Art, Existential Questions, and the Heart of the Church

By Lisa Smith.

It is time to bring the power of the arts to the heart of the church. The arts are one of the most powerful means by which we explore the human experience. Through the arts we mine the deep existential questions of what it means to be human. We ask, “Who am I?” “Where do I come from?” “What’s the point?” and “What does it mean to live with one another as neighbors?” At some point, all of us engage these questions that lead to the stuff of theology.

My contention is that it takes imagination and creativity to ask these questions in a constructive way. We can play games with language and logic to try to sort them out, but people are complex and emotional beings. We need to see and touch. We need to know, and knowing is more than believing with our minds. It is a deep-down, gut-level feeling of understanding often before we have words to categorize and beyond what we have words to share.

The power of art is its ability to evoke, to spur our imaginations to cause us to want more. When faced with images of injustice and a world so far from God’s will being done, our hearts are broken and we experience the “poor in spirit” Jesus spoke of. He described this state of broken heartedness as “blessed” because it is only then that we are motivated to surrender our will to his, pleading and praying, open to experiencing the Kingdom of God and seeking out ways to participate in its building.

And when we are swept away by music compelling us to move our bodies in rhythmic movement or graceful swaying, feeling our minds carried into beautiful places, imagining the possible that only moments before seemed impossible, we start to think with the mind of Christ who taught that the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains. With eyes shut and mouths open we start to think “why not?” as our inhibitions and doubts are carried away on notes of hope and promise.

This starts to scratch the surface of the power of art and why it is important for us as churches to embrace these tools. While artwork in our spaces and music for singing is helpful in our experience of corporate worship, it is only one small way we must engage our imaginations as Christians.

Recently, I had a disturbing dream. I was in a boardroom at the top of a tall skyscraper with members of my congregation. We were preparing for a surprising and inevitable tsunami. We had been informed that a giant wall of water would hit within minutes. With no chance of survival we set about making the only preparations we could — preparing to die. We placed ourselves as close to the windows as possible, hoping that when the water hit, the end would come instantaneously.

But something strange happened. The water was rising much slower than anticipated, leaking into the room. There would be no giant wave.  Instead of relief we experienced panic. We feared we would drown and death would not be instantaneous at all. All of our efforts now went to finding ways to end our suffering before what we were convinced was sure death.

I woke up and immediately thought, “Why didn’t we realize the situation had changed?” Why didn’t we see that we assumed death was certain even after the variables changed and everything was different? We could have built rafts or moved to the roof where we might be rescued or any number of other options; instead we stayed stuck in our old assumptions.

This is the curse of a lack of imagination. Without it we see our problems only as problems and not as new opportunities. We forget to turn things on their heads and look at them with fresh eyes. We get stuck in old ways of doing things and are blind to changes in circumstance, often to our own peril.

Jesus challenged people to wake up to the reality that the Kingdom was near, so near that if they could just turn their perspective around they would see it even in the midst of difficulty. They would see that through him it was possible to live in communion with God. They would see that whatever they asked in his name would be given and that miracles happen every day.

We need to wake up. We need to not just taste what Jesus offered in little nibbles but engage in a steady diet of creative exploration and proliferate imaginative visionaries in our churches — not simply for aesthetics and taste, but because our ability to navigate the life of the Church and to share the fullness of Christ’s message with our world depends on it.

Rev. Lisa Cole Smith ( is Pastor/Artistic Director of Convergence: A Creative Community of Faith, in Alexandria, Va. This article was originally published May 28, 2013, Baptist News Global.

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