An exciting new issue of SEEN Journal will hit mailboxes in early December. SEEN is sent free to members of CIVA, join now to receive the latest issue. CIVA is a network of arts professionals and organizations committed to Serious Art and Serious Faith. Excerpted below is the introduction to the Fall Issue
Art, like religious devotion, either adds life or steals it. - Christian Wiman, Hive of Nerves
Where Are We?
Why is it that art and the church seem to compete against one another in the lives of believing creatives? Who created the supposed conflict? Why does it persist? These are just a few of the introductory questions that we might encounter when trying to hold together “art” and “church.” Poet Christian Wiman’s cautionary claim reminds us that art and church are powerful presences in our lives. Perhaps, as Wiman intimates, the source of this rivalry arises from the call of both art and religion to a certain kind of devotion. In their own ways, both the church and the arts demand something from us. They seize our emotions and capture our imaginations. They provide ways of seeing and offer the means to make sense of the world. But they also hold us hostage to their all-encompassing and sometimes harrowing visions of what life should be. We might pause to consider: how much of human sensory experience is actually filtered through art or religion? Other filters surely exist, but it seems to me that none make the totalizing demands of either art or religion.
How Did We get Here?
The divide that I am describing has existed for centuries and because of this none of us come to the matter with a neutral point of view. Rather, we have participated in this tension to one degree or another, and it is for this reason that we must ask some difficult questions about our own role in perpetuating the conflict. First of all, do we need this conflict to be creative? In other words, do believing artists need something grand and demanding to resist, to push back on, to rage against? What would the art of believing artists resemble if, on some level, it did not involve some resistance to religion’s demand?
Perhaps, artists of faith have contributed to this war of attrition with the church simply because to do so prevents us from facing these thorny questions. By preoccupying ourselves with petty battles over what a believing artist can “get away with,” are we avoiding a more penetrating introspection—a self-questioning that strips us of vain glory and opens us up to one another for the sake of bearing witness to the mystery we all know but cannot speak. Neither art nor the church has fully apprehended the mystery of Christ. Art cannot replace the church, nor can the church possess art. Rather, with great difficulty, they must be given to each other.
So, let’s substitute the question of can for the question of ought. What ought we do as those torn between art and church? Well, we certainly should not fuel conflict. Is it too simplistic to say that we should seek peace? But such a hope is not the peace of appeasement – the effort to separate and pacify either side. No, that is not it. It is instead more akin to the “storm of peace” that Wiman identifies in his poem “Every Riven Thing”:
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where…
Is moving beyond this conflict even possible? Can the rivalry be resolved? A better question might be this: how can we live into this tension instead of living out of it? Why are we excusing ourselves from it? Can we find peace for ourselves even as we bring peace into the conflict? Seeking peace it seems does not come about either by obsessing over the tension or by ignoring it. Let me offer a personal example.
In the spring of 2007, I found myself part of a controversial discussion that James Elkins and David Morgan were hosting on the campus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about the question of religion in contemporary art. They had invited leading international scholars to the table—women and men with multiple publications and years of experience in the art-critical discourse. Since most of the participants clearly despised religion, the subject was, for them, an intellectual oddity. While I made several key connections and began a few fine friendships, I fear that my participation in that conversation may have been a wholesale failure. I was out of my depth and left feeling that I had blown whatever opportunity the moment may have offered. After all, the only reason that I had been invited to join the panel was that the leading authorities on the social history of art had refused to sit down with anyone who might discuss art and religion together. Sadly, I know that plenty of my brothers and sisters in the church would be, for altogether different reasons, similarly pessimistic about the possibility of such a conversation. For me, that panel was exactly the kind of discussion I was looking for. And even though it went pretty badly on that day, I am not going to give up so easily.
Let’s accept the fact that no argument, no sales pitch will win the war or even dispel the conflict. The tension must remain and so must we. In fact, we are called to live in the conflict. To that end, we will resist the ever-present pull to take sides. We allow that their devotions are similar, but we know they are not the same. We might be reviled for this and certainly we will be misunderstood, but we persist. We will continue to receive our artist friends who have not and may never enter a church community. At the same time we will also receive our well-intentioned but untrained brothers and sisters in the church who remain suspicious of the arts. We remain present to both communities in order to demonstrate that this rivalry is a false one. It is possible that they may only see this in us.
Taylor Worley serves as the Assistant Vice President for University Ministries and as an Assistant Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He completed a Ph.D. in the areas of contemporary art and theological aesthetics in the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews. He is a co-editor of Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Conversations with the Work of David Brown (2012). Twitter handle: @taylorworley