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  /  Resources   /  Art and Imagination in the Church Trevor Hart

Art and Imagination in the Church Trevor Hart with Trevor Hart

Dr. Hart explains that there is a place for the various arts and for imagination in the church.

J. Michael Feazell: Thanks for joining us today. We’d like to ask about historical Chris­tian art. How has it helped to shape how Christians view doc­trine and practice?

Trevor Hart: Much more than many Christians often sup­pose and realize, art has had a central place in the church for many centuries. At the time of the Reformation, and for very good reasons, there were some questions asked about certain ways of using art in church. Those remain important. But art has always been a way in which Christians have interpreted and made sense of the gospel.

There are lots of ways in which as human beings we make sense of things. We tell stories… Art such as painting, music, drama, have all featured centrally in the ways in which Christians have made sense of, interpreted, and represented to themselves fundamental truths of the faith, fundamental stories from Scripture. Whether we’re thinking about what goes on in church, or outside church, art has been a central vehicle for the communication of the gospel.


JMF: There are many different forms of art – often we think of painting when we think of art, but art goes everywhere, from illustrations of stories, ideas, human imagination in many ways. We’re trying to talk about things unseen and things we don’t have a clear picture of, and yet we’re trying to bring them down to our level. Doesn’t that leave room for mis­interpretation?

TH: It does. But if we limit ourselves to words, we get misinterpretation as well. One of the advantages, whether we are thinking of painting or of music – or if we bring things up to date a bit, film, and the more con­temporary forms that now would be recognized as among the arts – one of the advantages is that art engages us at levels and in ways that words alone can’t. I say “words alone” advisedly, because it’s important to hold together the levels at which art operates visually or through sound or action, what­ever it is, engaging our emotions as well as our intellect and imagination. It’s important to hold that together with words, but words alone can only take us so far.

A lot of the more familiar ways in which we think of the Christian gospel, biblical stories being interpreted limited to words can end up being dry if we’re not careful. Most people know that when listening to a sermon or reading a Christian book — it’s when the writer or the speaker resorts to story, for example, which is an artistic form, things begin to take off and get more interesting.

There’s a place for what we might call clear-cut reasoned thought, and there will never be a context in which we can let go of that or stop doing it. But that needs to be supplemented. It needs to be brought to life. The ideas are important and they need to be clothed in flesh, we might say, and made more accessible. But I don’t want to suggest that art is simply a matter of illustration or making abstract ideas more palatable. It can do that, and we should be grateful for the fact that it can. But art can also open up depths of meaning that words alone can’t reach. In tandem with words, taken together with words, art can be a powerful force to put us in touch with realities that often go beyond the level of our understanding.

JMF: What are some examples of the depth of, let’s say, music? When you bring music to church, sometimes the music can affect us in a very negative way or a very positive way.

TH: It can. That’s a complex subject, and there are people far more expert than I am who understand how it works, but sometimes the interplay of the words, and when we’re talking about music, words set to music and the sound, whether we’re listening to it or when we’re participating in it, when we’re singing, we’re doing something, making sound in a certain way which can complement and amplify the meaning of the words when it’s done well.

Equally, I think a bad setting of a set of words…whether it’s church music (or any other sort, for that matter)… is one where the sound, the music, doesn’t work with the words, the ideas, but in some way against them. That can be hard to pin down and explain, but I think we know when it happens. Somehow it doesn’t work. There’s no sync between the meaning that we’re articulating through the words and the meaning that is articulated in sound.

JMF: In some of our Western churches today, there seems to be a carryover from rock concerts into the church service. The volume tends to come across that way, and in my experience, many elderly people have asked if the volume could be turned down, and yet they’re willing to, if it helps the young people, to have that music. Is it a historical phenomenon for what is art in contemporary life (or secular life, let’s say) to be brought across into the church, and is that usually productive, or should the church have its own art that does not reflect just what is around us?

TH: There are elements of truth in both sides of that. For many centuries, while the culture was shaped by the church, much music was written and performed as church music. The church was the key patron for the arts, at least music. Someone like Bach was writing to order for church patrons, Catholic and Protestant.

The division between secular music and sacred music only arises in the 17th century and beyond, when music, among other arts, was forced to find business, as it were, outside church because there were more opportunities for it there than within the church. Since then it’s usually been the case that church music has, to some extent, been willing to draw on wider currents of musicality, though not in an injudicious way.

The point of your question is good — we can’t borrow anything simply because it might attract young people. We need to be careful. Music can work at deep levels which we don’t always understand, so judiciousness and discernment needs to be carefully done. But, done well, done carefully, all sorts of things can be baptized and brought into the sanctuary and made good use of. There’s a long history of that. Many hymn tunes and carol tunes were borrowed from the wider culture of the day. And we forget…we just claim them for our own in the church. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in principle with doing it, but it needs to be done carefully.

Music written within the church, for the church or from a Christian standpoint — we think not so much of music for worship now, but music composed by Christian composers — I think can have a powerful impact on the wider culture, too.

JMF: Much of contemporary music today, or what’s called (at least in the United States) contemporary Christian music (much of which was written 40 or 50 years ago in some cases) has catchy tunes, repetitive tunes, but much of the theology seems to be weak, and yet that seems to be most popular and most repeated in many evangelical churches.

TH: If I wanted to start a new theological movement or a new Christian church with peculiar doctrines, the most efficient way by far of populating such a church would be to write songs, popular choruses, hymns, call them what you will, with appropriately theologically orientated words and get people to sing them, because when people sing things, they quickly begin to believe it. We’re far too careless in the way we pick up and sing things in church. We aren’t really thinking. I try to make it a habit of my own to always read through a hymn that I’m not familiar with and see whether I want to sing it. We don’t all need to have theology degrees and be able to analyze church hymn lyrics in a precise way, but we should be cautious about what we sing.

The flip side of that is it’s incumbent upon hymn writers, writers of songs, to do a good job and to be better informed theologically, so that what they write is carefully thought through and not simply driven by the beat or by whatever. The best church music is a happy synthesis in which good words and good music complement one another. It’s easy, and I suspect it happens, for bad words to arise because the music seems to drive it, just as it’s possible for good words to be spoiled by bad music. We need to be judicious about what we sing and not be driven too quickly by the currents of music or fashion or what passes as popular in theological terms.

JMF: Are there other forms of Christian art that could enhance a worship service?

TH: It’s a shame that in the Protestant churches and in the evangelical tradition, commonly we’re still nervous about the use of visual art in church. The Reformation was careful in the direction of its criticism about the use of visual art in church. The key Reformers differed markedly on their attitude toward it. Luther was far more forgiving about visual art in church, was happy to tolerate it. Calvin was much more nervous and careful about what he thought was permissible. The key concern was idolatry. Calvin’s worry was that if you put things in churches, people would tend to treat them in a way which might end up in idolatry and therefore it was far better to have them removed from churches. He was happy with art of a certain sort outside the sanctuary, not so happy with art in the sanctuary.

Luther’s attitude was that idolatry is a matter of the heart. If you take away paintings, they’ll simply find something else to latch onto — deal with the idolatry and then the paintings won’t be a problem. There are a range of issues about which we need to be careful, therefore, about using visual arts in church. But painting and other forms of visual art can be powerful com­municators of the gospel. They can enhance our church buildings in a range of ways which enrich worship, and used carefully and judiciously, so that we don’t fall foul of the things which the Reformers were worried about, they could be a massive enhancement of our worship in a number of ways.

JMF: Art is a reflection of human imagination, and you’ve done a great deal of work on the imagination in a broader sense and how it is a reflection of faith and practice in our walk with Christ. Can you tell us about that?

TH: I got interested in this when I was asked to write an essay on imagination and the Christian hope, and I started to reflect on it, reading around, thinking hard about it. It’s apparent, when one thinks about hope, that imagination is bound to be central. When you’re hoping, you’re picturing things that aren’t yet the case and making them concrete, so hope is one example of a place in Christian faith and life where we are employing our imaginations. There are many others.

In down-to-earth terms, if you ask yourself, what are most Christians doing when they pray? Most of us, I suspect, have a picture in our minds. Perhaps to some it will be a picture of God as father or something. For others it will be Jesus. It’s hard to pray to a person without picturing them in some way. So that’s another context in which imagination is quite indispensable for the life of faith.

Then I got to thinking, how about Jesus himself? Weren’t Jesus’ teaching strategies highly imaginative? In breaking open complex and difficult ideas — the kingdom of God, whatever it might be — Jesus tends to bring things immediately into the sphere of the imaginative and say, it’s a bit like this, and he would tell a story or compare something abstract to something concrete so people could get a handle on it. In all sorts of ways, in almost any area of Christian life and faith, the imagination crops up very soon and seems to have a central function to play.

One could describe Christian faith itself as a way of imagining the world. People will get nervous about that because “imagination” tends to be associated quickly with another word — imaginary. The automatic association between the two isn’t helpful. There’s nothing wrong with things that are imaginary, but not everything that we imagine is imaginary. Lots of things that we have to imagine, because we have no other way of picturing them, are real. When one comes to faith, a different way of seeing, feeling, and tasting the world, slides into view. That’s a matter of the imaginative. It’s a way of picturing reality, picturing the world, picturing our relation to God in a new way as if someone has changed the backdrop against which we’re situated. So a fundamental way in which to be imaginative seems to be basic to what we are, and in the life of faith, that has a basic role to play.

JMF: Many Christians will shy away from the idea, and yet everybody does it — we can’t be alive without having some goings on in our brain that put together ideas…and that is imagination. Can Christians go too far? Is there something they should be worried about or careful about?

TH: Sure. I like to think of the imagination as whatever’s going on in the mind’s eye, as we might call it. That can be good and healthy, and it can be bad and unhealthy. It’s reasonable that Christians might be concerned about certain things the imagination is capable of.

One thing I’m slightly cautious about is that in the 19th century, there was a rediscovery of the imagination and a tendency to associate it too quickly, almost automatically, with things of God, with the divine spirit, and so on. So I point out to my students that the imagination can be enormously dangerous. I usually say to them that there’s nothing more imaginative than a torture chamber. That’s one example of how we can use our imaginations to devise things, which far from being good and healthy and the things of God, are actually manifestations of evil. That tends to be the thing which underlies a lot of Christian concern of imagination, is it can be the maker of all sorts of things which are dangerous and damaging.

But imagination also lies behind most of the things which are good and life-giving and healthy. For example, knowing how to deal with somebody who is in a difficult place — an act of love, we might say, or mercy, or charity, call it what you will, is a highly imaginative thing. Knowing how to relate to another person effectively and well in any context is an imaginative activity. The imaginative is a fundamental disposition of what we are as human beings, and like most of the other things that we are as human beings, it can be used for good or ill, can be in the hands of God’s Spirit, or can be a device we use to withstand God’s Spirit and struggle against it.

So I don’t want to automatically baptize the imagination and say that everything that’s born of the imagination is necessarily good and healthy, but I want to recapture it, to reclaim it, for the kingdom of God, and say, God made us imaginative beings. We can’t remember, we can’t think where we’ve come from, without exercising our imaginations, we can’t anticipate or hope for what lies in the future without using our imaginations, we can have no sense of who we are, where we’re going, where we’ve come from, or what we should do and who we should seek to be. The imagination is a place in our lives where if God’s Spirit lays hold of it and renews and redeems it, can be a remarkable resource for good.

One way I sum that up is to say, as Christians we talk about God’s Spirit being present in us and transforming us from within. We’re not good at identifying the places where that happens. I have a hunch that if we talk about the imagination in that broad-brush sense of our mind’s eye, the way we envisage things, the way we see ourselves and the world, then the imagination could be one place, if not the main place, where God’s Spirit, present and active, works in renewing us and conforming us to Christ.

JMF: Our imagination is all we have, isn’t it, as far as any kind of planning, ideas, coming up with what to do next?

TH: Anytime we move in our mind’s eye beyond where we are now, then we’re being imaginative. Whether we’re thinking about what happened yesterday or what we might have for dinner tonight, that’s imaginative. If we’re thinking or planning a service for the weekend, that’s imaginative. If we’re expecting something to happen in life, that’s… Almost anything you can think of that gets us outside of the immediacy of the here and now, this moment, involves the imagination to some extent.

JMF: As Christians we’re participating in the life of Christ. As we read Scripture, that is a part of that process as Scripture becomes the witness of who Christ is with us and for us… How does imagination play into that?

TH: If we look at what God has given us as a book through which he makes himself known to us — how much of it is imaginative, and the sort of the thing that any literary critic would say oh, that’s an imaginative genre? Story, poetry, parable, and so on. History (I mean history which figures God in it) is a way of patterning things, creating a pattern through a series of events over centuries. That is imaginative in terms of the content of Old and New Testaments and the pattern in which we trace through them a story leading from creation to the last things.

But it’s not just the content of Scripture that’s highly imaginative. The ways in which as Christians we read the text, make sense of it for ourselves, find ourselves as well as God in its pages. Here, God’s speaking to us through its pages. That demands huge acts of imagination. It’s not a way in which people ordinarily would see or think of themselves, but we’re called to do it. God gives us these texts, calls us to read them together, and to seek his voice. Seeking and finding are highly imaginative activities. Imagination is a living and vibrant thing through which we come to see ourselves differently, and therefore to live differently. It seems to be fundamental to the ways in which we engage with the text of Scripture as God’s word.

JMF: Aren’t there some principles or guidelines that Christians can bring to keeping their imaginations within some sort of reasonable boundaries when they come to the Scriptures? Often, as we read the Scriptures and bring our experiences to them, we can begin to abuse other people, and as we interpret the Scripture, assume that our view is God’s view. How can a person not let their imagination lead them astray as they’re going through the Scriptures?

TH: You’re right. We can do all sorts of things with the Bible if we wish to. We can misuse it as well as use it well. Putting that back in terms of the question — there can be good imagining and bad imagining in relation to Scripture. We have to be guided by what we find in the text. It’s not a free-for-all. We can’t just do what we like with the text. We have to be guided by the patterns that we find in the text and work with those.

Christians have never thought that being faithful to the text of Scripture was simply a matter of reiterating the text. The best practitioners of the Christian faith, and the best theologians, have been those who have identified patterns within the text and then extrapolated them in a way that’s faithful to the text but applies it to new situations, answers questions which the text itself perhaps doesn’t answer directly but to which it’s relevant, almost in the way that a jazz pianist or saxophonist might improvise on a theme or themes that are within the piece, but now there’s something new and imaginative to be done on the basis of it for a new context, a new situation.

Yes, it’s possible to use the imagination badly in relation to Scripture, just as it’s possible to use it badly in relation to almost anything else in life. We’re fallen in our imaginations, just as we’re fallen in our minds, in our wills, and in our bodies — that’s all the more reason then to suppose that we’re also redeemed in Christ in our imaginations as well as our minds and our wills and our bodies. The other thing to say when we’re talking about Scripture is that we should do it prayerfully.

JMF: Is there something to be said for doing it in the context of the body of Christ as opposed to just on our own…

TH: Absolutely. This is to some extent something that Protestants and evangelicals need to rediscover — the importance of the church for the reading of Scripture and that it’s not primarily an individual exercise — it is primarily an exercise within the Body in which we have to listen to others, learn from others, as well as offer our own voice, and expect to meet Christ as we meet others and engage with them and not in isolation.

That’s not to say that God doesn’t speak to people — that we can’t meet Christ in the privacy of our own space — but I think the more normal expectation is that that will happen as we engage with other Christians in faith, in the community of faith, and share our interpretations, voice the things that we think we discover in the text, and see whether those are resonated by what others find there and see whether they’re confirmed or called into question by what others find.

JMF: I’ve seen a bumper sticker on cars that says something like, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” They’re talking about specific social issues about which they have reached a conclusion in which they’re condemning those who do it, and it’s their way of using the Bible as a tool to get across their agenda.

TH: Yeah. We need to be cautious about that. It’s always complex asking questions about issues to which the Bible itself sometimes appears to give no clear answer but which it would be easy, by using it in certain ways, to make it seem to speak. The secret is to approach the text prayerfully, to seek to be as aware as we can about our own failings, of our own tendencies to make it say what we want to find in it, but to situate our reading of it in the community — to air our readings, to hear the readings of others, and to seek truth together prayerfully, because what we’re concerned with is not faithfulness to our own readings or even those of our tradition, but faithfulness to what we hear God speaking in the text as we read it together.

JMF: The fact that we have imagination and the fact that Christ is one of us and therefore shares imagination as well, but more than that, we’re made in the image of God, then we have to think that God has imagination which transcends our imagination and is the source of our imagination. How would we think about God and imagination? Is that a fair question?

TH: That’s a huge question. Some theologians have wanted to use the term imagination directly of God. Any term we use in speaking of God we’re using very carefully, because as Christians have long recognized, God is not like us, as God says in Isaiah, “My ways are not as your ways,” and that otherness is important. However, the Bible doesn’t hesitate to use human terms of God — thinking, speaking, acting, and so on. It seems to me that imagining is a reasonable one to use. To think of God, in some sense, on the analogy of human imagination in his dealings with things, can help us get a grip, perhaps, on the ways in which God deals with things sometimes.

But we need to handle the terms carefully. We can’t simply project all the features of human imagining onto the clouds and assume that they’re true in some amplified sense of God — that would be a dangerous way to go. But I wouldn’t resist the term imagination just because it’s one that we don’t find on the pages of the Bible all over. The Bible does show God acting imaginatively, creatively, if you prefer the term, in response to all sorts of situations, so it seems to be reasonable to use it in that way.

JMF: The term imagination has to do with image, a created image of which we are.

TH: Yeah. Christians have sometimes wanted to use the image of the artist, coming back to artistic imagination, as a way of picturing God’s creative relation to the world. We need to be careful about that, but as a picture it seems to work reasonably well in certain respects…and the idea of God taking care over something, pouring gratuitous amounts of effort into the making of it and then standing back and…

JMF: The Scripture uses the potter and the wheel as the image of God.

TH: Indeed. And I think that sense of aesthetic judgment that we get in Genesis 1, where God stands back and sees that it is good. All those things speak to the human experience of making something, doing it well, doing it as well as you can, and being pleased, satisfied, with the outcome. And, of course, caring for what you’ve made, putting great value on it.

About Trevor Hart

Professor of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received his PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 1989.