A Manifesto on Art and the Church
Written by Gabriel Rench on July 12, 2017
The Christian Church is in exile. Not that we are living in tents (though many church buildings may qualify as temporary). Instead, there is a deeper exile. The soul of the American Church is in the plot point of the epic poem in which the protagonist becomes a homeless wanderer
Like the exiled warrior of the great Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer,
Often the lone-dweller waits for favor,
mercy of the Measurer, though he unhappy
across the seaways long time must
stir with his hands the rime-cold sea,
tread exile-tracks. Fate is established! (Glenn 1982)
The Church is adrift in exilic seas, waiting on God’s favor to return us to shore.
Many signs point to our wilderness wanderings. One of the marks of exile, according to Isaiah, is that the skilled artisans and story-tellers are not using their skills for Jerusalem (Isaiah 3:3)1 . Though the institutional church still owns real estate, the majority of the adept artists, accomplished architects, enchanting story-tellers, and foremost decorators of the achievements of our race are not creating for the New Jerusalem. The Church has exchanged her high-seat as Patron of the Arts for a seat in the stables as a political voting bloc.
But neither performing nor creative arts are ways back into power. They are ways of embracing our exile by faith. We are told by Jesus to take the low seat. By investing in the arts, we can be servants from where we are. We have time. We can wait on God to change our station.
Art: A Taste of Home
Arts are service. The first people into whom the Spirit of God is said to enter after Adam is Bezalel. He is the artist-foreman of the wandering Hebrew’s portable Garden of Eden called The Tabernacle (Ex. 31:1-5). He and his crew of Spirit-filled artists use their artistic skills to serve God’s exiled people (Ex. 31:6-11). And their particular service lets people experience their true home from the wilderness (Ex. 36-39). Art can give that gift.
A turning point in the life of T.S. Eliot–that one year later would culminate one year later in his conversion–was a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Standing before Michaelangelo’s Pietá, to the surprise of his attendant brother and sister-in-law, Eliot fell onto his knees, overcome. He was touched by the vision and vicarious experience of what he lacked (Gordon 1998, 192). The Michelangelo gifted him a glimpse of quenched thirst. It jump-started Eliot’s “Modern pilgrimage away from the sterile site of urban despair” (Gordon 1998, 213). Even his early visits to church were simply to experience the architectural aesthetic splendors of London’s St. Magnus the Martyr Chapel. What struck him though was the congregational parallel equivalent: people kneeling in contrition. Unknown in his Unitarian upbringing, the posture of repentance and humility within the artistic and architectural glories enkindled an awareness of his need for forgiveness (Gordon 1998, 211). Like the tabernacle in the wilderness giving an experience of home to the unmoored, art can give the gift of experiencing the return from Exile while still in the wilderness like nothing else.
Poetry: Confining Exile with Truth
While art gives a taste of homecoming to wanderers, poetry truly interprets our exile. So many failures of faith begin as failures of the imagination. Our faith fails when we look at our own story and are powerless to imagine life any other way. Unfeigned faith speaks through our life what God speaks about our life. Truly deciphering our life and displacement can be difficult. Banishment is slippery business. But exile produces poets. And poets elucidate exile.
The fires of exile focus the soul to know the truth and and purify the voice to tell it. Psalm 23 is arguably the best known poem in the western world, perhaps the entire world. David is wandering in exile—Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—but he slings his dislocated spirit in verse, giving the highway of his imagination the guardrails of truth—Your rod and staff, they comfort me—He looks back down the road and properly defines the twists, turns, speed bumps, and gravel—surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life—And he uses it to give a true shape to every swivel, ridge, and jolt to come—green pastures, still waters, and a restored soul. He leads in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake—David knows that only poetry can landscape his imagination to catch the light of the morning and evening sun, to receive the winds that blow across all three rings of the circus of life. It is the poetically reshaped soul that recognized the truth and shares it. That is why David can interpret his current situation properly and rest—You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies—By faith David can sabbath surrounded by enemies because he understands his place in God’s poem.
Or consider the plight of the slaves in America before the Civil War. As they were converted, the story of Moses and the Exodus became central to their understanding of their situation. “Although whites considered America a new Promised Land, a new Israel, blacks knew full well that in reality it was Egypt, a land of oppression that would suffer the worst calamities if it did not free the children of Africa” (Chenu 2003, 150). Some of the greatest poetry and song produced on American soil was produced to set bounds on and give hope through that Exile
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ol’ Pharaoh
Let my People go!
with twenty-five stanzas (Chenu 2003, 244-245), the author tells the story of God’s deliverance
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said
If not I’ll smite your first-born dead.
Let my people go
The author then goes on to recast their current slavery in biblical terms
O let us all from bondage flee
And let us all in Christ be free
We need not always weep and moan
and wear the slavery chains forlorn…
What a beautiful morning that will be
When time breaks up in eternity
Let My People Go
Poetry takes the handcuffs from hope and shackles exile to the radiator. Banishment from blessing is not the ultimate end. Poetry feeds us the freedoms of the Promised Land while we are still in the wilderness.
The church ought, then, to purposely become versed in poetry. The Pharisees and disciples alike were regularly rebuked for their lack of poetic prowess. “How can a man reenter his mother’s womb?” (Jn 3:4). “Did someone else bring him something to eat?” (Jn. 4:32). “You search the Scriptures, thinking in them you will find life. But if you could read properly you would see that they are talking about Me” (Jn 5:39). “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn. 6:52). Faith understands God’s poetic voice. Whether He speaks in a Hebrew accent or in any of the languages of humanity, His sheep understand His poetic referent.
With the American Church in exile, few ventures will return the long term dividends that patronage of the arts will pay. Do not underestimate the definitional, faith-building, and hope-constructing power that investing in the creative arts will generate. It takes faith; faith that trusts God’s promises more than our eyes. But God has always gone with His people into exile. And this exile is no different. It is intended for our good. It will produce endurance, character, and hope. And hope does not disappoint. Because our God raises the dead, frees the captives, and brings the wanderer home.
1. The Hebrew word translated Enchanter is lachash – which can mean a magic enchanter, but it also means a whisperer of secrets, or a secret-teller in a positive sense.
Chenu, Bruno 2003 , The Trouble I’ve Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spiritual. (Translator Eugene V. LaPlante). Valley Forge: Judson Press.
Glenn, Jonathan A., trans. 1982 The Wanderer https://lightspill.com/poetry/oe/wanderer.
Gordon, Lyndall. 1998. T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.