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The Sanctification of art in Christianity

by Aaron

In the June 9, 2001 issue of Christianity Today, there are two letters side by side responding to the same two articles in a previous issue (April 23, 2001), but with precisely reversed positions. On the one hand there is an article by Charles Colson criticizing the tendency among many evangelical Christians to imitate the worst in secular culture, merely 'baptizing' it with some superficial veneer of 'Christianity'. On the other hand, there is a largely favourable review of the latest album by 'Christian rapper' T-Bone - if I'm not mistaken, a perfect illustration of exactly the kind of thing to which Colson's article is calling our attention. Of the letters, the first applauds Colson and critiques T-Bone, while the second praises T-Bone and calls Colson's idea of art an art that is 'irrelevant to the larger society'.

Actually, these letters and the articles they deal with reflect a debate which I have noticed surfacing in Christianity Today with some frequency over the course of quite a period of time. That debate in turn reflects an aesthetic tension in Protestantism, which is tied to a larger theological tension incipient in Protestantism from its beginning and which it inherited from the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation. The macrocosmic problem is the question of the relationship between God and the world. It is a 'problem' and a 'question' because it is a paradox - on the one hand, God in His uncreated essence is absolutely transcendent and unknowable, on the other, in His uncreated energies He is absolutely immanent and knowable. His transcendence makes the world totally distinct from Him, and His immanence makes it inseparably united with Him. But because of the Fall, God's energies lie dormant in the world. The world is sinful, and God's energies cannot act within it.

This doctrine bears an analogy with the Incarnation - in fact, it is the same paradox. Jesus Christ, without ceasing to be completely God, became completely human. The Fathers use the term 'perichoresis' - an interpenetration or complete mixture without the loss of distinction. However, the Incarnation made it possible for the energies of God immanent in everything to be awakened. By taking on our flesh, our nature and our will, and yet remaining without sin, Christ transformed it and continues to do so through His energies.

Thus, in turn the Church, the Body of Christ, is to be 'in the world, but not of it', i.e., like it in all things except sin. But humanity, the world, is horribly sinful. It must be transformed, and thus loved, but also thus hated. On the one hand the Church is called to love and sanctify the world; on the other, it is called to hate and renounce it. Chesterton asks of the Christian:

Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?

By maintaining both halves of this whole, the individual Christian - and consequently, the Church - continue the work of the Incarnation, awakening the dormant energies of God present in all of creation. And it is important to remember that this is a paradox of extremes: completely God/completely Man, hate the world/love the world, 'fanatical pessimist'/'fanatical optimist'. It is only by embracing both extremes, both sides of the gap, that the world can be saved from itself. Christians are called to build bridges.

This is where art comes in. Through the use of art by Christians - ideally - two things are accomplished: first, the uncreated energies of God lying dormant in all matter are awakened and sanctify the matter, and second, other people can be effected and 'penetrated' by those energies. Bishop KALLISTOS speaks of the first function in terms of praising God through creation: 'In a variety of ways - through the cultivation of the earth, through craftsmanship, through the writing of books and the painting of ikons - man gives material things a voice and renders the creation articulate in praise of God'. The second is the subject of the famous story of the emissaries of St. Vladimir visiting Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, where the grandeur of the art and music and architecture, synthesized in the liturgy, is sufficient to convert them to Christianity. Art has a lofty calling indeed: to participate in the gradual extending of the sanctification of the world. It is a bridge between God on the one hand, and matter and people on the other.

But the ends do not justify the means. In order to fulfill its function, art must be appropriate to its message. If it signifies God, it must do so by bearing some resemblance to Him and not through arbitrary symbolism or substitution. This is especially easy to see when we consider the second function of art - the sanctification of human beings. The emissaries of St. Vladimir were converted, and indeed, sanctified, by the mystical beauty and grandeur of the Orthodox liturgy. Now if the clergy of Hagia Sophia had chosen to try to win them over by changing the liturgy to make it more like the wild, bloody sacrifices of the pagan Slavs, with nudity and drunkenness and slaughter, this might have had a certain appeal to the emissaries. In fact, there were doubtless many Slavs, not least of all the clergy of Perun and the other old gods, who might have preferred it that way. But then, the use of art in the ritual, while ostensibly 'converting' them on the outside to 'Christianity', would not have succeeded in transforming them inwardly into Christians. They would not have been sanctified. Their baptism would have been one of water, but not of the spirit. A drunken, pagan ritual using Christian words and symbols instead of pagan ones might have given them what they wanted, but certainly not what they needed.

All of this is often lost in evangelicalism. The idea of 'converting' unbelievers through art is a popular one, but one almost never hears talk of sanctifying them through it. The reason is the Roman Catholic denial of the uncreatedness of God's energies. While Protestants have - as far as I know - never officially maintained that denial, neither have they - as far as I know - retracted it. The result is that when they considered various practices and teachings maintained by the Roman Catholics which depended upon this doctrine - the veneration of relics, the veneration of images, the doctrine of Christ's presence in the Eucharist - all of these things seemed absolutely idolatrous. If God is not really present - except, perhaps, through some kind of mysterious created 'force' - in matter, one cannot possibly venerate Him through it. Matter itself has not been sanctified, and is thus not a fitting vehicle of sanctification. If this is the case, art is not and can never be 'Christian'. In fact, that's precisely what the Calvinistic Puritans, those most consistent of Protestants, concluded. While most have been reluctant to accept such a dismal view of things, the problem, and thus the tendency, has remained.

However, this creates another problem. If we do not accept the possibility of the sanctification of matter but neither do we want to admit that matter is absolutely evil, then any matter in any form will do for Christians. If water cannot be holy, it need not even be water. In a class on Christian spirituality, someone once raised the question of whether we couldn't just use Coke and M&M's for Eucharist instead of wine and bread. Beyond the objection of some of the evangelicals in the class that wine and bread are used in the Bible, no other objection, indeed no theoretical objection at all, could be raised. If this is the case, then nothing -- or at least nothing beyond some superficial adjustments -- need be done with matter for it to be 'Christian'.

So for art to fulfill its functions, it must be sanctified, not merely converted matter. In fact, despite what the author of the second letter suggests, this is the only way for art to be truly relevant to society, 'relevant' in the sense of what society needs. While it is outside the scope of this essay to define precisely what thus constitutes truly 'Christian' art, suffice to say that it presupposes very definite aesthetic criteria. Simply - and vaguely - put, it must somehow reflect the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. But as with everything else in the Church, these are not up to the individual. They have been revealed by God to the Body of Christ and are thus objectively/collectively known by the Community. Protestants, in subjectivizing Christianity, have done away with this knowledge. The doctrinal relativism of liberal Protestants is not all that different from the aesthetic relativism of evangelical Protestants. The one has lost the True, the other the Beautiful.

So Colson has resisted this to some extent. He says 'we should cultivate higher tastes. Christian art and music should not mimic even the styles of their degraded secular counterparts'. He quotes Philippians: 'Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things'. But then he accepts that 'casual is "in" for contemporary services', merely adding the qualifier that '"casual" should be decorous'. So in the end, the only difference between Colson and T-Bone is one of degree. Colson wants to make 'casual' style 'Christian' by making it 'decorous'. T-Bone wants to make gangsta rap 'Christian' by 'putting demons in coffins' instead of 'niggaz'. Colson doesn't deserve so much applause from the first letter or so much criticism from the second.

A much more real difference is that between Colson and T-Bone (along with the vast majority of evangelicals) on the one hand, and the Puritans on the other. The former accept the possibility of using art to 'convert' people, the latter do not. But upon closer examination the similarity is actually still more fundamental than the disagreement. None believe that art can actually be sanctified, that it can actually be Christian in a deeper sense, because none believe in the uncreated energies of God.

The moral of the story is that the solution to the question of art depends on sound theology. And even if that theology could somehow be transplanted to Protestantism and adopted by evangelicals, their other doctrines would prevent them from being able to know the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. In fact, without collective experience of the Holy Spirit, without Tradition, how could they ever know the 'truth' of St. Gregory Palamas's essence/energies distinction in the first place? How else does one explain the continuous fighting over worship styles among them? Evangelicals are continually impaled on two horns of a dilemma. Until they are able to address that dilemma at a deeper level, art will actually be the least of their worries

See also

Ikons or idols?

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Created: 27 September 2001
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