Why Should Christianity Be “Patron of the Arts”?

(Notes from a talk I gave earlier this year which folks asked me to share.)

I. What We Have Lost and Why it Matters

The sad thing is, if you walked on the street and took a spot survey, asking people to name the Patron of the Arts, few people would say, the Christian Church. People would probably say The Sundance Institute or the National Endowment for the Arts or the Bravo Channel. And they would be right! Hollywood does MUCH more to keep alive the arts than does the Church.

In fact, the testimony of the arts at a typical parish on a Sunday morning, can only be that the arts do not matter a whit to the Church today. I would go so far as to say that the arts in many Christian churches have become a scourge to torment the People of God.

We stagger in to the Church on Sunday morning hoping to find a glimpse of heaven, and we receive the worst vestiges of badly performed pseudo-pop music from the largely stoned, self-important, anti-intellectual folk music era, now only kept alive in our churches. In most cases, what we are exposed to musically in our churches is bad compositions badly executed. Sometimes, it attains to bad composition well-executed, but as poor imitations of what is happening in secular music, generally, the stuff we are hearing in Church is inappropriate to the liturgy in style, excellence and lyricism.

Too many churches are not an ante-chamber of heaven in their interiors, but instead are ugly, drooping, often “in the round” spaces calculated to distract us not by the Divine, but by each other. Banal banners and signs, plastic or half-hearted flowers, filthy carpets, stained ceilings, and ugly oak pews with the varnish half gone. There is truly, nothing to look at, never mind by which to be inspired.

And then there is the sloppy liturgical performance in our churches – altar servers yawning in wrinkled albs and high tops with laces undone, the readings badly done by people who haven’t prepared or else don’t read well, “the liturgy of the bulletin” with endless banal announcements for the Girl Scouts and the youth group and the fundraiser of the month.

And finally there is the preaching, which in most parishes is so far from good oratory that it constitutes a major scandal of our time all on its own. Week after week we get served up nothing worth hearing in a lame style from the priest, as if he put his words together while he was sitting there picking his fingers during the Responsorial psalm. This is a terrible thing for catechesis and ongoing formation, but as art, it is a travesty.

How far we have fallen, from that natural part of our community which is supposed to be Patron of the Arts! But even though most Sunday liturgies are exercises in sensory torture, we have to keep alive in us the fact that despite the ugliness and banality with which we have terribly obscured Her, the Church remains as Cardinal Newman wrote,

“…the poet of her children, full of music to soothe the sad and control the wayward; wonderful in story, rich in symbol and imagery. So that gentle and delicate feelings, which will not bear words, may in silence intimate their presence. The liturgy’s very being is poetry; every psalm, every petition, every prayer; the cross, the mitre, the incensor; each a fulfillment of some dream of childhood, or aspiration of youth.”

It’s beyond my scope and intestinal fortitude to do an extensive history of how we in the Christian Church got from Handel’s “Messiah” to “Gather Us In,” but there is a clear path from the shocked reaction against the Sexual Revolution, to the expansion of the Christian sub-culture to the profusion of banal art. In Protestantism, the impulse to imitate pop-culture in the Church comes from the desire to be loved by the world. In Catholicism, it is a much darker thing, a cold rejection against the elitism of excellence. Art produced in and for the sub-culture tends to be ugly for a whole lot of reasons. For now, it’s enough to point out that the Church loses the beautiful when She does thing on the cheap, when She does things that are easy, and when She does thing that are principally trying to make a political statement instead of lavishly pouring out a grateful, creative response from the reverent brooding over Revelation.

1. Christianity is Patron of the Arts because our theology is fundamentally analogical.
This is what sets us apart from the Islamic imagination, for example. Theology can never precisely define God. But the Christian imagination says, “God is like a mountain.” Islamic imagination says, “God is NOT the mountain.”

A work of art expresses a truth that can not be said in a sentence. It expresses a Truth through the journey of the work of art itself. As Flannery O’Connor says, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have needed the story.”

And we have to insist that the truths that the arts convey are just as important as those that come through on the pages of a catechism. Chesterton again, in The Everlasting Man:

“Imaginative does not mean imaginary. Every true artist does feel that he is touching transcendant truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. The natural mystic knows that there is something there behind the clouds and trees; and he believes that beauty is the way to find it; that the imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.”

2. The Church must be Patron of the Arts because – quoting Cardinal Ratzinger from his truly beautiful essay, “Beauty and the Truth of Christ,” “There is no surer proof that our faith is true than the works of beauty we make, starting in the lives of the saints.”

And, in so far as we put the lives of the saints in beautiful art, we accomplish a double proof that our faith is true.

For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared. (Beauty and the truth of Christ, Razinger)

3. Patron of the Arts because beauty conveys two different kinds of key knowledge/revelation.

a) We move from delight to joy to wonder to humility. We become aware of our smallness. It makes us sad, and yet joyful. It teaches with certainty that heaven exists. Again, as Ratzinger notes, “The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny.”

“The only way to enjoy even just a weed, is to feel yourself completely unworthy of the weed.” (Everlasting Man, Chesterton)

“At the back of our brains, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sense of wonder.” (Autobiography, Chesterton)

b) Beauty gives us firsthand experience of spiritual realities. This is contrasted with book learning as we can note in the stunning assertion by Cardinal Ratzinger that the revelation that comes to us through the encounter with the beautiful is more powerful than that which comes through the study of theology precisely because it contains a real experience.

“Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.”

“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.” (Orthodoxy, Chesterton)

4. Patron of the Arts because there is nothing that creates community more quickly and more powerfully than sharing something beautiful.

It is a sign that something is beautiful that people are moved to share it. This is why we like to watch movies together with other people. This is why, when you see a beautiful sunset, you go and get other people to see it too. This is why when there is a lovely song or short film on YouTube, you link to it on Facebook.

II. Things the Church Can Say to the Secular Culture That No One Else Will Say

1. There is a beauty that is good for us, and there is an imitation of beauty that is bad for us.
a) Spiritual Beauty – reveals that man has a spirit; leads to transcendant; leads to wonder; begs to be shared
b) Sensual Beauty – revels in man’s physical nature;

Falsehood however has another stratagem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and was “delightful to the eyes”. The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself.

This sham, sensual attractiveness stimulates the desire to eat; to possess; to consume; to dominate; to collect; to have sex with; it is the opposite of the impulse to share that true beauty evokes. Ratzinger notes that to manipulate men through this kind of power is part of the “strategem of hell.”

2. To restore the Artist to His Essential Place in Human Society

The story of the 20th Century has been the story of the artist in proud isolation. He was told that in order to preserve his voice, he needed to stay on the fringes of the community. Too many other people would pollute his distinct message. This is all wrong. The artist gets his message from association with human society. Without society, the only thing an artist can talk about is the contents of his own navel. We have been looking at artistic guts for too long in the last half a century.

a) The artist is prophet – to reveal the mind of God; to reveal the groanings of the Spirit; to shake us up by reminding us who we are and who God is. The point of the liturgy is always to achieve this two-fold end: to make real the Awesome God, and to make real the desperate need of humanity;

The nature of the revelation proper to art is not confusion. Confusion paralyzes. Art should lead to compunction. (David to Nathan, “I have sinned…”
This is the primary reason non-representational modern art is not appropriate in churches, btw. It is inscrutable and confusing even when it is excellent, except to those who have studied it. Sacred art needs a mass accessibility.

b) The artist as priest – dedication to his vocation to beauty is the ongoing sacrifice offered by the artist. It disfigures him. But it makes him a worthy vessel of grace.

c) The artist as representative of the Creator – he is the arbiter of beauty; he tells us what is good and what is ugly; we listen to him. Especially we clerics who have no artistic training and who only know what we like, but not what we are talking about when it comes to art.

The Rest of the Review: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal”
Because That Puerile, Stupid Song is Really a Poison
Noah – The Emperor’s New Movie
“Nothing Left to Say of Me” – Flannery O’Connor’s, “A Prayer Journal”
  • Jessica Crenshaw

    Excellent article! Hopefully this will help bring us back to beauty. The only thing I would add is that perhaps some of the reaction to elitist excellence might have been a reaction to elitist attitudes or Pharisaical attitudes of Catholics who do not bother to teach to excellence with patience and compassion as you do, but go about criticizing and thinking themselves above other human beings. If one does not feel that one can possibly measure up to expectations, one tends to stop trying.

  • Ann McFarland

    Again! So full of truth. This piece reflects the lost place I must endure as an artist longing to contribute within the church. I can do anything else in church except what I have been creatively gifted to do! Maybe ? that’s God’s personal purpose for me…express my gift from Him, for Him… OUTSIDE the church.

  • Brennan555

    I think this quote goes along well with Barbara’s article.

    This quote is from Fr. George Rutler’s book “A Crisis of Saints” (Ignatius Press):

    “A Liturgical Parable

    The Hard Truth

    …We seem to slip out of that golden sense of ultimate truth in two ways. The first is by losing any real awareness of the holy. The second is by denying that it has been lost. Without lapsing into criticism that would be out of place, suffice it to say that the worship of holiness is weak in our culture, and the beauty of holiness has been smudged in transmission through the revised liturgy. For without impugning its objective authenticity in any degree, its bouleversement [complete overthrow; a reversal; a turning upside down] of the traditional Roman rite marks the first time in history that the Church has been an agent, however unintentionally, in the deprivation of culture, from the uprooting of classical language and sensibility to wanton depreciation of the arts.

    …It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church’s liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church’s rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action.”

    (“A Crisis of Saints”, Ignatius Press pp. 107-108)

  • tteague

    Barbara, i’s just so fundamental that it’s frustrating to know it has to be said. But it does. Thanks.

    Back in the early-to-mid 1980′s I went through a major shift in my faith. I was a “devout” Baptist in good standing, but I started studying cinema and art history (my two majors as an undergrad), and those studies began to highlight a dichotomy I had not known existed between popular Christianity and the heights of human creativity in the arts. I also had friends studying theater and fine arts. Many discussions between us and our experiences only foregrounded the dichotomy. Eventually I felt I had to take leave of that particular Christian sub-culture for the sake of my faith – not because my church didn’t preach the gospel at some important level, but because I somehow knew their attitude toward the arts and artists, which was utilitarian at best and fearful at worst, said that something was profoundly wrong about their understanding of the total gospel – a gospel that should speak to the whole person in light of truth, goodness, and beauty. I saw much truth (though even that’s arguable), some goodness, and little beauty.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have left that church for another, but I began a long journey of faith that grew out of my love of the arts, and which eventually, with many twists and turns over 25+ years, led me to the Catholic Church. However, and this is what has once again raised my concerns and the old feelings re-emerged, is that once I began to embrace Catholicism I looked around at it’s more current creative and artistic expressions and I had to say, “Really??? After all that I had learned about the history of Catholic creativity, from its music to architecture to painting and more, this is what y’all accept today??” The “this” are all the things your list above.

    For a long time now I have had in the back of my mind a saying that I worry is true, that is: “All other things being equal, bad art is the product of bad theology.” If this is at all true, then when I look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which is breathtaking work of theology and doctrine) and I then look at much of the popular art produced by Catholics, including the music and banners (etc.) at Mass, my thoughts say “Y’all don’t *really* believe the CCC, do you?” Please tell me I am wrong.

    Anyway, I enter the Church soon, and I am truly excited. Perhaps I God will lead me to play a minuscule part in reviving the love for excellence in the arts (and in thinking about the arts) within my little part of the world.

    • brnicolosi

      Some bad art is due to bad theology. Some bad art is due to cheapness, anti-elitism and political agenda. Eventually, we Catholics should vomit out this bad art stuff as it is alien to us.

      • tteague

        I agree. And I would add that it’s not necessarily a heart matter, for people can truly love God and just not make the connections between truth, goodness, and beauty. But I would also say it’s not inconceivable to think that cheapness, anti-elitism, and political agendas (at least those that take precedence over truth, goodness, and beauty, or love) probably arise from bad theology as well.

        I must say, though, that I also love the small, suburban parish church that I attend. Yes, it has guitars and bongos, yes some of the hymns are horrible, but we have a new priest who is making careful incremental changes in the direction of authentic worship and proper solemnity. His preaching is good and theologically sound. He has a lot of energy. Perhaps he has plans to bring about more genuine beauty in the Mass, etc.

        But honestly, I’m about as new as can be to Catholicism, so I can’t really say much objectively one way or the other.

    • JoFro

      I couldn’t have said it better myself! I have no idea why the Church does not anymore actually support good art worldwide! Ugly church architecture, ugly church paintings and well, just ugliness all around! Did you hear about the Vatican participating for the first time in a famous international art exposition in Venice under the theme “Creation, Un-Creation and Re-Creation,” with the aim of promoting modern dialogue on faith?

      My good Lord, that was some of the ugliest c*ap the Church, I believe, has ever sponsored!

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    “Beauty will save the world.” (Dostoevsky)