On Christian Art
September 3, 2012
“There is not a single secular molecule in the universe,” says my friend David Dark. The divide between “secular” and “sacred” is a manufactured one, an invention of the modern mind.
One thing I have learned from Catholics—as I was reminded this past week, having the opportunity to introduce a performance of L’Angelus—is to seek to live in such a way that this false divide between “secular” and “sacred” is broken down. The Catholics have long known that every aspect of life is to be rightly ordered toward God’s good and liberating purposes. There is not a space or part of life called “secular,” with another space or part of life called “sacred.” All of life is sacred, because it is all a gift of God. The question is whether we have rightly ordered the varied parts of life toward the good purposes for which they were created.
We Protestants are good moderns, are simultaneously children of, and parents of, modernity. We have been more likely to fall prey to the separation of “secular” and “sacred,” and out of that divide we have come up with awful ideas like “Christian art.” Unfortunately, “Christian art” is often a synonym with sentimentality and cheesiness, some sort of oozing “spirituality” or over-bearing piety.
When I recollect my own notions of art and faith first taking some coherence, I remember a beautiful spring evening during Holy Week, in South Bend, Indiana: I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. I made my way to the basilica on campus to hear a chamber orchestra performance of Haydn’s “Creation.” The basilica itself, of course, is spectacular: bearing witness to a tradition in which the designs of our minds and the works of our hands should bespeak the goodness and glory of God. And within the Gothic beauty of that place on that cool, clear evening arose lofty strains that swept one up into the wonder and delight of life, a life so bewildering and wild and adventuresome and overwhelming that one could surely find no words sufficient. Despite the insufficiency of words, the melodies and rhythms in the ear, the lines and light in the eye, the subtle trace of the incense of prayers in the nose, all swept one up into the ineffable beauty of it all.
The world does not need more “Christian art” or “Christian movies” or “Christian music” or “Christian television.” That would be like saying the world needs more cheese spread. The world needs instead more people caught up in the liberating vision of life bequeathed to us in our living and active faith, who go out and design and build and compose and play, with their faces toward the Son, letting all and every aspect of life speak and sing and play in the melodies of God’s good Kingdom.
Ah—how sweet and mysterious is life! And what a gift that the architects and composers, the brick-layers and musicians, have wielded their gifts to draw us up into that sweet mystery, beyond the capacity of mere words.