||Artists without honour
In this intellectually and aesthetically impoverished age it is heartening to remember that Christians were once known for their substantial contributions to society.
Bach, Mendelssohn, Dante, Dostoevsky and Rembrandt are but a few who personified the rich tradition of faith, produced the best work and enriched our common environment and culture. In their day the church bankrolled the artistic efforts of thoughtful creatives. However, today while we see a small resurgence of interest in the arts, most contemporary churches do not support artists, but run from them, reacting like the ancient Hebrews when a half-crazed prophet showed up.
Church and creatives need to unite once again to transform culture. A renaissance of both church and culture will require a new breed of Christians – countercultural, creative and thoughtful communicators who are able to integrate faith and culture in meaningful and prophetic ways.
So, what happened to the collaborative relationship between church and artist? Firstly, the church got out of synch with the world. There was a moment in 1966 when I was sitting in San Francisco's Fillmore West, sandwiched between two guys on an overstuffed couch, both of them smoking marijuana, all of us listening to Jefferson Airplane. As a new follower of Jesus I asked how he would relate to my generation’s adventurous, unorthodox spiritual quest. It seemed obvious to me that to enrich and influence culture we must enter it as a loving, transforming presence like Jesus did. Since that time I’ve observed churches falling into three unproductive relationships with the world. Instead of taking their place as a loving, transforming presence in culture, churches either cocoon themselves from the world, circling the wagons to keep the bad guys out and the good guys in; do combat with the world, declaring a culture war on lost people instead of loving them; or, in their attempt to engage culture, becoming conformed to culture instead.
Secondly, art got out of synch with God. Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “God is of no importance unless he is of supreme importance.” Artists lose their way when they become unlinked from God. Even that great wrestler with unbelief, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman concludes, “Art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days, the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans: eternal values, immortality and masterpiece were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished vulnerable and natural humility.” Humans are created in God’s image with spiritual, intellectual, creative, moral and relational capacities that define what it means to be fully human; whenever God is displaced we become less than fully human and the culture we make will reflect that dehumanization. This is why popular culture has degenerated into a mix of diversion (entertainment), mindlessness (amusement) and celebrity, propped up by shrewd marketing and new technology instead of well crafted art or brilliant ideas. The news gets worse. The Christian sub-culture is generally imitative of the broader culture and reflects the same spiritual, intellectual and creative impoverishment.
Lastly, the true artist has become the prophet. In such an environment, the fully human artist finds few allies in culture or the church, for neither wholly embraces the good, the true and beautiful. The artist becomes an outsider whose life and work resembles the truth-telling prophet. Feeling and seeing things differently, the artist speaks the truth in church and culture, announcing through words and art, “The emperor has no clothes.” The prophet’s role is not for the fainthearted. We as artists, when we think we’ve got it tough, need to remember that the Old Testament prophets were tortured, mocked, flogged and sawn in two. They wandered about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth, destitute, afflicted and mistreated.
This article is adapted from The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite – due for release in April 2007.