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Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 132–40 

Welcoming Artists and Their Gifts

Craig Ginn

There’s not many Christians in art school, but then there’s not many artists in Church. — Trevor Wight

This quote is worth reading over and over again. If it is true, Christian leaders need to seriously consider the impact on their ministry. Perhaps as a “detention” punishment, those of us who have contributed to the discouragement of artists should be required to write it out five hundred times.

I believe in the Holy Spirit whose creative power brought order out of chaos and who empowers God’s children with creativity in the arts.

The commentary on artist involvement in the Protestant and even the Catholic churches of late must confess that Wight is correct. Further, his statement encompasses more than the visual arts. For too long, the visual/graphic artists and their counterparts in music, lyric, drama, and dance have been between a rock and a hard place. They are not embraced by the church and their involvement in the arts crowd of secular society (where they are usually embraced) is criticized. They are often stigmatized as self-seeking. Their ambitions are not considered honorable. Many of them have experienced the “get-a-real-job” judgment.

I am not saying that the Church should grant them star status. The church has been-there-done-that with the preaching artists, and you do not have to look far to find the fallout of the personality cults. What I {133} will solicit in this article is that churches (1) take the time to understand artists and their talents and (2) make the effort to integrate the artists—including their art—into public worship and ministry.

TALENTS OR SPIRITUAL GIFTS

The concept of talents and abilities being distinct from gifts of the Spirit seems quickly dismissed in conversation. We tend to integrate the obvious and avoid the rest. If a person functions as a schoolteacher in the workplace and serves in the church as a Bible teacher, the explanation appears obvious: the teacher uses a human-intellectual talent in the school system and a supernatural-spiritual gift in the body of Christ.

Would we say the same if there existed a prophet position in government? Would we say that the prophet’s judgment exercised in politics was human-intellectual talent and that in the church it was a supernatural-spiritual gift? I do not think so. Such a position is outside the norm. Most political parties do not have a prophet on staff (they tend to use freelancing clairvoyants far from the attention of press conferences), but neither do most churches.

In the ecclesiastical world, prophets are believed to have been either an apostolic age phenomenon or a type of gifted individual whose ministry is too controversial for most churches to provide them a spotlight. It is similar for the arts. Often confused with talents, “the arts” require biblical clarification and most are denied the platform or showcase they require. In other words, the arts are misunderstood by the church and denied integration into most public ministries.

THE ROLE OF THE ARTS IN THE CHURCH

The first lesson for the church and the individual who is talented in expression and/or creativity is to understand the role that the arts play in the body of Christ. Donald Guthrie makes a connection, albeit a cautious one, between the Spirit and the intellectual and artistic powers of human beings:

Another aspect of the Spirit’s work on a more human level is his endowment of men with intellectual and artistic powers, as in the case of Bezalel (Exod. 35:30-31). This may have significance for a consideration of the gifts of the Spirit in the NT church (Guthrie 1981, 511).

While Guthrie does not elaborate on the significance, I will attempt to. I find myself troubled by the confusion in the church over the relationship between spiritual gifts and artistic expression. There seems to be disagreement over what a talent is and what a spiritual gift is, what {134} the arts are and what they are not.

I discovered this confusion firsthand as a young musician from my Bible college professor at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg (now Concord College). When I insisted that music was a spiritual gift, he challenged me to find it in the gift lists. To my shock, it was not there . . . and neither was preaching, a gift I was still hoping to get! Time to regroup, a season to gather myself and pick up the pieces.

Why had I been told that music was my gift by so many in the church only to discover that they had been perpetuating (with good intentions) an understanding that was biblically false? It was not easy to rebound from such a devastating reality check.

MUSIC ON A PEDESTAL

Why does the church tend to give music the nod as being a spiritual gift and not painting, sculpting, drama, dance, etc.? The problem here is straightforward, though not simple. Music, like preaching, has always been incorrectly sanctified. So, if music and preaching are not spiritual gifts, what exactly are they? Ready? They are both arts!

The church needs to communicate how spiritual gifts are distinct from talents. Talents are abilities to express, to create, to do, to achieve. Based on this, arts are talents. The ability to paint, to act, to write music, and to play an instrument are mediums of communication. The visual artist paints a picture to depict a scene or an image. The actor portrays a character to tell a story. The songwriter articulates emotion and expression through lyric and music. Ultimately, each one has a message.

While the message may not be identical with every painting, song, or drama, we can determine categories in which we can “label” the message. Looking through a hymnal, one discovers that hymns are often listed at the back according to title and theme. Could it be that the themes of the hymns have anything to say about the spiritual gifts of the authors?

I believe that they do. When a songwriter composes a song, he or she may not be conscious of the spiritual gift at work. When conducting musician workshops, I encourage songwriters to consider the last ten songs they have written and singers the last ten songs that they have selected to sing. I exclude the songs which have been requested by others. Sometimes a songwriter is asked to write a song for a specific event, and a singer is asked to sing a specific song at a ceremony. Once they have the ten songs in front of them, I suggest that they determine the theme of each song. Once the themes are determined, we are possibly going to get a glimpse of their spiritual gift. {135}

THEMES IN MUSIC A CLUE TO GIFTS

I propose at this point that the themes will often align with spiritual gifts. Music itself, being a medium by which to communicate, is not a gift; however, the theme communicated within the music might tell us something about the person who chose it. For instance, let us say you put your ten songs into three themes: worship, social concerns, and outreach. I would submit that through the thematic approach, several possible gifts have already surfaced—mercy, prophecy, and evangelism. The songs on social concern might be a cry for those who are afflicted—look for mercy here. On the other hand, the songs on social concern might have a judgmental tone with the lyrics depicting the consequences of societal actions—now we might have the gift of prophecy at work. The theme of outreach might point to the artist’s heart for the lost—evangelism.

In regard to the theme of worship, I would recognize this as a broad category requiring finer inspection. If the song worships God as Healer—mercy and pastoring; as Judge—prophecy or exhortation; as Savior—evangelism. If the song provides instruction about God—teaching. I do not want to belabor the point. While there is room for interpretation on matching the theme of songs with giftedness, I am confident that the process is reasonable. It boils down to the passion of our message reflecting the spiritual gifts endowed to us by the Holy Spirit.

Maybe you have been told that you are a preacher and that you have the gift of preaching. I agree with the premise that people are called as preachers: one who is affirmed to publicly speak for God. But I would put preaching in the arts category. Some of it is nothing short of public performance. More than a few preachers practice their voice inflections (much like an actor works at refining a certain accent), work out a routine for choreography (much like a dancer working out certain moves), and work out intensive rhythmic phrase clusters (much like a musician uses lyrical and rhythmic repetitions to whip his audience into a frenzy).

That may be stretching the analogies, but the reality is that preaching is not a spiritual gift. Like music, it is a way of communicating. The preacher, like the musician, is an artist. This view is gaining in appreciation as postmodern preaching relies less on pulpits and increasingly on storytelling.

To sum up to this point, some of the arts are already in the church. Unfortunately their alignment with spiritual gifts is often overlooked or misunderstood. Music and preaching, the two most prominent “arts,” have been incorrectly called spiritual gifts. In reality neither are. Both are mediums of communicating. Both the preacher and the musician need to dig a little deeper to discern what their message is. Once they {136} appreciate this examination (that will hopefully elucidate a pattern by which to determine supernatural giftedness) both they and their church will know what gifts are operational through their artistic abilities.

THE CHURCH REJECTS THE ARTS

This leads to a challenging hurdle: the Church does not want the arts. Hence, the second lesson: the Church needs to realize that, in general, it has not been “artist-friendly” and that it is time to remedy the situation. Typically the visual arts have been squeezed out of the church because of the scarcity of images in Protestant sanctuaries. Apart from the occasional one-liner (e.g., “Jesus is Lord,” “He is Risen,” etc.) and a cross (the symbol of choice, usually being finely sanded and polished, hardly like the ones used by the Roman guards at the Place of the Skull), evangelical rooms used for worship do not have a lot of extras.

But our history takes us deeper into the issue than a peripheral distaste for eye-candy. Proceeding from a theology against idolatry, Protestants often banned holy images (statues and pictures). This has been the cause of one of the many deep rifts between various Christian traditions. Unfortunately for those creative types who can make mosaics, there is no market in our churches for their wares.

But this notion lurks in our educational institutions as well. I will never forget being told in a Bible college class that it is a disservice for artists to try to depict the imagery and symbolism of John’s apocalyptic visions—that he (John) did not intend them to be turned into evocative art. Up until recently I was still influenced by this discrimination. Now I ask myself if I (one who cannot draw beyond an elementary level) have the right to discourage artists from visually depicting the apocalyptic symbols? It is almost as if a person can interpret the Bible as an exegetical exercise (where inspirations are “a dime a dozen”) but not as an artistic one. What if an artist is an accomplished exegete?

I am told that Canadian and American social dynamics can be different. The crowd responses at concerts and patriotic anniversary celebrations are an example of this. The Canadians are most comfortable in the “watch politely” posture, whereas the Americans are reported to be “actively involved” participants. Possibly tied with this crowd dynamic is the American dream of capitalistic entrepreneurialism and the deregulated free market spirit of the States when it comes to creativity and innovations.

There are a couple of skeletons in the Canadian closet of which most people are not aware. Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, was not supported in Canada during the poverty stage of invention development and so he “defected” to the States. His final wish was {137} that his tombstone would be inscribed “Died a Citizen of the U.S.A.”

Calixa Lavallee, a French-Canadian who wrote the music for “O Canada,” followed a similar fate. He was so bitter about Canadian disinterest in the arts that he “defected” to the States and then recruited other musicians to do the same. He distributed pamphlets to this effect, encouraging musicians to pursue their craft across the border. Eventually he settled in Boston where he taught music (Callwood 1981).

Does the North American church function like an “inventor-repressive” or “arts-repressive” society? As a Christian artist from Canada, I have to confess that I fear it does. On this point the American churches of our denominations more resemble the Canadian, although they are willing to put up a few flags.

It is hard to talk of Christianity and the arts without addressing knee-jerk reactions and false piety. There was the extreme reaction in the early church that held arts and theater suspect so that Christian art did not get wide-scale approval until the fourth century. As well, there are our own personal experiences of conversion from paganism, when we felt compelled to disassociate from all appearances of evil as attempts to eradicate worldly influences from our lives.

There is hope that comes later when we realize that worldliness is not as much wrapped up in the evils of entertainment and recreation as it is in the corruption of character, and that the two are not necessarily related. We realize that there are redeemable qualities to the arts. Sadly, it may be too late for some artists. Yes, the body of Christ is a curious organism. We can condemn the artist for abusing her poetic license while we feast on her reputation, feeding our voracious appetites for gossip and slander at her expense. I wonder what the Judge of Judges will do with that double standard.

THE GEN XPLOSION CONFERENCE

Maybe this is a good place to introduce Trevor Wight. He is an articulate visual artist (M.A. candidate) and lyricist/budding musician who gave a public testimony at a worship-arts conference last year held at our church. The conference, titled “Gen Xplosion,” was designed to be creative (possibly unique in our North American world of instructive conferences) where musicians, visual artists, and actors were invited to come and make music, art, and drama.

For example, the musicians (limited to about two dozen) were expected to write songs. They came from five Canadian provinces, were ages fifteen to “thirty something,” and represented a vast diversity of Christian traditions. They came with their instruments and sleeping bags to {138} participate in the second annual Gen Xplosion worship conference, the conference where the registrants are the conference. The success of the weekend would rest on their creativity, their inspiration, their artistry, with one minor detail missing: the theme, which would be decided in the presence of all the musicians the first evening of the conference. Once they arrived, they waited patiently before they could begin.

Enter the mystical. Spiritual spontaneity if you will. Doing things on the dangerous side with a reckless abandon to depend on the One whose invisible qualities are evident everywhere. Some would have preferred knowing the theme in advance so that they could have prepared before arriving and just do some final tweaking on their songs, but that luxury was denied them. They were all in the same predicament: they would soon be told the theme for the weekend, after which they would write, rehearse and record an album in two and a half days. It might be idealistic, but it works when you have a room full of musicians who have decided to put their reputation where their mouth is and write under the influence of the Holy Spirit who, after all, is the Author of creativity.

Each musician submitted a theme idea, the idea was screened for Gen X expression, and then, if it passed this simple test, was put in a box with the other submissions. The stage was set for the theme to be selected by “lot,” a process not unlike a raffle but done to make a spiritual decision when there is more than one worthy candidate. Breath was bated as a trembling hand reached in to make the selection. “Living a Mystery” emerged the victor—or the challenger, depending on your frame of mind—the theme of the thirteen songs which made it to the CD.

Gen Xplosion is simply a vision to facilitate a weekend of anointed adrenaline where musicians and artists come together in a church turned recording/art studio and hotel for the weekend to create music and art that targets the postmodern mindset. “Gen X” is the designation for those who were born between 1965 and 1980 who have come to be characterized as introspective and searching, relational and intense, emotionally honest, and, although musically diverse, remarkably similar in wanting to be real.

The goals of the conference are: (1) to invest in the musicians so that they know the church wants to be current and relevant through their gifts, (2) to create worship songs that express the heart of a shrine-free honesty and celebration before God, (3) to unite musicians and artists from across Canada (hopefully one day we will get past Ontario) and across denominational boundaries, and (4) to produce a CD, complete with audio and video highlights of the conference, so that the songs and stories of hope can go farther than the church walls. {139}

But back to Trevor. He was the only visual artist who showed. The only thing worse was that nobody in the dramatic arts even applied. We had not opened the conference up to dancers because Satan’s domain would have frozen over, and we did not want to be responsible for that. So while I was consumed with providing a conference that would facilitate postmodern expressions of the Christian arts, I had a “time-stood-still” moment in the midst of the Sunday morning worship time. It was when Trevor spoke.

Yes, I had been disappointed that he was the only visual artist who came, but I did not realize the greater truth that was to emerge, that is, until he spoke to the church. When he said, “There’s not many Christians in art school, but then there’s not many artists in Church,” it was like I could not breathe for a moment. His was a prophetic gift that finally got the platform.

Then I scanned the church sanctuary where his artwork hung on huge canvases throughout. The words and art were powerful. Mesmerizing circles and graffiti—”My world is dark I need Your Light,” “Puppet, Slave, Clone” and “Be Love.” But the one that struck me deepest was his showcase piece—”I Want to Believe.” The agony and searching communicated in the wedding of words and brush strokes was as impacting as the typical one-liners of Christ’s Lordship. And how appropriate, for it is in believing that we meet Him. But the impact did not stop there. It was not long before the criticism slapped back with a vengeance. Trevor’s art would later be judged as improper—bringing “the bar” into the church sanctuary. The final blow—some people were convinced that the artist had hidden obscenities throughout the artwork.

NEW HOPE AND A NEW CREED

Yet things are changing. The expressions of God’s children are insuppressible. The voices and instruments of praise can no longer be relegated to the windowless dungeons of recording studios. Dancing that celebrates freedom and healing in the presence of God is like a captive breaking free of the chains of legalistic religion that once held rhythm and movement to be sinful. The precious canvases of the artists are once again eclipsing a thousand words. There is an explosion of expression in the arts. There are new songs, banners, dramas, and dances. And just in time, for the postmodern soul is starving for the experiential and mystical—and the arts have always had a corner on that.

A new or revised creed is in order: the artist’s creed. This reverential statement is for followers of Jesus who have expressive abilities and creative talents. The creed follows from an Anabaptist/Mennonite biblical {140} theology of the spiritual gifts that does not buy into Cessationist Dispensationalism, but renders to the Spirit what belongs to the Spirit. All creativity and expression that is for ministry is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Artists are vessels:

I believe in God the Father, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. I believe in the Son, the image of the invisible God, for whom and by whom all things were created. I believe in the Holy Spirit whose creative power brought order out of chaos and who empowers God’s children with creativity in the arts. I believe that the message in my art is not to be communicated with human eloquence and wise persuasion, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that the faith of those who are convinced of God’s glory will not rest on my wisdom but on God’s power. I am committed to present myself as one who is approved, a craftsman who takes responsibility to couple my artistic ability with integrity and knowledge to correctly handle the word of truth. If my paintings surpass the elegance of the Mona Lisa, if the entire world sings and dances to my music or if my performances leave audiences spellbound, but I have not love, then I have created and communicated nothing. In humility I will serve the Chief Musician. I put my ego at His feet. He must become more and I must become less. I will gladly bring my artistic accomplishments to the altar and offer all of the time and talent that I invest in creativity and expression as an offering to His glory. I am a servant of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Artist of Artists.

My passion is that the church recognize more than the theory here. Yes, please embrace the notion that the arts communicate and that in the hands of a Spirit-filled believer they can be as supernaturally empowered as a sermon. Please make an attempt to integrate the arts into your churches. But most important, embrace the artist. I pray that the fruit of our faith will see Christian artists flourish. How it must pain the Father when an artist has “defected” across the border.

WORKS CITED

  • Callwood, June. 1981. Portrait of Canada. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Guthrie, Donald. 1981. New Testament theology. Leicester, England and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
Craig Ginn is an associate pastor at College Drive Community Church (MB) in Lethbridge, Alberta, where he works in the areas of worship, music, drama, and young adult ministry. He is also active as a songwriter, scriptwriter, and music producer.

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