Last week Todd and I met Elise Edwards (the fabulous designer of Convergence's renovations) at the Transforming Culture Symposium in Austin Texas. The gathering consisted of artists, pastors and academics exploring questions surrounding the role of the artist in church and the responsibility of the pastor/church to the artist. The plenary speakers included Jeremy Begbie (Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts), John Witvliet (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship), Barbara Nicolosi (Act I Screenwriters), Eugene Peterson (The Message Bible), Andy Crouch (Christian Vision Project, Christianity Today), and David Taylor (arts pastor).
The plenary sessions were really excellent and some good conversation emerged around a number of topics - including whether it is even possible to talk about "transforming culture." (We are purchasing the DVDs of the plenary sessions for this symposium and the IAM Exchange and plan to make these available if you would like to see for yourself.)
Some of the impressions/ things to chew on that I walked away with were:
From Andy Crouch
-"Culture cannot be reduced to utility" i.e. the value of art is not based on its usefulness. Rather it is something which is valuable in and of itself. Or, said differently - it is not useful only when it points to something else or can augment something else (a.k.a.) a sermon.
-BUT - even more important is the recognition that worship is actually a "useless" thing as well. Coming together to worship or consider God does not necessarily achieve something or produce something. We do it because the act of doing it is worthwhile regardless of any outcome. Or as a Marva Dawn puts it in her book on worship by the same title: it is a "Royal Waste of Time."
-One more fantastic quote on the role of art in religious communities: "There is too much that is good and right with the world to be constrained to the bounds of religious utility."
The interesting thing about this discussion was not so much the implications on art, but rather a reminder to me about worship and prayer. The Bible talks about these things as worthwhile because it is right to do them. Reducing the questions of whether or not prayer "works" or "did I feel worshipful?" as practically irrelevent. We practice prayer and praise, painting and singing, acting and storytelling because it is good and right to do so in the eyes of God.
We don't have to worry about effecting some end. To quote Crouch again: "We don't need to convince God to be useful to us and God does not need us to be be useful to him."
The act of creating, the act of worship, the act of prayer and praise is worthwhile or useful not in its product or results, but in the act itself. We create because we are creators, we worship because we are worshipers, we pray because we are prayers, we praise because we are praisers.
And finally, this frees us as churches to take on our role as possibly the only institution in our culture which can be the "champions of the 'un-useful."
-"Without a belief in the worth of the 'un-useful' who will champion and value those people deemed by our society 'un-useful?"
And who will encourage us to live lives filled with concern for the "other" when this doesn't "do" much for us?
Just feeling very challenged about our role....