Monday, July 30, 2007

Evangelical Protestants & Art

I recently read, “Evangelicals Start Push in the Arts” (also available here), an Associated Press article written by Eric Gorski. The piece explores the emerging place of the arts in certain Evangelical Protestant circles.

Some Evangelicals are trying to give art a central place in their communities and worship. The article dates skepticism about art within Evangelical Protestantism back to the Protestant Reformation, when the Protestants reacted against Roman Catholicism, thereby initiating the Protestant movement that has produced thousands of denominations, groups, associations, and independent congregations.

Instead of trying to come up with a new philosophy of art or develop innovative uses for art in Evangelical culture, Evangelicals should look back beyond the beginning of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism to discover the Orthodox Christian Church. Within the Orthodox Church art has continued to be central to the Christian life. Evangelicals have the opportunity to discover what Christians have been doing in the East for centuries and what the West, dominated by Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and secularism, has forgotten. The Orthodox Church expressed the theology of sacred art and defended the place of holy image in the Christian Church centuries ago, long before either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism existed.

In the article, an artist named Makoto Fujimura is quoted as saying,

“I’m a Christian….I am also an artist and creative, and what I do is driven by my faith experience….But I am also a human being living the 21st century, struggling with a lot of brokenness – my own, as well as the world’s. I don’t want to use the term ‘Christian’ to shield me away from the suffering or evil that I see, or to escape in some nice ghetto where everybody thinks the same.”

This statement captures the discontinuity in people’s minds between their religious life and their “real life” in American culture. Within the Orthodox way of life, no such distinction exists between our “faith experience” and our life in the world. Our life as Orthodox Christians is the experience of God within the creation. The Orthodox life is the path of healing from brokenness that allows us to become truly human in the fullest sense of the word. The term “Christian” isn’t a word that “shields” us from suffering and evil, but because we are Christians we have an understanding and sense of the meaning of suffering and evil. To be a Christian is to face suffering and evil, help others through it, and to ultimately overcome it. Being an Orthodox Christian doesn’t mean withdrawing to a “ghetto where everybody thinks the same,” but it means being the Church together, sharing a common faith and life.

The faith-expressing art described in this article isn’t clearly religious art, but abstract modern art influenced by the artists' faith. The philosophy among some Evangelical artists seems to be that in order for secular people in our culture to relate to art that reflects our faith the art we produce cannot clearly express our faith, but our faith must be ambiguously hidden within it. Instead of disguising our faith in abstraction, we need to plainly reveal the faith to others. The iconography of the Orthodox Church proclaims a clear message for anyone willing to discover it. Many casual observers may dismiss an icon as an example of irrelavent religious art, but the deeper meaning of icons can touch the soul of anyone who seeks beauty and healing. We don’t have to subversively sneak a spiritual message hidden in unintelligible images on a canvas into the unsuspecting minds of unwary observers . Abstract modern art may have value in expressing the Faith, but such abstract art is not necessary for communicating the Faith to non-Christians. For centuries, iconography has effectively communicated the Orthodox Faith and expressed the Mystery of Divine Beauty.

Fujimura says that “The Bible is full of abstraction….Think about this God who created the universe, the heavens and the earth from nothing. In order to have faith you have to reach out to something, to a mystery.” The Bible communicates a clear message. The Scripture is not analogous to a canvas splattered with lines, streams, splotches, and swaths of paint either strategically or randomly applied. (Unfortunately, abstract art often mirrors the confused, disoriented views of a corrupted, broken secular culture more than the Christian experience of Mystery.) The authors of Holy Scripture, the mystic theological poets (like St. Ephraim the Syrian and St. Symeon the New Theologian), and the great iconographers throughout history have expressed the Christian Faith both creatively and clearly, revealing the Divine Mystery they intimately experience.

This article includes an explanation of the role of movies among Evangelicals. We don’t have to search for traces of spiritual themes in secular art, or as the article puts it, try to “find holy moments within mainstream movies.” Instead, we can beneficially find holy moments in Orthodox Christian stories about people who genuinely have holy moments. Why try to find the theme of repentance in a Hollywood flick, or an indie film for that matter, when I can tell someone the amazing story of St. Mary of Egypt, a sensual urban party girl who turned away from her self-destructive lifestyle to become a desert-dwelling holy woman who found peace, enlightenment, and union with God? (Artists may be interested to know that an icon placed an important role in her conversion.) Certainly, a lot of movies offer incredible metaphors of the Christian experience, but the most powerful stories are found within the life of the Church. Unfortunately, most Evangelicals have never even heard of these stories and continue to be disconnected from the continuing life of the ancient Church where sacred art and stories are central to our daily existence.

Those who are thirsty for Beauty should come to the place where the fountain flows unceasingly. If Evangelicals want a Church where art is central to worship and prayer, they don’t need to invent something new. They can instead walk through the doors of the ancient Church where these things have been preserved from generation to generation since the earliest times.

One problem within contemporary art culture is that art is often driven by self-centered egotism. Artists may have an “I’ve got something important to say and I have a right to express it” attitude. Their art is about me and my experience. Compare that attitude with the correct attitude of an iconographer in the Eastern tradition. One who paints icons isn’t concerned with his or her own ideas or experience, but our common faith and common experience as the Church. Since our Faith is constant, a familiar continuity is present in the sacred art produced down through the ages.

There is a place for personal artistic expression in the Orthodox Christian life, but not individualistic expression because we are not independent individuals but persons within a community. There is even a place for the Western art styles, from realistic to abstract, within the Orthodox life. The importance of an artist understanding and experiencing Orthodox iconography within the life of the Church is that he or she can know the meaning and nature of truly spiritual art and be influenced and guided by it. Knowledge of iconography, an expression of our life together, will help artists to better understand how to accurately and express their own experience through other media for the benefit of others.

May artists, Evangelicals, secularists, and the “spiritual, but not religious” types discover the source of Beauty and the expression of sacred Beauty found within the Orthodox Church.