Why Christian communities should pay attention to art


ast night at the end of our liturgy, we had everyone who had played some role in the creation of Beautiful Mercy gather at the front of the church for a blessing.  In that context I made just a few remarks as to why we’d put such time and energy and resources into the production of a work of art (and more than being a collection of writing, art and music, this book is itself a piece of art), putting at least some of the blame squarely on the shoulders of Calvin Seerveld.  Cal is a founder member at the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, where for many years he taught and wrote in the area of philosophical aesthetics, labouring tirelessly to try to convince the church that the arts need to be part of who and what we are.

Well, for a number of us who call saint benedict’s table home, Cal made a pretty convincing case, so when the time came to do this blessing of the Beautiful Mercy project I pulled out my copy of his book Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves to give me the right words with which to frame things.  After worship, several people asked me about the words I’d read, looking for more information about the book and its writer, so it made sense to share the words here.  Cal often draws on the image of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with perfumed oil – an act to which Judas objected on the grounds that it was wasteful – as a good place to begin to think about art.  I read aloud the following lines from the book’s introductory essay:

When art is crafted for God and neighbour… and is simply spilled like an offering of perfume as this woman (in the gospels) did, then you as an artist have God’s authoritative blessing.  If you have been gifted by the Holy Spirit to write songs, or to draw the human face, to tell stories to children or to grown-ups so their mouths drop open, to paint colours that bring cheer to the sad, or film shapes that stop the self-assured with uneasy reflection, or if you can be trained to make choreographed gestures that bespeak righteous anger or redemptive tenderness, then you have Jesus Christ’s explicit approval for such ‘good works’ of love.

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 neighbours who maybe never had anything ‘beautiful’ done to them either.  Such little artistic acts of love are worth remembering.

Wonderful, artful words, aren’t they?  It is hard to think of more to say, other than to again offer the prayer we used to mark the release of our book:

O God, through whose blessed Son you have sanctified and transfigured the work of our hands, of our hearts and our imaginations: receive this book which we offer, and grant that it may proclaim your love, benefit your people, and minister grace to all who use it; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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