Renew the Arts Roundtable is a continuing series of discussions between members and friends of Renew the Arts concerning (mostly) recent happenings in the intersecting worlds of faith, art, and popular culture. In this first installment, three staff members talk about Ambient Church, the implications this movement has for the relationship between the Church and the Arts, and how Christian art can be liberated by analyzing this issue.

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EJ Olsen (Writer, Communications Assistant):

Hey guys. We should talk about Ambient Church.

Ambient Church is an event series in New York City that hosts experimental, meditative ambient music performances in various cathedrals and churches across the city. The series was founded and currently is organized by Brian Sweeny. To understand the context of Ambient Church, I think it’s important to discuss Sweeny’s involvement in his local scene.

Sweeny reportedly grew up in a Christian home and adopted the faith at age 8, though he currently doesn’t call himself a practicing Christian. Before founding Ambient Church, Sweeny was a co-founder and manager of Body Actualized Center in Brooklyn. BAC was self-described as a “New Age sex cult” and a “post-capitalist experiment in vibe” focused on a lifestyle of “healthy hedonism.” BAC has been described as scandalous and notorious, with some of its more controversial focuses including, most famously, a “public self-pleasuring ritual” at a major event. BAC closed in 2014 due to community complaints and rising rent.

These days, Sweeny’s efforts are more musically focused than his work at Body Actualized Center. However, there is a decidedly spiritual element to the approach of the artists who perform at Ambient Church events, and Sweeny says that a primary focus of these events is a communal experience of art. Basically worship without God.

So what do you guys think of all this? What does this say about the relationship between the Church and the Arts?

Justus Stout (President, CEO):

I don’t know what Ambient Church says specifically about the relationship of artists with the Christian church, but it definitely sheds light on the way that music consistently engages humans in their worship and spiritual experience.

No one is without religion, in some sense. Everyone believes something, and that something forms their priorities, informs their decisions, and shapes their lifestyles. For whatever reason (this a huge rabbit trail with lots of spilled ink), we are wired to weave creative experiences into our belief system. Oftentimes, this acts as a kind of grounding—a fleshing out—of ideology into something tangible. For a group hoping for “body actualization,” incorporating music is an obvious choice.

Of course, Christianity has biblical and historical precedents for incorporating art (music included) in our worship. Unfortunately, the post-Reformation church has an incredibly difficult time understanding the role of art in Christian living and liturgy, and has, for the most part, relegated creative expression to the “world.”

Harry Belafonte once said “When the movement is strong, the music is strong.” Unfortunately, because of the church’s lack of investment and involvement in music and the arts, our music is weak. With the exodus of Millennials and the rise of “nones” (people who claim no religious affiliation), we already know the movement is weak. I’m not sure which necessarily came first, but if the church is going to grow, you will certainly see a growth in support of its creative members and in its creative output.

Michael Minkoff (Writer, Co-Founder):

I find it interesting that Ambient Church gravitates toward the arts for the very reasons the church is hesitant to engage with them: first, the arts tend to be sensory/bodily (almost exclusively) and artistic meanings can be subjective or open-ended. These qualities are considered “pros” by the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd and as “cons” by those in the institutional church.

Why does the institutional church feel this way? Most church leaders are uncomfortable with open-ended meanings because ambiguity tends to be fertile for error. And a sensory focus can, especially in the minds of many Protestant church leaders, become idolatrous or “fleshly.” In an effort to avoid heresy and idolatry/sensualism, many Protestant churches have turned the arts over to the non-churched, who of course have been happy to exploit the arts to make their falsehoods undetectable and their idolatries attractive.

It seems like Ambient Church wants “bodily” or practical “spirituality” without religious law or truth. And Protestant religion somehow believes we can have law and truth without involving much more of the body than is necessary to drive to church and sit in a pew. The solution to this is clearly to have a robust and biblical approach to both substance and form (spirit and truth).

As Justus said, Ambient Church is clearly filling a longing in human beings for religion and worship, but it is attempting to pursue tangible experiences of worship without any defined spiritual object for that worship. Oddly, Protestant worship has arrived at nearly the same place from the opposite direction. It turns out that an abstract religion and a hollow spirituality look almost exactly the same. Whether you focus on Platonic “religious” abstractions devoid of nuance, ambiguity, or embodiment (like many Protestant churches unwittingly do) or on hedonistic “spiritual” experiences devoid of substance, theology, or regulations, you end up focusing on largely the same thing: the act or experience of “worshipfulness” to the exclusion of the object of worship—God. Either way, human beings are at the center.

Do you all think this is fair? Has Ambient Church arrived at basically “contemporary worship” without the “offensive” (and largely unnecessary) bones of Christianese cliché?

EO:

I think that’s a fair assessment, albeit a particularly disturbing one. It’s hard to accept that contemporary worship and Christian art has more in common with the new face of a “New Age sex cult” than with the true biblical practice that we proclaim to observe.

Also, it’s incredibly ironic and tragic that these secular movements seeking spiritual experiences are finding them within a church building. Not only is Ambient Church accomplishing the same ends as contemporary worship, but they are doing it in the very same literal space. It has somewhat of a “moneychangers in the temple” feel to it.

With these denunciations of contemporary worship and “Christian art” in general, I think it’s important to make a qualifying statement:

One of my favorite passages from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is the fifth chapter, where he talks about the necessary coexistence of optimism and pessimism in the act of reform. You have to think that a thing—contemporary Christian worship, in this case—is in such a wretched state that it needs saving, while also believing that it is worth saving. You have to love what you criticize. It never should go without saying that I (and I believe I can speak for all of us at Renew the Arts concerning this matter) love worship, and my utmost desire is to see it restored to a place of spirit and truth. It pains me to observe and call out these issues, but the attention is nonetheless essential if we are going to do anything about it.

With this forward-thinking optimism, then, what do you think would happen if churches became more open to “experimental” and sensory-focused performances or installments by Christian artists? What if the Church used its physical spaces to promote its own art? And what would it look like for a church to successfully navigate the ambiguities and nuances inherent in this sort of artistic expression?

JS:

I think the most important sensory-focused church performance happens to be one of its oldest — communion, or the Eucharist — the serving of the body and blood of Christ to its members for the tangible receiving of our Lord.

I think in many ways (and this is not a thought original to me) the Protestant church has far more difficulty valuing the tangible, physical demonstrations of our faith because of the way we’ve “spiritualized”—or, more accurately, “mentalized”—the taking of the body and the blood. When it’s just a handy symbolic ritual we use merely to nod at an explicitly spiritual truth, then it’s easy to put this sacrament off to only four times a year. Then, quarterly, we serve the Welch’s in plastic thimbles and “feast” on the blandest crackers you’ve ever tasted.

Protestants like Luther rightly found lots of fault with the Catholic church in that age, but I’m afraid the pendulum has swung to the far side of things, and what matters most to Protestants is our mind. Correct theology is the means and (more often than not) the end of our spiritual pursuits. This is, essentially, a new Gnosticism. This way of thinking is a dead end of religiosity cramped with long conversations and no action; heady theology and no practice; constant divisions over theological nuance.

All that to say, start with the Eucharist. Going from there, you could certainly involve other biblical forms of art in your worship. I mean, where did dance go? I grew up in a church that preached the regulative principle (the only worship allowed is worship explicitly commanded in scripture), but not once did I hear a call for dance like you find in the Bible. Visual arts, too, could be housed in your church. Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) has a touring gallery for just this purpose (though it would be more meaningful to include artists from the church’s own congregation).

I think opening these platforms up would actually force the church to deal with nuance and some ambiguity. It is inherent in the medium of good story-telling/visual representation/music/etc. If this sounds scary or unorthodox, then, for your own safety, please do not read Scripture. There you will find all sorts of ambiguity and nuance. Indeed, if you’d rather stick to sermons, you’d have to ignore all but about 5% of your Bible.

MM:

I agree that the Lord’s Supper is a great place to start for a tangible expression of religious truth—especially if the mode of its celebration is varied occasionally to emphasize the various Old Testament rites it fulfills for God’s people today (e.g., the major festivals; the guilt, purification, and fellowship offerings; etc.). Sacred music would be the next most obvious liturgical element to reform. Church architecture and furniture/decoration would be the next. And all three are woefully under-addressed in the Protestant church.

And when the aesthetics of worship are addressed, they tend to be divorced from the substance of what they are communicating or advocating, as if beauty is able to be divorced from truth and righteousness. Even by those who would consider themselves “advocates of sacred art,” art and beauty tend to be viewed as a “superfluous” luxury. One might say, “Certainly, it would please me more to worship in a beautiful cathedral rather than a drab strip mall, but perhaps that pleasantness is not worth the additional effort or cost.”

This boils down to the way that the Protestant “spiritualization/mentalization” that Justus was talking about has non-intuitively “despiritualized” the tangible world—turning it into a utilitarian disarray void of divinely deposited meaning. So the problem with contemporary Christianity is not merely that its truth has become immaterial but also that its materials have become truthless.

We must not forget that God organized the material world and history to reveal something about Himself. In other words, the forms and arrangements of tangible reality have inherent spiritual content. God gave breathtakingly meticulous patterns and regulations for the tabernacle and the temple to Moses and to David. Then He gifted certain artists and artisans among His people with the skill necessary to supervise and fulfill these exacting demands, and then He invited His people to foot the extremely costly bills. Very often, God gave absolutely no verbal explanation of why things needed to be the way He prescribed.

And let’s not forget how seriously God took these material directions for the tabernacle—He consumed Aaron’s two eldest sons with fire because they used the wrong coals to light their incense. To most of us, this seems like an extremely harsh over-reaction. But, then again, most of us view art and beauty in the church as an entirely superfluous luxury which can be executed and supervised by giftless and uncalled amateurs at the lowest possible expense.

We need to understand that the tangible elements of our worship communicate and advocate something to God’s people, and our God is not pleased when those elements contradict what is actually true of Him. So this is a deadly serious issue.

The renewal of biblical worship is concomitant with the renewal of biblical art, and our abandonment of the arts has created a vacuum into which sensualism and hollow mysticism can parade about as sacrament and mystery. There simply wouldn’t be a demand for Ambient Church if the church were doing its God-given job. And once the church is telling the truth in all its facets again, Ambient Church will be exposed for the hollow impostor it is.