by Abi Hillrich
Understanding how to interact with culture and art is something the Church has been struggling with for decades. Finding a way to appropriately engage in culture without giving in to the immediate gratification that seems so appealing has been difficult for leaders of the Church to manage, and to teach on. Traditionally, the struggle results in the complete avoidance of secular art and a judgmental, shame-filled attitude toward those who choose to partake in certain aspects of culture deemed “unholy.”
Danara Moore, Greenville College’s Music Business professor, believes that working hard to find this balance is crucial. Engaging in culture as a Christian is something she is very passionate about. “I have always found the categorization of art as either Christian or Secular a terribly crude and perverse method,” Moore said. “Christian culture has an interesting way of convincing people that art — all art — is somehow unholy. This happens by way of youth leaders, parents, maybe even professors who justify their claims by telling you what art is not. Namely, it’s not Christian because (insert your favorite reason here). Maybe it’s not Christian because the songwriter swears, the painter creates nude portraits or the filmmaker depicts lovable character LeFou as a homosexual in the recent remake of Beauty and the Beast. We are much better served to tell people what art is. Whether it be a song, a novel, or a mind-puzzling installation in the MoMa, art is the outcome of sacred expression.” These words came from a very educated place; Moore has clearly thought about the impact this has had on those growing up in modern hybrid culture. It has always been clear that many mainstream artists also practice some sort of faith. Christianity has become much more compatible with mainstream culture in the last few decades.
Engaging in culture is not something that should be surrounded by an obscure idea of impurity. The beauty and artistry of creation always points to truth. Using discretion and working to understand the context of a work of art is something we, as Christians, should constantly be engaging in. There is a bigger picture. “I often think of the intimacy the creator has with his or her art,” Moore said. “She was compelled to create it, to bear it as a burden until realized. She hoped to revel in the ‘aha’ moment or the ‘it has arrived’ moment of perfection, but slowly came to terms with her own inability to achieve it. The artist’s process to create is a repeated confirmation of Corinthians 13:12: ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.’ I find in art an innate despair from the buried sense of ‘knowing’ what we could have but don’t and the hope in believing that someday we will.” Good art does not always mean moral art, and vice versa. Good art promotes truth above anything else. The act of creation has always been something holy and Christlike, and it is part of our role in this world to appreciate this ability.
Another fantastic source of clarity on this subject is Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water. L’Engle dedicated this whole book to the exploration of art as worship. “To serve a work of art, great or small, is to die, to die to self. If the artist is to be able to listen to the work, he must get out of the way; or, more correctly, since getting out of the way is not a do-it-yourself activity, he must be willing to be got out of the way, to be killed to self in order to become the servant of the work,” L’Engle wrote. However, she does not claim it will be easy; on the contrary, L’Engle suggests that we are, in fact, afraid of creation because “it is death, and no matter how loudly we protest, we are afraid of death.” This book, a great read for those searching to find their own answers to questions about art in relation to God, follows L’Engle’s writing process and how the creative process has given her a deeper relationship with our Creator. Moore is a great promoter of L’Engle as well. “I am always inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s writings on ‘the naming of things,’” she said. “Our ability to create, to breathe life into something new, and to name it is a holy and sacred experience. We participate and are compelled because we embody this characteristic of God.”
God’s calling to His people to be holy should not keep us from experiencing His character in the act of creation. Letting the fear of secular culture and art keep us from having a better relationship with God is “a perversion of Christianity,” Moore asserted. “Artists have walked to the edge, into the long tunnel to peer up at the light and look down at the darkness.”
L’Engle writes: “But, unless we are creators, we are not fully alive.” God created us to be creators, in His image. There is a sense of home to be found in dying to a work of art. It is the sacrifice of oneself for the larger picture; it is truly a sacred act of worship.