In the spring of 2013, I stood in the open nave of St. Peter’s Basilica and all the mystery of Rome, that holy city, expanded before me.
Gold and marble clothed every surface in the sacred place, and though the metal was cool to the touch, its majesty and brilliance warmed my chest. Arching my neck as far back as it would allow, I gazed up at the vaulted ceiling which managed, despite being made by human hands, to hang above the reach of any angel. An ocean of intricate detail stormed above me and rained down each wall and column. I walked the lengthy span of the crucifix-shaped chamber, under the great dome, to the feet of the throne of St. Peter in Glory. That this was the handiwork of masters like Michelangelo and Gianlorenzo was more than clear from the unparalleled realism in every painting and statue. Each detail of stone and pigment in the vast room was crafted to perfection, and the sheer immensity of the church was too great for my eyes to comprehend. And then my traveling companion, standing by my side, absorbing the same scene, leaned to me, “Just imagine how many mouths could have been fed.”
Despite the ulterior motives of Judas and the blatant condemnation by Jesus, Judas’s question in John 12, “Why was this ointment [which was poured on Jesus’s feet] not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” deserves serious consideration.
It is a question of priority—is our aim to honor the very name of God or to create justice on earth? Shall we glorify our Lord or fill an empty stomach?
This dilemma has showed its face throughout church history and at times has been quite ugly. The established church has always sought to elevate the name of Christ through extravagant works and creations (though sometimes with impure motives). In response each restoration and reformation, to some extent, reacted to perceived excess and debauchery in the church. One notable Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, poignantly whitewashed the walls of his own church building to highlight Christendom’s profligacy.
Zwingli’s efforts are easy to sympathize with. I’m aware of how many verses the Bible spends discussing money, how often Scripture stresses benevolence—and it is ingrained in me that Christ desires simplicity. With this in mind, I struggle to find a hearty defense for the architectural art of church buildings, cinematic masterpieces devoted to religion, or any great feat done in the name of Christ that diverts funds away from proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. I appreciate them, but I cannot defend them.
Oddly, I had mapped out this post with intent to do just that—to defend great works of art which I identify with praise. I remember how I felt when I first beheld St. Peter’s in Rome. I remember the sermon I gave not even a year ago in praise of the arts. I revel in the knowledge that some of the greatest structures, paintings, sculptures, songs and sonnets, movies, and books were all created to the glory of God—and my knuckles are white as I refuse to let them go.
I am hesitant to chalk this up to the paradox of religion; I’ve had too many blog entries end in ambiguity. I also struggle to develop a rule-of-thumb—should some percentage of tithes be used for art and the rest for benevolence? Should we stop making art and be content with what has been constructed up to this point? Nothing is appealing.
Christians, I think, are left with two guidelines. The first is simple: continue to follow both of Scripture’s directives to praise God and to help the marginalized. It is a requirement of nature that we glorify the Lord, for we know he loves to hear the praise of our hearts and our lips. In art and in whatever our craft may be, we should continue to do our best and exalt God. Simultaneously, we should live out the Lord’s requirements for us: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him. We do this by meeting the requirements of humans—food, and kindness.
The second guideline is that we do justice and love mercy through our glorification of God. By doing this, the tension in these two commandments is relieved. Whenever we do great deeds in the name of Christ, produce aesthetic masterpieces, or do anything to exalt God, we do it with the forgotten in mind. We make our craft available to the poor, we show beauty to the disheartened, and for the disenfranchised, we prophesy to the world.