Art and Aesthetics in the Stone-Campbell Movement

“Daddy’s Bible” Photo by: Krista Cannon

In the nineteenth century, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement relied heavily on human intellect and reason in both worship and spiritual formation. The movement produced congregations that were serious, unemotional, stoic, and staunchly rational. Deductive logic dominated the religious debates between Alexander Campbell and his opponents, while the “Scottish Common Sense” philosophy and dependence on the strength of reasoning were enlisted to delineate the line between faith and human opinion.

The movement was governed by headspace—judgment, analysis, and intelligence. This heavy focus on the cognitive aspects of worship strongly contributed to the absence of art in Churches of Christ. It is difficult for art to thrive in a simple, linear environment ruled entirely by the process of thinking and reasoning.

Many Churches of Christ in North America inherited convictions about austere church buildings and simplicity in worship from Campbell, who rejected the “showmanship of choirs and organs” and preferred the minimalism of congregational singing.[1] The theological rationale for the rejection of instruments in worship can be traced back to the rule of “where the scriptures speak, we speak; and where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.”[2] Many church leaders concluded that only a cappella singing was acceptable to God as a prescribed act of worship. As a result, it is one of the few art forms present in most Churches of Christ, and the existence of other art such as paintings, statues, or icons would be unthinkable.

By rejecting the full spectrum and power of the arts, Churches of Christ, like many Protestant evangelical Christian churches, have neglected a critical element in worship and spiritual formation.

Warren Wiersbe outlines the problem in this way: “There is a strange attitude in the evangelical world that moves people almost to delight in opposing and even destroying the beautiful and the artistic.”[3]

We have somehow understood that to be artistic is unspiritual and have been fearful of placing art above God.

The time has come for a renaissance of the arts in worship for Churches of Christ. We are still living under the negative influence of the Reformation in our view of worship and the arts, but there is a whole spectrum of color, a whole world of artistic and creative ways to communicate the gospel and worship God. We can no longer marginalize the value of the arts in worship in Churches of Christ. By doing so, we marginalize a significant part of God’s creation along with those among us who draw meaning and significance from the arts as modes of communication.

Robert Webber advocates that the church should embrace the integration of the arts in worship, he says, “We need to learn to trust the arts, to see, touch, smell, and hear what they have to say. The arts are an active symbol, a visible word, and a visual speech. They can and do speak. They can be used by the Spirit to communicate. But we have to learn to hear what the arts are saying, to befriend them, to let them live among us, worship with us, and serve as a vehicle of praise.”[4]

If we continue to only focus on that which is cerebral and rational in worship in Churches of Christ, we are denying the opportunity for the arts to create a sense of wonder and awe for our congregations, and to say what words alone cannot say.

[1]. Dale A. Jorgenson, Theological and Aesthetic Roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1989), 24.
[2]. Ibid.18
[3]. Warren W. Wiersbe, Real Worship: Playground, Battleground, or Holy Ground? 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 130.
[4]. Robert Webber, Signs of Wonder: The Phenomenon of Convergence in Modern Liturgical and Charismatic Churches (Nashville: Abbot Martyn, 1992), 88.
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Where are the Artists?

“Simply Jesus” 40×60 oil on canvas. Painted during the keynote message by Scot McKnight at the Preacher’s Initiative conference at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ, Dallas, TX. November 2016.

During lunch on Sundays my family usually discusses the sermon from earlier that morning. My teenage sons have heard their dad preach their whole lives and have come to expect the question, “What did you hear in the sermon today?”

Recently, our youngest son answered with, “I’m sorry dad, I have to admit I wasn’t listening today. Everyone was playing this game on their phones and I guess I was just too distracted.” This kid is smart and he is also a good schmoozer, he could have faked it and made something up but he resisted – he told the brutal truth. He was unable to pay attention, much less glean anything useful from the sermon because he and forty other kids were simply distracted. Wade is a brilliant communicator, but he was not able to break through the digital distraction of the entire youth group. Something else had their undivided attention.

Our culture is changing faster than most churches can keep up. Not only are we losing the ability to pay attention, our culture has succumbed to what Richard Foster calls the new tools of the devil: the distractions of much-ness, many-ness, crowds, hurry, and noise (and I would add technology to that list.)

We live in a Postmodern, Post-Christian age that is technology driven, immediate, and impatient. As regular churchgoers it is easy to be mortified by the actions of the youth group playing games on their phones during church, but adults are just as guilty. We may exhibit more overt courtesy during worship, but adults are just as preoccupied and inattentive as our kids.

The arts are among the few powerful mediums with which we can break through the distractions, slow down, and speak into our preoccupied and frenzied culture. I believe that if we want to affect our culture as followers of Christ, then artists of faith are compelled to create culture.

The arts do not just illustrate theology but are themselves modes of theological expression and worship. Those of us raised in the Stone-Campbell movement come from a pragmatic heritage that believed efficiency and simplicity were necessary to spread the gospel. Art is neither simple nor efficient so it can feel superfluous and emotionally unpredictable.

Yet, we live in a visual world that is becoming more aware of art, aesthetics and design. Our culture is changing, however our worship experiences are not in step with those changes. I believe that our times of worship and the mission of the church can enrich and be enriched by the arts. Nearly forty-five years ago, Francis Schaeffer said, “A Christian should use the arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself” (Art and the Bible, 19).

There is a new generation that is discovering and calling for the arts as liturgical expressions of praise to God. Madeleine L’Engle argues that since the Master Artist has created artists, our duty is to make art that points others back to God.

Churches of Christ must reclaim what we have lost and once again become alert to the power of the arts. If the church is going to be successful in its mission to reach the current generation and the generations to come, it is imperative that it engages culture more creatively. It is time for the church and artists to work together to the glory of God and the beauty of the church.

But where are the artists? Some have left to use their gifts more fully in other churches, but most of us are still here. In every church around the world there are actors, painters, poets, writers, dancers, sculptors, potters, photographers, videographers, carpenters, weavers, and creatives of all kinds whose gifts and talents are laying dormant. They are valued out in the artistic world perfecting their craft and doing amazing work, but unfortunately there has not been a regular place for them to use their gifts in Churches of Christ … but this is changing.

It is time to unleash the arts to write, paint, sing, play and dance to the glory of God. It is time for artists and Churches of Christ to finally come out and play together!

Where are the artists? We are here and we are ready!

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A Renaissance of the Arts for Churches of Christ

“Glory Window” Thanksgiving Square, Dallas, Texas

I stood in the quiet chapel at Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas holding my breath in awe, gazing upward. The spiral stained-glass ceiling was mesmerizing. It winds skyward in bursts of jewel tones and is one of the largest horizontally mounted stained-glass windows in the world. I have seen pictures of it in books and thought it must be housed in one of the great cathedrals of Europe. I did not realize it was right here in my city.

The lower panels begin in varying shades of blue representing the color of peace. As the spiral climbs upward, the colors become warmer and meet sixty feet above the chapel floor in a circle of beaming yellow light. This magnificent work of art, entitled Glory Window, takes its name from Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1 NRSV). The creator of this magnificent window, French artist Gabriel Loire, meant for the ascending window to “express all life, with its difficulties, its forces, its joys, its torments, its frightening aspects. And then, bit by bit, all of that falls away and you arrive finally at a burst, an explosion of gold; you arrive at the summit.”

For me the Glory Window simply represents the presence of God through beauty, and I stood in the chapel captivated and weeping. At that moment I felt the powerful presence of something Other, and I could only think, “Praise God, Praise God, Praise God.”

It was a transcendent and spiritually formative experience to be fully engulfed in beauty which evoked true worship. I felt exposed and raw but wrapped in pure, overpowering love. I did not want to leave that space or break the moment of communion with God. The gossamer veil between heaven and earth parted for just a moment; I caught a glimpse of the glory of God, and I will never be the same.

The arts are a powerful force that have the ability to spiritually transform us and transport us into the presence of God. Art and beauty can be an expression of praise. The arts can provide a pathway to experience and relate to God. They tell stories, communicate pain, promote healing, speak truth, and call for mercy and justice.

The arts have a profound way of inspiring our minds and nurturing our souls through experiences that are beautiful and transcendent. Gregory Wolfe states, “Art invites us to meet the Other­—whether that be our neighbor or the infinite otherness of God.” Art, like faith, helps us rise above the splintered and broken world in which we live and reach something more beautiful and more holy than ourselves.

One of the inherently theological aspects of the arts is through their search for reconciliation and redemption. Unfortunately, these deeply spiritual experiences have been rare in the lives of many Christians and almost lost in many Churches of Christ. Nearly all churches value and acknowledge the worth of music in worship, but due to a variety of reasons, other forms, such as the visual arts, have been marginalized over time and labeled suspicious or idolatrous.

Yet Scripture does not forbid making or enjoying art; it forbids the worship of it.

I believe we need a full biblical understanding and renaissance of the arts in worship and find a way forward for the integration of  the arts which will enrich worship and lead to spiritual formation for Churches of Christ.

I am exploring these topics and more in my doctoral thesis at ACU. One of the issues my research will address is how Churches of Christ have been limited by a tradition that supposedly dismissed aesthetics, art, innovation, and creativity during worship. While there are many admirable qualities about the Stone-Campbell Restoration heritage, I suggest that Churches of Christ have lost the ability to tell the story in our culture, because our worship relies too heavily on intellect and reason and has divorced any transcendent meaning from the practices of worship. Our artless, prescribed acts of worship were suitable for a time gone by, but they are no longer adequate and are in fact detrimental to our witness in the world.

I propose there is a way to acknowledge our heritage while navigating a compelling future for worship integrating the arts for Churches of Christ. I invite you on this journey with me as we explore the intricate and beautiful relationship between art and faith.

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Lost Valuables: Part 3

“The Father” 22×28 oil on canvas

From a Paint&Preach in August 2017.

Like most of Jesus’ parables the three stories in Luke 15 not only teach, they also issue a challenge. These stories were told to the religious leaders and the challenge Jesus issues is, “If lost people really matter to God, then lost people should also matter to those who claim to know God.”

The very fact that the religious leaders are criticizing Jesus for spending time with people who desperately needed to experience the love, grace, and mercy of God shows just how far from God they really are. The religious leaders are just as lost as the tax collectors and sinners, they just don’t realize it. This is a tragedy, because in Israel the religious leaders represented God to the people. People formed their impressions of God based on the way church leaders acted. It was true then and its true today. So when these religious leaders treated the sinners like outcasts, the message communicated is, “God doesn’t care about you, because I don’t care about you.”

I wonder how many people think God doesn’t care about them because of the way they’ve been treated by God’s people, or by the way they’ve been treated by the church? No wonder these sinners loved to spend time with Jesus. No wonder they wanted to eat with him and listen to him teach. No wonder! Because for the first time in their lives, someone was telling them, “You matter. You are God’s prized possession and you mean more to him than you will ever know!”

What a blast of good news that must have been to them, and what a blast of good news it ought to be to us too. Because we are all made in the image of God. It is inconsequential what country you come from, what language you speak, if you are an immigrant, refugee, or citizen. It does not matter if you are old or young, if you are fit or not, if you are college-educated or not. It does not matter if you are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. It does not matter if you are male or female, it does not matter if you are white, black, or brown; you are all made in the image of God and you are loved as God’s precious treasure.

The ground is perfectly level at the foot of the cross, and all of the artificial hierarchies we’ve created to distinguish between “us and them,” between the “insiders and the outsiders” none of that matters to God. When we elevate one group over another; white over black and brown, healthy over sick, rich over poor, educated over uneducated, male over female, Americans over everyone else – none of that matters to God!

God sees right through all of that external noise and God sees each one of us as his precious treasure.

There was a time when we were all lost. There was a time when we were all missing from our Father’s household and there was no way we could get back home on our own. So Jesus our shepherd went into the wilderness looking for us, he starting sweeping the floor trying to find us, he jumped off the porch and ran to embrace us.

Jesus took massive action to come to this earth to seek and save the lost – that’s ALL of us.

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Lost Valuables: Part 2

“The Woman” 24 x 30 oil on canvas

Excerpt from Paint&Preach August 2017.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about lost valuables. In the first two verses, we are told that the “tax collectors and other notorious sinners,” people who would be considered outcasts by the religious establishment, loved to hang out with Jesus. They loved to hear him teach, and Jesus loved to sit down and share a meal with them. This annoys the religious leaders to no end!

Here is this popular young rabbi who is taking the countryside by storm, and what is he doing? He’s hanging out with sinners, with people who don’t go to church. Good rabbis don’t hang out with sinners, they hang out with church people.

Yet here Jesus is sitting at a table with sinners. In that culture, to eat with someone is to accept them, and here Jesus is accepting the outcasts. And the church people who are watching Jesus like a hawk cannot stand it, and so they complain, “What’s he doing hanging out with riff-raff? Why is he eating with them? Doesn’t he know that’s a tax collector?”

Jesus, like he was known to do, answers their complaining with a story – with three stories. He says, “You want to know why I’m eating with these people? Because I’m the shepherd looking for my lost sheep, and finding them. I’m the woman sweeping the house, turning it upside down looking for my lost coin. I’m the father running to embrace my lost child. You want to know why I’m doing what I’m doing? Because God’s most valuable possession is his people and he can’t stand for even one of them to be lost, to be missing. And when they are, he takes massive action to get them back. And when he finds them he throws a party, he celebrates, just like I’m doing right here with these people.”

Do you remember what it feels like to find a lost valuable? Multiply that feeling times infinity and you will have just a fraction of the way God feels when one of his missing children is found. Lost people, missing people, matter to God. That’s what Jesus is saying in these stories. If the shepherd, and the woman, and the father cared so much and relentlessly searched for what was lost, how much more will God relentlessly search for you when you are lost.

One thing these three stories do for me is change the way I think of the word “lost.” The word “lost” has become part of our Christian vocabulary. When I’ve used the word “lost” I’m usually referring to people who don’t go to church, people who live an immoral life, people who lie, cheat, and steel. Traditionally I’ve use the word lost to refer to people who are outside the will of God, or people who hurt and hate other people. I confess that I’ve used the word lost to make a distinction between “us and them,” between the “insiders and the outsiders.”

Yet in these three stories, Jesus doesn’t use the word “lost” in a pejorative way. According to these three stories, when Jesus refers to people who are “lost” he is saying they are God’s missing valuables, they are God’s missing treasure. If Jesus refers to you as lost he has not insulted you, he has paid you the ultimate compliment. Because to Jesus, lost people are so valuable that he is willing to take massive action to get them back into the house of God, even if it means offending the powers that be and ultimately it cost him his life.

Why is Jesus eating with sinners? Because lost people matter to God! Because God can’t stand for one sheep from his flock, one coin from his treasure, one child from his family to be missing.

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Lost Valuables: Part 1

“The Shepherd” 22×28 oil on canvas by Heather Heflin Hodges

From a Paint&Preach in August 2017

Have you ever lost something of great value and then had the pleasure of finding it again?

One of the best feelings in the world is that wave of relief that washes over you when you find a lost valuable. If you’ve ever felt that feeling then you have been given a key insight into what the kingdom of God, the mission of Jesus, and our mission as a church is all about.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about lost valuables that are found. In each of these three stories Jesus progressively raises the stakes. He begins with one sheep out of a hundred, then it’s one coin out of ten, and then it’s one son out of two. In each of these stories there are several key details that they all have in common.

The first detail is that something valuable is lost.

Looking at the shepherd we might think, one sheep out of a hundred is not that big of a deal. But remember in a shepherding culture the sheep mean more than just mere inventory. The shepherd loved the sheep, he named them and they knew the sound of his voice. He would call them and they would come running. So, to lose even one sheep was a big deal.

When we look at the story of the woman, one out of ten coins doesn’t seem that bad, unless those ten coins comprised her whole dowry. If she came from a poor family and that’s all she had, then losing one coin was a big deal.

Of course, the father who had one of his two sons go off to a distant country was guaranteed plenty of sleepless nights.

A second detail these stories have in common is that the principle character takes massive action to get back what was lost.

When the shepherd realizes one of his sheep is missing he leaves the ninety-nine in the open country, and goes looking for his lost sheep. Leaving ninety-nine sheep in the open country, exposed and vulnerable, sounds like risky business to me, and that’s the point. The sheep is so valuable to the shepherd that he is willing to do whatever it takes to find it. Massive action.

The woman who lost her coin reminds me of my husband on Super Bowl Sunday when he has lost the remote control. She’s moving furniture, throwing pillows, she’s sweeping the floor and turning the house upside down until she finds what’s she’s looking for. Massive action.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like the father in the story takes any action at all until he sees his son off in the distance and then he runs to greet him. In actuality, the father in this story is anything but passive. He never stops looking for his son, and then he runs to meet his son on the road. First-century patriarchs did not run anywhere. But this father is willing to humiliate himself because he loves his son so much and he can’t wait to get his arms around his boy. Then the father gives the son more than he even asked for. The boy just wants a place in the bunk house with the servants, instead the father honors him and welcomes him home like the precious child and heir that he is. Massive action.

A final detail these three stories have in common is they all involve a party. When the shepherd, the woman, and the father find what is missing they call their friends and family together to celebrate because “what once was lost, now has been found.”

With each description of a party Jesus moves us closer and closer to the reason he is telling these stories in the first place.

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