In the World War 2-era movie The Monuments Men, a small platoon of art scholars go behind enemy lines to save art stolen by the Nazis.
Their mission is to retrieve some of the greatest works of civilization before the lost pieces go either to Hitler’s Nazi museum or the incinerator.
In a moving speech, the leader of the band, Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney) states that the cause is worth the fight: “If you destroy a people’s achievements and their history, then it’s like they never existed.”
With ISIS’s march across the Middle East, history is repeating itself.
If some of those cities sound familiar to you, they are: Ninevah was the ancient city to whom God called Jonah to preach. Nimrud was a major Assyrian stronghold.
Although the ISIS campaign is especially brutal and total, a certain contempt for artwork has always existed in some ideological worldviews.
In the medieval Eastern Roman capital of Byzantine, for instance, Leo II led a time of iconoclasm in the sixth century to destroy or deface icons (art used for purposes of worship and religion).
Years later, the Protestant Reformation in Europe did not promote the destruction of religious art, but the removal of it from places of worship.
The focus centered on the pulpit, where the preaching of God’s Word was the only thing needed for the edification and building up of the church. The days of great artists and artwork arising from the womb of the church had nearly come to an end.
We may look back on the puritanical ideology of the Reformers or the sheer evil of ISIS and cast judgments on their lack of appreciation. We modern folk realize the value of art, not only for the sake of our heritage, but also for art’s ability to incite the senses and inspire the mind.
Yet, if we look at many Protestant churches today, artwork continues to take a back seat. Sure, there may be a collection of original paintings or prints in a church foyer or education wing–and many churches now use letter decals to express biblical verses upon a central wall–but most sanctuaries remain devoid of art (some churches even remain devoid of crosses).
We no longer destroy or deface art; we simply ignore it.
Some churches are changing this lack of creativity by hosting ministries that promote art, appreciate it, or do art for the sake of worship or therapy.
Many churches promote the arts in their children’s ministries, while others reach into adult communities to produce art that speaks to the hearts and minds of worshipers.
Some creative pastors, like the Reverend Angela Yarber, use movement and art as visuals for preaching.
A newly refurbished altar at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Rockdale County placed a high priority on the visual arts. Classes at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit teach photography and landscaping.
My own place of worship, Trinity Baptist Church, has a resident artist on staff, Jackson Thomas, whose job description includes reaching troubled youth on the margins through creative arts and dialogue.
He is currently renovating Trinity’s art studio to offer studio time for the community and create a safe space for artists to grow in their craft.
“Art is an excellent tool to connect ourselves to the Creator God,” Jackson said when we spoke last, “Its a tool to express my faith into something visual, something I can see.”
Jackson’s vision, not unlike that of other churches across the nation, is allowing the Body of Christ to reclaim its position in the community as a hub of creativity, expression, and faithful engagement of God’s creation.
Whereas ISIS is destroying sacred art at the peril of human civilization, many religious groups are taking intentional steps to produce art for our and the many generations to come.