Artistic Excellence and Ministry

Listening to the Heart…Responding with Colors from the Master’s Palette

Our friends, the Krings, introduced us to Josh Groban via a DVD of one of his concerts. What an amazing voice! Intrigued with Groban’s originality and megatalent I purchased another of his concerts on DVD for Don for Father’s Day. It was worth the purchase price for the rendition of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring alone. In addition to Josh’s phenomenal singing, a young woman named Lili Haydn played violin exquisitely and sang at the same time (unusual!), plus the visuals were out of this world. Lili stood above the orchestra in this angelic flowing white dress, with striking lighting effects that looked like both fire and heaven. The living scene appeared to be so ephemeral. It was a breath taking performance that went beyond the realms of music into visual, drama and all the lines in between.

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring Holy wisdom, love most bright Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring Soar to uncreated light Word of God, our flesh that fashioned With the fire of life impassioned Striving still to truth unknown Soaring, dying round Thy throne
-Johann Sebastian Bach, words by Martin Janus, 1661

I don’t know whether or not Josh Groban or Lili Haydn are believers, but they sang powerful words of praise to Jesus. It all got me to thinking about quality and excellence in the realm of arts and ministry. Not only has God has given human beings a tremendous gift in terms of talent, imagination and ingenuity, God has given something to believers alone: the reason to express this unmitigated joy. “Art for art’s sake” has a ceiling to it. “Art for God’s sake” can go on forever. There is no limit to what He can do with hearts, minds and souls thoroughly devoted to Him that are also willing to take on the discipline of developing gifts from their raw form to something of stunning beauty.

Christians should set the standard for excellence in culture, not the other way around. It’s good to understand culture so that may communicate in the most insightful way possible, but how much more effective to communicate from the lead rather than from the back of the pack.

In Exodus 31 we read “Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “See I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship.”

Certainly Bezalel had a call into ministry – God called him by name. God was also very specific about the ministry He gave Bezalel, just as God was specific about Paul’s ministry (Acts 9:15).

God didn’t give Bezalel artistic talent just to make visually pleasing things for their house of worship. The Lord also gave Bezalel wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The ministry wasn’t merely the making of objects of beauty. Bezalel needed God’s wisdom, understanding and knowledge to develop things that would truly bring Glory to God. Bezalel needed to understand God’s heartbeat so that he might use his talent to create things that would help people draw into God’s presence. It also appears that part of Bezalel’s ministry was to shepherd other artists – another real need for wisdom, understanding and knowledge! We all need shepherding (that’s why God gives us great pastors and directors), but the artistically inclined seem to need an additional nudge from the shepherd’s rod and staff from time to time.

Paul exhorts us to “approve the things that are excellent” (Philippians 1:10). People are drawn to excellence. Excellence provides a platform. “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men” (Proverbs 22:29).

Franky Schaeffer, in his 1981 classic on 20th Century Christians and the Arts, Addicted to Mediocrity, pokes fun at how sometimes as Christians we settle for the message of Christ to be communicated mainly through “Christian” doodads, like trinkets, tee-shirts and bumper stickers. The purpose is not to slam those types of communications (sometimes these things are exactly what is needed for a particular purpose), but to motivate the church of the living God to pursue excellence in the area of the arts – all kinds of art. Christians should be the forerunners of artistic excellence, not mediocre imitators of yesterday’s cultural fad.

I sometimes have discussions with people about visual media…how to use it most effectively in the church, how to improve each piece of visual communication and sometimes how to raise the bar in artistic standards… even if our work isn’t entirely understood. Composer and conductor, John Williams says our culture is “addicted to visual stimulation.” However many artists will be the first to attest that we live in a “visually illiterate culture”. How can both be true? As a culture we see a lot of images – thousands everyday – but we’re simply not educated about what we’re looking at. But whether or not people, in a general sense, understand the components of what they see, people do respond to visual images in a big way. And if people respond to the visual, and in a larger sense the artistic (music, drama, etc.) then it is well worth our passion, energy and devotion to pursue excellence in arts with the goal of serving God not only with developed talent, but with wisdom, understanding, knowledge to help draw and win people to Christ and then shepherd them with all the strength and energy that God gives.

Through the way where hope is guiding,Hark, what peaceful music rings;Where the flock, in Thee confiding,Drink of joy from deathless springs.Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.Thou dost ever lead Thine ownIn the love of joys unknown.
-Johann Sebastian Bach, words by Martin Janus, 1661

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