Christianity and the Arts

How and why Christians should engage in the arts at church, at home, and in all areas of life. 

**Source Images for the The Church, the Arts, and Shaping the World for Christ.**

On 31 October 2017 the Protes***tant world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was concerned about some of the then-current practices of the Roman Catholic Church and posted 95 objections to these practices to generate conversation. He had wanted to keep the discourse within the Church and so wrote them in Latin so as to be unreadable to the masses. However, within two weeks the theses had spread all over Germany and within two months, all over Europe. In January 1518, Luther’s friends had translated the 95 theses into Germany, printed them and distributed them. Thus the Protestant Reformation was born.

Other major events were happening in Europe around the same time. The ancient Roman Empire had finally fallen when Constantinople was lost to the Turks (1453), Johannes Gutenberg made the first practical movable type printing press (c 1440), explorers were discovering the New World (1492), and the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance had begun.  Naturalism, the worldview that considers only natural elements and believes that all phenomena are covered by the laws of science, leaving no room from the supernatural or the spiritual, developed into the “Enlightenment”. The arts had long been considered the pathway to ultimate reality, but this began to change.

Protestantism, therefore, grew into maturity at about the same time that science overtook the arts as a source for truth. Protestant theology focuses on reason, Protestant churches have plain architecture and plain interiors, and Protestant religious practice avoids the emotional. Protestant evangelistic efforts focus on convincing people of the truth of the Bible and the person of Christ. Understanding that faith comes by hearing the message of God (Romans 10:17), John Calvin felt that the ear was the supreme sensory organ. Perhaps that is partly why Protestantism’s primary claim to sublimity in the arts is its music.

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy began 1000 years earlier. Their theologies do not neglect reason but focus on authority. Cathedrals and Orthodox churches are breathtaking to behold and both liturgies overflow with ritual and history. Augustine (AD 354-430), the most famous early Christian theologian, felt that sight could be a great source of temptation and advocated Christian imagery to replace secular. This may have been a major factor in Catholic and Orthodox visual artistry.

Islam and Hinduism also emphasize beauty, ritual, the emotional and the transcendent.

Protestant and Catholic teachings distrust dance and minimize its use. Islam permits dancing, but not of the “languid, effeminate type”[1], and Hindus incorporate dance into worship. The ancient Hebrew religion and modern Judaism have a long tradition of dance (Exodus 15:20, 2 Samuel 6:14).

The World Wars, the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the inequities and insoluble problems of life have proven the inability of reason alone to solve the vexing problems of mankind. Many have rejected religion, even civic religion, and face a life with no transcendent meaning. Intuitively understanding that naturalistic philosophy is self-contradictory and emotionally unwilling to accept personal oblivion and a meaningless universe, people are searching for more. In response, new religious movements based on paganism, Eastern spirituality, technology, and even mainstream religions have proliferated.

Historically, Protestant Christians have abandoned the arts to our peril. Early reformers rightly objected to ostentation and waste, using the money of the poor to provide magnificent edifices for the rich. But they went too far. Even as God created the natural world and the science that describes it, He created the spiritual world and the arts that reflect it. The Charismatic movement has recognized the need for emotion and ritual in every Christian’s walk with God, and they are the fastest growing Christian group in the world.

Below are some articles describing the impact of the arts on practical matters in the world. I wrote them for seminary, but hope they will be of interest to other readers as well.

[1] Reliance of the Traveler, 40.4

 

**Articles and a presentation on Christianity and the Arts**

 

 

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Sacralism and Calvin’s Geneva

John Calvin, the Frenchman who became one of the most famous Christian theologians and controversial figures in history, initially wanted nothing more from life than to study and write in ivory tower academia in the 16th century. Intrigued by the nascent Reformation, he first fled Paris to avoid punishment for heresy, and then was shamed by reformed French evangelist William Farel into serving in the church in Geneva, Switzerland, a city of corruption in a land of libertines.

Most religions are sacral, meaning that they are tied to a certain ethnic group and geographic location. To be a Sumerian was to live in Mesopotamia, follow Sumerian culture and worship Sumerian deities such as Anu, Enki and Inanna. To be an Egyptian was to live along the Nile, speak Egyptian and worship Orisis, Isis and Anubis. To be a Hebrew was to live in Palestine, follow the Law of Moses and serve Jehovah. The early Christian church broke this mold, with believers in every people group, and every location in much of the world. The civic religion was emperor worship, intended to unify to the Empire against threats within and without, and the main cause of Christian persecution was that believers did not join the civic religion. Thus they were guilty of treason.

When Constantine adopted Christianity, however, faith in Jesus became the civic religion in the Roman Empire. For the first time, Christianity became sacral. While this gave governmental legitimacy to the organized Church and stopped official persecution, it also tied the new faith to a particular group of people, the Romans, and a particular location, the Empire. The Church was comprised not only those who believed but also of those who did not believe, provided they lived in the right geographic location. Groups like the Donatists rebelled against this old thinking, but Christendom, the kingdom of Christianity, became the predominant view of the Church for one thousand years. With threats from the Muslim world ever present, Christian thinkers joined those from every other culture in history and tied the State to the Church.

With the Reformation this question resurfaced; is the Church comprised of everyone in a certain place or is the Church everyone who believes in Christ? Fearful of destruction from Catholic or Muslim, the Reformers took the path of Christendom, the unity of Church and State.

Geneva was migrating into the Protestant camp, and therefore needed religious leaders to assume political power. As a result Calvin, with his amazing command of Scriptures and knowledge of theology, became a political leader. Consistent with his beliefs, Calvin led the city council to enact rigid laws of conduct, making illegal such common practices as drunkenness, cursing and dancing. He also enacted and enforced a curfew. This was not popular and so he was forced in flee after serving from 1536-1538.

From 1538 to 1541 Calvin ministered in Strasburg, France, married Idelette Storder de Bure, and enjoyed some of his best years. Because of deteriorating conditions in the city and despite opposition from the Catholics and the now freed libertines in Geneva, the city council in Geneva asked Calvin to resume leadership in 1541. The first few years were difficult, with a series of conflicts ending in the execution of Michael Servetus. With that event, the opposition collapsed and Calvin was the undisputed leader of Geneva until his death in 1564. On Calvin’s second tour in Geneva, he was even stricter than the first.

Calvin was the judge of Geneva, and the Bible was the guide. His Ecclesiastical Ordinances enlisted pastors to preach, doctors to teach, elders to discipline and deacons to serve. His Consistory was an ecclesiastical court.

In its libertine phase, it is easy to imagine how Geneva was and to compare it to libertine cities in the United States. Immorality, drunkenness, and other sorts of debauchery were the order of the day.

In its strict phase under the leadership of Calvin, it is hard to imagine such a city today. It is easy to picture a small group of Christians which is extremely strict, forbidding drinking, dancing, and staying out late. My children went to a Christian school in Germany where swinging your legs in chapel was a punishable offense. However, it is difficult to imagine this for an entire society. The diversity of society, the rejection of authority, and embrace of equality, and the advances in communication make it increasingly difficult for one man and a small group of men to impose such unpopular measures.

The carnage of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the advance of literacy and printing, and the Enlightenment cast doubt on the sacralist assumption, that everyone in a given area must share a religion to ensure domestic tranquility and international security. The experiment of the United States proved that assumption to be false. However, many countries have retained their sacralist religious tendencies, unifying the spiritual and secular. Islam is a sacralist religion, and so to renounce Islam is to be a traitor to family and country. An acquaintance told me the other day that one of the biggest problems for Christian growth in Thailand was that the natives believed that since they were Thai, they had to be Buddhist. I have heard similar sentiments from Indians as well as Native Americans regarding their “native” religions.

John Calvin’s Geneva moved from Catholic to Protestant but not from the unity of State and Church to the separation of State and Church, the New Testament model. This took many more centuries to accomplish.

For more information on Christian Sacralism, please see The Reformers and Their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin.