The Church’s Stake in the Arts

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education.

This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Trotter takes the church’s stake in the arts seriously. Working from the derivation of “religion,” Trotter contends that arts have a critical role in “the church’s very existence.” Such an understanding has not recently been popular, which underlines the significance of the issue for writer and reader. The implications drawn from this analysis challenge and excite the reader.

A peculiarly western habit of thought is the notion we have inherited from the Greeks that we cannot understand objects, ideas, or observations until we have separated and classified them. This process of classification has enabled us to become extraordinarily successful in technological matters. In fact, it is the whole basis of scientific-technological work. On the other hand, this method has also had seriously limiting effects. The idea that events can be isolated or set apart in classifications or categories has led to the breakdown of the unity of knowledge and experience and to general reliance upon technological models in all endeavors. In social sciences, politics, and even in the humanities, we have seen the questionable results of the conversion of knowledge into technique. For example, the language of war categorizes certain experiences under the terms body counts and megatons, as if the substitution of categories makes either humane or manageable the events that otherwise would be unspeakable. In totalitarian societies, to recall a phrase of Arthur Koestler, the definition of the individual is “a multitude of one million divided by one million.”

Of course, some scientific theories reject the idea of isolation and category, and we have heard of field theories and other environmental ways of dealing with events. In our time the ancient science of ecology is enjoying a recovery. After centuries of technological and careless exploitation, we now understand how interrelated the isolated events really are.

The separation of religion as one category among other human enterprises represents an example of this problem. Religionists themselves are serious offenders here. We hear speech that is of the “religion and” variety: religion and art, religion and ethics, religion and politics, religion and psychology. Categorically, working from definitions that are undistributed, such a device may be possible. But it begs the only important question: Is religion a basic phenomenon or is it a category among the varieties of optional phenomena? Is religion over against art, ethics, and politics, or is religion the primary understanding of our world that expresses itself in art, ethics, or politics?

This is not an idle question. The way one approaches this question and responds to it will determine whether religion is a derivative or primary experience. It will determine whether religion is part of a unified field or an element, disposable or not, in a series of isolated experiences. It will determine whether the arts, the sciences, and the humanities are integral or utilitarian to religion. If the arts are over against religion, then we presume them to be decorative embellishments of an already determined reality. (In this sense, all forms of totalitarianism perceive the arts to be utilitarian.)

I propose that the more helpful understanding of the relationship between the arts and religion is in the suggestion that religion, understood etymologically, is that form of human expression that seeks to tie all things together and to provide an environment of meaning to the otherwise randomness of events. In fact, the word religion is a derivative of the Latin res ligatae, “things bound together.” The arts are, in this sense, profoundly similar in intention. Therefore, as is often suggested, the arts have a religious function as well as a history of functioning in religion. For some disbelievers, art is elevated to religious status. For some believers, art is the language of religion.

In any event, when we talk of the church in these matters, we must assume that the church is neither religion nor art, but the institution in and through which the Christian perception of religion is manifested, nurtured, and proclaimed in the world. In this sense, both religion and art may be misused and misappropriated by the institution called the church. In history this has been a continuing struggle. Each great reformation has reasserted the priority of religion or art or ethics or science over the institutionalized expressions of the church itself. Paul Tillich called this “the Protestant principle.” The church becomes opaque to the source of its power by obscuring or by manipulating phenomena for its own purposes.

What is art? The history of this question is available to you in other places. For our purposes here, let me suggest the definition of Suzanne Langer. (Her major book is Feeling and Form, published by Scribners.) Her helpful and practical suggestion is that art is simply “expressive form.” That is, the otherwise random events of experience are bound up (res ligatae) and reshaped into forms that bear emotion and communicate power and meaning. Art is the process of expressing in concrete forms human emotions and aspiration, ranging from the simple joys of being to the most complex metaphysical expressions. A work of art is a concrete thing, an event that helps the participant bridge personal experience with that of the artist or the group of religious values expressed therein. In a profound way, if one accepts this definition, there is no such thing as “art”; there are only the things we make to tell our stories as human beings and religious persons. Sister Corita Kent once said in a poster, “We have no art here. We only do the best we can.”

When one then moves from the definition of art as expressive form to the question of the church_s stake in the arts, the connection seems apparent. Unless religion is merely the abstract statement of propositions and conditional arguments (as it was in several periods of positivistic religion), then the language of the church will inevitably and necessarily be the arts. Expressive form is the context of the church_s speech. Note that the Langerian model is not formless expression nor expressionless formality. Both of those extremes are with us in the church. In some so-called experiential worship, the emphasis upon spontaneity and expression leads to an incomplete and embarrassingly disoriented event. The permanent question in Christian religion is the question of the object of worship, and this forever excludes the random and unfocused expression of feelings without attention to the object of adoration. On the other hand, in some severely structured formal worship, the expressive power is lost because the worshiper is more concerned with the right performance than with the expression of the sense of events.

Expressive form means a lively sense of the basis of art itself, namely, that human beings create, make, devise, and celebrate through common and earthly forms the expressive power of religious sensibility. You have heard persons say, “It_s just a symbol.” Is it not true that symbols are among the most powerful events in our experience? And is it also not true that symbols are the statement of expressive form? So the sacraments of the church are primary formal expressions—that is, art—of the essential statement of the Christian myth. The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine with one_s attention upon the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth becomes the expressive form of the central nondiscursive, noncognitive, but humanly powerful act of religious faith.

The church_s stake in art is not therefore a question of utility; it is a question of the church_s very existence. The church_s understanding of the world, of God, of creation and redemption, is fundamentally a story (an art form) and not a metaphysical abstraction. That story is concrete and its very concreteness is its offense to those who want events organized so that they can manipulate them. The emphasis upon story in the church_s self-consciousness is revealed in its liturgy, its cathedrals, its music, its worship, and its piety. To the extent that the church loses the story, it loses its very soul.

Elie Wiesel (in the preface to his Gates of the Forest, also in Souls on Fire, a collection of his stories) tells a story about a famous Hasidic rabbi who is said to have gone to a place in the forest, lit a fire, said a prayer, and told a story. His successors gradually lost the place in the forest, could not light the fire, and forgot the prayer, but they could still tell the story. I like this parable because it reminds me of the primacy of the story as the basic art form of the tradition. It leads me also to comment that for some the story is forgotten, but the place, the fire, and the prayer are still intact. These are the folk who have managed to substitute the forms of religion for the source of religion_s power. For them, art is ultimate. For the church_s tradition, art is the varying and changing expressive statement of the endlessly powerful and grasping story of God_s way with his people—then, now, and in the age to come.

A helpful theory about the relationship of the church and art was set forward some years ago by John Dixon. It was his view that the Reformation/Counter-Reformation period broke the unity of the church and the arts by making the arts subject to the written word—that is, one formal expression became normative for official religious expression. The Word was exhausted in words. Art is always involved in the concrete, the incarnate, the Logos, the structure of things, the Word. Under the pressures of the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the fractured church turned to the arts a embellishers of the words that had severed the Word into sectarian and polemical forms. The artists became illustrators, embellishers, and decorators, and thereby lost I their authority to be involved along with speech, tradition, and doctrine in the shaping of Christian religious experience.

We live essentially in the time of the fallout from that divorce. With the exceptions of Bach and Rembrandt, whose expressive forms illustrate the way the story may be told equally powerfully in religious and artistic ways, much church art subsequently has been oriented to performance rather than oriented to the church_s sense of identity. While this statement may be less true in some forms of evangelical worship, it is generally true of all modern church experience. The choir functions as if it were the chorus in grand opera. Hymnology is stuck in the strict hymnic conceits of the nineteenth century. Instrumentation is largely limited to the pipe organ. The paucity of imaginative and innovative use of the arts of music is obvious. Less obvious, but nevertheless crucial, are the paralysis of architecture, the sterility of visual art, and the near absence of any form of creative expression of newer concrete forms, such as motion picture.

The church_s stake in the arts is nothing short of the church_s stake in its own future. The church_s speech (liturgy) is necessarily expressive form (art). The church_s prayer and praise (piety) is necessarily expressive form (art). If one were to “do theology” in this context, one would be using a range of communication far wider than the conditional argument or the syllogism of classical logic. The church_s story is a story of concrete images. The telling of the story needs concrete forms. The whole point of the Incarnation in Christian experience is the assertion that scientific language is inadequate to express the power of the event of God in Christ. Therefore, the stuff of ordinary experience is shaped into expressive form and the story is told in ways that confound and convict but never “prove.”

R. W. B. Lewis tells of a friend who was once asked if a certain character in a novel by Henry James was a Christ-figure. He replied that the problem was not whether Milly Theale is a Christlike figure but whether Christ is a Milly-figure. The question puts us into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation and into the question of the religion/art event as expressive form.

The implications of this for church practice include a new sense of the participatory style of liturgy, an emphasis upon the freshness of statement, the continual working out of the expressive forms of church understanding, and the rejection of all forms of performer and spectator mentalities. It may also preserve us from the temptation to think of the arts in the service of the church and encourage us to think of how the Christian gospel is to be proclaimed in expressive form with power and faithfulness.