Art and Faith


by Jon Bowles


What was Israel’s chief sin throughout their ancient history?

Forgetting the Lord their God.

So what are we to think when we read in 1 Samuel that God’s choice for a king over this forgetful people was not a strong warrior but an artist—a poet-musician?

Perhaps Israel was suffering from a crisis of imagination . . . today’s church seems to be suffering from the same.

Examining the larger context in which the church finds itself is irreducibly important to our ecclesial critique. In an effort to outproduce, outpace, and out-manufacture the competition, our Western culture has become increasingly bottom-line . . . Vocations and fields of study that allow for variables and subjectivity, including the arts, are routinely relegated to the margins of culture. Outside of a few extraordinary exceptions involving celebrity, they are not promoted or recognized as approaching the hard sciences in value or consequence.

The arts and the sciences are not inherently disparate; our culture, however, increasingly lives into a reality that reduces our understanding of “real” or “useful” to mean only that which can be used for profit. Those vocations not appearing to have any practical function or explicit financial worth are continually ignored or swept aside.

As is too often the case, the church has followed the dominant culture’s lead and promoted a faith that is more focused on increasing functionality than fostering a faithful imagination—a picture of the good life in God. Consequentially, we are often able to operate an impressive number of programs, but look strikingly similar to the rest of the world in values, priorities, and actual behavior. Our spiritual filters are utilitarian and even slightly mathematical. In the name of evangelism we speak of people as “projects” and adopt banking language to describe the merit of “investing” in someone. Having our imaginations shaped in purely functional directions, we even begin to judge each other’s spiritual health according to its productivity. All of a sudden we talk about ourselves as “bad Christians” (assuming there is such a beast) or “good Christians” (perhaps an even more dangerous beast).

I’m increasingly convinced that people don’t decide to join churches in order to submit their imaginations around something extraordinary; neither do I think their intention is to learn the practice of communal contemplation or reflection. What I find is that, increasingly, people decide to attend churches for very pragmatic and quantifiable reasons: a singles group, a scene to meet people and make friends, a youth group to keep kids off drugs, and so forth. The list is endless.

The various reasons for choosing churches are understandable and, in many cases, perfectly acceptable. Only when pastors and church leaders cater to this pragmatism do we encounter a problem. The bad habit of measuring success using quantifiable data is absorbed directly from surrounding cultural trends. It is the lynchpin that ultimately has determined art’s fate in the local church. Art and imagination aren’t easily quantifiable, yet we cannot underestimate their influence and ability to environ us.

Founder and creative director of the International Arts Movement, Makoto Fujimura, coined the term “use-less” art when addressing the need for artists to resist rampant cultural utilitarianism. In a call for artists (including those in the church) to be “misfits in a utilitarian society,” [1] he commends us to draw attention to the many facets of reality that don’t provide immediate services.

Fujimura speaks to the importance of experiencing art as an end in and of itself. The end, he implies, is every place in which we meet God. “We cannot ‘use’ the arts, any more than we can ‘use’ a human being. This pervasive utilitarian view is a symptom of our greater cultural malaise, a view that can dehumanize the entire river of culture.”

He continues, “The heartbeat of the arts resounds with internal significance that quietly pleads for art to be more than a mere tool.”[2] The same could be said of our faith; our relationship with God is more than a mere tool. Interactions with that which is artistic, beautiful, and good can help us find worth and value in a “use-less” faith. When we begin to sense and are awakened to the gratuitous nature of the world given, we can potentially imagine ourselves apart from what we contribute or produce. Art can restore meaning to our faith by providing us visions of God that transcend language itself.

Artists ignite our collective imagination to the extraordinarily beautiful and lovely. Back to the part of the story where David is appointed as king over the Israelites. We are made to wonder if there was a greater task for Israel than fighting wars or achieving some sort of quantifiable position as a world power. Perhaps the king’s chief task was one of forming the collective imagination in order to help the people remember what it is to be human, made in the image of God.

[This article is a condensed excerpt from Art and Faith]

1. Makoto Fujimura, “Refractions 32: Emanuel’s Heartbeat,” July 17, 2009,
2. Ibid.

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One Comment

  • Bruce Nuffer

    Feb 12, 2014 - Reply

    I’m glad you posted something from this work. I have been eyeing it, and thinking it looks like a worthwhile investment of time. Of course the idea of art being useless goes back at least as far as Oscar Wilde “All Art is Quite Useless.” But over time we have imagined many ways it’s very useful, such as when a mother sings to her baby.

    The reason I have not yet engaged with the book above is that all discussions about art quickly devolve–I think rightly so–into philosophy; there are all sorts of conversations about why create art, etc. Granted, this is a short piece of a much longer work, but here Bowles seems to consider beauty and loveliness part of the definition that makes art. That assumes we could come to an agreement on what is beautiful, which is only definable on a person by person basis.

    What I love about what he says above is that the imagination that art represents is in dramatically short supply in our churches. It’s a part of our soul nourishment that typically does not occur in most church buildings.

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