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Faithful Novelty

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

Artists are attracted to novelty. As legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” That quest to generate something different and irreplaceable, the need to make something that stands out, and the drive to create something new seems built into the DNA of many artists.

Of course, the cultural expectations for the arts have contributed to this. In the last two centuries, doing “the next new thing” seems to be implicitly required for artists. Many artists—particularly those who work outside the church, and especially those who need to make a living from their art—feel a subtle pressure to create something original, preferably something cutting-edge. In the twentieth century, the growth of various avant-garde movements instilled habits of thinking about novelty that are still with us. Art embodies the pursuit of the totally fresh start—think of all the artistic attempts in the last century to begin again and wipe the slate clean: Futurism, dodecaphonism, neoclassicism, dadaism, photorealism.

We find an eagerness to break with the past, to clean away the detritus of tradition and outdated wisdom of yesterday, and to dismantle the scaffolding of convention. Nothing must be allowed to become old: unless we are constantly creating the ever-new thing, we are heading for death. To be original demonstrates that you are alive. To repeat is to be captive to the law of sin and death.

This fascination with novelty is one quality that makes artists awkward people to have around, especially for pastors who want a quiet life. Poets, painters, songwriters, fashion designers—professional creators are notoriously difficult to work with. They’re constantly resisting the pressure to please the largest number, always defending their artistic integrity, frequently asserting their entitlement to do something that hasn’t been done before, and often reserving their right to rub our noses in subversive novelty. And for many peace-loving pastors trying to hold together a fragile group of eccentric Christians, artists are about the last kind of person they need.

For those of us who have been in the church for some time, we can easily forget that newness is built into the gospel. The aroma of novelty is on every page of the New Testament. It pervades the fabric of the Christian message. But what kind of newness is this? And how can artists and pastors together discover it? At the very least, I suggest, it involves a remarkable interplay between order and non-order.

Order and Non-order

Art by Tom LewisWe must first subvert our common assumption that only two basic shapes are possible for our lives—order and disorder. The other day a friend took me into his kitchen, which was littered with letters, bills, unwashed dishes, bottles, and boxes. This instantly produced a flood of apology: “I’m so sorry about the mess!” That’s because disorder is usually seen as something to be ashamed of, an unhealthy sign of being out of control. Order, on the other hand, is something to be praised: “My, your house is tidy! I wish I could get mine like this.”

We transpose this view into our theology: order signifies that God is around. Regularity, predictability, reliability, and consistent patterns in the world speak of God’s ordering rule and refusal to let things slide into anarchy. Any opposition to order is seen as a mark of the opposition, the evil one, bringing confusion and destruction.

But are order and disorder the only options? What about laughter? The sound of laughter is hardly ordered—indeed, it is hard to predict and is anything but regular. At the same time, it’s anything but destructive; to the contrary, it often releases all sorts of possibilities. It’s a sign of goodness that is neither order nor disorder. In their book, Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God (Baker Academic), laughter is an example of what Daniel Hardy and David Ford describe as “non-order,” or the “jazz-factor.”

Recall Sarah being told at the age of ninety she is to bear a child (Genesis 18:9-15). What does she do? She laughs. This is the hilarity released by the Holy Spirit in response to news of non-order—childbirth in advanced old age. In the New Testament, non-order explodes into the world supremely on Easter, subverting every expectation. More than that, it’s made available to us, accessible and enjoyable because of what happened at Pentecost.

Without non-order, there can be no newness. Without non-order, the world is condemned to futility, for in purely physical terms, everything is growing old and running down (as the physicists