Notre Dame, Art and The Church

Just a few weeks back, the world watched horrified as Notre Dame burned. Thankfully, the fire was suppressed before the old gothic cathedral was a total loss, but just imagining the complete ruin of such an important piece of spiritual, historical and cultural architecture was difficult to process.

The whole episode reminded me of the deeply complex and often tumultuous relationship Christianity has had with the arts over the centuries. Historically speaking, there has been no greater purveyor of western art than the church. The works of J.S. Bach, Michelangelo and DaVinci (to name just a few) lift the eyes of man to something or someone far greater than man himself. Transcendent beauty always and eventually points away from itself and towards the eternal. A prominent church leader once said, “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God….”

During both the 8th century and the subsequent Protestant Reformation of the 14th and 15th centuries, church leaders removed and destroyed art (architecture included) because of perceived idolatry. It also became clear that with human suffering around every corner, the increasing commoditization and subsequent cost of fine art (be it music, architecture, painting, poetry or literature) was becoming more and more difficult to justify.

And so, art simply moved on. It moved to galleries, concert halls, playhouses and so on. The relationship between the church and art has become so icy that gifts like painting, poetry, dance and theatre have become mostly marginalized. N.T. Wright comments: “In my experience the Christian painter or poet, sculptor or dancer, is regularly regarded as something of a curiosity, to be tolerated, humoured even, maybe even allowed to put on a show once in a while. But the idea that they are, or could be, anything more than that—that they have a vocation to re-imagine and re-express the beauty of God, to lift our sights and change our vision of reality—is often not even considered.”

Music and movies, though more prominent, have suffered an even worse fate… commercialization. When the artist perceives that their chief motivation is not creative freedom, but a formula that guarantees sales and mass consumption, bad art will follow.

And so the question today is, can this relationship be redeemed? Can art be reclaimed from an elitist subculture that says “look at me” and be returned to a medium that lifts the eyes of the common man and says, “look at God”?

As Notre Dame burned last month, admirers from across the world mourned the destruction of an architectural masterpiece that lifted eyes and hearts to heaven. The response it produced is a powerful reminder of the way God can work through artistic expression to ignite gospel transformation in our hearts. After all, He is the greatest artist humanity has known–the God who created us, the earth and the heavens.

Here are 9 things that you and I can do to help realign the relationship between art and the church:

  1. Begin to treat the arts as less of a commodity, and more of a means to illuminate
  2. Embrace great art and resist low aesthetic standards
  3. Value work that is difficult and challenging, not just work that is accessible
  4. Allow art to raise questions, not only give answers
  5. Recognize that art doesn’t communicate to everyone in the same way
  6. Pay artists for their work, acknowledging they are workers worthy of their hire
  7. Leave room for the creative process when engaging an artist, don’t just give them a road map
  8. Refuse to idolize artistic success (i.e. “wouldn’t it be great if you were doing it like…”)
  9. Allow room for lament; stop demanding happy, shiny art

Ready for more? Here are some next steps:

Check out this wonderful artist who’s helping repair what’s been lost between the church and art.

Here’s a resource that helps us understand the relationship of the Christian to the arts.

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