Mainline Protestant Channel
Why the Church Needs Art
I think there is a strong analogy here to the way in which God relates to us. We are called into relationship with God, not simply as passive recipients of God's love, but as active participants in a relationship with God that stretches and grows and shifts over time. We have the freedom to interact, and we are integral to the equation. I have often remarked that because we live in an age of ubiquitous television, audiences at a concert frequently seem to be unaware that I can see them too; we are most accustomed to watching things that aren't watching us back. At a live performance, it is easy to forget that we are not only watching the show, we are part of it. The reactions and energy that an audience offers to the stage are absolutely fundamental to the energy and quality that come from the stage. Likewise, some people perceive God as the puppet master and our own roles as passive. That is shoddy theology, though. The truth is that we have the freedom to engage, to participate, or to look away.
Those who discount the value of art in worship may miss or undervalue its connectional aspect as well. At its best, art may produce a deep sense of communion. There have been times in my life when I have been part of an audience so caught up in music at a live concert, for instance, that everyone in the room seemed almost to melt into an aggregate spirit; the feeling in the room can become so electric that one is sure that there is no one in the room who is outside of it, that we are all feeling exactly the same thing. Those who are skeptical of the value of the arts would say that this deep sense of connectedness is lovely, but illusory. It wears off and we come back to the hard reality of daily life.
The truth, I believe, is just the opposite. That sense of unity is not the illusion. Rather, it is the sense of disconnectedness that most of us walk around with every day that is false. The connection is the truth. It is a window on the spirit, and it is holy. As children of God, we are connected, and if art reveals that to us, even if it is secular art, it contains an element of the sacred. The arts can reveal certain kinds of truth in ways that our loftiest ideas never can.
The mysteries of just how this happens and what it means also point to God. We don't understand because it is beyond our understanding. That's hard for people like me who tend to think that our thinking will show us truth. All of my best thought, though, does not explain the power of art, or the nature of God. What I understand is that I don't understand, but there is something here that I want to stand closer to. The arts have a way of embodying that mystery, and therefore pulling us back from the dangerous and seductive illusion that we understand God, that we know the rules and that those rules are sufficient. They are not.
We need the arts in worship because they are imaginative, and we need imagination in order to transcend the boundaries of our limited intellects and the tendencies of many of us toward self-defeat. As theologian Walter Brueggemann writes in his book The Prophetic Imagination, "The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined . . . We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable." We need vision, the sense of where we're headed, even if we remain far from our goal, and the arts are uniquely useful in the effort to envision.
David LaMotte is the Associate for Peace at the North Carolina Council of Churches. He has performed 2000 concerts worldwide as a singer/songwriter, and is also a speaker, workshop leader, children's book author, and founder of PEG Partners, a non-profit that funds building and educational projects at schools and libraries in Guatemala. David is also involved with the Wild Goose Festival on art, justice and spirituality this summer. Visit their website at: http://www.wildgoosefestival.org/