The Form and Substance of Worship Arts

Posted: September 19, 2011 in Artists' Corner
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There once was a man, Bezalel (Exodus 31) who was so filled with the spirit of God that he was able to have the wisdom and insight necessary to work with precious metal and all kinds of materials, to bring out glorious pieces of art, all for the glory of Jehovah God. His excellence was unarguable and was rivaled by no one in the world at that time. He is recorded in scripture as the first to be described as, “filled with the Spirit of God.” It is obvious from the example of this man that God loves the arts and he loves artists. How then, did the relationship between the artists and the church become so strained?

In modern times, arts and the church have had a love-hate relationship. The church, in an effort to reach out to the culture, wants to draw normal people in. Artists are not typically what you would call “normal.” Normal people have emotions, while artists seem to have super-emotions. Other people think in concrete terms, while artists tend to be abstract. The church needs the artists. The power that travels through the music, through artwork, and now through multimedia messages is a power the church cannot ignore. Artists live on the edge of what is currently accepted. We tend to push the envelope on what our society accepts. We have a reputation for being moody and difficult to work with. In short, we are a little scary to many church leaders.

You may have heard of a man by the name of Vincent Van Gogh, you know, the guy who is famous for going over the edge and cutting off his own ear. If you watch the old movie, Lust for Life, you will find out that he had great intentions to become a missionary and dedicate his life the service of the Lord. However, when he visited the coal mines, he wanted to build rapport with the locals, so he lived just like they did in all their poverty and filth. The church, in it’s religiosity, considered it unacceptable for one of their ministers to live this way, so they took away his support and forbid him to continue unless he conform to their standards. Artistic expression was not an option for a member of the clergy at that time and in that place. Thank God, we’ve come a long way from that, though we know there is a ways left to go.

Church leaders love the passion and excitement we bring to the church. Church leaders often get training in exegesis, or how to extrapolate truth from the word of God, but they have not been schooled in how to interpret more abstract artistic messages. Many of them do not realize the risks we take and the work we spend in order to produce quality work. Likewise, artists do not always understand the pressures of being a church leader. We don’t know what it’s like to have to deal with angry letters from people who did not approve of that hip hop special or thought the music was loud and distasteful. We do not see firsthand the issues that the people are facing day to day. Truth be told, we need each other. Though artists can tend toward being reclusive and staying in our comfort zone, away from those who we fear may hurt us or dampen our expression, now is not the time. Now is the time to be brave, to risk failure and rejection. Now is the time to partner with the church to reach a new generation for Jesus Christ. Gone are the days when churches can ignore the artists. Gone are the days when God will allow his artists to shut themselves behind doors and not let the church in. We need each other because the harvest is too ripe to ignore.

There is a faulty idea we have in our culture and it is the ancient Greek idea of dualism. It basically asserts that our physical man, or our flesh, is bad and that our spirit is the only thing that can truly be good. The contrasting Eastern/Hebrew belief has always been that our minds, bodies, souls, and spirits are all interconnected and can be redeemed and sanctified as a whole. They did not separate the sacred and the secular, but saw life as an interconnected whole. For example, they would not typically attempt to worship God only in their heart but would involve their mouths and bodies in the act of worship. Whether they ate or drank or engaged in work, or spent time with their loved ones, everything they did mattered, mind, body, soul, and spirit.

The idea of the sacred and secular was brought in by this idea of dualism that says some things are “holy” and others are not. The Jews would look at an apple and say that it is good if it is received with thanksgiving. The Greek mindset would deem the apple good or bad depending on whether or not it was offered to a false God, whether it had been cursed, or whether it had been blessed.

Today we have similar ideas… Karma, separation of church and state, secular education, secular music or art vs. Christian music or art, etc. We subtly believe the lie that certain things are inherently good or evil, or even that we can be void of any spirituality (secularism). All of these ideas stem from this faulty belief. We think we can do what we want with our bodies because they don’t really affect our spirits, or we can soak our minds in perversion and be okay spiritually. On the other extreme, we think that if we struggle with sin we are contaminated forevermore and cannot create anything of value to God or anyone else. Nothing could be further from the heart of God.

Have you ever met someone who said, “I don’t need to actually do anything to worship God. I’m worshipping him in my mind, or in my heart.” Kinda like, “I’m laughing inside.” right? Sometimes we as artists can do our thing playing an instrument or painting or whatever and neglect our own hearts or we can go to the other extreme of rejecting all perceived structure because we don’t “feel” it.

How do we grapple with the issues of our heart when we come to God in worship? I heard this example in college and thought it was great. If you try to drink some orange juice which is good stuff, good for you and refreshing, so that’s the “stuff” or the “substance.” But have you ever tried drinking orange juice without a cup? It just doesn’t work. The cup is the “form” that is necessary to get the drink to our mouths.

The substance is the why. The form is the how. Let me show you how this works from a Biblical perspective. You see, for the Jews and their holistic thinking, they could not imagine substance without form. There was no such thing as faith without an action behind it. However, they did struggle with practicing a form without substance.

Form – Substance = Legalistic Religion

If you read the prophet Isaiah, you will find the Israelites practicing form without substance. They were doing their religious duties while lacking the substance of righteousness. Jesus also comes against the teachers of the law and Pharisees who were doing the same thing. Who wants to be a Pharisee? This was a real problem in Eastern religion.

However, I think that the western world struggles more with the other extreme of having substance without form. This is why James had to write to early Christians explaining to them that faith without deeds is dead. To the eastern mind, the idea of having faith without deeds would have been unthinkable.

Substance – Form = Powerlessness

The problem with us can be that we have the heart or substance of worship but our culture has limited the accepted forms it can take. We think that it doesn’t need to take form, that it can just remain as a posture of our hearts. Do you think that perhaps one of the reasons we lack manifestations of miraculous power in our society is that we have removed the form from the substance so that we cannot put the power we have to use? It remains potential energy within. The use of a form unleashes the motion of the kinetic energy of the Spirit.

In my personal walk with God, I saw people who expressed worship very freely or spoke about God with a lot of enthusiasm, but their actions did not line up with what they were doing or saying. I was so offended by this that I became obsessed with my own motivation and so worried that my outward expression would be shallow, that I avoided forms like too much movement, or enjoying music that might in my opinion “detract” from God, or I would stop singing when my mind wandered. I wanted to be sure that the substance was not missing. I am so glad I did not stay there. In the later years of high school and college I began to open myself up to all kinds of forms of worship. I started to let myself explore God through dance and prophetic song and I began to experience God in a way I’d never have done if my heart had not been open to the form. My intimacy with God was now not just caged in my mind, but it affected my body, my emotions, and even my will. It was like a breath of fresh air in my journey with God.

It’s like saying, okay now that you’ve been married for years, you can now actually touch one another. Do you know the Hebrew word for “to know”? It is Yadah: To know, as in “Adam knew Eve” and she conceived. Do you remember Michal, David’s wife, who despised his form of extravagant worship through dance? She despised him in her heart and was barren from that moment on. The body, the mind, the will, and the emotions must be involved. We experience God as a whole person, with all that we are. Therefore, using forms of many types increases our capacity for intimacy, which increases our access to the realm of power, causing us to reproduce.

Substance + Form = Power

(Colossians 2:6-12 NIV)
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord (substance), continue to live your lives in him (form), rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness (substance). See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world (form without substance), rather than on Christ (substance). For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity (substance) lives in bodily form (form), and in Christ you have been brought to fullness (form and substance). He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised (old form) with a circumcision not performed by human hands. (new substance)Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ (substance), having been buried with him in baptism (form), in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God (substance), who raised him from the dead.

So you can see that we must look at the substance before we look for the form, or we are in danger of legalistic religion. We must allow our substance to take shape in various forms or we are void of power.

In earlier times, such as during the renaissance era, artists were highly valued in the church. The problem was not that the arts were evil, but that some artists, but mostly rich and influential people, used artists not for the glory of God, but for the glory of themselves. The best and the brightest artists were drawn to the church because the leaders invested in them, misguided though they were. This is why the greatest art in the world had religious subject matter. So the form (the art itself) was right, but the substance (or motivation) was often wrong. Thus, the church began to swing the pendulum away from the value of arts in an effort to purify themselves from the corruption that had gone on. They made the mistake of dualistic thinking that says, “that bathwater was pretty dirty. Might as well just throw the baby out too.” Who can blame them? Only until fairly recently has the tide shifted toward a widespread acceptance of the arts, especially in our churches. In the seventies, there were still many evangelical churches that thought it was scandalous to use the drums in corporate worship. We have come a long way. The church as a whole has taken baby steps to incorporating the arts and we, as artists, cannot get impatient and give up on the process, as painfully slow as it seems to be. Instead, we need to model right attitudes, communicate the best we can, give and take, love our leaders, and encourage one another in the process.

If you are an artist in the church today, let’s be committed substance in the following three areas:

1. Committed to Excellence for the sake of our Excellent God: A commitment to excellence takes humility to undergo a series of corrections and to try things that are just beyond your reach in order to improve. It costs us time and resources, but anything less does not do justice to representing our Excellent God.

2. Committed to Brotherly Love among other Artists: You may or may not appreciate another person’s form of art. Other artists are risking a bit of who they are every time they perform or create, just like you, they are vulnerable. Let’s respect that vulnerability in each other and not take any opportunity to reject one another. We need respect for one another if we are going to develop and grow, if we are going to reach the lost in our own unique ways. Sometimes brotherly love looks like encouragement (encourage the weak) sometimes it looks like correction (warn the proud). We can give others room to be who they are while we have room to be who we are. Thank God we are not all alike, but we are together learning to represent Christ to the world.

3. Committed to Reaching the Lost one expression at a time: Your talent was not created for you alone, or for your own glory. It is sad how many artists have exchanged the Glory of God for their own glory. If you draw crowds, use that opportunity to draw them to an encounter with Him. You can do this up front on stage or behind the scenes. Today you can even do it from your bedroom. I’ll tell you what draws them. Excellence. It’s okay to pursue significance if you are pursuing it for the fame of Jesus Christ. You are an evangelist with each piece you create. You don’t have to mention the name of Jesus or draw crosses in order to “preach.” It is the spirit by which you do your art that is released each time someone sees or hears what you have done. They interact with the spirit that is in you, and it brings people one step closer to Jesus.

  1. Cate Morris says:

    Sounds like it was a great conference Leigh!
    This subject of dualism is popping up a lot in the things God is teaching me. It influences the arts, occupations, work ethic, and even the abuses and perversions of marriage, women, and sexes. It’s amazing how many places we can find the effects of dualism if we look.
    I’m excited to hear how the conference impacts your community and the church.
    I love your blogs. You are a great communicator! Keep it up!

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