Harold M. Best is a musician, composer, and was for more than twenty-five years the dean of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College. He is the author of two important books: Music Through the Eyes of Faith (1993) and Unceasing Worship (2003).
Best explains the three postures of Christians and art in his lecture “Arts and Christianity,” using a triad I find helpful.
1: Art to the Church (artist as servant).
These are the Christian artists called to produce simple, accessible liturgical art. It is art humbled low, to wash the feet of Christ and congregants to the point that art becomes part of a synthesis, a servant of the Word aiming for robust corporate worship.
“Art for the church does not just mean art made expressly for use in corporate worship,” he clarified to me in a later email, “but for the church, individual by individual, at all times and all places, in its continuing worship.” This first category expands to include non-congregational music, like worship concerts and Christian radio.
2: Art from the Church (artist as prophet).
This is Christian art made for the unconverted. The Christian artist goes out into culture “as a rampant outspoken prophetic invader,” so loaded with creativity, she breaks out into the world, pushing herself to the edge of her imaginative originality, and with the expectation that such art will lead to getting knocked around a bit.
In this category, Best told me, Christians “should be more cutting-edge evangelistic in their public work instead of replicating or paralleling the stuff that is regularly experienced in corporate worship.”
3: Art facing the Church (artist as steward).
Just as the Church produces music for the unconverted, the world produces music facing Christians. This inescapable reality does not call for retreat but for Christian engagement, for believers to face culture squarely in order to learn and to appreciate art from non-Christians, “to learn, to copy, to adapt, to paraphrase, to reject, to debate with, and above all, to understand the difference between content and intent.” We debate the intent of the world’s art, while at the same time celebrating and learning from the artistic products themselves.*
“Christians should not keep soaking up Christian music all the time,” says Best, “they should be engaging in all kinds of music, for this is their responsibility in entering into that last part of the triad.” In fact, he divulged, “I tire a little of Christians being hooked on Christian radio, when they should be engaging with the world in what it is thinking, saying, singing, and promoting.”
Art to the church, art from the church, art facing the church — a helpful triad to distinguishing art forms, and what Christians are to do with them.
Sources and notes:
Harold Best, lecture, “Arts and Christianity” sojournchurch.com (MP3).
Harold Best, email to the author (May 25, 2016).
* Best’s neutrality of art form, here assumed, has been disputed by Ken Myers in “Music and Meaning: Some Forms Are Better than Others,” 9marks.org (April 23, 2014).