Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the ArtsImagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts
Steve Turner
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Imagine art that is risky, complex and subtle! Imagine music, movies, books and paintings of the highest quality! Imagine art that permeates society, challenging conventional thinking and standard morals to their core! Imagine that it is all created by Christians!

This is the bold vision of Steve Turner, someone who has worked among artists---many Christian and many not---for three decades. He believes Christians should confront society and the church with the powerful impact art can convey. He believes art can faithfully chronicle the lives of ordinary people and equally express the transcendence of God. He believes that Christians should be involved in every level of the art world and in every media.

Yet art and artists have not always been held in high esteem by conservative Christians. Art rarely seems to communicate clear propositional truth, rarely deals with certainties and absolutes. And the lifestyles of artists too frequently seem at odds with the gospel. So the arts have often been discouraged among Christians.

Throughout this stimulating book, however, Turner builds a compelling case against such a perspective. He shows that if Jesus is Lord of all of life and creation, then art is not out of bounds for Christians. Rather it can and should be a way of expressing faith in creatively, beautifully, truthfully arranged words, sounds and sights.

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The Split

A key issue in the strained relationship between Christianity and the arts is the perceived division between secular and sacred. Christians have found it hard to appreciate art that deals with daily living, especially if it doesn’t supply an obviously spiritual conclusion.

This problem is exemplified in what is known as contemporary Christian music (CCM). Created as a marketing category to distinguish what had once been known as Jesus rock from traditional southern gospel, it is music created by Christians and largely consumed by Christians. As far as I am aware, it is the only musical category recognized in the record industry that is defined entirely by lyrical content. All other categories—blues, soul, dance, heavy metal, rap and so on—are defined by musical style.

This criterion has naturally focused attention on the words of the songs at the expense of the quality of musical composition, musicianship and studio production. CCM practitioners are judged by the pungency of their message and remain eligible for the genre only as long as their lyrics fall inside prescribed parameters. Many of them refer to their work not as an art but as a ministry and speak openly about using their music “to reach the world for Christ.”

For many Christians, preaching is the role model for communication and the arts are simply another form of communication. Consequently they create art that involves a clearly understood message and possibly even a challenge. The listener is not meant to be enriched but changed. Success is gauged not in terms of critical appreciation but in souls saved.

The thinking behind creating such music seems to be as follows: Young people today don’t have high regard for preachers, and yet they do emulate rock stars. Some rock music contains thought provoking lyrics. Therefore, the Christian gospel, if successfully couched in a rock music setting, could be more effective among youth than if it was declared from a pulpit.

This is faulty thinking. It confuses the power of the Spirit with the power of technology, charisma and mystique. Rock music can have power over people for reasons that range from the decibel level to the image of a singer built up through the media. The popular messages put over by rock music are usually popular not because they reverse the direction of society, but because they encourage the direction it is already going in.

Nowhere was this more clearly emphasized than when I saw Bob Dylan perform his first concerts with songs written out of an experience of Jesus. On paper this was the perfect opportunity to see a generation influenced by the gospel. Here was one of the most powerful icons from the baby-boom generation pleading with his audience to “get ready,” “wake up” and “serve the Lord.” The result at the concert I attended in San Francisco was that the audience jeered, walked out or demanded to hear his old material. Reviewers were equally condemning. This was not the message that they wanted to hear. They wanted their worldviews to be endorsed, not brought into question, and no amount of charisma, artistic talent and status could change that.

The power of effective preaching isn’t a question of art. Preachers should of course be well read, skillful with language, aware of into- nation and able to craft arguments that engage the interest of the ordinary person, but if we could explain a revival in terms of artistry, then we would be right to credit the artists and not the Spirit. Success in preaching is not a simple matter of effective communication.

Jonathan Edwards, the great preacher of the New England revival, achieved spectacular effects although he read his sermons and did it in a quiet voice. When the evangelist D. L. Moody came to Britain in the 1870s, what surprised those who saw him was that there seemed to be nothing in his disposition or style that could explain the power that was unleashed when he preached. Moody, for his part, was greatly pleased to know that what he did couldn’t be analyzed in human terms.

It is therefore wrong for Christians to think that if only we could employ the most powerful arts and media available today we could bring about conversions on a scale never seen before. The power of Steven Spielberg the filmmaker to sell cinema seats or Madonna the musician to sell CDs would not be automatically translated into the power to save souls should they choose to give their gift to the Lord. They may be listened to by more people, for a short while at least, but if they were to be explicit about the Christian faith they would face the same indifference or resistance that any other proclaimer of the good news has encountered.

When Christians think of the arts as something that can be used to win the world to Christ, they create an unrealistic expectation of the arts and put unfair pressure on artists. Christian songwriters are automatically expected to write “Christian songs.” But what constitutes a “Christian song”? In theory, according to the Gospel Music Association, a gospel song can be in any style as long as it contains worship or testimony, or is “informed by a Christian worldview.” In practice, it tends to be a song that contains the requisite amount of references to the Lord, God, Jesus or the Spirit. Otherwise, how would a half-attentive radio audience know it was listening to CCM?

Frequently a “Christian worldview” is interpreted to mean a view of a pressing moral problem broadly accepted by evangelicals. Therefore, a song protesting abortion or pornography would fulfill the criteria. A song recommending the cancellation of third-world debt might not because, although the idea of this sort of debt cancellation is derived from Old Testament practices, it can seem too political. So already the definition of a “Christian worldview” is problematic.

However, the truly Christian worldview is far more pervasive and often less obviously religious than people imagine. Many assumptions in our culture are rooted in the Bible. The dignity of labor and the responsibility for nurturing our talents are biblical views. Concern for an impartial judicial system is biblical. Respect for parents is biblical. I’m not sure that a song that dignified the work of a street sweeper would be considered “Christian” by the CCM industry.

Then there are areas of daily living where the experience of the Christian is no different from that of the agnostic, atheist or believer in false gods. For example, I like relaxing in a warm bath. If I were to discuss this with anyone, regardless of belief, they would at least know what I meant even if they didn’t share my enthusiasm. Uniting us would be our common humanity. We all laugh, cry, eat, sleep and sweat, and some of us take baths.

My perspective on the joy of warm baths, if I cared to elaborate, would be different because of my faith. I may take less of them because I am concerned about wasting natural resources. I may lie back and offer a prayer of thanks for the good things in life. I would of course believe that God created both water and the materials for the bathtub. But if I were conversing with someone about this pleasure I wouldn’t feel compelled to include this information in the conversation.

Similarly, in writing songs the stuff of human life is the artist’s resource. The Beatles wrote about bed (“I’m Only Sleeping”), boredom (“Good Morning”), nostalgia (“In My Life”), childhood (“Penny Lane”), the weather (“Rain”), loneliness (“Eleanor Rigby”) and money (“Taxman”), among other subjects. They were under no pressure to summarize their life philosophy in a single song and yet, if you were to collect their songs and piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle, you could discover a life philosophy, or at least part of one.

Christian songwriters are encouraged to ignore the ordinary things of life because they don’t provide the opportunity to witness. Mention of soup or football doesn’t naturally lead to Calvary. They are then left with the overtly spiritual, and this has the effect of making them seem out of balance to non-Christian observers. It appears that they have no regular life, that they don’t inhabit the normal world of telephones, cars, surf, television, mountains and fast food. They are like the people who can only talk about how good the Lord has been but can’t hold a conversation about baseball, the weather, the economy, the price of gas or the state of education.

The gospel is not limited to mentions of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. That, of course, is the hub of the matter. There would be no good news without it. But in its fullness, the gospel spreads out and embraces all aspects of our lives. It includes the renewed mind that Paul refers to, the wisdom sought after by Solomon and the justice called for by Amos.

C. S. Lewis once said that he believed in God like he believed in the sun: “Not because I can see him, but because by him I can see everything else.” It is possible to create work saturated with gospel insights without spelling out the plan of salvation, just as it is possible to demonstrate the joys of a loving marriage without showing off your wedding photographs. Songwriter T. Bone Burnett, speaking to the L. A. Weekly, said, “If Jesus is the Light of the World, there are two kinds of songs you can write. You can write songs about the light, or you can write songs about what you can see from the light. That’s what I try to do.”

The need to witness in art is nothing more than an application in one particular area of what we are told to do in general. All Christians should believe in making disciples, but just as a doctor would not be expected to preach to patients or a plumber to wrap texts around new pipe work so artists shouldn’t be required to turn their occupation into full-time evangelism unless specifically called to do so.

By continuously “praising the Lord” the CCM artist rarely shows evidence of a comprehensive worldview. In fact, the world is not viewed at all. What is viewed is personal spiritual experience and usually only its more beautiful peaks. The valley of the shadow of death is rarely traversed, nor is the valley of indecision. The casual non-believing browser is effectively excluded because there is no overlap of experience.

This raises the question of the relationship between art and propaganda. Some might argue that it is perfectly legitimate to use a song, novel or play as a type of sermon because art has frequently been used to move people to change their opinions. Looking at rock music alone, there have been songs urging us to love everyone (“All You Need Is Love,” Beatles), songs selling the virtues of atheism (“Imagine,” John Lennon), songs attacking the British monarchy (“God Save The Queen,” Sex Pistols) and songs denouncing apartheid (“Sun City,” Artists United Against Apartheid). The poetry and plays of Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s were written against fascism. Picasso painted Guernica to show the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Arthur Miller wrote his play The Crucible because he was angered by the trials of suspected communists in American public life organized by Senator Joe McCarthy.

Art can be used to persuade. But acknowledging this is not to conclude that art can only be justified if it used in this way. Art is created from passion, and when artists are passionate about injustice or persecution it is almost inevitable that it will affect their work. Usually, however, these people are not single-issue artists. Picasso’s feelings about the destruction of Guernica can be seen alongside his feelings about everything from music to women to food to death. Arthur Miller didn’t return to the subject of the McCarthy witch-hunt.

It should also be remembered that art created to change minds often actually does more to bolster the spirit of those already in agreement than it does to convert opponents. The antiwar songs of the 1960s put into words the ideas of the young people opposed to American engagement in Vietnam, but had no reported impact on the policymakers inside the Pentagon.

When art is given over to propaganda it tends to lose the human dimension because it is consumed by the issue. It oversimplifies complex issues. It vilifies the enemy. It devalues words and images. For examples of this we can look at the art approved by the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1930s and the official art of Russia under communism. Significantly, the only art that has survived from this period that still moves people is the art that was then suppressed and which challenged the orthodoxy of the day.

Some art is simply playful. It may be about nothing more than itself. It attempts neither to tell a story or to make a point. A photographer’s eye is caught by the peeling paint on the door of a Mediterranean cottage. A poet toys with a combination of words that seems both magical and musical. A painter experiments with color and texture with all the joy of a child playing in a mud bath. A sculptor makes a three-dimensional pun.

To some Christians this is a wasted opportunity, a sermon with no content, a Bible exposition with no substance. But playfulness is an important component of art and perfectly in keeping with a Christian understanding of creativity. Look at the animal kingdom. Can’t we sense a spirit of playfulness in the designs? Watching fish from the windows of an underwater observatory in the Red Sea recently I was struck first by the incredible array of colors and then by what I think can only be described as God’s humor. The flattened out shapes, the bulging lips, the hammer heads—it was like looking at the sketch pad of someone who had come up with a basic design and was having fun creating as many variations as possible. “God,” Picasso once said, “is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just keeps trying other things.”

The sound of words can inspire songwriters before a meaning becomes apparent. Sometimes there is no obvious meaning and sometimes there are several possible meanings. Dummy lyrics, used while a song is being composed without any thought to literal sense, often become so molded to the music that it doesn’t seem worth improving them. Singer-songwriter Beck typifies this approach when he says, “I sculpt the words, but they also have to feel good in a melody. Sometimes, I’ll put in a line just because it suits the melody. It won’t be something that speaks of the emotional core in me, but I can’t change it as it goes with the melody so much. You can go for the most expensive, crafted shirt in the world, but you’re still going to prefer the one that feels good when you wear it. That’s what I go for in a song. Ultimately, does it feel good to listen to?”

Because they are forced to work within narrow parameters, CCM artists are disadvantaged. While their non-Christian contemporaries work to create music which makes people go “Wow! Play that again. I love it,” they are having to come up with lyric-driven songs presumably designed to make people say, “That’s interesting. I agree with that sentiment. That seems true.” I suspect that I’m not alone in listening to songs because they excite, relax, console or uplift me rather than because they contain words that endorse certain of my convictions.

Songwriting, like all the arts, should involve self-discovery. As it has been said, “How can I know what I think until I see what I write?” The artist taps deep levels of consciousness and brings to the surface things that amaze him or her. A lot of CCM songwriting begins with a conclusion and the lyric is simply used to expound it. There is no sense of revelation because the artist wasn’t on a voyage of discovery. There are no surprises because the artist wasn’t surprised. Arthur Miller has said:

For myself, it has never been possible to generate the energy to write
and complete a play if I know in advance everything it signifies and
all it will contain. The very impulse to write, I think, springs from an
inner chaos crying for order, for meaning, and that meaning, must be
discovered in the process of writing or the work lies dead as it is finished.
To speak, therefore, of a play as though it were the objective
work of a propagandist is an almost biological kind of nonsense, provided,
of course, that it is a play, which is to say a work of art.

The Scottish poet and musician Don Paterson (not a Christian, as far as I know) says that poems should either surprise or frighten the poet who is writing them. He argues that the poet should be hit by words (just as I assume he would expect a musician to be hit by sounds) and it is from these words that some sense may later emerge.

I don’t think poets get ideas for poems, they get words; that’s their
gift, and they forget it at their peril. What usually happens (to me) is
that I get this phrase in my head that I can’t leave alone; sometimes
it’s original, sometimes a cliche or some bit of received language I’ve
discovered something new in; it constantly surprises me when I think
about it and that’s completely essential—if it doesn’t surprise me, I
can’t expect it to surprise the reader, which is the whole point of the

A sermon requires authority, clarity and a personal challenge. Art, on the other hand, often deals in doubt, ambiguity and self-criticism. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats once observed that the quarrel with others produced rhetoric but the quarrel with oneself produced poetry. So often Christian artists feel that their role is to take on the enemy, whereas they would produce better and more accessible work if they dealt with the contradictions, waverings and weaknesses within themselves.

The demand for overtly religious lyrics doesn’t only come from the Christian music industry. The audience judges artists by their words. If a musician has too many songs without the requisite buzz words, they are thought to have lost the faith or at least be in a period of “backsliding.” I’ve known musicians who haven’t supplied the correct number of references to Jesus to receive letters beginning, “Dear former brother in Christ.” Conversely, if a wellknown mainstream artist makes even a passing reference to “the Lord” they will be claimed as a believer by an audience desperate to have famous people counted among their number.

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