The Artist and the Church

So what are the sermons of the artists? As I’ve been reading great novels, I see the writers, at least, as field reporters sent to cover the human condition. The look, they observe and they have the talent to craft out words to save and share those observations. This is very important. This is why most of the Bible is made up of storytelling and poetry. It has great value and it does not have to come from the hand of a Christian to have value. As I’ve said before, we were humans first . . . then Christians. –The Christian Monist

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an artist, an artist who’s a Christian (as opposed to a “Christian artist”). Recently I had the privilege of having a great conversation with some missional students about art and being an artist. Also, I have a friend who I have been having an on-going conversation about her life as a writer because she feels she has to hide what she does (as a horror writer) from her church community.

So what is the responsibility of artists, those communicators of ideas who transmit them to the (pop) culture at large? What does it mean to realize your gift and push into the kingdom with it? How do we express our theology in our writing or other works of art? On the flip side, how should the church shepherd its artists? Are there issues of particular struggle for artists (for example, balancing the need to do marketing and promotion against striving FOR humility and AGAINST idolatry)? For all the talk of culture wars, when all is said and done, most pundits miss one simple, though obvious, point: To impact the culture, impact the artists.

What does it mean to be an artist? It’s an artist’s job to ask questions. It’s an artist’s job to push lines. There a difference between being a writer vs. liking to write, being a dancer vs. liking to dance, or being a photographer vs. liking to take pictures. It’s not a matter of “artist vs. hack” or “professional vs. hobbyist”. I know that I have to write. I have to put pen to page to still “the voices” and the overwhelming urge to express what’s in me. It defines me. What makes us artists, what gives us our unique voice, is how we come at life and the world. It’s what makes many be seen or treated as “weirdos”. We can often be prickly, moody, and have isolationist tendencies, after all, we create in caves and tend to be introverts (just like there are lies artists often buy into about themselves, like how they “need” to be misunderstood or what they produce won’t be art).

Artists give up their lives. We cut open our emotional veins and bleed all over the page for our readers entertainment. There is a certain amount of fearlessness and abandonment as we put ourselves out there, exposing ourselves.* Revealing or at least speaking from our woundedness. We trust ourselves to the process, going where the journey takes us, no matter how scary. And sometimes it hurts. It reminds me of this recent conversation between me and a friend:

C: Why is it that it’s often folks with woundedness and rejection issues who end up with vocations –like acting and writing– where rejection is part of the process? Some weird need to relive our abandonment trauma? Just asking.

M: those vocations become their therapy…

C: True, the art part is definitely therapy. I get to put all my neurosis on paper in a form more elegant than mere rant and weepy telephone calls or emails. But, the dealing with agents, auditions, editors, critics. Aaargh. Wish there was another way to have our healing say….without going through all that.

M: on the flip side, carole, we’re paid for sharing our neuroses!

C: So true, M. And we certainly help to heal all those souls who come up to us and say how we’ve “said exactly what they always wanted to say.”

Sometimes it’s hard for an artist to find a place within the church. We are often unsure of how to “do” our craft within the church, struggling with being true to our art and to our faith. This is partly due to the church’s distrust of art. Somewhere along the line, unless it was “Christian” music or “Christian” books (which means, for example, me being a “Christian” horror writer), it was dismissed. Strictly branded in the “garbage in/garbage out” school of thought. This type of Christian ghetto mentality sprang from trying to figure out what it means to be in the world but not of it; but led to us becoming so dualistic in our thinking that certainly fine art was so insignificant and unspiritual. In practice, however, when the word “Christian” is reduced/used as an adjective (or worse, a marketing label), usually it’s the first red flag that we’re already off mission.

A way to erase this false dichotomy between sacred and secular is to, in all things, think redemptively, and let the renewing your mind be in finding God at work in the culture around us. I am reminded of how the Apostle Paul could walk around Athens, a city full of idols, and still find Jesus (Acts 17). Engage the artist, engage the audience of that artist, and let your words and deeds be salted with grace. What would our spiritual life be like without art? A shriveled up and dry experience, devoid of any sense of transcendence and beauty. I’m reminded of some words I read in The Christian Monist blog not too long ago:

When you hear the sound of voices of another heart telling the story of love (romantic) or sorrow, heartbreak and loss . . . you know that you are real too. You know that you are not alone. You sense a community of hearts who have all loved, lost and wondered if there is a better way for the world to live. You know that you are human.

We come from the same Creator, created in His image, with his creative Spirit, so it’s all right to love art for art’s sake. We can listen to beautiful music and feel God’s presence. We can become lost in a painting and let it wordlessly speak to us. We can get transported by a story and learn lessons about ourselves. That’s the role of the artist, to remind us of our humanity and to remind us of the story we find ourselves in.

*And as I was recently reminded, it’s one thing for the artist to put themselves out there, entirely another for their spouse. They still have privacy rights and will send out corrective memos when we go too far.

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(This post was part of a Synchroblog I am part of. Here are the other links. Enjoy!)

    God Doesn’t Have Writer’s Block

    I’ve written about the church’s uneasy relationship with art and spoken before of how story impacts my Christianity, but I’ve been thinking lately about how the many in the church have an uneasy relationship with story. Which is ironic considering that a good chunk of the basis of our faith is rooted in lessons provided by a collection of stories.

    Our imagination is an amazing gift. Our ability to conceive ideas and construct stories is beautiful. It joins us to our Creator and is part of what makes us human. Its dark side, however, is that it can be used as a destructive device that can distort reality and is why so many inherently trust any sort of metanarrative. Story is a powerful thing, rife with potential, and because we were created in God’s image, we want to write our own stories.

    I write by outline. When I’m plotting out a novel, there’s a story I know I want to tell. So I can spend pages creating characters, laying out plot points, describing different scenes, jotting down snippets of dialogue to capture each character’s voice, and generally plotting out the overall story. But I leave the end of the outline, the climax of the story, open. If my characters are real, they aren’t always going to cooperate with the story I have in mind. If they were created as living, breathing, fully fleshed out characters, they have freedoms and will make choices. They have their own story to tell and I need to give them room to allow them to write it themselves. If I impose my plot at the expense of their character arcs, the story I’m writing will ring hollow. I am not being true to them or the narrative.

    I wonder if this is how God operates?

    Stories can sometimes be painful and take dark and unexpected turns. When situations, crisis moments, rise up, we want to impose out plots on them. As a church, we can get tempted into wanting to write our own stories, trying to create “look what God did” tales—wrapping things up in time for our Thanksgiving service or next sermon series—that we overlook the people involved and the story HE’s writing. Stories proceed at their own pace, moving along their own timeline. Sometimes when faced with a painful or overwhelming story, we want to get to the end quickly (sometimes any ending), not allowing time or any sort of narrative process to unfold, simply to get over it and feel better. Trying to manage the story rather than being true to the story and characters.

    I had a story once where the words were coming easy, the characters fully imagined in my head, and then I tried to force a story onto them. Instead of dealing with the characters in front of me, as they were, I moved the story at the expense of them and their needs. Shocker of all shocks, the characters quit cooperating with me. It was like they opted out of the story. So I had to scrap the story I was trying to do and start over.

    We also have a way of trapping people in stories, not just as a people, or as a church, but also as individuals. We are quick to label people—“that’s the crazy one”, “that’s the drama queen”, “that’s the villain”—defining them into roles that they aren’t free to grow out of. Similarly, we can sometimes do the same damage to ourselves when we believe lies about ourselves.

    Similarly to losing focus of the characters, we can lose focus of the story and end up forcing stories, locked into the endings we want. We end up trying to salvage a story:

    -if we can just get this person saved
    -if we can just get these people to reconcile
    -if we can just change this person’s thinking or way of life

    All good ends, but mixed in with an inherent hubris: as if we’re the author’s of those stories. What it reveals is that we don’t trust narrative. or the Ultimate Author. Our need to control locks us into creating “an opportunity for a miracle” (you know how we like to give God a helping hand with the situations we encounter), wanting to have a good “look what God did” story to tell, as if we need to provide Him crib notes to help the story along.

    But God doesn’t have writer’s block.

    As much as we would wish or act like it is, life isn’t a choose your own adventure story. Stories happen on God’s script and on His time table. As such, narratives are uncertain and should be prayerfully written. Narratives aren’t safe and require faith in an ultimate Author and asks us to surrender our narrative to Him and the story He wants to write. Our stories are ones of continued surrender.

    We need to encounter each other as stories, bumping up against and connecting to others as fellow participants and co-authors of a story of reconciliation and healing. Pain and suffering is our universal language, our great uniter. Our collective sin, our response to that sin, requires that we walk through the pain of a fallen world with a willingness to enter into one another’s paralyzing situations.

    The story isn’t that we sin and God forgives, but that we’re children of God’s, co-heirs with Jesus, called to a life of joy. We are to make His life our own, transforming us, sometimes through the refining fire of pain, to look like Him, as children come to resemble their parents. That’s the story we find ourselves in.

    Art and Urban Renewal

    A spirit must be been swirling within Indianapolis, taking root in similarly minded people. I’ve been encountering more and more folks who have been convicted to use art as an inspiration for urban renewal.

    Art plays an indispensable role in the life of a city, though sometimes people lose sight of any practical value to it. These privately funded organizations, feeling the recessional pinch of government budgets, dedicate themselves to bring together artistic talent and civic projects with the goal of neighborhood development. They incorporate the creative talents of local artists into the big infrastructure projects in the hopes of influencing positive changes in a community.

    Jonathan Thomas, CEO of Eastgate Studios, says that “Art, in its many permutations, has historically provided powerful platforms of expression for change, some of the greatest of which was conceived during hours of immense crises. Through the rising tide of homicidal bloodshed on the streets of Indianapolis, I believe that God is calling the people of this capital city into a place of bold response, rather than fearful reaction. The art community of Indianapolis has been given an incredible opportunity to respond with the beauty of creativity. Therefore, EastGate Studios exists to unleash hope by harnessing the power of creativity among those who feel voiceless, as a catalyst for spiritual, cultural, and economic renewal.”

    Some are thinking through strategies that use art as a tool for development. Matt Theobald, chairman of the Revitalize Art Music Project, says that “RAMP is a synthesis of the creative class in urban renewal and cultural tourism. If you throw the creative class at problems, all kinds of creative solutions can emerge.” The arts bring with them vitality, and there is an underexplored relationship between exhibition and the economic and social development of a poor and neglected community. Among their planned activities include a mural festival seeking to renew the east side.

    So while short sighted politicians are happy to see funding for the arts cut, forgetting the importance of cultural tourism in the life of a city, the arts have not turned its back on the city. And that’s good for all of us.

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    Kids Art Theology

    There are a couple of things my friends have learned about me. One, I tend to pick up stuff that I run across (I don’t care that you might have thrown it away) and two, I’m a bit of a packrat. So I hoard and keep stuff (but stop short of uttering things like “my precious”).

    Our children’s ministry kids have been focused on art as a part of creative space summer as well as during the main gathering of the Dwelling Place. I have been fascinated with some of the things they have latched onto during a service.
    The Sunday after our Easter/Resurrection Sunday service, I had the kids sit out to see what they took from the service. There were a lot of pictures of Christ on a cross. My son, Reese, had a full crucifixion scene, complete with a weeping Mary and laughing “bad guys”.
    And Maggie, daughter of one of our elders, had quite the ornamental cross.
    “This is why we make crosses: because he died on a cross” (though I was mildly disconcerted by Emmy, my niece’s, inclusion of savior nipples)

    And then she followed it with a picture of Mary (I found it interesting that so many of the kids gravitated to the Mary portion of the Resurrection story). “Jesus got reserected means to me that he went to heaven but is still with us”
    During Mo*Con, Alethea Kontis got into the act.
    Last Sunday, Maggie came up with quite the profound bit of theology: This is the world in God’s hand. And her hand holds His.

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