“The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays — not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
The quote above is all over the web and is attributed to Martin Luther. It turns out that he never said it. The scholarly opinion is that it probably has an American source. It bends Luther’s teaching on vocation a little more than it should. Luther would have taught that the maid and the shoemaker would be fulfilling their vocation insofar as they were serving their neighbor. Presumably, serving your neighbor also means doing a good job at your vocation, but the claims our neighbor has on us trump God’s “interest in good craftsmanship”.
I still like the quote very much because it brings out one of the central issues involved in being a Christian artist. We are approaching dangerous territory here. Whenever the subject of craftsmanship comes up, we get immediately suspicious of who the arbiters of “quality” might be. We have a terrible history of excluding the simple and honest beauty of the untrained artist in the name of a cultural bias that equates complexity with profundity.
So, without delving into the subject of what counts as “good craftsmanship”, let’s at least come to a place where we can say that it does not honor God if we try to mask something that we know is poor by putting a little cross on it. Unfortunately, this happens all the time. The tyranny of functionality sweeps aside the honest and the unique.
The very sad consequences are that many artists cannot find room for themselves in church anymore. It’s not so much that people who have spent years training and perfecting their craft don’t have room for people that want to participate in artistic endeavors for fun. It’s that people who participate in more accessible and popular forms of culture don’t make room in the worship experience for people that are trained.
The result of this exclusion is a bifurcation in the life of a religious artist that is ultimately unhealthy. I have many friends and colleagues who think of their artistic lives as something that they practice outside of the church. One wrote to me recently stating the problem like this, “A friend and I were just discussing the fact that we have never seen a piece of theatre designed for the church that speaks ART as well as truth. It’s all contrived Christmas pagent-y stuff.”
The quote is telling. You experience the power of art outside the church. The church isn’t interested in serious art. Artists aren’t allowed to do something “real” in the church, only something “pagent-y”. I have a deep-seated belief that Christian artists need to be able to offer their gift – in all of its power and strangeness – in the context of worship to be whole.
I am personally serving in a congregation where we have tremendous freedom and encouragement from the clergy to take some artistic risks. I have played music and musical styles in worship services that I never imagined I would be able to include in worship services. I had resigned myself to having a certain part of my artistic life only having a place outside of the church. To be able to explore those areas in the context of worship has been a great source of healing and comfort for me. The surprising thing about the experience is that the reaction has been extremely positive from the congregation as well. What I thought would be too radical for an untrained person to grasp has often turned out to be the very thing that moved him/her the most.
Kurt, I'm curious if you think there is any music that is inappropriate for church? I remember, one time many years ago, a church pianist played what sounded much like Mancini's stripper tune for an offertory. It got me thinking about this ….
A great question, Patty. Times change a lot. Some things that are unacceptable in one period become acceptable in another period. Some things that are acceptable within one tradition are harder for other traditions to accept. For example, I serve an academic parish with a tradition of a historic music program with very high standards. I don't think it would be fair to impose that on a tribal church in Africa. That being said, I don't think that there is a style that is innately inappropriate in itself. It is a question of whether or not you can do it in good faith as a servant. I have an upcoming post on this subject. Just haven't had time to write it because of too many rehearsals. Thanks again for the comment.