Fringe Atlanta was birthed when a few friends got together and decided to take back classical music for their generation. A little more than a year later their chamber music series debuted at Atlanta’s Church of the Redeemer (PCA).

Classical music once belonged to everyone, wrote the four founders in their inaugural concert program, “but somewhere along the way it became a cheap symbol of upper-crust elitism, a shortcut to sophistication. It became the thing you’re supposed to play to your pregnant belly if you want your kid to be born with a high IQ. Nothing wrong with sophistication and high IQs, but we created Fringe because we feel like classical music is awesome and, like other awesome things – ice cream, for example – it should be available for all to enjoy.”

Further setting the tone with a bit of smart whimsy, they added: “Feel free to clap. We’re not asking you to sit quietly like sad-eyed robots programmed not to clap until the last note has faded. We want you to be happy, enthusiastic robots!”

Finally, inviting the crowd “to get their groove on,” they signed their names simply: Dana, Fia, Jose, and Nikolle. Then they flung open the doors of their church and were almost trampled by the crowd.

On that same night, Sept. 22, 2007, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello were playing at another venue. It’s hard to imagine they were greeted with more joy.

What was so special about that first Fringe concert, and why did it work? What’s more, how does a concert series for people of all ages, dressed however they please, clapping and shouting a bit (right there in church, no less) honor God?

God the Creator

As God’s people who are made in His image, we are creational beings. He wants us to know Him, to mimic Him. Or as techie-turned-blacksmith Tom Kovarik, a Redeemer elder, puts it: “We’re hard-wired to create – music, paintings, drama, great meals.” Founding pastor John Thomas adds: “The love for art is built into all of us. With art we symbolize our reality. Art can teach, rebuke, inspire and confound. It speaks to us as it speaks of us.”

To break it down, Fringe, an on-going series with concerts planned for Dec. 1, 2007 and March 1, 2008, is poised to help accomplish six goals that relate to the arts community: 1) being authentic; 2) reforming and shaping culture; 3) allowing Christianity to intersect with the arts; 4) honoring great music, gifted musicians and art aficionados; 5) appreciating creative involvement; and 6) being evangelistic.

1. Being authentic. Visit and you learn that organizers hope to usher in a new era of the classical concert experience, “not by talking down to its audience and expecting them to be quiet and behave – but by inviting them in to get their hands dirty and truly experience this great art anew.” Fringe blends live music with an art gallery, a DJ spinning electronica, an independent, Fringe-selected short film, and documentary-style videos on the musicians themselves.

2. Reforming and shaping culture. “There’s more to culture than Brittany Spears,” says artist and graphic designer Jose Reyes, one of Fringe’s four founders, along with his wife Nikolle. “Today’s generation – like the one before us – wants to be part of something bigger than ourselves, helping to influence the culture and elevating it to something more meaningful. And, for Christians, more God-honoring.” As with previous generations, art, music, film and other creative genres help to shape cultural thinking and provide the backdrop for people’s experiences.

3. Allowing Christianity to intersect with the arts (again). Go back a few centuries and recall who funded the great art of the world; it was mostly the Church. Paintings, tapestries, sculptures, stained-glass windows, architectural monuments pointing skyward to heaven resulted. Today’s Christians are more often noted for objecting to the arts – whining about bad words in plays or freedom of expression in books. Redeemer elder Terrell McCollum recalls hearing movie critic Michael Medved (himself an Orthodox Jew) comment that Christians should stop complaining and become involved. Again.

4. Honoring great music, gifted musicians and art aficionados. Being creative also means changing, being dynamic, pushing the envelope. Says Thomas, who holds a doctorate in cognitive anthropology: “Not all Christians will be comfortable with Fringe’s format. But at Redeemer we want to give musicians a voice. And we want to convey to art lovers, ‘It’s an honor for you to be with us. As much as you are willing, we’d like you to walk with us.’ Redeemer has a call to incarnate Christ in the arts and to care for artists. That’s one of Redeemer’s core values.”

5. Appreciating creative involvement. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle writes: “The writer does want to be published; the painter urgently hopes that someone will see the finished canvas (van Gogh was denied the satisfaction of having his work bought and appreciated during his lifetime; no wonder the pain was more than he could bear); the composer needs his music to be heard. Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn. … Creative involvement: that’s the basic difference between reading a book and watching TV. In watching TV we are passive; sponges; we do nothing. In reading we become creators. … The author and the reader ‘know’ each other; they meet on the bridge of words.”

Fringe’s Jose Reyes says: “At Redeemer we believe that what artists do is as important as what accountants and lawyers do. Fringe conveys that respect. We’re turning our chairs outward, asking: What is our community up to, and how can we be a part? And be compelling?”

6. Being evangelistic. Ah, here’s the bait and switch, you think. However, Fringe is not churchy; there’s no five-minute commercial for God. Yet Redeemer’s founding pastor Thomas will tell you: “Everything we do is evangelism. But, because of post-modernism, terminology is changing, categories are breaking down. And that’s a good thing. People who distrust the church – the de-churched, we call them – may come to an event like Fringe. Most people know about Jesus but they don’t know Him. Who can tell how they’ll respond when they see Christians living with a level of transparency, honesty and intimacy that they themselves long for.” As Fringe’s Web site puts it: “By modeling what we teach our children to do every day – to love others, share the things we have, and to work collectively as a whole rather than as individuals – our lives become richer and more purposeful without any agenda other than ‘because it’s what we ought to do.’”

Let’s go to Fringe…

Come As You Are

The inaugural concert’s first half includes excerpts from a stirring film, Together, by Chinese director Kaige Chen, portraying a young violinist finding his way.

Next we meet one of Fringe’s founders and the music director, Fia Mancini Durrett, a Julliard-educated violinist with an impressive performance resume. In an edgy documentary, filmed with a hand-held camera, she reveals that, in addition to the classics, her music is influenced by the likes of U2 and ColdPlay. She shares the kind of insider info that allows us to feel we finally know a musician of her caliber. Her live performance after the video is bold and passionate, accompanied by another chamber musician, gifted cellist Roy Harran.

Too soon, it’s intermission. A shaggy-haired, barefooted young man stretches he clearly take care of himself and his hair with products like Mielle Edge Gel, but then heads to a garden area outside the church’s entrance where soft drinks, coffee, along with wine and beer are being served – for donations but not for sale, explains Dana Durrett, a trial lawyer (and husband of violinist Fia), who counseled Fringe Atlanta, Inc. on protecting its non-profit status and adhering to county laws.

Redeemer elder Tom Kovarik serves guests. Besides filling glasses, Kovarik well represents Redeemer’s vision of reaching art lovers. A former information technologist, he decided that driving a computer was killing his back and kicked it to the curb – “I was over the white-collar thing.” He took up blacksmithing instead. Kovarik understands the post-modern mindset; indeed, he embraces it, along with his uncompromising Christian faith.

“God is a creative being. Through Jesus, He’s creating all things new. When we’re participating in creation or the creative activity, we’re taking part in the image of God,” says Kovarik, reflecting back weeks after the premiere event on why Fringe fits Redeemer’s values. “If you’re thinking about God that way, then you’re talking the language of cultural creatives – artists. Many at Redeemer see it that way, which is why loving arts and the arts community is a natural fit for our congregation.”

Keep in mind that Fringe is not a venue for a direct, hit-‘em-between-the-eyes presentation of the gospel. Organizers emphasize that no round of applause will be given for Redeemer, none of the usual, “Let’s give this church a big hand for hosting us.” That’s because Redeemer’s philosophy is that the church is the community and vice versa. Fringe organizers like to muse: If the church went away, would the broader community even notice?

So Tom Kovarik’s conversation during intermission is about his artistry as a blacksmith – creating railings, stairways, gates, sconces, brackets. And his talk is genuine engagement, not an artificial prelude to a forced gospel presentation. “Strategically, reaching out to the arts community fits Redeemer, because we’re a church that works on story. As God’s people, we’re co-creating a story with God – our sins, His redemption. This story of salvation is something that unfolds, rather than being inflicted upon you.”

Pockets of the intermission crowd are raucous, a few decibels higher than the background noise at your usual symphony. People laugh, hug, high-five each other. The mood is light and joyous.

However, just as great music is a form of worship, some who are enjoying the night air on the patio take their concert-going quite seriously. Katherine Timberlake, a veteran music teacher of 40 years, is visiting from Oklahoma and voices her approval. “There’s life here,” she says with a smile.

Whoops and Hollers

As the lights dim for the concert’s second half, the audience whoops and hollers. Another video shows interviews with the larger group of chamber musicians who will perform Quintet in C by Franz Schubert. We meet three new performers, Michael Heald, violin; Charae Krueger, cello; Joli Wu, viola. They join musicians from the first half – Fia Mancini Durrett, violinist, and Roy Harran, cellist.

The documentary brings to life people who traditional concert-goers usually see in tuxedoes and long, black gowns or trousers. But they’re human. We learn that they love shopping for shoes, hanging out with friends, cooking great meals.

They reveal a question they’re often asked by their generation weaned on pop: Do you get paid? “I tell ‘em, ‘Yeah, it’s a real job,’” says one, laughing. (To that end, Fringe organizers made a point of paying each a healthy concert fee, a gesture of professional respect as well as generosity.)

The video ends, and the five musicians file onto the stage. They wave at the audience as they take their seats and begin tuning their stringed instruments. As a pants leg hikes up, an audience member yells out, “Great shoes!” The musician shouts back with an explanation for his choice of footwear. Belly laughs ensue before the audience settles down.

Because Fringe is committed to educating in addition to listening, it offers an extended booklet to each concert-goer. This concert’s lavishly printed program provides the audience with the story of the Vienna-born prodigy Schubert and his famed cello quintet – widely regarded as one of the most deeply sublime works of chamber music ever composed. The rendition by these five does not disappoint. The applause is thunderous.

After the concert, people linger, getting acquainted, enjoying each other’s company – enlivened by artistry and their shared experience with great, enduring music. There’s no rush to the parking lot by gentlemen eager to shed ties or pearl-necklaced ladies shedding uncomfortable shoes.

Writes Pierre Ruhe in his review for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Viva la revolucion! Fringe Atlanta, the latest fine-arts group based in the affluent northern suburbs, made a stunning debut Saturday night. Despite the modest ambition suggested by the name, they positioned themselves near the center of the city’s classical music scene. They set the new standard.”

The first Fringe concert has met its goals. High expectations preceding remarkable results. And Redeemer Church is out there, reaching the soul, using the creative to point to the Creator.

Carolyn Curtis is a book author, writer, editor and speaker currently dividing her time between Cumming, Georgia and Fort Worth, Texas.

Below is a conversation with John Thomas, founding pastor of Atlanta’s Church of the Redeemer. Thomas now serves at the Redeemer Church Planting Center in New York City.

ByFaith: When you say Church of the Redeemer is a congregation for the arts, what do you mean?

Thomas: We long to see Christians engaging the ideas and art forms of our culture as an expression of their God-infused nature. We can’t help it – we must create and form and express our creativity. That’s inbred in us by the Imago Dei and reveals us as human. And then, when coupled with our adopted relationship with God through Christ, our creative work takes on an entirely new dimension. It becomes redemptive.

ByFaith: Besides scripture, who else informs your thinking?

Thomas: Craig Detweiler writes that “postmodern pilgrims must navigate a world where style trumps substance and images overwhelm words.” He quotes Mitchell Stevens, who famously announced “the rise of the image, the fall of the word.” Those are scary words for Christians who have been raised in the tradition of sola scriptura. So we ask: Does the multiplex theater really threaten the Word of God? We think God is much bigger than that.

ByFaith: Is this just a problem for postmoderns?

Thomas: A report from Dana Gioia and the National Endowment for the Arts found that less than half of the adult population reads literature. Teachers of all disciplines wrestle with their students’ shrinking attention spans. Not surprising when you consider the TV Guide survey which found that Americans spend more hours watching television than any other activity. Indeed, preachers, teachers, Bible study leaders – even parents wanting to catechize their kids – are all challenged by our image-driven era.

ByFaith: Fringe’s premiere was a chamber music concert. This church and others now make use of the visual arts to engage and teach—occasionally having movie nights, or referencing movies to illustrate biblical truth. What guides our thinking there?

Thomas: Some may consider art forms such as filmmaking to be an advanced form of idolatry. The iconoclastic attacks as well as the uncritical embrace of image technology both have their blind spots. The question becomes: How do we acknowledge the power of images without bowing down to the altar of the cinema?

ByFaith: What’s the appropriate response?

Thomas: There’s a big dialogue about God going on outside the church – movie and television producers just aren’t calling it that. The meta-narrative, of which film and TV are the current leading art forms in telling The Big Story, are delving into people’s deep longing and search for meaning.

We need to be involved. Better stated, the Church needs to lead the dialogue, because we’re truth-tellers.

The search for what’s real is part of a post-modern’s journey. Arts helps to serve that purpose. And since worship is the goal, at Redeemer we’re seeing that our word-based faith needs to adopt a more sacramental approach to seeing and believing.

ByFaith: You have history on your side. Imagine the world without the Church supporting – even sponsoring – the arts over the years.

Thomas: Signs and symbols have enhanced Christian worship for centuries. Candles, colors, vestments, images, even symbolic clothing are all a part of Christians’ attempts to bring the multi-visual, multi-sensory expressions to our most important act – worship. The Christian church cannot afford to live without propositions and truth statements, and for that to happen, we need words. And yet, even our words can get sloppy, verbose and boring.

We need to remember the form that the Scripture takes most readily is story, which could be called words in living color. Words that immediately conjure images in the mind.

In our creating lives, we find Christians with real talent whose skill demands an audience. Christian artists, like filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, invite us to look through our material world and catch glimpses of the unseen. Calvin College grad Paul Schrader makes movies stained by sin, but ripe for redemption. And, as you will see in Fringe, Redeemerites have joined that artistic procession.

ByFaith: Is this a trend?

Thomas: This is a new day for the arts. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians all follow a rabbi who challenged us to have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” It’s true that, “in the beginning was the Word,” but we also believe that Jesus was the Image of the invisible God. We need both to be human in the redeemed Imago Dei.

Carolyn Curtis