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Risking Art, Risking Faith

Reflections on the TCPC 1999 Forum and the intersection of religion and creativity.

Although the plan of each annual forum did not begin with an intention of fitting it into a grand design, so far each has logically led to the next. We began in 1996 with the sense that progressive Christianity was emerging from “Out of the Whirlwind”. We gathered in 1997 with a conviction that our understanding of the tradition was more than a set of ideals; we were providing ourselves with a foundation for “Building Community with our Differences”. In 1998 we faced outward to focus on those we would welcome into our communities. Our theme was “Honoring Those Who Search”. This past June, we turned our attention to a particular group that often leads the way in the search for meaning, the arts community.

The connection between the 1998 forum and the 1999 forum becomes more apparent when the primary title of the earlier conference comes to mind — “On the Road”, borrowed from novelist Jack Kerouac. (If we think of a novel as an art form, we were beginning to acknowledge the contributions of artists.) Through the dramatic presentations of Betsy Beckman and through Barbara Lundblad’s story-telling, our worship in 1998 also put us in touch with the provocative power of the arts. In retrospect, the logical next step had to be a forum that explored the intersection of art and Christianity.

The intersection metaphor led the 1999 planning committee to the realization that we had to expand our vision from the crossing of two roads to a more complex junction that included what in popular parlance goes by the amorphous term “spirituality”. Many people who are serious about the search for meaning in their lives have a strongly negative attitude about organized religion. Although the forum planners wanted to be clear about our own Christian orientation, we wanted to include people who thought of themselves as spiritual but not religious. We also wanted to make sure that everyone understood that we were not speaking of “art” as something done only by professional artists but that we were interested in creativity in all its myriad possibilities. Continuing to honor all those who search, the planning committee pictured an intersection of creativity, diverse spiritualities, and Christian traditions.

My own interest in this particular intersection goes back to the 1997 forum on building community with our differences. Churches willing to welcome artists have learned that these imaginative people may differ from the rest of the congregation in their points of view and in their ways of doing things. From my unscientific analysis, however, I long ago came to the conclusion that growing congregations tend to have an attitude of hospitality toward the arts. I am convinced that if progressive churches want to grow in vitality as well as numbers, they will provide encouragement and space for local artists and art organizations. My hope for the forum was that we would not just talk about churches being hospitable toward the arts, but that we would act out the spiritual collaboration possible for Christianity and the arts. Such collaboration may not always occur, even with progressive congregations, because artists suspect that the church will stifle their creativity or misuse their art and because church leaders are afraid of losing control of their space and their public image. An honest approach to collaboration must acknowledge risk on both sides, hence the forum’s name: Risking Art, Risking Faith.

From my thirty years as pastor of a church with a reputation for being friendly toward the arts, I know firsthand both the rewards and the risks involved in such collaboration. The church, St. Mark’s on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill, was scheduled to be closed in 1954. The handful of people who had remained loyal through the neighborhood’s demographic upheavals during the depression and World War II did not have the financial resources to maintain the buildings and a ministry. Instead of accepting their fate, however, they started over with a strong emphasis on education and the arts. When I arrived in 1966, the church had a dance school and a professional dance company that performed at worship services. A drama group produced a play each year and exchanged performances with other congregations during Lent. The church had offered classes in painting and had helped to found a neighborhood symphony orchestra. By the time I departed in 1996, the St. Mark’s Players were mounting three productions a years of a quality that was on a par with the best of community theaters. We had added a music school offering lessons in piano and flute and other instruments depending on interest and the availability of teachers. The church was the scene of frequent concerts, some featuring our own superb choirs augmented by orchestral accompaniment. A major building renovation made provision for displaying works of art. During this period, the congregation grew from a handful to over nine hundred people.

The Reality of the Risk in Art and Faith
The St. Mark’s success story is, I am sure, similar to that of many other progressive churches that experienced a revival during the last half of the twentieth century. The problems encountered along the way are, no doubt, also similar. When I arrived, parishioners were still talking about the controversy that arose over the employment of nude models for a painting class. One elected leader of the congregation, I am told, was so enraged that he stormed into the bishop’s office demanding that painting class be terminated. The outraged lay leader was sure that some canon law must prohibit naked women from being in his parish hall.

Conflicts over space occurred almost weekly. Some had to do with mistakes in scheduling and some with misunderstandings about the system for reserving rooms, but all of the upsets originated in each group’s proprietary attitude toward its assigned area. The attitude displayed by some of the players, for example, led me to believe that they saw our building as a theater that they generously allowed us to use for worship services. Other groups saw they players as a kudzu-like menace that threatened to take over every square inch of space left unguarded. Partly to resolve such conflicts, we eventually organized an arts council to coordinate the various artistic interests with each other and with other church activities.

Artists themselves run risks by accepting a church’s offer of hospitality. A major risk is being used instead of being respected. One church invited a drama group to present, in the context of worship services, brief sketches that would raise fundamental questions about human existence, certainly a respectable enterprise. The purpose, however, was to set the preacher up to provide the answers. To use art in this way is highly disrespectful. A genuine respect for the artists would require an invitation that anticipates a deepening of the questions rather than a closing of conversation with the church’s answers.

Censorship can also be a risk taken by artists who become associated with churches. Church boards may be reluctant to let arts organizations choose the play they will present or pick the paintings that will hang on the walls of the church, even temporarily. Church people have a tendency to elevate taste or custom to the level of morality. Many of them would be shocked by the graphic sexuality of some medieval church art, but they would not be interested in having a course in art history. They know what pleases and what upsets them, and in making judgments about art they have all the confidence enjoyed by those with limited information and narrow experience. A few encounters with such church leaders will convince the even most optimistic artist that true spiritual enquiry must take place outside the control of organized religion.

To demonstrate what the forum planners believe is an appropriate collaboration between the arts and organized religion, we invited artists to set the agenda. We encouraged people to display their drawings, painting, sculpture, and installations without subjecting them to a jury that would decide what was most appropriate for the conference. We welcomed proposals for workshops, without doing background checks on the proposers. We found spaces in the schedule for the people who wanted to perform, without insisting that their performances adhere to a strict interpretation of our theme. The result was similar to what a congregation can expect when it first opens its doors to the arts: no two people will react in the same way to any presentation or series of presentations. What one person will find tedious another will experience as profoundly spiritual. What bores one person will electrify another. What one finds illuminating another will experience as merely puzzling. Where people may come close to agreement, however, is their assessment that the experience of art in a church setting is a bit chaotic, a little out of control.

Much as I prefer order to chaos, I have to admit that a little loosening of controls seems necessary for the spirit to move freely. Opening the church to artists puts me in mind of a play on words that the Gospel according to John attributes to Jesus: “The wind (Greek pneuma) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).” I do not know what the author of the gospel would make of the way we use the words “spirit” and “spiritual” in our day. I am convinced, however, that the early followers of Jesus understood spirit more clearly than many contemporary Christians as something that cannot be channeled, harnessed, or controlled. In this earlier understanding of spirit, a community can be so tightly organized that the spirit has no room to maneuver. Artists have a way a loosening up a congregation to create room for the spirit to operate. If we can trust the early Christian writings, we should know that whenever the spirit is allowed to move freely, a certain amount of upset will be the likely result. At least, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a visitation of the spirit may be like a party where everyone had too much wine (Acts 2:13), but the new-found energy will be undeniable.

Open to the Spirit
As artists may open a congregation to the movement of the spirit, the church may help the artists find qualities that have been missing from their lives: community and continuity. In lamenting the separation of art from religion, Ingmar Bergman noted, “Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other. We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.” From my conversations with artists at the forum, I gather that some of them who had held themselves aloof from the organized religion began to sense that the church held some possibility of providing what had been missing from their lives.

Topics: The Arts & Culture. Resource Types: Articles.

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