Like it or not, practicing an art means wrestling with power, including, in St. Paul’s phrase, the “powers and principalities.” Powers of destruction, on one hand, and sustenance, on the other. Destruction that can, as we’ve seen too many times, include the artist. Hence, the fascination with Faust. With madness. Alcoholism. And on. Self-absorption and inflated self-importance rather than humble service.

We hazard much, often without the slightest awareness of the risks afoot. For the Christian, these involve Satan’s dominion over “the world,” which includes the realm of the arts; in Asian teachings, we can turn to the traps of Maya, that spider web of worldly attraction and deadly illusion. Either way, cause to be wary. Need for disciplined faith. Yes, let’s introduce something we’ll call Satan, just to thicken the drama.

Which raises an ancient point of conflict for a Christian artist: I’m not at all sure art is a proper activity for a Quaker. Through much of Friends’ history, most of the arts were considered superfluous and dishonest engagements taking our attention away from true worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is the way one expressed it while returning an unread novel to a neighbor.

Yes, “we Quakers read only true things,” or used to. The exclusion of not just fiction but theater and paintings and sports as distractions from worship. Traps of the flesh?

And yet: discipline is essential in spiritual growth. Self-discipline, route to true freedom. And where is the mind without imagination? I continue to read and write fiction and poetry. I love symphonies, string quartets, and opera. I’m a baritone or occasional tenor in four-part a cappella singing. When I practice my art, I am fed by this love/compulsion/infusion.

So we’re back to the ways and spirit in which we engage the powers and principalities, and the ways we order our lives.


  1. What is “true worship”? Is worship divorced from embodied, sensate pursuits really whole?

    Is there, perhaps, a touch of the old body/spirit dualism at work here, which denigrates bodily things in defiance of God’s having declared them “good”?

    1. I must confess that this is drawn from one of those bits I wrote years ago, back when I was skirting with Plainness as a lifestyle. One of my best friends was advancing some of Tertullian’s criticisms of participating in the arts, and their biting edge remains.
      Still, like you, I find the body/spirit dualism a barrier in our engaging life fully. I much prefer “I breathe, therefore I am” (with an understanding that the Hebrew word for breath is also the word for soul) to the “I think, therefore” alternative.
      That said, the ideal of “true worship” remains one that might spark a lively and detailed dialogue. I love the description of worship being “an activity and time when the human and the Divine sit together and focus on their relationship.” Maybe that’s what really happened back in the days when worship involved piling rocks in commemoration of an epiphany.

    1. That’s from Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon, 2009. They’re at the other end of the Quaker spectrum from us in form, but that only adds to the richness, I feel.
      As for Tertullian, might the heretic ruling only add to the depth? (And we think we live in some wild times?)

  2. I’m thinking of Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 35 and 36, who had God-given skill in decorative metalwork, stonemasonry, woodwork, engraving and embroidery. There are spinners, weavers, jewellery makers and perfumers in those chapters, too. I see this as an affirmation of Christian artists 🙂

    1. We can add to that all the detail of building the Temple later.
      This passage is interesting in that the artists are named in a time when most artists/craftsmen were anonymous. That, in itself, says much.
      The underlying struggle for artists in the past few centuries is that matter of ego versus humility — a recognition of where the creation is rooted.
      We haven’t even touched on those times when writing or painting or making music and so on transcend into prayer. That ever so wonderful state.

      1. Absolutely! The temptation from the ego is great – artists want others to enjoy their work, and that very easily tips over into a hunger for praise. It needs a continual reorientation of mind and spirit.

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