Evangelical Art?

Thanks to the Roving Medievalist for a link to an interesting article from Touchstone Magazine asking why Evangelicals don’t produce good literature. The author, who is an Evangelical, asks good questions and appreciates Flannery O’Connor’s insights on faith and art. He also laments the lack of good art or even a theological theory of art amongst Evangelicals.

I am sure there are Evangelical exceptions my theory, and I am open to being convinced otherwise, but I don’t know any great Evangelical artists, writers or composers do you? There are some historic Protestants to be sure, but where are the contemporary artists from the Evangelical world?

I have written elsewhere about this. G.K.Chesterton said “All arguments are theological arguments’. It is the same here. I believe Evangelicals find it difficult to produce great art because they do not have a sacramental theology, and without a sacramental theology they cannot have a sacramental worldview, and without a belief that grace is coming to us through the physical world, how can you possibly produce great art?

Without a sacramental view of the world (indeed with a theology that is downright anti-sacramental) you have to ask yourself what art is for. If grace cannot be communicated through the physical world (and by extension through art) then art can only be didactic or illustrative. Thus the Evangelical will typically only be able to produce illustrations, allegory or heavily didactic work.

My brother in law’s mother is a case in point. Ma Craft was a brilliant artist. Stirred by a wonderful vision, she produced hundreds of great charcoal drawings, paintings and prints. However, being a good fundamentalist lady she found it difficult to leave the art to speak for itself. Many of the pictures were given Scripture verse captions. There is nothing wrong with this necessarily, except that the pictures were actually good enough to stand on their own, and they communicate the beauty and truth of great art without words. Her captions turned the pictures into illustrations of Bible verses. Again, I’m not knocking it. They are fine paintings. She was a fine lady, and the Bible verses are great nuggets of truth.

It’s just that this isn’t really the highest use of art, and I argue that it was her Evangelical theology (and other folk like her) that inhibits the development of great Evangelical art.

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  • Anonymous

    He had better watch himself, he is dangerously close to the banks of the Tiber…

  • Awesome post, Fr. I grew up under this kind of Fundamentalist view of art and, as a lover of music, I was adversely affected by it. Christianity, it seemed, was unable to contain the things I felt most deeply. This led me to look for goodness, truth, and beauty elsewhere. Chesterton’s joy and wonder brought me back and ultimately home to the Church. I found another kindred spirit in Lewis and his ideas on Joy. Ma Craft’s attitude towards art reminds me of my pet peeve about Protestant attitudes toward children’s literature: it must be conveying some specific religious theme or teaching a specific virtue. It is this kind of thinking that has some of my friends (some Catholics) who press their kids to discover and spell out what they believe to be the allegories behind Narnia instead of just letting the kids feel deeply the goodness and beauty and truth that is there…which is, I believe, the whole power behind stories. Even, to some extent, the one of our redemption.

  • Great and interesting post. Here is a great Latin Dictionary. Beta

  • Nancy

    I’m Catholic now, but I was a Pentecostal when I worked on my fine arts degree 20 years ago and this was an issue I really struggled with. I had no trouble seeing how art, like any good gift, could be used to glorify God, but it was frustrating to not really feel that I had support from my community.Another attitude that I encountered when I even brought up the fact that I was studying art, was that folks instantly equated my studies with, ahem, drawing nude models and I got the distinct air of disapproval from them. I did some of that as part of my work but I can honestly say that I only worked in admiration of the beauty of the human form and impure thoughts didn’t come into play (by contrast, a classmate one day brought in a collage assignment using pictures of women taken from pornographic magazines and I found it repulsive). This was the same time as when JPII was giving his famous catacheses so one might say I instinctively understood the Theology of the Body, even though I didn’t know it existed.In studying art history I was, and still am, particularly drawn to the sacred art and architecture from the early medieval to the baroque. Of course, that is essentially Catholic art and as a Catholic I now can happily embrace it as part of my spiritual heritage as well as admire it for its asthetic value. Incidentally, Franky Schaeffer (son of Francis) critiqued evangelical attitudes to art in a very good book titled Addicted to Mediocrity. I can’t remember how much he went after the real root cause, the lack of sacramental theology, but he bemoaned the utilitarian view that reduced Jesus to an advertising slogan and exhorted those who cared to support, financially and otherwise those artistic endeavours that are truly honouring to God.

  • William

    The key to the question you have set yourself Father must be this. That there is within Protestant, and especially Calvinist Theology a hard centre of Iconoclastic fundamentalism. Witness the terrible damage done to many fine English Churches during the Civil War (ours, not yours!) circa 1642-1650) as statues, sculptures, stained glass, etc were hacked and smashed to pieces. That ideology in turn is driven by the anti-Sacramentalism of Calvin’s (especially) theology. I don’t know about the US, but in Britain Quaker schools right up until the early 1960’s would not teach art, drawing, sculpting, nor even music. These were not ‘worthy’ and ‘God-Fearing’ pursuits.

  • good stuff, brother. it does hurt me that the word “christian” is an adjective and that art is so lacking from much of christianity in general. consequently, this makes some of them [our fundamentalist friends] believe that culture is innately evil.

  • In a similar spirit, Father, is this provocative article entitled “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write,” which I linked to last summer.The author, a Protestant evangelical not inclined to give up his Protestantism, writes:”Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics.”