A blank canvas


7760274-empty-white-canvas-for-artist-on-wooden-easel-in-dark-roomThe Culture section of my Sunday paper covers the same things every week: plays and music, opera and ballet, books, movies and the rest.  And only very rarely is anything remotely Christian covered.

Which a moment’s reflection would show, is very odd. Because, before the last half century, any artistic contribution only made sense with a Christian content or background. Even those who reacted against it, knew what they were reacting against.

In fact, you can make a strong case that we cannot read that culture without knowing the Christian narrative. I remember watching an opera with some friends, as forgiveness and redemption played out with the background of Easter Sunday. In front of 3000 people.  How many of them understood what they watched and heard?

  • One reason for our present invisibility might be that we are being deliberately ignored.
  • Another might be that what we are producing is trivial, and not worth reviewing.
  • Yet another might be that we’ve stopped producing anything.  Once, we managed the Sistine Chapel, Handel’s Messiah and The Faerie Queen. Now, we’ve stopped.
  • A fourth might be that we have lost the language of how to discuss these things. You know how hard it is to describe a smell?  I suspect we find it as hard to discuss a painting or a ballet, at least in Evangelical circles. Possibly because it’s hard to do.  And possibly because we think it’s not appropriate things to do.


Politically and socially, we have bemoaned the evangelical absence from the Public Square. We have fought, and continue to fight for, the right to be heard in politics and social debate. Rightly so.

But have we colluded in our disappearance from the artistic public square? Have we stopped filling the blank canvases?

So let’s begin by collecting some information, and I’d love you to join in the comments below:

Who are the Christian artists you’re aware of?  Novelists, playwrights, poets, painters, photographers, sculptors, musicians – let’s get some names together

Who are the Christians who have written about beauty or aesthetics?  Again, let’s kick off a list. And we won’t commit the ‘chronological fallacy’ which is that only our contemporaries matter.

What are the possible causes for our apparent invisibility at the moment?

Please join in.

And in the next few posts I’ll begin to sketch in what might be an outline theology of beauty. Aston Martins, Elgar, the Shard, Cezanne – what do you find beautiful, and why?

15 comments on “A blank canvas”

  1. As you’ll doubtless be aware, Chris, this raises questions about what happened in and to evangelicalism in the 1980s. When I was at theological college (St John’s Nottingham) in the 1970s, there was enormous interest in the arts amongst evangelicals, our theological models being the likes of H R Rookmaker. Indeed at the time I wrote a dissertation on ‘Christianity and the Arts’.

    One of the fruits of this was the Greenbelt Arts Festival, which to begin with was not just ‘evangelical’ but conservative evangelical in its roots. There were numerous people exploring evangelism through street drama and you may also remember things like the Springs dance company.

    I was also personally involved in three ten-day ‘Arts Workshops’ organized as CYFA camps, from 1981-1983.

    However, as the decade went on, the theological ‘groundedness’ of that generation proved inadequate and the evangelical conviction gave way to liberalism. In parallel to this, Anglican evangelicalism was itself going through a crisis which led to the splits of the 80s and the acrimony of the 90s and beyond.

    Personally I think it is high time the questions you raise were once again asked. (Indeed I promised a friend of mine I would do some work on this before Christmas – but let him down.) I see your challenge fitting well with the points made by James Davison Hunter in his “To Change the World”. But we have a lot of work to do!

    1. John, I share you concerns and a large amount of chronology! One of the questions to mull over, is exactly what went wrong with an agenda that seemed so Schaefferian. Rookmaker’s reading of art, and especially anything post Cezanne, troubles me.

    1. If you’re right, Kratty, that still only applies to the visual arts, and only then to rigid representative art. We should love abstract!

      1. Except we perceive the abstract or experimental (visual or aural) as a loss of control and therefore something to be suspicious of. Puritan utility is what we trust.

      2. There’s a series coming up by Howard Goodall on music; he reckons that a century of atonality has not thrown a piece of work that can be enjoyed! But you’re right. Not that there’s anything wrong with utility – a Swiss Army knife is a beautiful object because it works so well. It,s the focus only on utility to the exclusion of delight etc. which is one-eyed.

  2. Thanks for this post Chris, I share the concern we’re not engaging in the arts but feel ill-equipped to know how to meaningfully engage or encourage artists, and I’m just not coming into contact with many.

    1. Well, let’s see if we can move this forward as a grouping. One of my worries is that because we are people of the Word, we only have tools to engage with word people: writers, and so forth. I realise I’m guilty as charged!

    2. The easiest way to engage with the arts is to buy a painting, go to an opening and talk to the artists, visit an end-of-year art college show.

      Also, there are plenty of websites (indiegogo, kickstarter etc) where you can support artists by making a donation to a project. Often you receive a limited edition gift. This can be the start of a conversation with an artist or group.

  3. So many words. Go and find an art gallery – new or old, don’t mind which. When was the last time you went? When did you last watch a play or paint a picture? We worry too much about understanding art. Artists want you to experience it. It’s like faith – we can have a great amount of knowledge on Scripture without experiencing God.

    I know a few talented, top-of-their-field artists and would be happy to take you to see their work next time I am in the UK.

    Our capacity to misunderstand is huge. We argue theology which we know so when it comes to “Art” which we may not get, we can really argue. How about an Oak Hill Art Prize?

    1. Well, speaking personally, Woody, several times last year for e ones you list, but not as often as I would have liked – including the excellent one in Sydney. And I take your point about words – but the odd thing is we humans love to discuss what we experience.

  4. Here’s a clue. Who was the first person, according to Scripture, to be specifically filled with the Spirit, and why? The answer, as far as I can see, is Bezalel, to build and beautify the tabernacle: “The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit,a with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft …” (Ex 31:1-5).

    The tabernacle is a forerunner of the Church. The building of the Church is the work of the Spirit-filled, Spirit-baptizing, God/man Jesus. Therefore there is SOME link between ‘created (artistic) beauty’ and the task at the core of God’s plans and purposes for creation and salvation.

  5. Chris -we have one full time composer here, Jonathan Girling, one of our elders. By the way, we have over the last year experimented with a few “Arts Weekends”

  6. Hi Chris, thanks for your article, here’s my two cents.

    I’ve been part of conservative evangelical churches right through my life. There’s a big emphasis (rightly) on ‘passing on the trustworthy message’, and the natural (and again, right) implication of that is that a lot of time and attention is giving to the preaching and presenting of the gospel message orally.

    However, two side effects of this emphasis and its practical outworking in the conservative evangelical church are:

    1. We have almost fused truth and logical argument, meaning that the gospel is mainly presented in a linear way, building a structured argument, and all attempts are made to iron out any potential areas of mystery. Compare this to some of Jesus’ parables which engage his listeners creatively and vividly, and, for those with ears to hear, arouse curiosity, encouraging them to chew over significant truth.

    2. Teaching and preaching (and also, as a result of 1, lecturing) gifts are prized highly (rightly), but to a point where other gifts are minimised or considered irrelevant (wrongly).

    I’m a Christian filmmaker running a production company in South Wales (see http://2Vdesign.co.uk/video), mainly working on ‘profile’ type videos for organisations. But sometimes a more creative piece comes along (our spoken word film, ‘The Christmas Chord’ was recently runner up in ITN’s Nativity Factor competition), and I’m looking to move more into narrative filmmaking in 2013.

    However, I’ll more than likely be looking to secular sources of funding (kickstarter, community grants etc.) to achieve this. I think storytelling via film could actually be a very effective way to prompt discussion on gospel issues (sin, guilt, the need for forgiveness, justice, eternity etc.), and highlight some of the contradictions in a godless worldview (funnily enough, there are already lots of secular films which do this!). I feel we as conservative evangelicals need to be better at lighting the touch paper with a well-aimed spark and trusting the Spirit to do some explosive work behind-the-scenes, rather than feeling we’ve always got to set off the entire firework display in one half hour sermon!

    I’m blessed to be part of a church which is encouraging me in this (http://hillcitychurch.com). I think one of the reasons Hill City is good at encouraging different gifts, is that half hour logical arguments fall flat in the largely working/benefits class culture here. People just yawn as it flies over their heads. Stories engage, testimonies engage, letting the Bible come alive engages. It’s still expositional preaching, yet it’s more in tune with where people are at here.

    But as I look more widely at the sheer number of people across the UK who go to see films in the cinema, and are gripped for 2-3 hours by a significant, engrossing story which very often mirrors in some way the sacrificial and redemptive themes of the gospel, I wonder if we’re missing something, both on the creative side, and the communication side!

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