I had reason to speak to a bunch of Christians in the arts recently. While most of them relish the chance to engage their faith with their art, there was a sense among them that fellow believers don’t understand what they’re doing. And tend to ask the wrong questions.
If you are a Christian artist, writer, dancer, actor or musician, you will have heard at least one of these. And you may have wondered if the question hides another, more confronting, one. If so, here are some responses you may want to keep to hand.
1. So what exactly is the point of it? (Translation: Why are you wasting your time with this frivolous activity?)
Point? What, point? For all their uses, and there are many, the arts transcend notions of purpose.
It is like asking what nature is ‘for’, or emotions. To see music as only a pathway to better brain development, or novel writing as a chance to disseminate an ideology, is to miss the aspects of art that have nourished the human soul for thousands of years. Just as David played upon his harp and ‘danced with all his might’ before the Lord, so people of every culture have turned to the arts to express their most profound emotions and to both respond to and provoke their societies.
The problem is that many Christians — implicitly or explicitly — much prefer occupations that are ‘useful’. It is a burden we bear courtesy of the Protestant work ethic, which has given Western society some of its greatest gifts (social welfare) but, if misused, can reduce human life and experience to productivity for its own sake (rampant capitalism).
So if you can play your instrument in church or you write encouraging Christian fiction, your friends may see a purpose to your output. But if you are engaged in less obviously helpful or more risky art, people will be confused. What’s more, you will most likely be confused too, and lay upon yourself and your art a responsibility — to be evangelistic or uplifting or whatever — that will often result in the making of poor art (or in giving it up altogether).
The evangelistic argument is not a weight laid on the Christian plumber or the Christian businessperson. No one expects the Christian brickie to inscribe his cement rendering with Bible verses. But Christian artists are challenged by this all the time.
Yes, sometimes their art may lend itself to an expression of faith or redemption, but sometimes it may not. Sometimes it may be a reflection of something they see in the world that is challenging or depressing and doesn’t come with easy answers.
Christian artists should be allowed the freedom to explore directions that may seem ‘purposeless’ because it is the only way to poke holes in the bubble of pat answers that might otherwise surround us.
Another response to the accusation of frivolity is to look at creation. Was it necessary for God to imbue it with that much beauty? So many colours? Such ludicrous splendour? Such nuance and painful tenderness? We are created in the image of a creative God, and part of our nature is to praise him by letting loose our own creativity.
Is it a luxury? Yes, in a way. You could live a life without art. But would you want to?
2. Is it wholesome? (Translation: Do you have to swear or get nude?)
This is a genuine ethical issue. Most artists wrestle with it to some degree. But it shouldn’t be the first question people ask a Christian artist, or else you risk reducing their art to the level of a Hallmark card.
The problem is partly a clash of worlds, where some words or parts of the body are offensive in one world but genuinely inoffensive in the other. That is because rude words and standards of decency are not innate but imposed, so will always differ, culture to culture, and sub-culture to sub-culture. The question then is, to what degree do we need to be sensitive to other cultures? Most women won’t stop wearing pants in their normal daily life because they are considered inappropriate in some cultural groups, so should a Christian dancer — desensitized since childhood to physical display — forego the scanty costume on stage?
Or from another angle, should a Christian actor never swear on stage, even when playing a part that requires vulgarity for reasons of honest characterisation? Should a Christian artist never paint a nude? (There goes the history of Western art, right there.)
Instead, we need to make sure whatever boundaries we attempt to erect are biblical rather than cultural, and that we acknowledge there will be some areas of grey.
3. Why is it so bleak? (Translation: Why is there no happy ending?)
People who raise this often begin with the fact that God has indwelt the world and redeemed it in Christ, and we are heading toward ultimate liberation from sin and sadness. You won’t hear any argument with that from me. But to believe that our art must therefore reflect that position is to make a mistake of timing. It’s like telling the recently bereaved that they will get over it.
While we are in this world, and not yet the one to come, we may have to mourn with those who are mourning, full stop. We may have to wrestle with the darkness before we can see, or reveal, the light. And that may not be ideal, but it is honest.
Turning the question around, we might ask why people want a redemptive ending. Is it so they can stay comfortable? Is it so they don’t have to face unpleasant realities? Nothing good can come of that.
In some ways, these are all the same question: how do you reconcile your faith with your art?
The answer, I think, has to do with that honesty I mentioned in the last point. We do no one a service by supporting and engaging with only the sunny side of life. It is dishonest, and for those seeking the truth it will smell of the rankest superficiality.
On that note, I’d like to give the last word on this topic to my mate Bono (yep, I met him…once. I’m sure he remembers.) In the Fuller Seminary short film released in April, Bono has a conversation with Eugene Peterson (author of modern Bible version The Message) about the Psalms. This is what he said:
The Psalms that have this rawness, this brutal honesty about the explosive joy that he’s feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion, and it’s that that sets the Psalms apart for me, and I often think, ‘Well, gosh, why isn’t church music more like that?’ I find a lot of dishonesty in Christian art, and I think it’s a shame because these are people who are vulnerable to God, I mean in a good way…you know, porous and open. I would love if this conversation would inspire these beautiful voices (…) to write a song about…their bad marriage. Write a song about how they are p$&%d off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you, that truthfulness… And that truthfulness, the truth will set you free, it will blow things apart. Why I’m suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism, and I’d love to see more of that, in art, in life and in music.