Contemplative Life

Vocation and the Art of Being Church

“That is the best thing I have ever seen come out of Christianity.”

Those words were the gut response of a young adult artist, typically uninspired by Christianity, who upon entering a home witnessed a group of people rehearsing Gregorian chants for a church service. It is a moment etched into my memory for reasons I am not sure I appreciated until I came across the following quote from U2’s frontman Bono in his recent memoir Surrender.   

“It is art, not advertising, that the Creator is interested in.”

In his book Beauty Will Save the World, Brian Zahnd makes the following observation that is absolutely essential for those of us who care about the future of the church. “To a generation suspicious of truth claims and unconvinced by moral assertions, beauty has a surprising allure.”

That insight, as well as my young friend’s response to Gregorian chanting might indicate that it is not only God, but also the next generation, that is more interested in art than advertising.

Andy Warhol famously blurred the lines between art and advertisement for a generation. But Warhol’s work was interesting precisely because he blurred the lines, without erasing them. Had his famous Campbell’s Soup Cans really only been an advertisement for tomato soup, art galleries throughout the world would have saved a ton of money and just hung actual Campbell’s Soup original posters instead.

So what is the distinction between art and advertisement? The similarities are many: Both employ language and image, often in creative and unexpected arrangements, in order to communicate. Both want attention. Both need attention to matter. Both are artifacts of culture. Both form and shape culture. Both, I’d argue, bear witness to something else, while being witnessed by someone else.

I offer the following differences not as a final answer, but as an invitation to conversation (seriously, I’d welcome hearing folks’ reflections via email).

Where art bears witness to something beyond our grasp, advertisement bears witness to precisely what you can grasp (with enough money). Where art wants to open doors to a yet unfolding universe of wonder, advertisement wants to open the doors to a storefront where having consumed a product your wonder is now satiated. Advertisement results in the end of wonder, whereas the end of art is wonder.

The Church, rather surprisingly, has this feature very much in common with both art and advertising: We too bear witness to something else (the Kingdom) precisely in our being witnessed by someone else (culture). The question for the church is whether our witness is more art than advertisement. That is, does it reflect an unfolding universe of wonder; open to exploration, questions, and critique? Or a storefront peddling a product promising not so much to expand wonder as to satiate it?

The call is to rediscover beauty as gospel witness, not in opposition to but in concert with its truth, and goodness. It is also a call to reclaim not only the role of art in the local church, but also the art of being the local church. What I mean to say is that our embrace of beauty is not merely directed at formal artists, but is an aspect of all of our collective witness as we go about our various vocations.

Isaiah 52 tells us “beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” not because it was a particularly good looking pair of feet the Messiah had. No, they were beautiful because of the way they bore both goodness and truth. I think if you had asked my young adult friend whether the chanting he heard in the living room of those Christians was technically the “best thing” he’d “ever heard,” he would have said no. But the way those chants carried truth and goodness was beautiful in a way he had not yet encountered in the church.

Art in church & church as art.

“Individual destiny is not produced machine-like from the ‘mills of the gods.’ Nor are we characters in a morality play. We are works of art, each work distinct, each a phenomenon, the art laboring hand in hand with the Artist to create the story. We are inside a poem. No, we are the poem.” -Michael D. O’Brien, Island of the World

Speaking of art in the church, On September 29th, as a part of our greater Beauty for Ballast initiative Coracle is inviting artists from both the Soil & the Seed Project, and the Early Church community to come and remind us of the beauty of the story of Jesus through their gifts of music and poetry. We hope you will join us, not only for that, but also for the Sept 14th Sounding Seminar on Art & Formation, in which Seth Crisman (founder of the Soil and the Seed Project) and myself, will be exploring the role of locally created art in Christian formation.

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