The Church’s New Concern with the Arts

by Amos N. Wilder

Amos N. Wilder, whom in 1923 won the Yale Series of Younger Poets annual prize, in 1991 at age ninety-five published his book, The Bible and the Literary Critic. Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, he is the oldest living person to have played center court at Wimbledon.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis February 18, 1957. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The encounter of the gospel with the world, whether in evangelism, religious education, apologetics, or theology, requires a deep appreciation of, and initiation into, the varied symbolic expressions of culture. It is in such manifestations at all levels that the moral and spiritual life of the age discloses itself.

Evidence of a new interest in the arts on the part of the churches appears on all sides today. At the level of the local church we note exhibits of religious painting and sculpture, productions of modern plays like those of Eliot and Christopher Fry, as well as initiatives with respect to the dance and the pageant. The Riverside Church in New York City has now for two years sponsored an annual anthology of poetry by college writers, judges of which have included Marianne Moore, Richard Eberhart, and Mark Van Doren. Church bodies, local or regional, have also organized series of lectures or institutes bearing on the modern arts. A recent seminar in Religion, Drama and Literature at Drew University, held with the help of the Danforth Foundation under the auspices of the Commission on Literature of the National Council of Churches, attracted a good number of teachers of English. The lecturers included both theologians and distinguished artists. A significant venture last year was that of the New Hampshire Congregational-Christian Conference in association with Dartmouth College in providing a monthly series of lectures for pastors on such writers as Eliot, Kafka, Faulkner, and Camus. In many ways the churches are making amends for their shortcomings in this field.

It is certainly possible to be overly optimistic about such signs of interest in the arts on the part of Christians. It may well be that most of this interest is confined to relatively small groups. Matters like taste are hard to change. The re-education of the emotions is no doubt more difficult than that of the reason, if the two can be separated. The re-education of the imagination is still more difficult. Here, indeed, what is required is no less than a conversion. In his discussion of Catholic art in France, in L’Art Sacré, Père Régamey well documents the resistances to the significant new initiatives in ecclesiastical architecture and art, not only among the masses of believers but among Catholic intellectuals. He confesses quite desperately that the situation is all but hopeless, though the witness must still be borne. He cites encouraging examples of the reconciliation of those who were first scandalized, once they had actually become familiar with such new departures as the church at Assy or the chapel at Vence— familiar, that is, not by observation but by worship itself in these buildings.

Our hope for significant changes of attitude in this whole area must rest finally not so much on aesthetic instruction and "propaganda" in the good sense, but on the combination of this with profound cultural impulses today which affect the attitudes of men to faith and its forms. Revolutionary changes in life as a whole empty older symbols of their meaning, and men are ready then to respond to new symbols or new forms of old symbols that speak to the new situation.

More significant today than the church’s activity in connection with the ecclesiastical arts is the deeper motivation which is revolutionizing the church’s whole attitude to symbolic expression. Even those churches which we call liturgical, and which have maintained a positive attitude toward the arts, have recognized a new dimension in this area. The historical study of Christian art has quickened, and been quickened by, the new recognition of the importance of the symbolic element in religion and life. The historian of religion, generally, has learned to assign more significance to myth, ritual and art in the understanding of the world’s faith. Psychology and anthropology have contributed their insights to the matter.

Thus the perceptive theologian today sees the arts not merely as servants of the church in the sense of embellishments of worship or strategies for religious propaganda. Nor is he satisfied to set the arts, as an inspirational resource, over against daily life, and to say that religion must use the sources of the Spirit—meaning Beauty, Poetry and Imagination— over against the prosaic and utilitarian world in which modern men live. Here we have the idealistic fallacy. Such a dichotomy of prose and poetry, of actuality and dreams, or of realism and imagination, is really an escape philosophy. It disparages art and worship as mere consolations, and surrenders over the actual life of men as, in effect, unredeemable. It capitulates to the banishment of the arts and worship from a materialistic world, from a rational-technological age.

The critics and lovers of art who everlastingly appeal to Beauty and to the Spirit are always the first ones to reject a T. S. Eliot or a Faulkner, a Picasso or a Stravinsky; only much later, under the force of overwhelming evidence, to give them a grudging approval.

The theologian today recognizes that even the materialist lives not by creature comforts, prosperity and success, but by his own symbols and images, his own myths and rituals. He recognizes that the conflict today is not between matter and spirit, but between two kinds of spirit; not between prose and imagination, but between a true and false imagination; not even, finally, between ugliness and beauty, because what some would call beauty and ideality cannot save.

What finally is important is the symbol and the kind of symbol, the imagery and the kind of imagery, the myth and the kind of myth. For symbols convey truth or error. They mediate illusion or reality. Sentimental symbols of aspiration, dreams and ideality may effect temporary reflexes of beatitude or induce charmed states of euphoria, but this is escapism. This is religious romanticism, and not true religion, much less Christianity. At one time, it is true, Christian transcendentalism, like Christian Platonism, incorporated a substantial core of the Christian view of man and evil, so as to constitute a valid version of Christian theology. But these strains of Christian idealism have been attenuated and washed out in a great flood of religious and secular sentimentalism.

The best theology today, in its repudiation of a rhetorical religious idealism, finds itself in agreement with a recurrent note in contemporary poetry. Hebraic concreteness is more at home with modern verse than is Greek Platonism. T. S. Eliot said of Henry James that he had a "mind so fine, no idea [we add: no ideal] could violate it." The poets at least ask, with Marianne Moore, for "real toads in imaginary gardens." The theme which runs through the glorious celebration of the imagination in Wallace Stevens is the same:

We keep coming back and coming back

To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns

That fall upon it out of the wind We seek

Nothing beyond reality. Within it

Everything, the spirit’s alchemicana . . .

( From "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)

Not grim

Reality, but reality grimly seen. (Ibid)

These things are said everywhere in Stevens. The "festival sphere" of the imagination, he says, begins from the "crude collops."

The poet Richard Wilbur recurs to a similar theme. Take, for example, his poem, "A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness." The poem describes the alluring but accursed mirages of the goal of the mystic and the idealist. The poet is advised to turn back from the "long empty oven of the desert to the real world and its homely objects: here is

¼ The spirit’s right

Oasis, light incarnate.

(From Ceremony and Other Poems, Copyright 1948, 1949, 1950 by Richard Wilbur. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace. Inc).

A sound theological critique of the insipid idealism which prevails so widely still in Christian circles receives a notable reinforcement in the extraordinary book, Mimesis, by Erich Auerbach. This study of the contribution of Hebraic and early Christian realism to world literature in effect draws out the corollaries of the Incarnation for the aesthetic order. It constitutes a radical challenge to classical and humanistic axioms with regard to beauty and art, not in the form of an apologetic diatribe but rather of a masterly study in comparative literature. It becomes evident that the Hebraic-Christian concern with all humble and lowly and earthy reality in man and the world opens the way to the most significant life of the imagination. Here a Christian approach to art and symbol will rejoin much of the most influential artistic criticism of the last decade or two.

One may illustrate the new maturity in religious attitudes to the arts by noticing what has gone on in the theological seminaries in recent years. In times past, theological training was concerned, as indeed it always should be, with the professional and ecclesiastical aspects of the arts. The future minister was given, so far as possible, some introduction to his later responsibilities as one concerned with church music and hymnody, though even here he was often later at the mercy of his director of music. Some real effort was made in many seminaries to further his acquaintance with literature. There was here a dim carry-over of the ancient claims of rhetoric on the preacher. And indeed, the preacher should be, in the ancient sense, a grammarian, at home in letters, languages, eloquence and the classics. Both for his own spiritual culture and for the enrichment of preaching, courses were and are offered in English poetry as in the world’s classics of devotion.

The new interest in the arts in the seminaries and among theologians contrasts sharply to the approaches mentioned. It is no longer only a question of the Sacred Lyre and the cultural and professional formation of the clergy. More urgent today is the whole question of imaginative vehicles, of symbolization, in religion. The semantic question in religious discourse is raised, and the whole problem of communication. Almost every department of theological study is involved at this level, and this means not only attention to the symbols and images of the Christian faith; it also means attention to the symbols and images and art forms of the contemporary world, as they are encountered in literature and the fine arts, but also in popular expressions, community rituals, social ideologies, and not least in the mass media of the time.

We realize better today that society lives by its myths, its favorable symbols; these are not idle or interchangeable. The Cross is not interchangeable with the Crescent or Lotus. The Cross is one thing, and the Swastika is another. The Sheaf of Wheat is one thing, and the Fascis is another. The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is one thing, and the "Internationale" is another. The Lincoln Memorial is one thing, and the Tomb of Lenin is another.

Society lives by its symbols, and society represents a battleground of competing symbols. Sometimes they battle to the death. They signify sometimes a devitalizing stalemate within a family or nation of incompatible loyalties and banners: In France, the French Revolution and Catholic order; in our Southern states, ancient nostalgias and a genuine agrarian humanism—each with their evocative emblems.

Social responsibility and discernment require a clear perception of such rival myths and their power, recognition of such competing visions and rituals, ability to exorcize those that are malign, and to reconcile those that are benign. Society lives by its images, but its life is often stagnant and moribund where the living images fail. In either case, the church must recognize the situation. It is important to discern the real, activating myths of civilization from the formal clichés of political orators. A democratic society may proclaim its democratic dogmas, but the same society may be governed by undemocratic nostalgias and passions fed by obsolete dreams. The church itself may proclaim its Christian principles, but Christians may be ruled by sub-Christian imaginations.

Archibald MacLeish well states the importance of the myths of an age, what happens when they fail, and the responsibility of the poet, and, we may add, the believer, in renewing them.

A world ends when its metaphor has died.

An age becomes an age, all else beside,

When sensuous poets in their pride invent

Emblems for the soul’s consent

That speak the meanings men will never know

But man-imagined images can show:

It perishes when those images, though seen,

No longer mean . .( From "Hypocrit Auteur" in Collected Poems: 1917—1952. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Muffin Company.)

The main point is that when we say Art, we say Image; and when we say Image or Symbol, we say Meaning, we say Communication. The arts, old and new, the fine arts, the practical arts and the popular arts, are peculiarly carriers of meaning and value in our society as in all societies. The church is learning that it cannot ignore such expressions of the society in which it lives. The encounter of the gospel with the world, whether in evangelism, religious education, apologetics, or theology, requires a deep appreciation of, and initiation into, the varied symbolic expressions of culture. It is in such manifestations at all levels that the moral and spiritual life of the age discloses itself.

The appreciation of the modern arts in certain church circles today is therefore one of the most important features of the whole situation. It is one aspect of the awakening of the churches generally to a better knowledge of the world about them. It is indispensable to the purification of the sacred arts. More important still, it will contribute to a new theological seriousness, a greater discrimination in the matter of Christian symbols. In some periods, Christians need to be awakened from their dogmatic slumbers; and this is still widely the case, for dogmatism destroys sensibility as the letter kills. But today it is widely true that the churches need to be awakened from their undogmatic slumber, in the sense that they have lost the sense of the fateful issues of good and evil, of salvation and damnation. This kind of salutory shock is provided by the modern arts, and not only by Christian but by agnostic artists and writers.