The arts have long been part of our Christian heritage. Historically, there have been periods of suppression but also times of immense flourishing. Recently, the arts, and in particular the visual arts, have enjoyed a greater prominence in being used in the worship and witness of the Church. Keir Shreeves, who is on the clergy team at St. Peter’s, Brighton, has written a Grove Booklet on Art for Mission’s Sake. Mandy Carr takes a look at it.
Keir Shreeves’ helpful booklet gives a wide overview of the theological foundations of the arts and the artist in the church and in the world. He includes examples of good practice and puts forward creative ideas for local churches to consider.
He does not shy away from addressing the suspicion that has, at times, accompanied the arts. He acknowledges the fear that the beauty of the arts might lure people away from worshipping God or that any image of God is limited and therefore, in some ways, deceptive. However, he points to the incarnation as justification for the arts, because ‘when God became man the invisible became visible…The incarnation thus authorises us to create images of God and is at the centre of the Christian aesthetic. God’s self-revelation, and therefore affirmation of the material world, means artists are affirmed in their use of images.’
Shreeves reviews the theological foundations of the arts and the role of beauty. He links beauty’s resurgence in theology with a renewed focus on the Trinity and the work of the Spirit. Examining the contribution of a number of theologians, he rejects the Christian utilitarian view that the arts are just an instrument of evangelism. Although he argues against any form of reductionism in our thinking, he proposes that as a vehicle of beauty, the arts can lead us to an encounter with God. He then outlines ten pointers towards a theological foundation for the arts.
The Biblical account of Bezalel, the chief artisan of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-6 and Chapters 36-39) promotes the idea of a creative calling, and locates the concept of the artist clearly within the Church. Taking Bezalel’s example, Shreeves creates a template for artists in the Church highlighting what it means to be called by God, to listen to God, to aim for excellence and to help the church worship and witness. He recognises that there can be some tension between church leadership and artists when creative projects are undertaken in church, and he puts forward some suggestions to help the partnership work.
Shreeves’ chapter on the Artist in the World looks at the impact Christians can make in the surrounding culture. It is a rallying cry for more Christians to engage with the arts and to make and cultivate culture, not just to engage with it. He states: ‘The arts are a medium which God uses not just to decorate the gospel but announce it.’ There are many opportunities, especially at times of suffering, to positively influence the world and bring hope.
The last chapter gives examples of how creativity has released new life into the mission of the Church. Shreeves gives a helpful framework for those wanting to take the next step. He calls churches to celebrate, to value quality and to consider carefully their environment. He underlines the importance that planning creativity involves process, allocating budgets and above all, nurturing relationships.
The booklet is aimed at looking at the creative opportunities for artists and churches to come together to express the pain of the present, draw attention to hope and shape culture. The questions posed at the end of each section give an opportunity for reflection. These questions, along with the theological and Biblical foundations, provide a good resource for church leaders wishing to dispel any residual anxiety in their congregations about using the ‘worldly’ arts for the Kingdom. Any church wishing to consider a creative project might find working through these questions together an important first stage in their thinking. After that, the possibilities are endless.
Keir Shreeves studied theology at St. Mellitus College and King’s College London. He is also Chair of Shift. Before ordination, he qualified as an industrial designer and had a career in manufacturing management. @keirshreeves.