On Being Afriad of Virginia Woolf (and art pastors)

In the Lord's gracious providence, I recently had the opportunity to travel with my family to my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina to participate in the ordination service of a dear friend (a thrilling experience, by the way). While escaping the 17+ inches of snow that fell on Philadelphia, I was nonetheless caught up in a good play while at home, Edward Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by no less than my own father.

William Van Doodewaard's recent (excellent) article "Art, Nakedness, and Redemption" stimulated some thoughts that had been brewing since I took in said play.  For those who have never seen Virginia Woolf, it is one of the most unpleasant theatrical viewing experiences I can imagine. This is not because it is stunningly graphic in, say, its portrayal of nudity. Rather, it is graphic in a far more dangerous sense: it portrays the reality of all of us apart form the grace of God.

Indeed, as one witnesses the absolute cutting brutality of George and Martha's dialogue, the then-spoiled innocence of Honey, the cocksure unsteadiness (and hormonal incontinence) of Nick, one sees the reality of the depravity of man's nature in all of its horrific, disgusting, soul-stultifying effects.  The awkwardly evoked and even somewhat jovial laughter in the first act gives way to despair and sheer endurance by the third. In short, to quote my dad when we were discussing the play, "You won't walk out humming the theme song."

Albee's nihilism is saddening for a Christian to watch. Seeing the brokenness of the character's lives, coupled with the unparalleled depth given them by Albee, makes one want to sit all of them down with the Gospel of Mark and do an in-depth Bible study of the redemptive historical significance of the coming of the kingdom. One simply wants to grab them and say, "It doesn't have to be like this!"

Now, I am a pastor. And I love the arts (my father, as you might have guessed, being in theatre but having a brother who is a musician in Nashville). But I do not think that we should ever have a "pastor of the arts." I think we should have pastors who appreciate the arts, whatever their title happens to be.

In my opinion, a pastor for the arts sounds much more like style than substance. I grew up around "the arts." I've seen the plays my dad directed for as long as I can remember (my earliest memories being a pretty amazing rendition of Dracula at the Hartung Theater in Moscow, Idaho, but I digress). I had the privilege of spending years playing the drums and classical percussion pieces.

So I love the arts. When I became convinced of Reformed theology, one of the things that I loved about it (after becoming a Christian in a predominantly fundamentalist culture) was the fact that there was no "sacred/secular" divide; I was now free to love and appreciate the best of God's common grace to fallen man, even if that artist was not a Christian.

I came to love this aspect of Reformed theology. Yes, that concept that surely frightens many of those of the "art pastor" persuasion - "doctrine" - caused me to see the freedom I could have in considering the arts. It was the thoughtful engagement of my views by those who were well-versed in the Bible and the theology of the Bible that helped me think through how to love the arts for the glory of God. Anachronistically, I didn't have to despair at watching something like Albee's play because I had been set free by Christ.

And that is what true Christian liberty is. It is to be set free to serve the Lord in reverence and obedience. It is not the freedom to pass off pornography as "gritty" and "real", nor is it an excuse to fill our ears and eyes with anything we think will get us a hearing with those outside the covenant of grace. Rather, Christian liberty is the freedom from becoming like George or Nick, Honey or Martha because we are united to Christ.

Therefore, if you are a "pastor for the arts," the best thing you can do to minister to artists is to make sure you know doctrine very well. My experience with those involved in the arts is that they are, by and large, very thoughtful, engaging, joyful (for the most part), loving, and caring people. In other words, they are like sheep without a shepherd and Jesus has compassion on them. But they are still sinners. They need to be redeemed from their sin. They need to see that they have used their (many times) amazing gifts for their own selfish and self-serving ends, ignoring, denying and suppressing the truth of the One who gave them such gifts.

All of this is "doctrine." It takes time to learn and is very hard to master. In fact, you will never fully master it. It's never to be separated from practice. Doctrine and life are inseparably conjoined. But if you've spent more time mastering the latest R-rated film or x-rated museum exhibit than you have in studying God's word, reading theology and praying regularly, than you will not minister to artists. Rather, you will cause them harm by your criminal lack of preparation.

So let's have pastors who love the arts and do not need a title to tell the world that they do. And let's have pastors who study hard, pray hard and love artists. Let's pray for opportunities to reach those in the arts community.

And let's take in plays like Albee's to remind us of what we were. Let us not do so in a Pharisaical way. Rather, let us weep that plays like this are written simply because they so viscerally capture what lurks in all of us. But let us rise from the theatre and sing for joy because Christ has set us free. Your local pastor, who probably is not a pastor for the arts, can tell you all about it. Pay him a visit.


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