Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Art and the (Emergent) Church

I can't believe I just titled a post that way, but I've been asked to summarize the discussion at the Emergent Church panel that I was invited to participate on last night in NYC. The group was quite fun and engaging - and of course, in good Emergent style there were couches-a-plenty. Brian McLaren will be there next week should anyone be interested (I'd get there early).

By the way, if the following views are not deemed Emergent someone please let me know. Maybe I'll be privileged to be the first disciplinary case in Emergent. Perhaps, in their eagerness to recover ancient spiritual practices, they'll use the Rosary of Shame.

My argument was focused on visual art which is, ehem, "my field," and therefore what I can, like, say smart stuff about. My point was (I hope) pretty straighforward: That epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and art are on a parellel trajectories in Western culture, and therefore those who may find the philosophical discussions wearisome may find the parallels in art history more immediately graspable... and consequently discover some ways the church can respond.

Here are the twin trajectories as I see them:


Shipwreck: Very roughly, knowledge was about what was known, then became about the knower (DesCartes, Kant). And finally knowledge, in seeking to find itself, as the Gospel saying goes, lost itself altogether. This, I suggest, is the postmodern epistemological condition. (That inexcusably short summary is expanded upon here, here and here)

Mutiny: If knowledge then is on the rocks thanks to the doomed trajectory of Modernity, the church need not chain itself to that sinking ship. Perhaps Alister McGrath, speaking at least for evangelicals, said it best:
"The time has come for evangelicalism to purge itself of the remaining foundational influences of the Enlightenment, not simply because the Enlightenment is over, but because of the danger of allowing ideas whose origins and legitimation lie outside the Christian gospel to exercise a decisive influence on that gospel... We have been liberated from the rationalist demand to set out 'logical' and 'rational' grounds for our beliefs. Belief systems possess their own integrites, which may not be evaluated by others as if there were some privileged position from which all may be judged."
The Emergent Church, it seems to me, is one of many parties seeking to divest themselves of Enlightenment stock. And though some are eager to transfer funds into the shaky futures of radical postmodernism, most realize that the investing in the great tradition is a more lucrative prospect.

Recovery: For example of mining the great tradition, Origen of the 3rd century may have said it better than Alister McGrath. In arguing with some formidable pagan opponents of Christianity, Origen had the gaul to insist that the truth of the Gospel is to be evaluated only by a
"proof peculiar to itself, and this is more divine than Greek argument"
The Emergent Church can is therefore just one example of many Christian traditions that are recovering a basis for knowledge independent of Enlightenment criteria. In so doing, thank goodness there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Emergent can rediscover (not invent) the fact that Christian truth is not abstract, but personal... in fact truth is one particular person.


Shipwreck: Very roughly, art was about what was painted, then became about the painter (Modernity's cult of the artist). And finally art, in seeking to find itself (remember "Art for Art's sake"?), as the Gospel saying goes, lost itself altogether. This, I suggest, is the postmodern condition of art. Any walk through a major museum will probably confirm this impression. Or simply consider this. Or pick up the recent art issue of (always to be taken with a large grain of salt) Adbusters which after suggesting the corruption of the MoMa asserts that "Modern art is a disaster area - never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little." Or visit the Pompidou center for cotemporary art in Paris where one can enjoy rooms dedicated to "Disfigurement Art," "Violent Procedures Art" and, my favorite, the "Pathos/Death" room... all for a steep admission fee.

Mutiny: If art then is on the rocks thanks to the doomed trajectory of the Modernity, the church need not chain itself to a sinking ship. Even while our culture may have lost its basis for the creation of art (as chronicled so well by Tom Wolfe or Hans Rookmaker), the church has had a compelling basis all along that it is hight time it recovered.

Recovery: This basis is the icon. Other artforms are of course important as well, but their legitimacy derives from securing the big kahuna: A picture of the ineffible - God himself - something which in Christianity at least is a possibility. True at one point images were forbidden. But the history of salvation took us from Point A to Point B, and the 7th ecumenical council (the property of all Christians) secured the interpretation of Scripture in a way that made the use of icons not only permissible, but a necessary consequence of God having revealed himself in human form.


Emergent churches can therefore, by rediscovering thinkers like Origen, enjoy the recovery of a uniquely Christian basis for knowledge, independent of the Enlightenment - and by rediscovering John of Damascus and Theodore of Studion (the two best defenders of icons) enjoy the recovery of a uniquely Christian basis for Art, independent of Modernity.

Critiques: Among the important points that came up in the discussion time was this: Shouldn't there still be room for art that makes us uncomfortable in the church? As Nick put it, what if the radical art today is just the Elvis/Metallica of yesteryear, unacceptable now but soon to be accepted.

That is a good and fair question. Certainly we don't want to encourage a new wave of Kinkades - an Edenic art with no hint of the Fall. But what puts art in a state of crisis today (in my estimation) is that too often raging against the machine is all it knows how to do. It stops with the raging, which is why all but a minority of the elite seem to have given up on the majority contemporary art. Whereas the Christian vision, while certainly having room for Good Friday... provides an Easter Sunday as well. The answer I think is both of these elements, the darkness and the light, in their totality - both of which are contained within the inexhaustible Christ - whose icon is home base for Christian art.

It should not go without notice that not every religion enjoys this warrant for art at the center of both its piety and doctrine.


And a final point: Far from advocating a static return to an older form of Christian art a la the Pre-Raphs or Neo-Gothic craze of the nineteenth century, Christians can employ all kinds of new art... with the basis of the icon as fuel for the journey. Using the 7th ecumenical council as perennial legitimation, the liberating moves of Modern Art (and not all of them are) can be embraced by the church. One of the most moving "art experiences" I've had was at Plateau d'Assy in France, where the orphaned Modern Art of Rouault, Chagall, Matisse et. al. found a home in the church. Or the in the Wilhem Memorial Church in Berlin where Modern technique stands side by side the bombed but still standing classic foundations of an more ancient church. Old and new, side by side. What better architectural illustration of a way for Emergent (or any church) to move forward: Without leaving the past - most especially the icon - behind.