Jamie Howison on the value of art
hy should the Christian church even bother with the arts? Given all of the pressing concerns of the world, wouldn’t our money and our energy be better spent on issues of poverty and hunger, the environmental crisis, HIV/Aids in the two-thirds world? What real difference does a painting or a piece of music or a commissioned poem make to the shape of the world in which we live?
In his book, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, the Christian scholar Calvin Seerveld offers a sustained reflection as to why such reasoning may actually reinforce – perhaps even deepen – the pain of the world. His point of entry is the gospel story of the woman who, much to the dismay of some of the onlookers, anoints Jesus with costly perfumed ointment (Mark 14:3-9). “Why was this ointment wasted like this?” they protest. “It could have been sold, and the money given to the poor.” In Seerveld’s view, the same voices can often be heard in our own time regarding the engagement of the Christian church in the arts: “All that money can be saved to mount an evangelism campaign or be given to the starving poor in sub-Saharan Africa!” He continues,
Such well-fed critics of the arts, says Christ sharply, will always have a ghetto outside their neighborhood, which they can remedy anytime they put their mind to it. But do not hinder the (artists) who cannot put bread on the table for their families with the gifts the Holy Spirit gave them to give away. Do not make it so hard, my friends, for them to spill their perfume over my body, says the Christ; over my often tired, beleaguered, recalcitrant yet expectant people; or even spill the perfume over the neighbors who maybe never had anything ‘beautiful’ done to them either. Such little artistic acts of love are worth remembering. (Seerveld, p. 4)
Art matters. Music, painting, sculpture, photography, literature, theatre; it all shapes our imaginations, unsettles our assumptions, widens our vision, unveils our greatest hopes and our greatest fears. Or at least the arts have the potential to do this. If left exclusively to those outside of the household of faith – all the while leaving the Christians with a narrowly pragmatic vision of who and what we are – not only will we be a church of diminished imagination, but we will also subsist in a wider culture of short-sighted and skewed vision; a culture deprived of the unique voice and vision that is of the people of God.
“Artistry,” writes Seerveld, “in God’s world has its own proper task of giving joy, its own peculiar ministry of healing, its own God-given gift of serving up nuanced insight for one’s neighbor.” It is, in other words, far too important a thing to ignore or dismiss as wasteful.
At saint benedict’s table, we agree whole-heartedly with Seerveld on this. Welcome to our engagement of the stuff of art and culture.