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Nuancing Nelson

April 4th, 2011

nelson-mccauslandThe Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, attracted some criticism recently for suggesting that the Belfast Festival at Queen’s include some southern Gospel music in its programme of events. The organizers of the festival were quick to affirm their artistic integrity and to express their annoyance at being given some suggestions from a political person, notwithstanding the fact that the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure makes a significant financial contribution to the whole operation.

But in spite of the criticism, it seems that Mr McCausland may be pointing to a significant gap in the offerings at the festival and within our community generally. Inadvertently, he may also have initiated an important theological discussion that could prove helpful to all who have an interest in our culture, arts and leisure. The fact is that, traditionally, evangelical Christians have not been notable supporters of the arts, be they visual, musical, or dramatic. That’s because many of them do not have a theology of the arts or entertainment.

The traditional evangelical view was that the arts are “worldly”, and therefore sinful, and ought to be avoided. It was believed that there was no spiritual benefit to be gained from attending the theatre or the cinema, and in fact, one was exposing oneself unnecessarily to influences and attitudes which were, at best, diversionary, and at worst, dangerous with regard to one’s personal sanctification. In theological terms, when it came to the arts, the doctrine of sin trumped the doctrine of creation. The world of the arts had become so corrupted by human sin and depravity so that nothing that contributed to the glory of God was visible.

One practical consequence of this approach was that evangelicals turned their worship into entertainment. If the only venue for enjoyment and pleasure could be the church or a distinctly Christian event, then sacred concerts or evenings of gospel music became an acceptable form of relaxation and enjoyment. Music and singing could be enjoyed without any worldly or sinful intrusions.

The world of Christian music continues to expand and has become increasingly sophisticated and popular especially in the US. The largest evangelical congregation in Belfast often presents musical events that approach the standards of a West End production in terms of professional expertise and presentation. What began as worship has become evangelical entertainment.

All this indicates that it is time for preachers and pew-dwellers to develop a more robust theology of culture, the arts and leisure. In a word, reformed Christians believe that God can be glorified in the wider arena of human culture and need not be restricted to the sanitized atmosphere of Christian venues.

That theology begins with an affirmation of the doctrines of creation, common grace, sin, and the sovereignty of God. Since it has been created by God, this world cannot ever lose all the glory that God built into it. Our world, even in its brokenness, continues to reflect the glory of God. And in the arts, music and the gifts of creative genius, God’s glory can be seen. Even avowed unbelievers, in the use of their creative and artistic gifts, reflect the glory and grace of God, since, as humans, they are creatures made in his image and likeness.

But often those creative gifts are corrupted by our sin. Our art may become wretched and ugly, and instead of pointing to what is wholesome, lovely and good, it may try to celebrate what is disjointed and broken. That means that we can be ambiguous in our attitude to the arts and culture. But we need to realize that it remains a legitimate arena for the expression of values that glorify the Creator and exhibit the transforming work of Jesus Christ. The fact that there is not one square inch of this world where Jesus does not affirm his Lordship means that we can find areas of enjoyment and entertainment outside of church and Christian worship. We do not have to turn our worship of God into an experience which is designed primarily for our entertainment.

We live in this in-between world of the “already” and the “not yet”. Already Christ has come and has established his kingdom. But we do not yet see the full realization of that kingdom of truth, righteousness and peace. In some music and art, we can begin to see the dawn of Christ’s kingdom with all its harmony and beauty. But often artists, musicians, dramatists and film-makers give expression to what is bad, corrupt and sinful in our world.

A play about the cruel Afghan war where the actors’ words are rich with offensive expletives may be unacceptable to many of us. But maybe it’s an accurate portrayal of a dark segment of life in this world, and a serious reminder of our world’s need for salvation and redemption. It may also be an incentive to young Christian artists and writers to enter that world of the arts in order to express to a world and life view which recognizes God’s sovereignty and grace in this dark world, and seeks to honour and glorify Him.

If the Belfast Festival at Queen’s has in the past given artistic expression to what is evil and corrupt in our world, then perhaps a southern Gospel concert will provide a necessary counter-balance. While some of that musical genre originated in the pain and suffering of slavery, it quickly gave way to the hope and joy of the Gospel. What our world needs to hear, and what Belfast needs to hear, is a few more joyful “Hallelujahs” that celebrate the sovereignty and grace of God in a world of division, injustice and pain. Reformed Christians ought to eagerly support such an event, and other events, as they affirm the importance of the arts in their theology of the Christian life.

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