Note: For the purpose of this series, the term “artist” is being used inclusively to refer to musicians, painters, fiction writers, poets, singers, and to those who work in the entertainment industry.
In the last piece, I began to write about the conflict between church and artists and how the church relates to artists, which is a history wrought with conflict.
Of course, when the media portrays this conflict, the church is always 100% wrong and the artist 100% right. This is because the writers of these stories are themselves artists and their sympathy is with the artist.
Yet, if we’re to be honest, there are very few human interactions and certainly fewer interactions within the body of Christ that can be declared to be a, “It was all one side’s fault.”
As a writer, my sympathy is often with artists and creators. And I do think there’s a certain segment of the Christian Community that hypercritical, that critique and judge artists without understanding their art. Some demand a sanitized g-Rated reality when we don’t live in a sanitized g-rated world. Many Christians have been able to speak into the lives of hurting people through their redemptive portrayal of a broken and hurting world. However, for many Christians, these artists are wrong for even discussing these issues.
Yet, I have to wonder if these critics have read their Bibles. Read the histories in the Old Testament and the Bible often deals with unpleasant details: rapes, murders, methods of execution. And read the prophets, in their God uses some very graphic metaphors. He essentially calls the people of Israel and Judah whores multiple times throughout the prophetic books. The Psalms are full of the most disturbing types of very human anger, rage, and sorrow being offered back to God. This should tell us that far from wanting us to pretend the world was all nice that God wants us to understand and deal with the World around us while living a righteous and holy life that redemptively transforms the world around us.
Some of the great Christian artists of years past would present problems for some Pharisaical critics today. In C.S. Lewis’ Science Fiction Trilogy for example, he includes mild swearing and in the story Perlandra, his lead characters spends most of the novel nude on a new Adam and Eve style planet. J.S. Bach may have written some of the greatest Church music ever, but he also wrote secular cantatas.
When we wander too far down that road with the Pharisees, we find ourselves destroying and condemning people who are committed servants of God and works that have helped to draw people to God.
But, there is also legitimate criticism and artists can earn through falling into two great traps: pride and ignorance. As an an author of fiction, I’m telling on myself in some ways as these are things that many of us struggle with in today’s culture.
The late Christian Western writer Stephen Bly wrote a moving passage in his novel, Paperback Writer where his lead character comes to piece with his place as a paperback writer who is being used by God to minister to others:
They don’t study my novels in English lit. classes at Stanford. But there’s a single mom, struggling to make ends meet working as a clerk-typist in the admissions office, who tackles those preschoolers in late Friday night in that one-bedroom apartment #421 on 16th Street in Palo Alto, and then curls up on the faded pea-green sofa she inherited from her granny, pulls a tattered afghan over her feet, and reads my book until she falls asleep about three in the morning. And for five straight hours, she isn’t worried about car payments, or alimony checks that never arrive, or little sissy constantly getting sick at day care, or the jerk at the office who brushed up against her backside in the elevator, or her mother’s comments about her marriage failure, or the fact that she’s gained six pounds since Christmas. For those few hours it’s just her and Toby McKenna, having one incredible adventure after another.”
The job of the artist is to serve others, to ease their burdens and give them rest. There have been artists throughout history who have not seemed to understand that. Clearly there are artists with the ego of Orson Welles who boast of their talent and accomplishments. It’s like bragging about being the Earth’s best waiter.
If we understand that this is about service to others, then the question of whether some art is secular or sacred becomes less important. It’d be as if you brought me a bowl of Chicken soup and I asked if it was a Christian bowl of soup. The more important question is if the soup is poisoned.
And much of today’s art is poisoned and some of the art from Christians is poisoned. I think much of the cultural advice to artists is for there to be freedom of expression and with the waning power of gatekeepers to stop us, the Christian artists can just go with whatever they feel like creating just like their secular counterparts.
The problem is that total freedom of expression of every idea to come into your head is not what God has for us. Paul, when writing about spiritual warfare in 2 Corinthians 10 tells us:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God for the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.-2 Corinthians 10:4,5 (KJV)
We’re to take thoughts captive to be in obedience to Christ, because these thoughts will not line up on their own. We’d would like to think that our thoughts are completely original to us, but the truth is that we are influenced.
We may be influenced by culture around us, so for example, due to the oversexed nature of our culture, we may find gratuitous sex showing up in Christian work. Or we may be influenced by artists who are brilliant on a technical level, but whose worldview is not at all Christian.
Some of this is due to the Church’s abandonment of culture. For example, beyond C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton, it’s tough for Christian speculative fiction authors to find major Christian role models and inspiration until perhaps the 1980s and 90s. So, for many, the fictional works that formed their literary taste and influenced their style came from many people who were not Christians: Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, or Rod Serling.
Being stylistically influenced by these master story tellers is not an issue. However, the problem becomes when our substance is influenced by people who didn’t know God. And that’s why artists need to approach the creative process with humility lest the overall tone of their work has more to do with the worldview of Gene Roddenberry than it does the Gospel.
We may be creative, but we are fragile and more easily misled than we would care to admit. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit just as much as pastor does in preparing a sermon if not more so. We need to know what God’s word says about who God is and how he’s ordered the World so that our work reflects that. Christian artists should be ever-seeking to understand God better because their art (whether explicitly Christian or n0t) will end up communicating something about the character of God, and we ought to make sure what we communicate is true.
When do that, we’ll have solid Christian novels with solid theology at their base and we’ll see more songs written that proclaim who God is rather than just expressing a sentiment about God.
The other point of ignorance is that will create controversy between Church and artists is that writers will sometimes write from ignorance about fellow believers. One example is a Christian book my wife read a few years back that essentially portrayed religious conservatives as Troglodytes who would try to stop people from being able to read. While we cannot always create just what we know, we should make an effort to understand our subject and who they really are, this is particularly when writing about groups of professing Christians.
Christian artists will succeed if we find God’s grace to walk in humility and to become students of Him and His nature.
In the final piece of this series, I’ll address how the Church can support artists.
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