The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
There are several ways in which the church has the tendency to isolate artists and musicians.
When I was 13, I liked to write songs. I composed worship songs or songs that dealt with an aspect of my relationship with God.
I lived in a boarding school for missionary kids in South America. In one occasion, another boy and I were going to sing some of our songs at an event for our classmates. But before we could perform them for the audience, comprised of our classmates, we had to go through a censorship process. The song that I had written didn’t seem appropriate to the “censors” because, although it talked about God and my love for Him, it didn’t mention the word “God” nor “Jesus” nor “Christ.” The censorship they put in place seemed a bit absurd to me, but in order to be able to sing the song I replaced the word “You” with “God” in several of the song’s phrases. With those changes, my song was then deemed acceptable.
This happened in a very conservative environment over thirty years ago. But unfortunately, as the church we have progressed very little in regard to our perspective on art. There are several points in which the church has the tendency to isolate artists and musicians.
1. THE USE OF METAPHORS
For some reason it appears that a lot of people inside the church are afraid to use metaphors. It seems that a need exists to explain everything, even to the point of losing all meaning of what is represented. Yet we see that very seldom are Jesus’ parables explained in Scripture. This gives them an element of intrigue and mystery and is captivating for the reader.
What’s more, these small vignettes are some of the most cited texts because of their richness in both religious and non-religious environments. Many of the parables are very easy to understand at first sight, but upon deeper examination we realize that they have numerous applications. Perhaps other parables we won’t understand until we arrive to heaven.
On the other hand, perhaps similar to what happened to me in the story at the beginning of the article, we see a need to clarify – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that the piece or song or work is “Christian.” We then insist that there be a cross or a fish in the drawing, or a verse in the text, or some reference to get rid of any doubt that it is “Christian.”
Maybe it would be more interesting if we could enjoy the beauty of a work without having to understand all of it or without making every part of it have some grand meaning. At times it should be enough that the work evokes emotion or causes us to reflect.
2. “CHRISTIAN ART”
This perhaps is one of the most reoccurring points that isolates artists or musicians, because art itself is one of the most efficient means of communicating ideas. Many evangelicals would like to qualify art or music as “Christian” or “not Christian.” In my point of view, this is a bit absurd.
For example, how could we classify the work of a plumber? Is a tube Christian or not Christian? It could be that the tube is in a building where a church meets, but that wouldn’t make it Christian. Or the work of an accountant: are his or her accounts Christian? It could be that the accountant works in a church, but the accounts aren’t Christian. The people are Christians.
However, we want Christian music and Christian art. I believe that just the same as the plumber, the accountant, the doctor, the professor, or the nurse, the artist as a person is a Christian and as a consequence should reflect the person of Jesus in his or her work. But I contend that the reflection of Jesus will first be seen in how he or she relates to others, the entirety of the creation of his or her hands, in his or her music, or in what he or she writes.
Nonetheless I believe that what a person creates is going to represent what he or she carries inside. If what is inside is the Holy Spirit, the fruit will be embodied in his or her creation – even if it doesn’t have a fish or a cross or words that are easily recognizable as religious/evangelical.
To clarify this point, the important part is that we be true followers of Jesus, independently of the professional environment in which we find ourselves. Being a follower of Jesus comes first: a follower of Jesus that happens to be a mason, a follower of Jesus that happens to be a teacher, a follower of Jesus that happens to be a pastor, a follower of Jesus that happens to be a screenwriter.
3. UTILITARIAN ART
Many times artists have been in situations in which they have had to sacrifice the integrity of his or her ideas in order to execute utilitarian works for the evangelical church.
There seems to be a need to defend the value of art in the evangelical church, especially if it doesn’t serve a purpose for evangelism or teaching. But art is important simply because it is beautiful. Perhaps just by being beautiful it “serves” us with more utility than if it we twisted it to make it serve a purpose. However, I believe that many times the church has wanted to utilize art and artists to communicate its message by governing how the art should be in order to be valid.
The fact is that art is worthy just by being art. Music is worthy just by being beautiful. Poetry is worthy because it gives us another perspective on life. Photography is worthy because it gives us a window into the photographer’s soul. Theatre is worthy because of the tales it narrates to us. It doesn’t have to evangelize or preach or exhort our evangelical language.
On the other hand, I am of the opinion that in many cases film, theatre, painting, sculpture, poetry, and music can preach, evangelize, and encourage much better than the majority of sermons that we could hear from many pulpits Sunday after Sunday. The trick is letting them actually do it.
Finally, I think that art in whichever of its forms, when it is truly beautiful, praises God. This act of praising God is independent of the artist’s intentions and beliefs. All creation praises God – including artists. Whether they want to or not, when artists create or reflect beauty, they are taking the beauty and greatness of God and embodying it in their works.
It is true that there are works that are openly sacrilegious or that praise evil. Clearly, these works do not praise God. But perhaps we have a very narrow vision if we think that God allows Himself to be praised only in our church services or by us, His faithful.
4. RELUCTANCE TO ACCEPT NEW METHODS AND IDEAS
An important characteristic of art is its prophetic character. When I studied at university in the middle of the 1980s, there was talk of postmodernism and of the postmodern artists on display in our gallery. These ideas had already been around for a while in philosophical circles. However, it wasn’t until the end of the ‘90s that I began to hear about postmodernism in the church, and today, philosophers and artists are on another wavelength: hypermodernity, supermodernity, and others that I am forgetting. All of this is to say that the church is thinking 10 years behind (at least) the rest of society.
In his book How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer paves the way society’s ideas, beginning with the philosophers and immediately followed by the artists. For this reason, I believe that it is important to give artists a platform inside the church, to help us be culturally connected to society.
It is not only our ideas but also the methods that we use that at times create a cultural disconnect. Not long ago I was talking with recent convert about his first impressions of the church that he attends and in which he was converted. He told me that the first time he went to a worship service he thought, “Oh, I didn’t know that evangelicals liked country music.” Strictly speaking, worship music isn’t country, but my friend had no cultural reference that he could use to classify the music he heard in worship because it didn’t exist within his culture. This is a simple example of something that happens to us for being so closed up in our small world.
On the other hand, the artist is continually looking outside to discover new and more creative methods. His or her toil is to innovate and change. It is in this way that the artist captivates the audience.
Sadly I have seen the same story that happened to me when I was 13 repeated many times. I have seen it happen more to young people than to older people. But it has happened to people of all ages. The result ends up being the rejection of new ideas, the rejection of new methods, the intention of reducing art to a tool, “Christianizing” art or explaining something until it loses its intrigue. I’d like to see a church in Spain culturally contextualized that can accept artists and grow with them. I will keep fighting for that and for them.
John Hill is Director of La Industria arts school, in Spain.