A close friend recently asked me about my definition of art.
As we walked, I explained that I believed art was a reflection of God and creation, that beauty and goodness and truth were inevitably linked together in paintings and poetry and all the things we consider to be art.
“What about when God is absent?” He asked. “Is it still art?”
This question set in motion a thought process that had been plaguing the back of my mind since I got back from Italy. After spending two weeks surrounded by some of the most beautiful churches in Christendom, the most iconic art in history, and seeing the Passion Play that had survived persecution, I expected to be inspired, revived, and filled with awe at the presence of Christ in these places.
I was haunted by what felt like his absence.
By about the third church I visited in Rome, I had this nagging feeling that Christ wasn’t there. I’m no iconoclast by any means, I love a beautiful church as much as the next person. These churches were decked out in gold and marvelous paintings and gilded altars to saints… and yet they were empty. People hardly worship in them anymore, and they’re little more than art museums and tourist attractions. There are more altars to saints and popes than there are crucifixes in most of them. And I couldn’t help but think about how much money was poured into building these extravagant churches at times in history when people were starving and wars were raging.
The Passion Play in Oberammergau? Another moment where I felt this nagging absence of God. At first, I thought it might be because the script was in German. Then I remembered the Italian liturgy I’d sang a week prior and knew that wasn’t the case.
As I followed along in the English script, I realized that it had nothing to do with the language barrier and everything to do with the language. The Jesus in the play was not preaching the forgiveness of sins. He was preaching the judgement of the rich, the politics of the poor and oppressed, and the call to humanity to better ourselves. This was not the Gospel, leastwise the Gospel of Christ. It was the gospel of the social justice warrior: the gospel of those humanists that believe we can be our own salvation if we were just a little kinder or if we leveled the political playing field.
And as I thought about it that night I realized that the actors and the playwright had made the same mistake that the original historical characters had: they desperately wanted to exchange the real Jesus, the one that got dirt under his fingernails as he healed the sick and fed the poor and touched the untouchable and gave up his own life solely to forgive our sins, for the Jesus they wanted, the one that would save them from their own politics. They didn’t want the heavenly king we got anymore than the Jews did in Jesus’ day. They wanted an earthly king to save them from their earthly problems.
And so, as Jesus died on the cross in the play, I felt nothing, because it wasn’t the Jesus I know being portrayed on that stage.
So, what about when God is absent? Is it still art?
It’s the ontological argument for God that states that the very concept of God begs his existence. This means, to put it in more emotional terms, the absence of God is so deeply felt in an ache and a longing that we cannot fill with anything else, that even in his absence, he is present.
The churches are still standing, despite the poverty that surrounded them, despite the wars that raged above them, and against all political odds. Christ still conquers and has his space on earth.
The play is still being performed, despite all efforts to have it erased, rewritten, or made more palatable for a modern audience. And through this play, the Gospel is still being preached.
The churches are no more perfect than the play, and it may feel like God is absent from both. But God is stronger than our strongest sins, he is greater than our greatest failures. His Gospel is louder than all our blasphemy. Christ’s love and forgiveness conquers even our best efforts to mar his work and place ourselves at the center of the universe. The art is still art, even if it cries out in pain at the absence of God.
There is Gospel even in that, as God yet again chooses to speak and work through broken vessels.