A friend reminded me a few days ago of the quote, attributed to St. Francis,
Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.
No matter who actually said it, and there’s consensus that Francis didn’t, the idea that God’s truth can be communicated without words is a meaningful idea to any musician or visual artist who is trying to do just that. Not that words aren’t important, but the realm of the non-verbal attracts me just as much, and intentionally incorporating the arts into church – hardly a new concept – is in the air. There have been several articles lately on the topic, and yes, they represent more words to talk about non-verbal communication. I do see the irony, but frankly, St. Francis, or whoever is quoted above, seems just a tad…well…preachy. We needs words, actions…and art.
Michael Gerson in The Washington Post last Sunday wrote about a couple of current movies he found rather artless, and comes to some conclusions about what does and doesn’t lead to “good religious art”. It doesn’t “shape a fantasy world to conform to pious platitudes,“ he says. He hopes for more “good art by religious people” that “finds hints of grace among the ruins of broken lives.” “Art is truly religious only when it is fully human,“ he continues as he decries the cardboard characters he finds in some current ideas about religious art in popular culture.
And there is an article in a recent issue of The Economist that explores one corner of successful religious art, the famed Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. Read the article “Old Times, New Age” looks at the ancient, chant-based service there, which draws hundreds of mostly young adults because, as one researcher believes, “everything else in their lives is shifting. A liturgy that’s changed only modestly in 2,000 years, and music that goes so far back as to be unconnected to any musical movements in their or their parents’ lifetimes, gives them a sense of being anchored in something lasting.”
Then there’s the recent posting on the Episcopal News Service about the cathedral in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and other churches around the country, that are creating art studios and galleries in their spaces as a way of reaching into their communities, connecting the parishes to the doubters, seekers, and disinterested around them, and finding ways to help people experience God’s word, without words. Visual Arts Forge Connections
These are random pieces of evidence, but the fact that these disparate sources are finding it worth column inches to even discuss the connection between church and artistic expression is a verbal nod, I think, to our need for non-verbal forms of spirituality.