or sings, ‘Hare Krishna.’ Furthermore, all of those things are, legally speaking, ‘protected characteristics’ in the UK, of which there are 9 (I don’t know what the official order is):

  1. Sex
  2. Age
  3. Religion or belief
  4. Race
  5. Disability
  6. Sexual orientation
  7. Pregnancy or maternity
  8. Gender reassessment
  9. Marriage and civil partnership

Now, that doesn’t mean I run around proclaiming the fact that I’m a religious nutter. I actually play it quiet, because I do think that people can have a subconscious bias against certain beliefs. That is, while I am charitable enough to think that no hiring committee would consciously reject me because I actually believe the Council of Chalcedon, I’m cynical enough to believe that they may do so unconsciously.

Second, I’m not sure about Dreher’s concerns because, while I don’t think any conservative Christian should officiate at a gay wedding, I sometimes wonder if perhaps photographers, bakers, florists, and pizza places should do their jobs for gay weddings out of charity. That is, if you believe that gay marriage is an ontological impossibility because biblical and traditional anthropology sees marriage as bound up with the difference of sexes wherein we reflect the image of God, you must also believe that love, charity, agape, is the highest good of all. Right? So bake those lesbians the best cake you can!

The whole question of Christian (and traditional Jewish and Muslim) entrepreneurs and gay marriage is fraught with difficulty, and I won’t get into it now. In fact, same-sex marriage and homosexual sex acts are among the things I actively avoid discussing on this blog since discussions of them turn toxic fast, into a vile cesspool of trolling, with all sides making all sorts of unsubstantiated claims.

That said, Christians have had a terrible track record with homosexuals in the past (like condemning Turing to hormone therapy). In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers makes an offhand reference to the fact that, if you abrogate moral law, you will pay the consequences. Due to our failures to truly love homosexuals, perhaps traditional Christians are now paying the consequences for our own failure to live up to the highest moral law of all — charity.

Whether the future is as dire as Dreher imagines, the theology of work sketched in this chapter is a taste of what all of us can and should take away from the Benedictine tradition. We are created to work. Work can be redemptive. Manual labour may even be good for us spiritually and psychologically. But we are also created to worship God and take care of our families and spiritual world. Just as family and church community should not become idols, neither should work.

I remember a monk from Athos interviewed by National Geographic a few years ago. He was clearing huge stones for a garden or something, and he said that the stones are a reminder of his sins.

FYI, the best discussion of work I’ve yet read is Dorothy L. Sayers in The Mind of the Maker.