Friday, June 26, 2009

Ecclesiastical Romanticism?


There are differing models describing what it means to be an artist. I think they can be used to different different models for being ministers.

The first is medieval, and organic. The artist sees herself as part of a larger purpose, and uses her gifts to further that calling. The focus is not on her, but on her work, and the way it reveals something real, true, good and/or beautiful. Aesthetics, like ethics, follows metaphysics. The artist is not an isolated, autonomous individual, but a particular person who is participating in and reflecting something greater than herself. Even if she is working alone in her studio, she understands that her work as directed beyond herself and somehow "connected."

Think of the countless anonymous builders of cathedrals, some making stained glass, some carving stone, some hewing beams, and so on; all individual master craftsmen, dedicated not to their own glory but to the glory of God. We may not remember their names, their work has withstood the centuries and continues to move us today.

The Renaissance gives us another model. Again, aesthetics follows metaphysics, and the metaphysics of the modern period denies universals. What is real is the individual. Hence the focus is on the artist, the artist as genius. So familiar are they that we are on a first-name basis with them: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael. Individual perspective and talent is celebrated so highly that it eventually leads to the cult of genius.

It plays out in the 19th century Romantic image of the autonomous and misundertood artist, one who is an "outsider," or "rebel." He stands valiantly against tradition and institutions, out of the conviction that change is the engine of creativity. This eventually makes art into a quest for novelty. I have in mind now artists like Théodore Géricault, Manet, Cezanne and the painters of the Salon des Refusés.

Ultimately we come to the current situation where often one's credentials as an artist are the degree to which one can invent oneself as an artist. The greatest work of art now is not the object but the subject: not a painting or a sculpture, but the artist.

So how does this relate to ministry?

It seems to me that there are some ministers who follow the Ecclesiastical Renaissance model. They are the celebrated superpastors whose names are familiar to us because of their unique perspective or individual charisma. We know them by name: Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, Rick Warren. We try to imitate them, adopting their techniques, their language, their dress, their worship styles. This can be instructive, but in the end one can only become what one is already, potentially.

Then there are the clergy who are Ecclesiastical Romantics, a particularly tempting position for some emergents. These are the folks who are "disillusioned with church as building, box, organization, meeting place and program." They set themselves outside of tradition and institutions, and seek to create something that will feel authentic because it is new and different. Ecclesiastical Romanticism may be the only way to reach a culture that thrives on novelty and narcissism, but it seems to me to lack the resources to help that culture move beyond itself.

So, tonight I wonder: is there any place remaining for ministers who aspire to the medieval, organic model? Is this what New Monasticism might be calling for?

1 comment:

Janice Skivington said...

Beth, I really found this an interesting post.
As an artist myself, a professional visual artist who works with traditional canvas and paint, I am most sympathetic to seeing myself as the kind of artist who follows the first model, the medieval craftsman. I just want to do really good work with the gifts that God gave me to give the glory back to my Creator. I want my work to reflect the Work of the Creator who gave it to me and gave me the ability to see it.
I like the way that you have put it.