Art To the Church; Art From the Church; Art Facing the Church

Harold Best

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).

The Sublime Song of the Universe

From Augustine’s letter to Jerome (AD 415), as translated and quoted in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1:527–528:

Not in vain has the prophet, taught by divine inspiration, declared concerning God, “He bringeth forth in measured harmonies the course of time” [Isa. 40:26]. For which reason music, the science or capacity of correct harmony, has been given also by the kindness of God to mortals having reasonable souls, with a view to keep them in mind of this great truth. For if a man, when composing a song which is to suit a particular melody, knows how to distribute the length of time allowed to each word so as to make the song flow and pass on in most beautiful adaptation to the ever changing notes of the melody, how much more shall God, whose wisdom is to be esteemed as infinitely transcending human arts, make infallible provision that not one of the spaces of time alloted to natures that are born and die — spaces which are like the words and syllables of the successive epochs of the course of time — shall have, in what we may call the sublime psalm of the vicissitudes of this world, a duration either more brief or more protracted than the foreknown and predetermined harmony requires! For when I may speak thus with reference even to the leaves of every tree, and the number of the hairs upon our heads, how much more may I say it regarding the birth and death of men, seeing that every man’s life on earth continues for a time, which is neither longer nor shorter than God knows to be in harmony with the plan according to which He rules the universe.

On My iPod

A few of the albums currently streaming through the ‘buds:

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (2011). An album that grew on me after about the third or fourth play. [Amazon | iTunes]
  • Josh Garrels, Love & War & The Sea In Between (2011). Apart from one or two songs that grate on me, I like this album a lot. Don’t miss his track “Farther Along.” Crank it and sing along! Garrels recently told CT, “We were so provided for during the making of this album, by both God and men, that it seems appropriate to give away as freely as we received.” In that spirit, you can download the album for free here.
  • Sovereign Grace Music, Risen (2011). I’ve been listening to this album since before Easter. Why stop now? [Amazon | iTunes]
  • Sigur Rós, Takk… (2005). Because my playlist is always flavored with a little Sigur. [Amazon | iTunes]
  • Glenn Gould, Bach: The Goldberg Variations (1955). It’s unclear if Gould was autistic or just eccentric but it’s obvious he was a prodigy. The energy he brings to the piano in this recording is impressive. [Amazon | iTunes]

What albums currently flavor your life?