On Pain and the Evangelical Absence of Art

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible. – Paul Klee

absence of art in evangelical churchesThe sermon that does me in is a 28-minute treatment of the question: Why would a loving God allow people to experience pain and suffering?

It’s the question that C.S. Lewis called “The Problem of Pain,” a knot Christians have been tugging at for centuries.

It’s a hundred different books written over a thousand years.

It hurts like a purpling bruise when you poke at it.

But the pastor goes warp-speed down the super-highway of logic and reasoning, pointing out the window a couple of times as we fly past an applicable sermon illustration. By the end, I feel whip-lashed and frustrated.

I know what he’s trying to do, of course. He wants to make the Gospel accessible to the seeking. He wants to address the unspoken questions, the one maybe keeping someone from taking that first, wobbly step of faith. He has a whole series devoted to these questions and a few strategically placed outreach events. And I know.

But what I keep thinking is that this is not a question to be solved in a 28-minute sermon. It should be an art installation. A book of poems. A sonata.

There is a place, of course, for logic and reasoning and well-spoken sermons in the world of faith. But it’s not at the head of the evangelical table, where we’ve put it. The expository has its limits, and pain is a jagged line separating the mind from the throbbing, half-broke heart.

If there is a table, it is round. We absolutely need the words. We need Scripture explained point by important point.

But we also need art, that cloudy, undefinable thing that cuts like a laser into our souls. We need more than just worship songs, we need music, beautiful and complex and haunting and loud. We need more than how-to books on Christian living. We need poetry and fiction, the stories and songs that move through our dry hearts like rain.

*

Every year, on Good Friday, we make the forty minute trek to the big church in Maple Grove because they honor that weighty day with art.

I grew up in the evangelical world, saw Jesus crucified in my Christian children’s books and in cartoon renderings on TV shows like Super Book and Flying House. I have grown a little bit immune to the Good Friday Sermon, to the rhetoric of the crucifixion.

But at the big church, there is art everywhere. A painter in the front. A sculptor in the back. Scraps of paper and the smell of vinegar and video clips strung together like the most delicate collage work.

It is tangible and different and it moves through me in a different way, finds the soft places in my hard heart. Makes it all the way in.

And what I want to say to my pastor, to all pastors, is this: Ask your artists.

They are there, sitting among you, silenced by a culture and a church that values only efficiency and entertainment. Pose the question to them. Why would a loving God allow people to experience pain and suffering?

Give them a canvas or a pen or a violin bow. Give them six weeks. And then fill the sanctuary with paintings and photography and the sound of all that original music. Put the poems in a book. Sew the pages together by hand. Give the children water colors and washable paint and paper ripped from a giant roll and ask them the question too. See what they come up with.

Be brave enough to ask the hard questions differently. To turn that sermon series into a celebration of color and sound, light and silence, music and grace.

Don’t be surprised if the answers sound a little less like sound bites and fool-proof arguments. A little more like so much heart-stopping beauty.

I am thankful for the people that I’ve stumbled into lately that value art and creativity and are working to restore it to the Church. One of those organizations is Antler, “a spiritual formation organization, pioneering a space for creative practices of writing to be an integral part of sacred life, worship implementation, and growth in religious communities.”

Through Antler, I’ve become connected with a group of writers who are thinking deeply about faith and art, and I am deeply grateful for their insight and bravery. I had the honor of being interviewed on the Antler blog, and the post went up last week.

If you’re interested at all in the writing process, hop over and take a look. And then take a few minutes to check out some of the other wonderful goings-on there.

47 thoughts on “On Pain and the Evangelical Absence of Art

  1. Ask your artists. Yes, yes, yes.

    Especially for questions like this. I think more art, more questioning, more mystery would have served me better during the dark days of my faith. At least I might not have wanted to throw it all out — not if I’d seen the hints of truth and whispers of myself in agonized brushstrokes.

    1. I love your mention of mystery, Kim. Many years ago, I left an evangelical house church for an Episcopal parish, explaining that I felt the need for more mystery in my faith. I’m thinking now that the reason I needed more mystery was because there IS more mystery, in all of life, and my faith needed to address that. One beautiful thing about art is how much it leaves the mystery intact–stubbornly refusing to provide easy answers.

  2. I, too, give a resounding Yes. The problem of suffering has always been one close to my heart, first academically speaking and now with more layers. So many unsayable questions, yes, and so much heart-stopping beauty.

  3. Good post, Addie. I’ve found that art has helped me figure out who I am and what I value in life more than any religious text or speech. That’s because art, as another commentor put it, involves “more questioning, more mystery.” The art that has spoken to me the most are the novels, the paintings, the plays that question all authority and assumptions. I value art because it rejects taboo and champions the individual’s ability to understand the world around him. I’m interested though: do you find a a conflict between “Christian” art (however you define it) and this absolute freedom of expression I’m talking about? Is the Christian artist truly free to criticize, dissect and even mock doctrine, church teachings, the prophets, Jesus? It would appear to me that art in the context of your post would be rather limited in its subject matter and approach. Just some thoughts. All the best…

    1. Such an interesting question, Isaac. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since you posted it yesterday, and I’m still not totally sure how to answer it.

      First of all, I reject the idea that there’s “Christian art” and “secular art.” I think art is just art. Good art, sub-par art, sentimentality posing as art…these are distinctions I’m more comfortable with than “Christian” or “nonchristian.”

      To me, great art tells some bit of truth. And I think you’re absolutely right — often the way to get to that truth is by dissecting and criticizing the established way of looking at things. Which is why I think that in this scenario, artists would be able to get to the heart of the problem of pain in a way that logic and verse-by-verse expository never really can.

      It’s a little bit what I’m trying to do here…dismantling these cliches.

      I was stopped a little by your use of the word “mock.” I think that’s what tripping me up. Such a negative little word, so closely aligned with “contempt” and “ridicule.” I know there is a place for that in the world of art — a kind of contempt and ridicule that is necessary and important in order to get at the truth.

      And yet, I think that the Christian who is an artist operates first of all from a place of hope. It’s not that their subject matter or approach is limited, but rather focused. Hope gives a freedom to explore the hard questions in new ways, believing that God doesn’t need to be defended and that Truth is big and wide and mysterious enough to absorb our pain and criticism.

      In a setting like the one I’ve described above — art as a response to a theological question and used within a church context — I think darkness is necessary and acceptable and exactly what we need. But not hopelessness.

      (Just so you know, that response possibly took me longer to write than the blog post itself, and I’m not even sure I said it right. But I gave it the old college try, friend. What do you think?)

      1. But if a Christian feels hopelessness or thinks he/she observes hopelessness, artistic honestly would require that expression. Let us not bring the common Evangelical congregational happy face into the Christian creative arena.

        1. I guess when I say hope here, it doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) look to me like “the common Evangelical congregational happy face” to me. Hope is often frail, barely there, a thread…but for those who have chosen Jesus in our own imperfect ways, it remains.

          I would suggest that even for a Christian who feels hopeless but is willing to create, hope still is there, however small, however, quiet. It’s part of what defines us.

  4. This taps into my struggles with systematic theology. While it can help to look at scripture in a comprehensive manner, there are issues that defy resolution with such a tidy approach. I’ve always felt that most theological constructs are dashed in one way or another in the Psalms. So when I’m tempted to rely on systematic theology, that’s usually a clue that I need to read a Psalm.

    1. Ed- exactly. Doctrine is good and right, BUT without Psalms, without representation of passion in our individual spheres, what would be the point.

    2. “I’ve always felt that most theological constructs are dashed in one way or another in the Psalms.” That’s kind of brilliant, Ed. Yes.

      1. I’ll second that. Praying the psalms is teaching me, finally, how OK it is to rant and rave at life, how vibrant is the relationship with God that we can be our whole selves in the divine presence. It’s so hard to get that from systematic theology, valuable as theology is.

  5. You are killing me lately. I too come from a long history of evangelicalism and I also have so many scars and questions. Art was stifled, unwelcome, which of course made me feel so out of place in my own skin. I am thankful to be a part of a church that, while still imperfect, has invited art into its theology and continues to tip toe into that arena a little more all the time. But still, I find myself hiding my own art, even though I finally understand that I’ll never be able to be anyone else. I think it’s that oldest child thing…. still trying to avoid disappointing anyone. 🙂 anyway, thank you for your beautiful words, for your art.

    1. Ah, the oldest child thing. I know it well. Glad that you’ve found a church that honors art and I hope you can embrace the beauty of your own artist heart and join the conversation a little more each day.

  6. 1. I want to go to your Good Friday service.
    2. I will surely be checking Antler out.
    3. I love that my church finds a way to let artists shine through quarterly installations in one of the rooms in the building. What you’re posing here would take that idea to a whole new level.
    4. These big questions will never have tidy answers. To me, this is why good art will resonate more than a 28 minute sermon.

    1. 1. Do it! Come! 🙂
      2. Yes, do.
      3. I think that’s beautiful. I have yet to be able to find a church out here in the way-out suburbs that does it well. It’s one of the great sadnesses of my life right now.
      4. Amen, sister.

    1. I had not heard of him. Thanks so much for the link! I only had a chance to just glance at the home page, but I can already tell that it’s a place I’ll want to spend some time.

  7. It frustrates me, this disconnect, willful and stupid, between faith and beauty. What is the artist if not an imperfect mime doing the work of the Creator? I would drive to that church. We will continue to dig, and pick and scratch away with our pens, because we must. You must.

    1. It frustrates me too. Love that image of artist as “imperfect mime.” Thanks Jen.

  8. “There is a place, of course, for logic and reasoning and well-spoken sermons in the world of faith. But it’s not at the head of the evangelical table, where we’ve put it.”

    Yes! This has been such a frustration for me, for so many years. I love the idea of handing over these tough questions to artists, who will grapple with them in more beautiful/angry/open-ended ways that allow room for our own thoughts and feelings to mix and mingle.

    I think some of these tensions at the “evangelical table” hover around how we read—and think we should understand—scripture. So often we expect it to be “explained point by important point,” but I’m not sure that’s what we need, or that it’s even possible. Maybe letting go of these expectations would help us take steps toward making the table round and the grappling more inclusive.

    1. I agree. And I think that personality and learning style play a role too. My husband loves the deep, intellectual sermon; I get more out a painting or a song.

      I wish we could find a way to incorporate all of these spiritual pathways into our worship on more than just a brief, head-nod kind of way but an actual, integral part of our regular meetings.

  9. Thank you for your post. I would say yes to bringing art into our faith in a way that can be expressive and healing. I also want to say that some pain is so tragic, so deep that our souls need other souls that can walk with us in the mess of it all. We as a church need to “be”; live in it with each other in a way that expresses our commitment to love deeply. There is pain that no sermon or book can ease what it does to a human being. We in our western evangelical culture want easy ten step answers or we give “pat” answers to the problem with pain.
    Sometimes, just sometimes, we need to be willing to risk our own fears and enter into the pain with another, walk with them and let them be who they are in the pain, us taking on the position of being non-judgmental.

    The church needs to help those on that path of deep pain by facilitating a place for art, poetry and music in a way that is non-judgmental as well. You see some art exposes the deepest pain with in and it may not pretty and can that be ok too?
    Just something to think about.

    1. ” You see some art exposes the deepest pain with in and it may not pretty and can that be ok too?”

      I think ABSOLUTELY, Diane. I think art most of all has to be honest, and you’re right — life is not really like a Thomas Kinkade painting is it? 😉 Some of the “prettiest” art is the most dishonest; some of the more startling and haunting is the most courageous and true. Beauty and prettiness are not the same thing.

      And amen to everything you said about being with each other in the pain. Yes.

  10. Yes. Exactly. It’s both heartening to see this need articulated this clearly and discouraging when I think about how vast the need is.

  11. I have come into contact with more than a few artists who share the voice of God through their art; be it visual or auditory. There is poetry, photography, painting, all types of creativity in the blog sphere and it is devoted to worship of Almighty God. Be encouraged there is a creative force alive in Christendom.

    1. Absolutely, Gracie. I’m finding them too, and I’m thankful for their accessibility via internet. I’m just wishing they were more present in the daily (weekly) expressions of worship, like church services and small groups. I’m wondering how we can integrate them more fluidly.

  12. Born and raised an Evangelical, over the last sixty years I have witnessed many a raised eyebrow at some of us individuals who live by expressing our creativity. Evangelicals want their artists to be Thomas Kincade; want to see their literary favorites on the Christian Bookstore shelves, already proof read by the mentors. Creative people are often not people who fit a mold, and Evangelicals understand molds – for people and for their behavior. Traditional evangelicalism simply doesn’t teach grey areas and the arts operate in the grey aea. Neither does traditional evangelicalism teach critical thinking skills, which is perhaps why apologetics prosper in that circle. I don’t think Evangelicals want to kick out the artisitc riff raff; they just can’t understand us, and we aren’t comfortable in their molds.

    Christians who wish to express their ideas through the arts need to step into the secualr art/literary world and test their talent and their faith. I heard somewhere this quote: “All art is yearning”, and I think there is also an element of truth there that beckons the message of Jesus be taken into the secular world by people who are willing to risk confusion and challenge in both their relationship to Jesus and in their artisitic development.

    You are so right. Addie, this question of suffering is not answerable in 28 minutes, only by living life itself, reading the Psalms, and probably the book of Job to remind us that who God really is. If there is a set of apologetics that addresses this question, it is incomplete.

    1. Leda

      Thank you for posting. What you wrote is so true and refreshing for me to read. You are right as I have experienced similar kinds of situations. I have a friend who is an amazing artist. He is incredibly gifted and his fine art to most evangelicals would be offensive. Yet, it is not offensive, it is beautiful, compelling and thought provoking. He was fired from his position as Chair of the Art Department at a small evangelical christian institution. It saddens me to see and experience the “closed mindedness” in our evangelical culture. I too am a artist and I have to be careful about what I say pertaining to the art world. I appreciate so much what you have said. Thank you!

  13. Addie – just reading this post for the first time now. I got to forward it to the artists responsible for creating this beautiful and haunting service, my favorite thing we do every year. Thank you.

    1. So glad, Steve! I’m so thankful for the way your church models this kind of creative engagement; it gives me hope.

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