Many years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Greece and Turkey. While there, I marveled at the ancient ruins of the Greek temples and wondered at the beautiful mosaics of Christ covering the ceilings of every church—from a tiny chapel in the countryside to the great cathedral of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. During the tour, we often saw the ruins of the temples standing side by side with ancient Christian churches. Other times, our guide informed us that the Christian church was built upon the now decimated ruins of an ancient temple.
I remember feeling a bit disturbed over the loss of these ancient ruins, which would never be seen again, now built over by largely abandoned Christian chapels. And yet I understood the sweeping movement of Christianity—overturning the pagan environment of Greece and Rome and building churches and chapels as signposts of that victory.
This scene replicated across the landscapes of Greece and Turkey served metaphorically as a picture of the uneasy tension between Christianity and its surrounding culture. On the one hand, church and pagan temple stood side by side, a living picture of the parable Jesus once told about allowing wheat and tares to grow up together until the judgment. On the other hand, churches built on the ruins of pagan temples presented the image of Christianity conquering the pagan religions of the day, standing in triumph and uprooting the tares in victory.
Christianity wrestles with this same tension today, vacillating between constructive engagement in culture on the one hand and eschewing the culture on the other. The art world is often an arena for this battle. Should Christians engage in the arts? If so, how should they engage in the arts? Should there be Christian music, art, and literature? Or should there simply be Christians who make music, produce art, and write literature? In other words, should Christians build next to the pagan temple or replace the pagan temple with a church?
While the answers to these questions can often be complex, perhaps there are some insights from another picture of early Christian interaction using art from the prevailing culture. The catacombs under the streets of Rome are filled with art produced by the early Christians. Interestingly enough, however, the Christian scenes normally used non-Christian forms. Some of the portrayals of Jesus as the Good Shepherd are clearly modeled after pagan pictures in which Orpheus was the central figure.(1) It is not an accident that the early Christians chose to model their art after the pagan depictions of Orpheus. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was such a brilliant musician that “he moved everything animate and inanimate; his music enchanted the trees and rocks and tamed wild beasts, and even the rivers turned in their course to follow him.”(2) Clearly, the early Christians used this artistic rendering for apologetic reasons; like the myth of Orpheus, they believed Jesus had a cataclysmic influence on all of creation.
In every generation, art has been used as a means to communicate the Christian faith, even as an uneasy tension exists with artistic engagement. Yet, without thoughtful engagement a vacuum is left, unfilled. Without a new Orpheus, all that is left to do is bemoan the binding of the arts to darker forces. And while Christians often raise the complaint, there is also a blindness at times to the very ways in which the church is inextricably bound to culture.
C.S. Lewis once wrote about the value of Christian involvement in popular scholarship. When understood broadly, Lewis’s words are instructive for Christian engagement in the arts or in any other discipline. Flannery O’Connor, like C.S. Lewis, believed that any Christian who can make good art or write good stories or teach mathematics well will do much more by that than by setting out to make Christian art or to write Christian stories. What we need isn’t more books about Christianity, but more artists and writers and scientists and mathematicians who with excellence approach their work in any and every subject—with their Christianity latent. Perhaps building such subtle cathedrals on the landscape of culture is indeed more winsome than making ruins.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1975), 251.
(2) Encarta, Orpheus.