Monday, April 26, 2010

On the Value of Creativity - Part Two

I'm sorry, everyone - I'm an hour late... but I hope it's worth the wait!

Have you ever realized our society places a high value on very little? Literally! Standards have fallen to points so low that sometimes, it doesn’t take much to appear extraordinary. Hopefully, my blog doesn’t fall into that category, but if it does, it’s not for lack of trying to help explain away the mechanics of my snap-crackle-pop brain.

Seriously, folks: minimum standards rule our world, don’t they? Sometimes it seems as though people benchmark the status quo and then work backwards from there. The trouble with that approach should be obvious: how often does the status quo represent excellence?

Now, there are some tasks in life where excellence doesn’t really factor into things. For example, when you buy a car, you know that you’re not going to get a hand-crafted Rolls Royce on a Ford budget. You want your Ford to be safe and reliable, and you expect high standards on other basics, but if it doesn’t have a motorized hood ornament or come with your choice of over 100 leather colors, you’re still satisfied in the Ford’s ability to get you from point A to point B in the same amount of time. (Of course, with it’s recent accelerator problems, I guess a Toyota would actually get you there faster…)

Churches, Budgets, and, um, Art...

When it comes to corporate worship, however, how many churches push budgets to try and get the biggest and newest at the expense of the best and the finest? Minimization has taken over the evangelical church world, where congregations may spend thousands on high-tech gadgets but scoff at even a small stained glass window. Part of the mentality comes from Biblical mandates to be prudent with money, and part of it comes from the increasingly bland tastes of our society in general and Christians in particular. For people who claim to have a personal relationship with the Creator of everything, however, how many of us expend a lot of effort trivializing beauty by denying its expression?

Of course, if everybody attending churches would actually tithe, much of this problem probably wouldn’t exist. It’s hard to argue with churches about spending money on fine art when they can barely afford to keep the lights on. To the extent that believers steal from God by not returning to Him a portion of what He’s given them, sin may be robbing people of the opportunities to worship God in the splendor of His holiness through the arts.

So assuming that we are tithing – which, again, is the minimum standard; our offerings are also expected, aren’t they? – can we proceed with the discussion of what art in church looks like? After all, pontificating with platitudes about art and how we should take advantage of it only goes so far, doesn’t it? What does it actually mean? And do you need an income the size of a Wall Street executive’s before you can do something about it?

Remember, I’m not an art purist. If I was, I’d say that art has a place in any church’s budget, whether the light bill is being paid or not. But I’m not sure such a perspective would pass Biblical muster, because we still need to be mindful of the fine line between art for God’s glory and extravagance for our own sake. The Widow’s Mite went to the Lord’s work, of which paintings and statuary comprise only a part, not the whole.

Class, Let's Review

With that being said, let’s remind ourselves of some basics about what makes good art good:
  • Good art makes you think. It focuses your attention on a limited range of ideas, concepts, or doctrines that engage your mind with truth.
  • Every element in good art has a purpose. Whether a great building or a great painting, everything incorporated into the whole has a reason for being there.
  • Regardless of your education or life experience, you can somehow relate to good art.
  • Even if good Biblical art mimics popular culture, it don’t celebrate it. Holiness, or the quality of being set apart, doesn’t necessarily start outside of transitory ideas. Direct copies of popular culture, though, without any discernment as to their legitimacy at ascribing glory to God, probably don’t qualify.
  • If the Biblical art is not entirely about an attribute of God, in which at least one of His characteristics can be identified, then generally, at least one of the fruits of the spirit can be identified in some aspect (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, self-control).
  • In good Biblical art, God receives uncompromised glory through its theme, the media used in its creation, and the way it is created.

Three Case Studies

Now, let’s consider some actual examples of evangelical churches who have gone the extra mile and intentionally incorporated fine art into their buildings and ministries. You might be surprised at what I think qualifies!

Case Study: Calvary Baptist Church; New York, NY
Project: Traditional gold leaf gilding
When the congregation remodeled the venerable church's sanctuary in the late 1980’s, they wanted to rejuvenate the tired, gray space and celebrate Calvary's legacy in New York City's arts community. Among other things, they executed a palate of soft hues with dusty pinks and creams with gold accents to brighten the space. But they decided that instead of gold-colored paint for the trimwork and decorative touches, they should go the extra mile and use the real thing.

Through its international missions work, Calvary knew of a Christian couple in Central America who were experts in traditional gold gilding. While this couple received commissions for Catholic churches, most evangelical Protestant churches scoffed at the idea of paying for real gold when speckled paint looked almost the same. However, Calvary decided that the precedent God set for having real gold in His original temple set a standard they wanted to emulate.

They brought the couple to Manhattan to gild the many plaster flowerettes and other embellishments that had been previously stuck onto the otherwise grim sanctuary walls. The result proved indisputably regal and elegant. When the remodeled sanctuary was rededicated, the story of the gold detailing elicited warm appreciation from the congregation who could finally see how this one detail could make such a difference.

Case Study: First Baptist Church; Arlington, TX
Project: Foyer renovation & hand-crafted partition walls
: Here in Arlington, Texas, we’re hardly a hotbed of international art, but like many middle-America communities, wood craftsmanship enjoys a robust level of respect and artisanship.

Two years ago, First Baptist Church renovated its prominent foyer area from a formerly tasteless space into a gloriously inviting entrance to its sanctuary. Not only were aesthetics greatly improved, but First Baptist found a creative solution to nagging problems with the circulation of pedestrian traffic outside the sanctuary. With multiple Sunday morning services, worshippers waiting for the next service and people exiting the previous service were constantly getting tangled up in the unnecessarily narrow foyer.

Granted, that’s not a problem many churches would actually mind having, but First Baptist saw a lot of wasted space along the wide plaza outside of the foyer’s air-conditioned confines. And remember, this is Texas, where morning summertime temperatures can wilt big hair before Sunday School is over.

First Baptist decided to enclose most of their outside entry plaza and install a series of partition walls to help direct pedestrian traffic flow. But instead of plain drywall, a member of the church who is a master craftsman built several wood walls with coffered panels and modified Gothic cornices, all in a deep, lush stain. Exit doors were moved to the sides of the foyer, and glass archways opened up the space to the street, where even at night, the wooden panels are illuminated so passers-by can admire them.

The beauty of the new panels masks their surprisingly effective utilitarianism: church members tell me they actually do work at helping to moderate traffic flow; there’s a lot less congestion in their freshened, elegant foyer; and the sanctuary has a new public face combining efficiency with some old-world extravagance.

Case Study: Park Cities Presbyterian Church (PCA); Dallas, TX
Project: Easter Sunday flowered cross
As I crossed the busy avenue fronting my church after services on Resurrection Sunday, I glanced over to the police officer holding back traffic and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a delightfully unexpected vision. It was this extraordinary cross celebrating the life of Christ and His defeat of death and sin, erected outside the main doorways to our sanctuary. Since like many congregants at Park Cities, I never use those doors, I was unaware that this flowering cross has been a tradition by our children’s ministry for years.

Actually, the police officer directing traffic told me about it as I did a double-take to admire it. He’d been stationed outside our church since the crack of dawn that morning, and he watched as somebody brought out the Styrofoam-and-wire-mesh cross and set it up at the main entrance. Then groups of children came to the front of the church with flowers, and throughout the morning, they pushed their flowers into the Styrofoam or wire mesh, creating this simple yet dazzling sculpture.

How amazing an idea is this?! Wow – even now, looking at the photo, I’m struck with how the colorful flowers – God’s glorious creativity – take the ugly shape of the cross and replace its imagery of sin and death with life and beauty. Set against the gray stonework and sturdy wooden doors of our church, the flowers contrast even more strongly, proclaiming the lavish Resurrection promise literally from the steps of our church.

What an easy, low-cost, and profound way to share a glimpse of the Gospel with the world – or, at least, the Sunday brunchers along Dallas’ Oak Lawn Avenue.

See? Fine art doesn’t need to come from Italy, take years to craft, or requre fundraising. Where it starts is a love for God, an understanding of what He has done for us, and a desire to evangelize – even if it means using gold leaf, a mitre saw, and cut flowers instead of a microphone.

However you tell it, tell it well! That’s what fine art is for.

Photo by Darian Reichert

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