The Art of Worship
January 23, 2017 — Mark 14:3–9
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
The other day my wife and I were having a conversation about the woeful lack of patronage towards artists within the evangelical church. That same day she had been discussing this problem with some fellow artists, and while they were sharing in their communal frustration, there ended up being a small point of disagreement they ran into — whether or not art is a necessary part of the church going experience.
While they agreed that art was something that is good, and should be desired, the lack of funding from the church was mainly chalked up to lack of understanding or “art-literacy” rather than an anti-biblical point of view. The artist she was taking to made the point that, the Bible never said anything about churches needing paintings or stained glass. The main things are that where two or three are gathered right?
Putting aside the fact that in context that verse has more to do with church discipline, and not about the presence of the Spirit in a religious gathering, it also leaves out the fact that there actually is precedent within the Bible for God commanding people to make religious art for the worship of His people.
One of the first commandments God gave to the people of Israel after they had left Egypt was to build a worship center that was filled to the brim with the finest artwork that was available to that day. There were golden candleholders, and bronze alters that all were brought about by the willing and sacrificial donation of jewelry and money. This art wasn’t just functional either! God specifically commands the builders to add artistic flourishes with no functional value, such as decorative pomegranates, and sculptures of angels on the ark of the covenant. To top it all off, the very first person to ever be described to be filled with the Holy Spirit in the Bible was an artist named Bezalel.
“See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Ex 31:2–5).
Someone might say, however, that that had to do with the temple period of God’s redemptive history, and that now we are called to be the temples of our God as His people. Therefore, art doesn’t have any usefulness. They might even say, “We shouldn’t be using our money to adorn our sanctuary because that wouldn’t be a good use of resources. Art is expensive, and we could do a lot of good with that money. We could help out a homeless shelter, or send care packages to struggling college students.”
I’ve always struggled with this way of thinking as well. As Evangelicals, we tend to be pragmatic in our thoughts about our faith. We desire to be good stewards of what has been given to us, and we want to make sure that we are able to be called good and faithful servants when we utilize the resources that God has given to us. How then could we justify in paying an artist 30,000 dollars for a painting, when that could easily take care of a single mom for an entire year?
This is the crossroads that my wife and I found ourselves at in our conversation. We knew that God had historically commanded his people to create artistic works, and we knew that they were Spirit-filled activities, but we never saw anywhere where art was supposed to be prioritized over caring for the needy — until it hit us both at the exact same time: Jesus condoned an act that was seen as incredibly wasteful by his disciples as a “beautiful thing.”
“But wait,” you might say “That wasn’t Mary creating a painting, or writing a song. She was worshiping her Lord.” If you said that you would be completely right, and that is what gets me so excited. Jesus was affirming a biblical instance of performance art.
The definition of performance art is as follows:
an art form that combines visual art with dramatic performance.
By this definition, Mary was creating an artistic expression of anointing the body of Christ for his burial. She spent lavishly for something that was a one-time thing, that was dramatic and poignant. Even though there isn’t any existing sculpture, score, painting, or drawing, the echoes of this performance have continued to perplex and amaze Christians.
An entire year’s salary was spent on this act of worship and this act of artistic expression, and it was a good and beautiful thing. We are often so afraid of spending lavishly on beautiful things that to us seem functionless. We have such a narrow view of art that we don’t realize that the very act of worshiping God together every week is an act of communal performance art. It is why God brings about tangible elements to teach us about intangible mysteries — so that we might know a thing, even if we can’t understand it, or explain it.
We need to free ourselves from the thoughts of functionalism. While we ought never neglect the poor, we must also remember that they will always be with us. We must not in the act of caring for them, sterilize our gatherings from the beauty of art, for by definition, our worship to Him is an act of artistic creation.