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!)

    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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    Responsibility of the Artist

    A few ideas have been running through my head about the nature of how ideas are propagated and disseminated in our culture. I’ve been mulling over the “food chain” of ideas:

    -philosophers/theologians/scientists – the generators of ideas, of new ways of looking at reality

    -artists – the communicators of those ideas, transmitting them to the (pop) culture at large.

    -audience/culture – consumers of those ideas

    Discuss.

    In the meantime, my column for Intake. “Living Life in Light of Death.”

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    If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.