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Faithful Novelty

Why artists and pastors need each other to enrich the life of the church.

will remind us). In a world without newness the future is simply the unfolding of the past. The best we can hope for is to rearrange the existing order, to reshuffle our lives the way we might shuffle furniture around a room, knowing it will all need throwing out sooner or later. But in a world where Jesus has been raised from the grave—death being the ultimate enemy of all newness—non-order is possible, and through the Spirit, available to enjoy. We discover, as Gerard Manley Hopkins had it: “There lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.” We understand the clownlike remark of the painter Georges Rouault: “He who has forgotten how to laugh is only waiting to die”; we grasp the defiance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke of hilaritas while facing his own execution.

Pastors and Artists

Art by Tom LewisMany pastors crave regular order because they assume that the only alternative is destructive disorder. (Pastors like this tend not to laugh much.) They rightly see the need for consistency, liturgy people can trust, and well-planned calendars. The problem is that they can easily end up ordering all the non-order out of life, like Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction . Worship becomes cleansed of anything remotely spontaneous; church meetings are impeccably prepared and entirely devoid of surprise; agendas are followed to the minutest details, “any other business” kept to the barest minimum. I once worked with a pastor who, on our first meeting, gave me a firm shake with one hand and clutched a clipboard with the other. With this mindset, there must be no “other business,” only the business we can manage.

Project this perspective onto God—and the way we pastor a congregation will, of course, reflect what we really believe about God—and we find God becomes the embodiment of order ad infinitum , lifeless and dull (as many both in and out of the church sadly believe). Redemption will be viewed as God restoring things to the way they were, as if our Christian journey were headed for a rerun of Eden. It’s as if God were basically in the business of restoring balance to the world, matching good with evil in some kind of exact equivalence. Many theologies of the atonement work like this, where apparently all God does is match X amount of sin with Y amount of punishment, in order to restore “order.” Behind this theology lies a picture of God as impeccably balanced, a God of absolute equilibrium, self-contained proportion. We forget that evil can very easily masquerade as aesthetically perfect order: think of the military rally in a totalitarian state or the disciplined efficiency of the death camps of the 1940s.

If pastors tend to disparage non-order (for fear of disorder), creative artists tend to revel in it: the playful and experimental, the untamed improvisation, the off-the-cuff flourish. Award-winning architect Daniel Libeskind writes: “The tyranny of the grid! I fight against it all the time: buildings designed like checkerboards, with repetitive units that march along the same track. A marching grid is not what life is about. ... What good is a putative sense of order, if it’s a false sense of order?” What good is order without non-order?

And the question is hardly surprising, coming from an artist. The arts by their very nature are not tied to tight structures of predictability. You bring into existence something that didn’t exist before, something that couldn’t have been predicted to exist in exactly this form. That captures part of what the arts are about. When Bonhoeffer spoke about the arts as belonging to the sphere of “freedom,” he was saying they are not bound to the past and future by some chain of cause and effect: the past has not made them necessary, and we do not have to practice art to achieve a future goal. We certainly don’t need the arts for biological survival—it is unlikely we will ever read a death certificate that lists a cause of death as “a lack of music.”

Moreover, as Rowan Williams has recently stressed in his book Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love , the arts work by generating an excess of metaphorical allusion, which means we can’t spell out in advance all their possible meanings. Although not necessarily vague, their meanings are uncontainable. Les Murray, in his poem “Poetry and Religion,” speaks of God as “being in the world as poetry / is in the poem, a law against its closure.”

The problem here, though,