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Philip Tallon ~ Two (More) Ways to Integrate the Arts into the Church’s Mission

A friend kindly directed my attention to a recent blog post over at Christianity Today“Seven Evangelism Environments Artists Create: How the church can leverage the arts for evangelism,” by Dr. Byron Spradlin. I give a hearty ‘amen’ to what I take is Spradlin’s main thrust, which we find in the final line: “If you are a church or mission leader, invite the artists you know to help you take a fresh look at the way you think about, plan for, and implement evangelism.”  

The bulk of the post is aimed at offering some frameworks for how artists can aid the mission of evangelism by designing environmentscreating community through shared artistic endeavor, helping to express the gospel, and so forth. All of this is offered with the modest disclaimer that these are just preliminary suggestions for getting started:

These seven environments mentioned above are simply a start in stating how artistic expression specialists (artists) bring powerful and beautiful resource to the Lord’s assignment of evangelism. In fact, when it comes to evangelism, the Church cannot do without them in the mix.

This is good. The church can’t do without artists.  

However, I do have some quibbles, though I’m reluctant to pillory a post whose main point I affirm. (Lord knows, I’m not eager for some smart aleck to nitpick all my blog posts.) In lieu of a very direct response, I want to offer two things to keep in mind as we try to thoughtfully integrate the arts into the church’s mission. 

1. The arts are already and always involved in the church’s mission.

Throughout the post, Spradlin relies on a common distinction between the message of the gospel and the mode of its expression. He rightly points out that without being able to “feel” and “imagine” the truth of the message, the news will not seem good. This is right, but could still mislead the reader into seeing the truth of the gospel as something distinct from its mode of expression.

What the study of theology and the arts reveals, however, is that our understanding of the truth is always mediated through aesthetic categories. Metaphor, the interconnection of two networks of meaning, fundamentally shapes all thinking. Encountering and explaining are inextricable. Imaginative intuition and artistic sensibility are necessary for accessing the objective truths of the gospel. Divine communication is already artistically shaped, because God himself uses artistic expression. Through parables, metaphorical language, and the medium of story, the Bible assumes that the arts matter. It is impossible to access the propositional truths of theology without relying on creative expression. Punching it a bit: God has already bound up the task of theology with the power of poetry.

With this in mind, we should approach the arts not first as powerful vehicles that amplify our expression and encounter with the truth, but as a necessary element in all theological knowing. A ministry that sees the arts as intrinsic, rather than instrumental, will already be two steps ahead in fruitfully integrating the arts in ministry.  

Perhaps this all still seems nitpicky, but many Christians hold to a reductively sharp distinction between content and expression. I once heard a famous mega-pastor exclaim that the “only thing that makes music Christian is the lyrics.” By this I assumed he meant that worship could work in all manner of musical modes, so long as it kept the same message. But this overlooks, of course, that the mode of expression mediates our understanding of the message. Transpose almost any song from a major to minor key (or vice versa) and the meaning shifts dramatically. (YouTube offers many, many examples.)

2. Artists are not special (or, at least, not in the sense we sometimes think).

Even among those who value the arts, there can be a temptation to put them in a “gilded ghetto”: a separate space of distanced admiration. The same happens with artists. They can be construed as specially gifted, yet also alien. More than one working artist I know has felt this simultaneous admiration-with-distance. Theseus’s lines in Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind:

  Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold—

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven. (5.1)

For Theseus (though probably not Shakespeare) the poet, like the lover and the madman, is a frenzied genius who mysteriously sees more than reason can comprehend. Many people in the pews will likely hold a similar view.

Much of this is come by honestly. Plato seemed to distrust the artist as an irrational-yet-inspired creator, (cf. Ion). Likewise, Kant separated aesthetic judgment from the rationality. These ideas still haunt the Western mind, even among those who have never cracked the pages of Kant or Plato.

An important step for integrating Christian artists more fully into the life of the church is to honor their talents as meaningfully connected to the larger concerns of the church. Artistic making is often closely bound up with careful reflection on big ideas and cultural context. Spradlin goes a long way to suggesting how artists can be integrated. His generalizations are broadly true, but might also be misread to propagate the idea of artists as a special class of people touched by the muses with a mysterious gift:

Artists are hardwired to be curious about culture expressions and intrigued by and interested in culture’s ways. Through their curiosity—and a wonderful product of it: looking at familiar realities in fresh ways—they always create situations and places where relationships are formed.

Again, my goal is not to correct Spradlin’s notions, but to nuance their reception. Artists come in all shapes and sizes. Artists are people, no more trustworthy or untrustworthy in their powers than any other group. (Even here, there’s a danger in grouping artists together. A broad view of the arts accounts for the ad-man and the ballerina; the game designer and the book binder.) Those who wish to shepherd artists should plan to pastor the whole person, including the expression of their craft.

If this seems intimidating, it is worth noting that pastors are artists too. They shape sermons, and they also shape souls. As Hans Urs von Balthasar points out, the most beautiful work of art is the life of the saint.


Philip Tallon (PhD, St. Andrews) is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2012), and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).