A Lutheran Context for the Arts
In one sense it is no more valid to look for "Lutheran art" than it is for Baptist horticulture, Catholic astronomy, or Methodist economics. If the impulse to pursue Lutheran context for the arts is born of either confessional chauvinism or denominational envy—the Catholics have something, why can't we?—then it would be better to let it pass along with other irrelevant tinglings of toes or itchings of palms. There are, however, better reasons to inquire about how and when and whether the Lutheran movement gives encouragement to human creativity in the form of various arts.
One good reason to explore the connections has to do with patronage. Historians of art regularly cite the general disappearance of the church as inspirer or subsidizer of creativity. No longer, now that Christendom has gone, will the Christian church be able to control or direct resources which will attract sculptors, painters, or engravers. Gawkers at the great art in European churches can only with difficulty imagine a day when wealthy classes were made up of people who sought salvation beyond the world of tax shelters and super-bowl victories, when they put their money into betting on a kingdom to come. Art as indulgence. No longer does the Christian symbol system serve to connect the loose ends of a culture, or to unite the imaginations of diverse sorts of people in any place and time. Today each artist must face the terror that is born where beauty erupts and fight the terror of loneliness: how can I succeed in generating a system of symbols potent enough that I can lure people inside it long enough to confront my artifact and art?
Lacking the church as agent or sponsor, artists only rarely resort to Christian themes and only slightly less rarely do they give expression to overtly religious inspirations of the sort Paul Tillich used to celebrate in, say, the numinous works of Vincent van Gogh. A church leadership that would divorce Christ from culture then complains that Christ and culture are divorced. Christians should not involve themselves with the arts, literature, economics, politics, human affairs, they say—and then they bemoan the fact that culture is secular. Peter Berger once complained that when Christians thus complain about secularism they are as foolish as blond parents would be if they faulted their daughter for being blond: you produced her, their hearers can say.
Here and there the churches have won back some space and created, at least in the Christian community, a congenial climate for the arts. There is a large enough critical mass of creative energy and people to appreciate it in the Lutheran colleges and universities of the greater Midwest that some sort of tradition has been born: of galleries, choirs, musical compositions, and artistry. When the post-World War II building boom in the churches gave suburban Christianity a chance to express itself, Lutheranism was often congratulated for being free enough within its traditional outlook to be rather bold in architectural creation. While many a sanctuary has seen sorry banners, some have also welcomed sewn works of liturgical integrity. This is not the moment to inventory, but only to point out that the landscape has not been completely barren, the sound-scape entirely bleak. There has been something, not nothing, to inspire inquiries like this one about the Lutheran genius.
For the future, one must say that the outposts of Christianity that have had Lutheran presences, from Norway to Namibia, from Torgau to Tacoma, in Philadelphias and St. Louises and Minneapolises, are at least large enough to show up on the Christian screen. There are, we were often enough reminded by the public media in the Luther year, eight million Americans and seventy million earthlings in all who derive their prism for the Gospel in some direct way from the Lutheran heritage. If a few hundred Shakers in nineteenth-century America could generate such great toolcraft and esthetic integrity, then there should be at least islands and outcroppings where Lutheranism finds a voice. It may play its part in rendering aspects of the Body of Christ vivid in chorus, pigment, or literary line.
It takes time, energy, patience for aborted efforts or lost talents to be transcended, before an element of the Christian church does find voice. I recall reading an article a year or so ago by a Fordham priest who was responding to post-Vatican II nostalgia buffs who rued the bad translations and worse music which have afflicted the Church before, during, and after the guitar-accompaniment era. He was ministering to Catholics who envied Lutherans in the arts of worship because after twenty years Catholic liturgy lacked a new poetry. Remember, he said, that Lutheranism's two poets, Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach, are distanced from each other not by two and a half decades but by two and a half centuries. Enfoldings of church life and struggling efforts by "poets" between them were all part of the process. Take the long view.
Typologies of Christ and Culture
That confessional traditions in sundry cultural settings do engender or acquire specific modalities for being in the world is obvious to any student of statecraft or artcraft. The most familiar typology, one that by now can be called classic, is that of H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951). As most serious students of the subject know, Niebuhr discerned a fivefold set of options or located five characteristic approaches. Three of them have appeared on Lutheran soil, but we need not take them seriously: Christ against culture, Christ above culture, Christ of culture. Christ against; certain prophetic movements have been so crabby that they would pose Christ against the creation—a heresy for anyone who has read the celebrations of nature and history in Luther's explanations of the Fourth Petition of the Lord's Prayer or the Large Catechism elaboration on the First Article of the Creed. Christ above: some Lutheran pietists, in the messy bag of mixed blessings they brought (and there were some blessings in it), sometimes acted as if everything in the world was so tainted that Christ would be served by purists. Heresy again, same documentation. Christ of: baptize whatever you find to your liking in a culture, be it your Volk, nation, "way of life," or possessions. Lutherans often do that, but they really know they should not, so let us not take them typologically seriously. We are at this moment discussing substance, not sin.
That left two options. The one saw Christ transforming culture. The church was always in the process of seeing sinful, errant, finite domains of humanity being brought ever closer into some sort of congruence with the Kingdom of God or a similar ideal. It was this outlook that stood behind many awesome Catholic and Calvinist impulses in public life. Witness legal Christendom. Witness the Puritan Protestant achievement in Geneva or Massachusetts Bay, or, if we have the wit trace the hidden theology behind the Enlightenment in America, we can even see the suspicious and hence creative U.S. Constitution as a Presbyterian document. It is realistic about human nature, but still impels citizens to be constructive.
In such a reading, Luther and Lutheranism come off less well. In Paul Tillich's terms, for Lutheranism, the demonic pervades the structures of existence. There is no "transforming" of culture, though there can be responsibility in it. The Lutheran record of passivity in public life is born of this vision. Instead, Luther's own radically dialectical view of Christ and culture "in paradox" kept it uncreative in affairs of state and the polis.
The historian has a hard time confuting what Niebuhr sensed: uncreativity. On occasion, however, when I let the details of Niebuhr's text recede from my mind and I pop up or off with responses to questions after addresses, I forget that he notices what seems to me to be my own patent: reverse the fields from statecraft to art and it is the Lutherans who have more positive views of cultural potential, while the Calvinists and Reformed in general—the Zwinglians in particular—shrink.
One should not overdo this twisting and turning to make Lutheranism come out right, if positive achievement is what is "right." The artistic peer of Bach on Protestant soil, Rembrandt, and the poetic genius of literature on similar soil, Milton, were of Reformed, not Lutheran lineage. Yet when the Reformed think about it, their churches, while not unaesthetic, tend to be unadorned. Their music has been Protestant versions of plainsong and plainchant and psalmsong, and the Calvinists have always been a bit embarrassed by eruptions of toccatas, explosions of color, or the hints of ecstasy that come with four-star, twenty-one-gun salute eucharists. Karl Earth and Andre Bieler typically see the sanctuary as an arena for the Word, and that is basically it. Mozart is heavenly and Swiss architecture is to be appreciated, but they are not an intrinsic part of leitourgia, the people's service. They may be a threat to it. Keep the cross bare of Body, if there is to be a cross at all.
That imaging runs close to stereotyping, but let it pass in outline long enough to make a point: Niebuhr was there first. In Christ and Culture he specifically observes that Luther and Lutheranism encouraged education in languages, arts, and history, especially in music. The Lutheran teaching on vocation chartered commerce and military life. Niebuhr simply and safely saw these encouragements as part of the "yes" side of Lutheran dialectic, over against the "no" which is always especially vivid in, say, political life.
This "yes" does not mean that Christ transforms culture into some new consolidation called Christendom or, more embarrassingly for lovers of the Gospel, Lutherandom. It does mean that in the midst of a sad and fallen world, where all things human and finite live under the marks of Adam and Cain and Herod, there is room for astonishingly brilliant, refreshingly free celebration of nature and history.
I hope a possibly mischosen illustration will not lead some to let me lose my point. I have often noticed in the two sides of American watercolorist Charles Burchfield's work this Lutheran dialectic. Was this because Burchfield "happened to be a Lutheran," or was it accidental, or was it integral to his faith and vision? On the one hand, he painted extremely realistic and depressingly more-than-accurate pictures of Buffalo and Ohio cityscapes, the grey-turned-black homes of workers in 1 industrial districts. On the other hand, there were those scenes from nature, in which penumbras of the sacral could not be suppressed; they created auras to halo tree and brook and sun.
Revisiting Primal Lutheran Resources
When one seeks to cultivate a Lutheran context for arts of all sorts, it is necessary to revisit the primal Lutheran resources which have to do with creativity. In a previous Cresset article on Luther and the Humanities (December, 1981, p. 11), I cited some Luther lines so apt and searing, so penetrating and useful, that no doubt all readers have kept them at hand on desktop or had them engraved for doorposts, enscrolled for frontdoors. From that rich harvest, these few lines:
We [in the Reformation] are now living in the dawn of the future life; for we are beginning to regain a knowledge of the creation, a knowledge we had forfeited by the fall of Adam. . . Erasmus does not concern himself with this; it interests him little how the fetus is made, formed, and developed in the womb. Thus he also fails to prize the excellency of the state of marriage. [God's power] is evident even in a peach stone. No matter how hard its shell, in due season it is forced open by a very soft kernel inside it. All this is ignored by Erasmus. He looks at the creatures as a cow stares at a new gate.
Such a view of nature was grounded in a specific way of seeing creation. Most people in the Lutheran tradition assent to the notion of creatio ex nihilo; that God created out of nothing. This, Jurgen Moltmann tells us, is a handy doctrine of creation because of the fact or insofar as it helps protect our understanding of the freedom and spontaneity of God. They might be more surprised to know that it is not a specifically biblical teaching. Not until the Apocrypha, in a line or two of something Maccabean, or until well into Christian patriarchy, in the writings of Theophilus of Antioch (I stole that obscure reference from Jaroslav Pelikan) did "creation out of nothing" find explicit statement.
Instead, as any reader of the Large Catechism on the First Article makes clear, it is creatio continua that dominated in the engendering generation of Lutheranism, before the scholastics got neat about things. Luther, who as roving planet and not fixed star, as he put it, lived out in advance Nietzsche's line that "one must still have chaos in one's soul to give birth to a dancing star," celebrated that view of creation in which God is always in the process of rendering cosmos out of chaos. Instantly that profession about divine Creatorhood is focused in the creativity of the person, the "young child, 'My boy,'" who can answer as a leader of adults:
I hold and believe that I am a creature of God; that is. that he has given and constantly sustains my body, soul, and life, my members great and small, all the faculties of my mind, my reason and understanding, and so forth; . . . Besides, he makes all creation help provide the comforts and necessities of life. . . . Moreover, he gives all physical and temporal blessings—good government, peace, security. ...
And, in turn, "we are in duty bound to love, praise, and thank God without ceasing, and, in short, to devote all these things to his service. . . ."
The implications of such a view for the artist in his or her vocation of creating and the constituent or client or congregant in participating should be obvious. Christ, the Incarnate One, who our race hath honored thus that he deigns to dwell with us, is always in the process of transforming that very culture in which the demonic at the same time (simul, again and always) remains pervasive inside history.
Lutheranism, then, becomes a life of response. This may take the form of prayer and praise, as Luther said it must when he dedicated the first "Lutheran" sanctuary in Torgau Castle. It may take the form of home-making, teaching, being a politician. It can never rule out the artist, the glorifier of singular things.
To be a Lutheran and to be a dull, practical burgher is quite natural. Yes, natural, as in Natural Man or Woman. To be a Lutheran and be tone deaf, not gifted in putting together pigment and stone, not nuanced about pentameter or sprung rhythm, is allowable. There are a variety of gifts but the same spirit. But to belong to the tradition which speaks as Luther did of music or as did his Large Catechism of creation and then to oppose artistic creation—that moves beyond the bounds of permissible understandings. We may not all be called to frequent the galleries, buy sandwiches for the composers, or get the poets out of their garrets. We are all called, in this tradition, somehow to respond to Creation by encouraging the creators among us, the creativity within us.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the history of modern Christianity at The University of Chicago and Associate Editor of the Christian Century. A Lutheran minister whose major energies have gone into the teaching and writing of history or into cultural comment and, in his words, "barely more than impotent “social activism,'" he has carried on a career-long love affair with the arts and is an honorary member of or fellow in a number of Christianity-and-Arts foundations and fellowships. This article parallels remarks at a noontime lecture he gave during the 1983 "Worship and Witness" festival in Minneapolis. Lutheran Brotherhood sponsored the lecture. As a luncheon address, he explains, it remains deliciously unburdened by footnotes.