Q & R with Brad Jersak – “On Faith and Art”

Q & R with Brad Jersak – “On Faith and Art” November 21, 2019
Wat Sirintornwararam / Wat Phu Prao temple in Ubon Ratchathani , Thailand

Question

How is it possible that often art is often better than sermons in churches? At least that’s my experience.
I grew up in a fundamentalist, biblicist home. This, among many other things, brought me into deep and serious depression. At that time, because of the way I was taught, it was impossible for me to receive God’s love through the bible. But I was still able to receive his love through art. This was mainly through TV series and movies but also through paintings and songs, etc. I eventually recovered from depression and my whole life, faith and relationship to Jesus changed a lot. I even found a kind and loving church. But the feeling didn’t leave that often I find more love in art than in Christian groups.
That gives me some tension regarding the church and Christian communities. So many things seem not to rrepresent the love of Jesus and some things you hear in sermons are plain ugly! So how should I relate to church? And how does all the love come into the “nonchristian” art? Van Gogh wrote in a letter, that “you should look at great art and then read the Bible and then you will have a lot to think about.” I think that he means you will then understand the Bible better. This approach has been very helpful to me. It just puts me in a strange spot with regard to the Christian community sometimes.
Hope, that you have some helpful thoughts.
Thank you very much!

Response

It’s a good question (or two) and not unusual at all.
Of course, remember that behind the art there are artists, just as behind sermons, there are preachers.
Both are found in church communities. The questions are then:
1. Why are the sermons so artless in your community?
2. Why are the sermons given such privilege over the art?
To answer the first question, the sermons that are ugly usually result from a theology that is ugly and/or an interpretive approach that is ugly and/or a style of sermonizing that is ugly. For it to be ugly, I’d have to question whether the preacher actually knows how to interpret Scripture or how to preach, worse, whether they know the gospel (because the gospel is beautiful!).
In the church I attend, I find the preaching quite beautiful. That’s because the primary preacher (our Abbot at the All-Saints of NA Monastery) knows the Spirit and is led by the Spirit in his interpretation of Scripture and in his preaching … and because he ALWAYS relates (as a strict rule) that the sermon MUST proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ EVERY TIME. He’s informed by the great preachers of the Early Church. See, for example, the “Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom” and St. Melito of Sardis’ “On Pascha.” (Both are online). I suspect that you’re enduring an Evangelical style of preaching that was rendered ugly by the retributive theology of the Reformers and Revivalists and by the Enlightenment rationalism that sucked the art out of the sermons. I’m sorry about that and it was one factor that led me to Orthodoxy. That said, preachers like Brian Zahnd (wolc.com, see their archives) are around who consistently preach the beautiful gospel).
On the second question, in my monastery, the icons are gorgeous, colorful, substantive, symbolic and surround us throughout the whole service while the sermon only takes a small percentage of the service (we aim for about 10 minutes out of 2 hours, since the message comes through in many other ways). But I know the feeling as I was raised in a church that had no art or any other stimuli at all. It was 3 hymns (which were often artful) announcements, prayer and a sermon. The sensory deprivation was too much for me … not only were there no stained glass windows, but the windows were actually clouded so you couldn’t see nature outside. Too distracting, we were told. Imagine.
As for those who don’t identify with the Jesus story, I’m not surprised by the beauty they bring us. I think in their openness to their intuitive hearts, they pick up the beauty all around them, including the gifts God wants to give everyone, just like the rain and the sunshine that falls on everyone.
So it may be that you’ve experienced the above or some version of it. In this day and age, we must recover the third leg of the ancient triad … truth (doctrine), justice (ethics) and now BEAUTY. If it’s not beautiful, it will not ultimately be true or just either.
The question is, how might you contribute to changing this?
What first step is the Spirit inviting you to take?

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