Thursday, 27 January 2011

Christian 'art' and the Bible

A little while ago, Richard Beck of Experimental Theology blogged about Christian art. He'd been in a Christian bookshop and noticed that all of the artwork had words on it, which basically explained what the art 'represented'; even, weirdly, a drawing of praying hands. What we end up with, he suggested, is art that is dominated by pedagogy, catechesis and evangelism: there's no room for ambiguity, for art that unsettles us, draws us in, invites us to deep engagement.

This all came to mind recently as I was thinking (as you do) about the art of the banner in Christian churches. You see banners all over the place in British Christianity at least, though probably more so the more evangelical the church, and I can testify to having seen some pretty spectacular ones in German evangelical churches (don't ask), whose aesthetic preferences seem to be for banners constructed entirely out of metallic fabrics. Gaudy. But, like the Christian art you can buy in Christian bookshops, they always involve words. The classic Christian banner tends to take a Bible verse, 'I am the light of the world' or 'I am the way, the truth and the life', and illustrate it with pictures that go with the words - lights, paths, basic allegorical images.

That's obviously pretty different to most contemporary art (although, as a side point, contemporary art involves text in a way that classical art didn't tend to: I wonder why?) But it's also crucially different to the sort of religious art that you found in churches as paintings or stained glass windows, because banners-with-text are all about assertions or statements, where religious art tends to illustrate stories. That in turn reflects a general shift in the way that a lot of evangelicals read the Bible: they're not looking for narratives so much as for truth claims, encouraging words, or rules. The Bible, and probably Christianity more generally, becomes a source of doctrinal statements, instructions, and fridge-magnet wisdom.
Photo credit: Kentishman


The Author said...

I don't enjoy church banners.

I was staring at one at a church we were visiting last Sunday, and, although agreeing with the sentiment "Jesus is Lord", found it weak-kneed to be depicting this mind blowing statement in gold lace ribbon against a lack lustre background of drab.

I think banners should either be used by a standard bearer leading a charge, or not at all.

And yes, let's have a return of vivid tapestries on a Bayeux scale without a hint of literary interpretation.

Revsimmy said...

But it isn't just visual art, it's liturgy too. There is a constant need to explain what is going on, what this and that "really" means, rather than letting it speak for itself and leaving the participant to draw their own conclusions. I'm not against (very) occasionally drawing attention to something we are doing and saying, but not as the default mode.

IMO it reflects a modernist, reductionist, not to say controlling, mindset that wants to tie everthing up neatly. But sadly it takes most if not all of the mystery away - or perhaps just ignores it.