The Spirit-led Artist: Part 5

The role of the artist has always been a source of discomfort for those in charge of the Church. Artists are not good little soldiers who love to march in line.

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In Part Four, we explored the final phase of the Holy Spirit’s direction of the creative process: finishing a work and moving on to the next one. In Part Five, we will briefly discuss the history of how believers have functioned in the past.

 

The Divine Flow Through History

A full exposition of art as led by the Holy Spirit in all of church history is far beyond the scope of this paper. As I read through the histories of the various art forms, a pattern emerged: artists who are believers have always tended to express their faith through their art while leaders generally have tried to get control of them. In every age of the church, there has been a line of tension between orthodoxy of the church and the creative spirit of the artists.

 

Visual Arts

This is seen in the history of the visual arts in the Church. In the first and second centuries, the Church had a profound Jewish stamp on it. The prohibition of “graven images” (Ex 20:4) was believed to be a ban on painting and sculpture. In his monumental nineteenth-century History of the Church, Philip Schaff says this:

The ante-Nicene church, inheriting the Mosaic Decalogue, and engaged in deadly conflict with heathen idolatry, was at first averse to those arts.

But the artists painted and sculpted anyway. Soon, their work was accepted as perhaps a Christian innovation but still an important part of worship.

…after the middle or close of the second century we find the rude beginnings of Christian art in the form of significant symbols in the private and social life of the Christians, and afterwards in public worship. (Schaff)

In later years, visual arts would be blessed as the chief means of teaching Christian truth to the illiterate populace only to be purged at other times because they were seen as corrupting influences. Schaff gives an excellent summation:

Artists have corrupted art, as theologians theology, and priests the church. But the remedy for these imperfections is not the abolition of art and the banishment of it from the church, but the renovation and ever purer shaping of it by the Spirit and in the service of Christianity, which is the religion of truth, of beauty, and of holiness.

Schaff’s emphasis on the cleansing ministry of the Holy Spirit was, is, and will always be the answer to the problem of believing artists producing corrupted art.

 

Drama and Music

Church drama has a similar history. At first, it was frowned upon for its pagan connections but was eventually used as a teaching method in the Church. Then, when elements of comedy were added, it was driven out of the Church but kept alive as a religious art until the birth of modern drama with Shakespeare. Music has had a similar history while poetry, a more natural companion to prayer and scripture, has had a less turbulent journey through time.

 

A Continuing Drama

The stories of the orthodoxy vs. creativity conflicts are too many to tell and the histories too discouraging to dwell upon. To me, this is evidence that the creative urge is part of the image of God in us, and, whether in favor or out of favor with the local authorities, man will create and Christian artists will create art that is Christian in content and intent. With or without approval, the artist who is a believer in the Lord Jesus will connect his own creative spirit with the Spirit of God to conceive, craft, and complete his art so that his world may share what is in his heart.

Ignorance of this serial drama of creativity vs. control has caused it to be the longest-running play in history. Secular versions are all about the producer vs. the director or the director vs. actors in film and on stage; the exhibitor vs. the artist; the record label vs. the singer; the editor vs. the writer. These struggles appear in the Church as well.

As I read the histories of the arts in the Church, it all has such a familiar ring to it. In the section on experience, I will deal with what I have seen. Here, it is enough to say that the role of the artist has always been a source of discomfort for those in charge of the Church. Artists are not good little soldiers who love to march in line. Each tends to hear his own drummer and walk or run or crawl to his own rhythm.

 

Conclusion of the Historical Analysis

The Church needs the office of the prophet—the artist. As Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard to her captured screenwriter in reference to John the Baptist in her screenplay, “Writers are the prophets today.” The writers, painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, and technical artists have been prophets since the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the Church for the express purpose of giving dreams and visions, signs and wonders, and miraculous gifts and utterances filled with the urgent business of the King of kings.

 

Spirit-led and Empowered art in the Contemporary Church: A Personal Witness to the Divine Flow

 

Hearing the Voice of the Spirit in a Medieval Cathedral

Standing in a medieval cathedral, the Church of Our Lady in Brugge, Belgium in March of 1995, I was amazed at the art of the church. What was I, a late-twentieth-century American Pentecostal, doing here? Perhaps this was the beginning of my newly-forming connectedness to the historic church that the Institute for Worship Studies was rapidly cementing.

I stood before an altarpiece, a triptych depicting a scene from the Bible in the center panel, The Annunciation. On each side, were contemporaries of the artist in their stiff Flemish collars kneeling in adoration of the Lord before the astounding truth of the Incarnation. I had seen this type of art before in books, and I had wondered if the artists realized they had indulged in anachronism—people did not dress that way in Bible days!

Suddenly, I realized that what I was seeing was not unintentional anachronism but an intentional statement of anamnesis (Strong, NT:364 “anamnesis (an-am’-nay-sis); recollection: KJV – remembrance.” I didn’t know that word in 1995!) The artist was saying that this incredible thing that happened to Mary in the first century was still true for his century.

Now I was connected. That is exactly what I try to do with my Christmas and Easter musical plays—to place them thematically into my century with the full force of the event through our re-enactment. My hours in that cathedral became one of the most meaningful times in my life. The artistic urge of all the nameless craftsmen whose works had out-lived them had connected with my own artistic motivation.

The barriers between Roman Catholicism and American Pentecostalism, between medieval times and modern times, between the media of visual artists and my media of words, music, and drama were all scaled easily by the shared fundamental impulse to tell the old, old story to the people around me. This deep-seated prophetic urge is what makes the Christian artist so determined to deliver his message whether comforting or confrontational.

That moment in the cathedral has been important to me because it has been my privilege to pastor artists in the local church for more than 40 years. I have been amazed at what God’s creative people can do for Him when properly led.

It began for me in 1975 as a Youth Pastor and Minister of Music. We built our youth ministry around a talented group of teens: actors, singers, instrumentalists; they were a delight. In 1977, we took our first music-only position and started producing music for television specials, touring programs, and stage presentations. This church had a graded choir, youth choir, and a sanctuary choir with a children’s music ministry. We also were the first to develop an orchestra for special events and music directed our first musical drama based on a John W. Peterson Easter cantata, No Greater Love.

 

Bethel Arts Ministries

In 1980, we started our first named arts ministry, “Bethel Arts Ministries” at Bethel Life Center in Wichita, Kansas. I loved the name “Bethel,” meaning, literally, “House of God.” It meant we were bringing the arts back to the Father’s House.

  • Bethel Arts Ministries consisted of a choir, an orchestra, a company of visual artists, and a full theatre production company.
  • We organized the creative community within the church into a year-round fellowship.
  • Our seasonal choir and orchestra productions were promoted as Bethel Arts Productions.
  • Everything was done by the people of the church: lighting, sound, set design and construction, costumes, makeup, direction, stage management, acting, and even the writing for the seasonal musical plays (that was my job).
  • Off-season, we did Dinner Theatre productions.
  • More than just painting sets for the productions, the Visual Artists had their own exhibits as well.

 

Carolina Christian Arts

In 1984, we moved to a larger church with more of a regional mission in North Carolina and started Carolina Christian Arts. Carolina Christian Arts, like Bethel Arts in Wichita, was designed with four divisions:

  • Musical Arts
  • Theatre Arts
  • Visual Arts
  • Literary Arts

I established the yearly discipline for the visual artists of producing Christmas and Easter works. This had been the plan I had been on for years as a minister of music. I knew this would demand that the visual artists constantly study the Incarnation and Atonement truths. Then, from their works, we selected pieces for month-long art exhibits when each of the seasonal musical plays was presented.

This structured ministry gave me the opportunity to pastor the creative community within the church and deal with some of the perennial problems such as pride, insecurity, and ambition. This structure also proved to be an equalizer. I insisted that we were all of equal importance to the Lord. There were no stars, no leading or supporting players in our company. Each of us, while we may have different talents and skills and, therefore, different assignments, all had an equal opportunity to please the Lord. He was our true audience.

 

The Alabaster Jar

We took as our model Mary of Bethany as she broke and poured the contents of her alabaster jar on her Lord.

  • Whatever we did would be done just that way: willingly, with our whole hearts, doing our very best, and totally focused on the Lord Jesus.
  • People would witness our artistic worship just as the aroma of Mary’s gift filled the house.
  • Everything was done unto the Lord and not unto men.
  • His presence, the power of the Holy Spirit, would then rest upon our works and the Lord Himself would minister to people through our works of art.

This biblical model of the intersection of humility, worship, and creativity remains a stirring example to me as an artist.

 

Cathedral Arts Ministry

In 1997, I became a Worship Arts Pastor at Suncoast Cathedral in St Petersburg, FL. The church already had a choir, orchestra, and an excellent production team. I applied the four-division structure to those wonderful creative people and formed them into the Cathedral Arts Ministry. We produced 2 complete cycles of original musical theatre scripts to tell the Jesus Story with Christmas as Part One and Easter as Part Two.

  • 1997-1999: Christmas: The Promise of the Star and Easter: The Promise of the Son
  • 2000-2002: Chrismas: Gift of the Father and Easter: Gift of the Son

We also produced highly successful Dinner Theatre events.

 

Capitol Christian Arts

2002 saw us in the Washington D.C. area at Word of Life International Church. We found another group of talented passionate people who wanted to minister through the artistic skills God had given them. We added an orchestra to the choir and worked closely with the Youth Ministry to make sure there were no generational barriers in the worship arts. The stage was much smaller; so, then, were our Christmas and Easter music theatre productions.

  • 2002-2005: Mystery in the Manger and Crucible at the Cross
  • 2005-2007: Bethlehem’s Star and Calvary’s Crown

These churches were all very different from each other, but they all had lovely, skillful people who enjoyed being led into ministry through the arts.

 

Conclusion of a Personal Witness

In my pastoral experience, I saw God’s people do amazing things for the Lord they loved. I also witnessed a sad disconnect between pastors and artists. The artistic temperament and the administrative spirit are not natural allies. I found it to be my job to be the liaison between these parallel universes. I had to be the pastor who was an artist and the artist who was a pastor. I had to find ways of blending these two contrasting sets of God’s servants into one functioning team.

 

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

 

Featured Image By Karl Fredrickson

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About the Author

Full of passion for Jesus Christ, Stephen Phifer is a third-generation minister with more than three decades of experience as a pastoral artist, worship leader, and conductor.