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Art and the Altar-Call

A look at creating...and un-creating

by David Edwards

I have some pretty weird dreams sometimes. Once I dreamed that C.S. Lewis was still alive and was making an acceptance speech for the Nobel prize. Just as he stepped up to the podium, an organ started playing "Softly And Tenderly Jesus Is Calling." He started speaking in a Southern accent, urging the audience to come forward and accept Christ. Once I dreamed that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were making Christian burlwood clocks across the street from Calvary Chapel. Once I dreamed that Luciano Pavarotti gave an altar-call at the close of a performance with the New Tork Metropolitan Opera. Once I dreamed - but wait, I'll just summarize all these nightmares into one great, horrifying scenario. Here it is. Here's the vision that makes this Christian songwriter wake up screaming.

The year is 2004. All the works from the greatest writers, painters, sculptors, poets, and musicians the world has known are being banned from the libraries under the Church's control. The only artistic activity remaining has become part of the Church's evangelism machine. The machine takes count of the souls saved by these activities. Those with the highest count are sanctioned by the Church. The great commission has become a great marauding dragon; a huge, insatiable monster which is out to destroy the last traces of Imagination. The dragon says to God, "This rose would be as good as you say it is if it could only serve me." It says to the one painting a portrait of the rose, "Your painting would be good if only you would let God use it to reach the unsaved." It says to the poet, "Your rose-poem would be good if only you would give an altar-call at the close of each reading." Thus, the monster insults God, the one who makes the rose beautiful and calls it good just because it is what it is.

Things will probably never be as bad as my worst nightmares. But even in 1984 I sometimes feel like screaming. And I wish I could make the dragon disappear. Because right here in 1984 I see that dragon giving God a slap in the face when it declares worthless any art failing to function within the narrow confines of twentieth-century evangelism.

God says that the heavens declare His glory. So it would be foolish to look at a Vermont autumn and say, "That's nice. What does it do?" It would be equally foolish, though, to say that God doesn't use art to bring people to Christ. He uses everything to do that. He once even used Balaam's donkey. But that didn't change the nature or value of all donkeys. Likewise, when God uses a symphony or a contemporary music concert to call someone to Himself, he doesn't redefine the value of either. He doesn't undo what He did right in the first place.

Art and evangelism are often grouped together because of a lack of understanding of why God created art - why it has its own unique value. To make matters worse, the scope of evangelism has been ill-perceived so that the harvest has gained a distorted preeminence over cultivation, planting, and watering. If it weren't for this, art would suffer little by being joined to evangelism. This distortion has often grown out of a hunger for success. The ego wants an immediate, tangible return on everything in which it has an investment. An altar-call provides that return; it is visible and measurable. The ego reaches for the shiniest trophies it can find: numbers. So quantity rules supreme, and quality takes a back seat because it's not flashy enough.

That's not to say that no one anywhere joins art to evangelism out of pure motives. In fact, some of my best friends are evangelists. And they should keep on doing what they do as long as they don't try to redefine the value of art, or treat their audiences rudely or insensitively. The trouble with altar-calls is that they too often leave in oblivion the dignity and individuality of their victims. At concerts especially, they are geared to the twelve-year-old and are an insult to anyone with half a college education. Some altar-calls are beautiful and spontaneous - even miraculous. They nonetheless leave the universe in order. But when the exception has been made the rule, the value of art has been undone. Part of God's creation has been, for a time, uncreated. Because of Balaam's example, we have said that donkeys are of no value to anyone unless they prophesy.

Do I advocate art for art's sake? No, because there's no such thing. Art is always for somebody's sake, if only the artist's. God makes art for His sake and ours. We should do the same. And we shouldn't throw accusations at anyone whose own particular gifts we don't understand.

The Church has been so busy trying to decide whether art is permissible that it has forgotten that art is necessary; it has no substitute. Propaganda is no substitute. Naked fact is not. Rhetoric is not. Religious activity is not. God created art so that men and women could have at least an occasional heavenly glimpse into the beauty of truth. So he created us with a capacity to enjoy truth as He does - on an aesthetic as well as cognitive level, not as mere fact or law. He created truth as a vision of holiness; the very aroma of God.

Originally published in The Wittenburg Door, August 1984. Reprinted without permission, due to general unavailability of the original source. If David Edwards or his estate object to the redistribution of this article, they may contact me to request it be taken down.