Art vs. Words

I was mulling about an issue tonight that surfaces in the church realm frequently. It has to do with using art in church and what it's place is next to preaching and other methods of spreading the Gospel. John Piper said several months ago that they don't use a lot of media/visual arts in their services for fear "It’s going to communicate that preaching is weak, preaching doesn’t save, preaching doesn’t hold, but entertainment does."

Art words

The uproar from the Arts and Multimedia world was pretty widespread. This is because the natural tendency after reading such a firm declaration is to challenge it. And who can expect less from the group of people that the author is, in a sense, "attacking". But my post here isn't really a defense of either side. I'm a Multimedia Director who considers himself a "Piper-ite"... which, for me, is really nothing more than being a "digital" disciple. But through my mulling I had a little epiphany that helped me understand where the difference lies between preaching with art and preaching with words.

To me this issue really boils down to a core idea that has to do with the method which you express a meaning or idea. Your idea is the original thought before words, pictures or sounds are used to express it. The words, pictures and sounds(plus other methods I haven't listed) are merely the means of translating your idea into something that others can comprehend. Now what I've come to realize is that each of these methods of translating fall on a scale with two ends. On one end of the scale there is the abstract way of conveying an idea and on the other end is the explicit, or intentional way.

The abstract way of expressing ideas leaves room for interpretation by the audience, the explicit way does not. The explicit way serves one purpose, to portray a specific understanding of the original idea with no room left for interpretation. My point here is to show that the two items being discussed, art and words- in their purest form, fall at different ends of this spectrum, and we can choose where to place each of our methods between the two ends.

Art at it's purest form is meant to be interpreted by the beholder. It's not explicit, not direct, not intentional of any kind of meaning. That's what makes it art. Artists, when creating their works, don't intend to express an explicit meaning. If they did, they would just write it out, IN WORDS. Instead they want the audience to take their creation and be free to read their own meaning into it. That's what makes art so enjoyable, the less explicit the better. Words on the other hand, in their purest form, are the exact opposite. We have words and languages because it is the most direct, non abstract, method of conveying meaning. When you want to know the ultimate meaning of something, you ask for it to be conveyed in words. It's why we use email in the office instead of pictures and pantomimes. The absolute ultimate method of conveying an idea clearly is through words.

Now, when it comes to which methods are acceptable to use in a church service.. the truth is, both your spoken word sermons and your visual art pieces will fall on the scale between abstract and explicit. Where you place them on the scale is up to you. Your (creative)videos have just as much ability of "preaching" as does your pastor's sermon. But where it falls on the abstract/explicit scale is what determines it's artistic value. So the question isn't about method really. It's about the amount of clarity you want to use in presenting your message. As in most situations, I believe a healthy balance is always important.

God, who is the ultimate Preacher, uses all forms to convey His message. In abstract ways He shows His glory through creation. All the way from the expansive galaxies down to the tiniest form of the double-helix, God has proved Himself to be the most exhaustive of artists. But He also expresses Himself in direct, explicit methods. Scripture is our prime example of how God purposefully wrote out a message for all humanity to hear. In it we have the clearest example of the character and nature of God that there has ever been, Jesus Christ. It's God literally putting his message in human form for us to vividly understand.

In regards to John Piper, it's pretty clear to me that he's more of an explicit kind of guy. And in this I would support him in the sense that there are truths of the Gospel that should not be portrayed abstractly. They're strict ideas that come from God and should be treated with strict methods of conveyance. And Piper has based both his church's service-style and methodology around this principal.

Personally, I believe every church can choose where on this scale they let their methods fall when it comes to portraying the Gospel. But each will reap different benefits by doing so. I think Jesus used a certain balance of explicit preaching and abstract preaching by means of parables and stories. So as a church, find the balance that works best for your audience and go with it. But don't forget that "best" isn't debatable, because "best" means making your audience the most like Christ. That is the Church's goal and as soon as your method of conveying your message hinders that, you've missed the point.