January 22, 2007


Category: Art,Literature,Music :: Permalink

Last week, I read Steve Turner’s Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts.  I’d spotted it in the Medford Public Library and thought it looked interesting.  And it was.

Turner is a poet and music journalist and has written several books and articles about musicians, so he knows what he’s talking about.  He does a very good job at pointing out the ways in which the arts contribute to a full life.  Dance, for instance, makes us aware of the beauty and grace of the human body.

Whereas some books on the arts focus solely on artists who are themselves creating new pieces of art, Turner recognizes that not every artist does.  Musicians in a symphony simply play the notes that are in front of them.  Similarly, there are actors who simply have to say the lines that have been written for them.  It strikes me that Turner is unique in addressing what it means for such artists to carry out their art in a Christian way.

Turner distinguishes helpfully between what he presents as “five concentric circles” of artistic work.  In the outermost circle are the sorts of artists I mentioned above, and Turner affirms that there’s nothing wrong with simply playing the notes or acting a role.  The creation of something beautiful is valuable, even if no one hearing the musician play those notes would be able to tell that he is a Christian.

The next circle is the kind of artistic work that does express “Christian faith because it dignifies human life and introduces a sense of awe” (p. 83).  Think of a saxophone solo that makes you glad to be alive or a photograph that shows you a beautiful scene or a poem that sheds new light on some aspect of ordinary life.

The third circle is the kind of artistic work that expresses the Bible’s teaching but in a way that is not specificially Christian.  Unbelievers, too, can often affirm the importance of forgiveness or appreciate humble care for the poor. The fourth circle is more explicitly Christian, drawing on biblical and theological themes such as original sin.  The fifth and central circle is the most explicitly Christian, presenting the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Turner notes rightly that all of these circles are legitimate artistic endeavours for Christians.  He traces the history of Christian appreciation and avoidance of the arts.  It’s sad to see that, whereas the Roman Catholic church often embraced and supported her artists, the Protestant world often didn’t.  Turner interacts (often sympathetically) with some of the Protestant cautions with regard to the arts.

At various points in the book, he speaks about the superficiality of much of the art that Christians produce.  Christians shouldn’t focus their artistic endeavors simply on the gospel as if they were simply interested in propaganda.  It’s not wrong to produce music about ordinary life; Christians as much as unbelievers enjoy drinking good coffee or falling into bed at the end of a hard day or loving their wives or walking under the stars and they shouldn’t feel as if singing about these things is less godly or less “spiritual” than singing about Jesus.

Furthermore, they shouldn’t shy away from talking honestly about sin.

Adultery, violence, murder, deceit, fornication, betrayal and pride are clearly important to adult storytelling, whether in fiction, in film or on the stage.  A simplistic reading of the situation would conclude that these sins are included to appeal to the base in human nature.  Sometimes they are.  But it is often more deep rooted than that.  Drama depends on conflict.  The protagonist must face tests and trials and through overcoming them, reveal his or her true character.  Violence and sexual betrayal are among the most extreme tests we can face, which is why they are so frequently used in story lines (p. 39).

After pointing to the stories of David and Saul and David and Bathsheba, Turner continues:

If the obstacles the writer introduces either don’t seem challenging enough (for example, the protagonist is handed back too much change in a store and worries about whether to return it) or doesn’t seem real enough (for example, a fight ensues but no punches are seen to land and no blood is spilled), then evil doesn’t appear evil enough, and if good triumphs, it won’t appear good enough.  This is why so much “Christian fiction” lacks the ring of truth.  The action doesn’t appear to take place in the “real world” (pp. 39-40).

Turner follows up with some quotations:

Mindful of his Calvinistic heritage Daniel Defoe argued in the preface to Moll Flanders: “To give the history of a wicked life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked part should be made as wicked as the real history of it will bear, to illustrate and give beauty to the penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal spirit and life.”  Francois Mauriac said that his job as a novelist was to make evil “perceptible, tangible, odorous.  The theologian gives us an abstract idea of the sinner.  I give him flesh and blood.”  Or, as John Henry Cardinal Newman once observed, “It is a contradition in terms to attempt a sinless literature of sinful man” (p. 40).

Instead, too many Christians shy away from realistic portrayals of sin, presenting a Pollyanna view of life, “paintings of birds and kittens, movies that extol family life and end happily, songs that are positive and uplifting — in short, works of art that show a world that is almost unfallen where no one experiences conflict and where sin is naughty rather than wicked” (pp. 40-41).

But presenting the truth about sin doesn’t mean that the artist has permission to be worldly.  Turner warns that we are perhaps most in danger of succumbing to worldly ideas when we’re just watching something for fun, but he is careful to identify what worldliness is and isn’t.  It’s the rebellious system of thinking and acting that characterizes unbelieving people; it isn’t a disdain for the world around us.

Confusing these two usages can lead to disaster.  Some strict fundamentalist sects show disdain toward creation and culture, and yet in doing so become proud, arrogant and uncaring.  They therefore become worldly in the very way the Bible condemns and yet are not worldly enough in the way the Bible commands.  We are told to be in the world but not of it.  People like this are often of the world but not in it (p. 43).

This sort of “unworldiness” which emphasizes the “spiritual” and rejects “the secular” (that is, anything that isn’t directly about Jesus) — a view which Turner correctly identifies as having its roots in the heresy of gnosticism — can damage people and drive them away from Jesus:

When I was researching my book Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye I visited an African American church in Kentucky where one of the pastors asked me this question: “Gospel music is made for the glory of God, but for whose glory is pop music made?”

I assumed I was meant to think that if someone wasn’t singing about God, they couldn’t be singing to God’s glory and that if they weren’t singing for God’s glory then they must be singing to the glory of the devil.  It’s a tortured logic but one I have seen affect some of the most innovative artists in rock music.  It can lead people to think that they are damned for singing a song about the joy of being in love or driving a fast car (p. 46).

And so people like Sam Cooke and Jerry Lee Lewis, but doubtless many others, found themselves confronted with a choice: sing gospel music only or leave the church to sing “secular music.”  And if you’re going to be treated as a rebel, then you may as well act like one.  And so they have, working out the gnosticism their churches taught them.

And yet those aren’t the only choices.  The church needs to embrace and appreciate its artists, even though artists often don’t fit in well.  And artists need the church, too.

Toward the end of the book, Turner calls Christian artists to be faithful church members instead of edgy outsiders.  Turner cites the poet Jack Clemo who left the Calvinistic Methodist church he grew up in but returned to the church later in life:

At first I steered clear of the church, having a sort of “poetry religion,” but a Christian can’t develop much on poetry religion.  We all need the religion of ordinary people and the love of other converts.  That’s why, in the end, I went back to church; to worship around people who don’t like poetry.  It’s a good discipline.  I can’t put myself apart from them as someone very special.  As a convert I am just an ordinary believer, worshipping the same Lord as they do (p. 122).

Turner adds:

The church humbles us.  It is one of the few places in our societies today where we sit with rich and poor, young and old, black and white, educated and uneducated, and are focused on the same object.  It is one of the few places where we share the problems and hopes of our lives with people we may not know.  It is one of the few places where we sing as a crowd.  Although the church needs its outsiders to prevent it from drifting into dull conformity, the outsiders need the church to stop them from drifting into individualized religion (p. 122).

There’s a lot more packed into these 131 pages: including a good discussion of how poets and musicians write (they don’t first have an idea and then start writing; they often just come up with words or phrases that get stuck in their head or sound good with the music, even if they don’t make much sense by themselves), the politics of “Christian worldview” (why is it that some Christians would identify a song against abortion as demonstrating a “Christian worldview” while a song about third-world debt wouldn’t qualify?) and a helpful chapter about U2.  Buy a copy for an artist friend.  And then read it yourself too.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:24 pm | Discuss (0)

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