Evangelicals, culture and the arts

[This is an edited extract from a forthcoming essay in the Routledge Research Companion to Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones. It should be published in 2018.]

One evening in the early 1960s Michael Saward, curate of a thriving evangelical Anglican parish in north London, went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the aged Otto Klemperer conduct Beethoven. As the Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng played the Violin Concerto, Saward unexpectedly found himself

‘sitting (or so it seemed) a yard above my seat and experiencing what I can only describe as perhaps twenty minutes of orgasmic ecstasy. . . . Heaven had touched earth in the Royal Festival Hall. . [It was]  . .  a taste of [God’s] work as creator of all that is beautiful, dynamic and worthy of praise . . . speaking of his majesty in the universe which he has made, goes on sustaining, and fills with his life force, the Holy Spirit, who draws out of humanity an infinite range of talent, skill and glorious creativity in artistic works.’

Saward’s words were part of a memoir and not a work of theology, but they challenge many received views of the relationship between evangelicals and the arts. Here was a graduate of the conservative theological college Tyndale Hall, Bristol, sitting in a concert hall, listening to a German Jew conduct a Polish Jew in a piece of wordless secular music, and yet attaching such significance to the experience. Even though music was the art form most likely to be appreciated within the evangelical constituency, rarely does the historian find such a positive evaluation of the arts, their effects, and their place in the theology of creation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical theologies of culture have at root been theologies of the Fall. Anglican Catholics in England in the twentieth century began to recover a much older incarnational sense, thought to have been lost since the Reformation, of human activity as a subordinate participation in the work of creation. Not only could the maker of a work of art communicate something to the viewer about the aspect of creation that he or she was representing; the act of making could also in some sense be co-operating with God. In contrast, the evangelical view of human capability has tended to be more pessimistic. At its strongest, this view was that sin so defaced the divine image in human beings and so clouded their perception that their unaided attempts at understanding God and creation would be at best partial and incomplete, if not indeed corrupted and thus useless. Any attainment of virtue would be accidental, the product of external influence rather than any effort on the part of the individual. To attempt to create anything of beauty would be futile, and all participation in secular activity prone to the corruption of pride and self-interest.

At base, this is the centre of theological gravity in what remains, even after thirty years, the most sustained historical treatment of the question of evangelicalism and culture in Britain, Evangelicals and Culture by Doreen Rosman (1984). In the early nineteenth century, Rosman found many individual evangelicals who were able to engage in the arts in positive ways, and indeed to delight in their performance. However, evangelical theology was never able to develop its instinctive rhetorical claim on the whole of human life into a framework that could comfortably encompass the arts. Unable to sanctify the senses, it was often forced instead to seek to subjugate them. Evangelicals ‘were never confident to assimilate such worldly activities within the framework of their world-denying theology.’

This chapter examines evangelical encounters with the arts in several modes: as both consumer and performer in the apparently ‘neutral’ sphere of the home; as users of the arts in the context of public worship; as users of the arts as tools for evangelism; and as moralist and reformer of the artistic pursuits of others. It concerns itself mainly with music, literature, the visual arts and drama, and its examples are drawn chiefly from Britain and the USA, and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That said, its overall analysis makes a claim to be applicable to the evangelical movement as a whole.

In certain cases there were evangelical principles that went to the very basis of the art form concerned, such as the stress on the intelligibility of words sung to music, which as a result were both widespread and persistent. At the same time, there were other evangelical concerns, such as the taboo on attendance at the theatre, which were not so much issues with the medium itself, but a particular social context in which it was produced. As a result such prohibitions could be, and were relaxed at other times and in other places. Evangelicals at times enthusiastically embraced certain art forms and individual works; at others they rejected them on principle; in other circumstances the story was one of resistance, adaptation, and the replacement of secular versions with safe and edifying substitutes.

Implicit in much of the chapter is a wider question: how far was evangelical engagement with the arts conditioned by the cultural power that they were able to exercise in general, and the extent to which their cultural presuppositions were shared with their neighbours? At the height of influence of British evangelicalism in the mid-nineteenth century, evangelicals shared many of the same presumptions as their neighbours about the moral purpose of the arts, and about the conditions that should surround their production and reception. As Elisabeth Jay has shown, this cultural closeness was mirrored in the degree to which evangelical life itself was the subject of the Victorian novel; an interest which waned as did evangelical influence in society, reaching a terminal point in Samuel Butler.

In contrast, evangelicals in late-twentieth-century Britain and America found themselves marooned by the processes of secularisation in societies in which any consensus about the purpose of art had fractured, and in which middle-class consensus on morality (the consensus that mattered) had disintegrated. It is no coincidence that this period saw a spate of evangelical writing on the supposed death of Christian culture in the west as reflected in the arts, by figures such as Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker. In this context of perceived cultural and moral crisis, the paradox was that evangelicals were in confrontation with secular artistic production for its godlessness, whilst domesticating its forms for their own purposes – in popular church music, or in religious drama – to a greater extent than ever.

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