In his seminal Art in Action (1980), Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff emphasized the way in which the artist, “when he brings forth order for human benefit or divine honor,” participates in “man’s vocation to master and subdue the earth” (77). Such a creationally-grounded ‘job description’ applies equally to artists inside and outside the boundaries of the church. On the basis of the shared human task of transforming, “ordering” and “cultivating” God’s good creation, there is room for both liturgical art that speaks of the Christian mystery and secular artmaking for more “human” aims. Wolterstorff is critical of models which rely on a too-close comparison of human creativity to divine creativity, or focus too heavily on a transcendental/theological ontology of the “work of art” – for him, valuation of the created order is paramount, and the task of the artist within culture is to creatively respond to God’s good gift of the material realm rather than try to supplant God in the unique activities of creation and revelation.

I had Wolterstorff’s book in mind while watching a recent video on the Gospel Coalition website entitled “Art, Conscience and Theological McCarthyism,” which features GC regulars Scotty Smith, Greg Thornbury and Mike Cosper discussing the important subject of the relationship of the church to art. While the admirable intention of this video is to help open up increased dialogue between the church, art and artists – getting rid of a “climate of fear” where Christians, particularly evangelicals, wall themselves off from culture – in the end the conversation steers towards the persistent fear that art (especially film) is trying to usurp the place of the church. In brief, these pastors are concerned that creative individuals outside the church (from pop stars to filmmakers to poets and painters) all too often see themselves as the “high priests” and “prophets” of culture, roles that presumably ought to be annexed to ecclesial (which, in the context of the Gospel Coalition, means biblical) authority.

Can an artist be said to serve a “priestly” function, even if s/he is operating outside the bounds of the church? I suppose it depends how you construe priesthood. If one thinks of a priest as one who mediates divine presence to human culture, it seems obvious that a thinker such as Wolterstorff would be uncomfortable with this description (although I’m not sure I have a problem with it – doesn’t Van Gogh “mediate” an experience of the transcendent?). However, priests don’t just mediate “downwards” from the divine to the human, but offer thanksgiving “up” to God on behalf of the community – lifting heavenwards the fruit of the material realm, the transformed (and “ordered”) artefacts of the created order. If art is in its very nature a Godward response within the larger, God-appointed activity of culture-making, then indeed there is a way for even the most Reformed theorists to (carefully) draw a parallel between “priest” and “artist,” at the very least in discussing liturgical (ie. churchly) art but quite possibly in reference to art in general.

The hand-wringing on the Gospel Coalition website about art and priestly mediation can be traced back to a quote from Nigel Goodwin that “the new high priests of culture are the screenwriters and directors.”  Greg Thornbury’s fear is that artists – and I somehow can’t help but feel he has not just Martin Scorcese and Terrence Malick but Lady Gaga with her “little monsters” in mind – are self-assuredly taking it upon themselves to mediate experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans to the masses. This is not the first time Thornbury has expressed his apprehension about art as religion; in his review of Malick’s The Tree of Life he makes precisely the same point:

Today, there can be no doubt that the high priests, priests, and acolytes of our culture are the producers, directors, writers, and actors. As film increasingly presents people with opportunities to replicate certain aspects of religious experience, we must pause to reflect upon the growing reality of “theater as temple.”

In such a world, we have no choice but to repair to the foolishness of preaching, return to what Luther called the “poor tokens of the Word of God alone” . . . and hope at the end of the day that Terrence Malick is on our side.

However, as one TOJ reviewer noted, why do we need to establish that Terrence Malick, or Gaga for that matter, is “on our side”? Aren’t we all on the same side – namely, the side of humanity, doing our best to respond to the tug of the transcendent? Doesn’t posing an oppositional (rather than complementary) stance between “us” (Christians) and “them” (those who are outside the organized church) undercut the shared human impulse even Reformed thinkers like Wolterstorff find in the artistic task? Thornbury’s point here is that the “temple” Malick constructs with his film is so (for lack of a better word) ‘revelatory’ as to rival the mediating power of the Christian church, surely a genuine appreciation of just how effective beautiful works of art can be in connecting us with the sacred. But I would argue, against Thornbury, that to be able to see in earthly instantiations of beauty (even in “secular” art) echoes of the divine ought to remind Christians of the things we have in common with all humans, from all times and places. In short, if artists are in some way serving as “priests” despite their religious orientation, we might do well to ask whether they are in fact playing an important role in the economy of God rather than leading us (as individuals and the church) astray.

In the GC video, Mike Cosper suggests that evangelical Christians are surprised by “the fact that beauty is coming at us from voices that are unregenerate.” This language makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps it is surprising to some that the arts, as part of culture, trespass on the territory of religious experience. But why would we expect one of the most significant areas of human cultural existence (namely, “beauty”) to be closed off to the “unregenerate,” by which Cosper obviously means ‘non-Christians’? My suspicion is that this video reveals a larger problem endemic to the “theology of culture” of the Gospel Coalition; although the many evangelicals who align themselves with the GC would like to make engagement with art and culture part of their mandate, their willingness to constructively engage culture is severely hindered by the fundamental dichotomy drawn between the “elect” and the “reprobate,” a structure which is projected onto their view of church and society. This tendency, while perhaps auspiciously Reformed in tone, falls short of the Reformational priority of valuing art and culture on their own terms, as part of the original creational mandate of humanity (even despite the depravity of human sin). Such a “theology of culture” makes it nearly impossible for artists outside the church to truly convey anything of the transcendent in their work, making them not extra-ecclesial “priests” but potential “false prophets.” This to me represents a big step backwards as far as encouraging dialogue between the church and art – perhaps it can encourage thoughtful Christian art, but by relegating all other human artists to the “unregenerate” category it seems to work directly against what it is trying to accomplish.

What do you think?


In Part II, I will try to explore some of the issues Thornbury et al have with the idea of artist as “prophet”… ie. and subsequently, why I (contra the Gospel Coalition) like Derek Webb.


Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).