The role of Christian artists

This post follows my recent post ‘Covenanted for culture, redeemed for cultural renewal’.

What is the job of Christian artists? Here are some thoughts.

First, Christian artists must produce art.

A statement of the obvious, perhaps, but let us feel the force of the word ‘must’. Christian artists must use the gifts God has given them to the glory of God.

Second, Christian artists must produce art that is beautiful and well executed.

Skill and artistry matter. This is art for the glory of God so trite, clichéd, commercialised art will not do. Though the artist must make her way in the world, we cannot be content with art for the sake money when our lives – including are artistic lives – are to be lived for the sake of the glory of God. So excellence and integrity matter.

Every Christian should pursue creativity to the glory of God. All of us should be creative in their work and home, valuing quality and beauty. A well-presented business report and well-decorated dinner table are expressions of the cultural mandate. A cleaned kitchen is a redemptive act against chaos. Some may also take up art as a hobby – a sabbath activity. All of these activities have their own intrinsic value.

But the value we give to less well-executed art does not mean those with ability are excused the pursuit of excellence (any more than the less skilled preacher mandates the skilled preacher to produce poor sermons). We should all do art to the best of our abilities to the glory of God. The community of God’s people should value all contributions as expressions of love for God and delight in his glory. But it will value some contributions as more beautiful and true because they are well executed by gifted artists.

Third, Christian artists must produce art that is true

Christian artists must produce art that corresponds to a Christian worldview. The work of a Christian artist must be true.

Does this mean artists are pedagogues and preachers? Must art convey moral lessons? No. God has given the church preachers and teachers. The artist has a different role. This is not how art works. Art is elusive, ambiguous, open-ended. Art makes us think and invites us to explore. ‘Peculiar to art is a parable character, a metaphoric intensity, an elusive play in its artifactual presentation of meanings apprehended.’ (Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows For the Fallen World, 27) Art approaches us from a side-ways direction, getting in behind our prejudices. It is precisely because (or when) it refuses to preach at us that it has the power to challenge our preconceptions. The message of the artist may not be as opaque as that of the preacher, but therein lies its power to unsettle and transform.

More on ‘true art’ in my next post …
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7 thoughts on “The role of Christian artists

  1. Wouldn’t it also be true to say that gifts must be used in the service of others for the glory of God. So art is not a vehicle for solely self-expression (as it seems to be in our culture). The artist should intend to to edify others by their art, that God might be glorifies rather than the self.

  2. We may agree on this, but I would like to add some thoughts. Art in its various mediums “must” not convey moral lessons. But it can, and often should. I am not saying it is limited to this. But it’s my belief that there is a dearth of good storytelling in our age in many mediums because of the embracing of ambiguity.

    This played out from the 60s/70s to now with modern art movements and a widespread questioning of the nature of truth and it’s knowability. In my opinion, the visual arts were affected the most, with very few schools left knowing or teaching the hard science of representational art anymore. The places that do are coastal, serving the entertainment industries (on the west coast). Or on the east coast, largely serving illustration, the fine art gallery scene and the American Art traditions spawned from Neoclassicism (which descends from the renaissance) and artists like Winslow Homer.

    Anyway, I believe a good story will leave the reader with a clear message in mind. Regardless of the integrity of that message (a good or bad one), a well told story will be an effective communication of a message. Of course, the medium masks things in a way that a didactic argument would not express. It is more experiential. I believe that’s why God speaks to us through the “story” of our lives as well as the Gospel “story”. The best story resonates with us intellectually, spiritually and emotionally, with a ring of truth to it.

    The Gospel is the most important story for us to tell, and I believe that is best done in its purest form (The Word, undiluted by our stylizations). But as Christians there are messages that speak to all of life, and not merely the salvation narrative.. So we are free as you say to not tell stories bound by a direct moral or scriptural exposition. But we are constrained by our service and love to God too tell stories that are consistent with the truth revealed to us and to tell stories as well as we can.

    That requires training and hard work that a lot of us neglect in favor of just leaning on whatever natural gifting we may have received. And unfortunately this is part of why I think the church has largely shot itself in the foot when it comes to understanding artists, and artists the church. But I have hope that we’re entering an age where more Christian artists will step up to the plate and tell good stories that communicate truth.

    This is not to say that there is no place for free-verse poetry or free interpretation in our art. Much, much of art is only aesthetically beautiful, and made more beautiful by the nature of its simplicity and openness of interpretation. But as the church we should be wary of just catching up to modernism and not honestly staying with the times. I think we should be careful to realize that postmodernism does not reject a narrative with a clear message. It accepts a broad array of things and that includes structuralist approaches to art and writing as well as the modern “anything goes” approach.

    Finally, an intentional pursuit of “elusiveness” in some arenas is almost a surefire path to failure, since clarity and consistency in design is absolutely required. The entertainment industry is a definite example. This issue is why for instance, there tends to be such a hard split in the thinking of entertainment artists in Los Angeles and State college art professors throughout middle America.

    Much of collegiate mainstream academia is still concerned with high-minded concepts and emulation of the modern art movement. But the entertainment industry (consumer whore it may be) by and large demands more narrative, representational clarity. Of course there is art-house cinema, and not every Hollywood storyteller works this way, but most do. It aligns with a proven formula of what has worked in Western culture.

    It’s interesting to me that you are seeing a need for more art embracing ambiguity. I would say more Christians making good art in general (message or aesthetics driven regardless) is a good thing. But I believe where we really are with art right now, and I’m speculating with our culture too, is a turning point between tradition and modernism, legalism and license, spirituality and rationality. All are thriving in one way or another as the pendulum swings again. Since there is so much overlap, you see visual artists like James Jean and the like blending old-school representational and modern traditions, pop culture and ancient myth.

    Unfortunately it is likely that Western culture is beginning to shift away from embracing a single unifying “Metanarrative” (that is, something as clear as “one God made and redeemed the world”) in favor of many ideas. So maybe you’re right, and into this poly-idea culture we are actually better off softening or leaving sharp edged messages out at times, since the idea of meta-narrative driven stories is becoming less palatable. I think much of Eastern culture (Africa and Asia) may be going to the other end of the teetertotter in time. But this is all speculation.

    What I hope that we avoid as the church is failing to trailblaze with art because we are only now catching up to modernism. We play catch up far too often. In the 90s we were horrendous about repackaging the Gospel with pop culture, with Jesus Christ in Coca-Cola script for example. Let’s hold onto the truth and doctrine while we enjoy this new grasp on aesthetics. Let’s not get limp-wristed and emergent. Let’s tell stories that don’t suck, or merely dress the Gospel down to look like our culture (stripping it of much of its power).

    Alright, I’m off my soap box. Thank you Tim.

  3. I got the link to this article from a friend. I’m an artist here in the US, working on games and graphic novel stuff. And of course I just realized now you’re coming from the UK. And I didn’t say anything about your neck of the woods or Europe. I’m a typical ‘Mericacentrist. Sorry. Anyway, I hope what I wrote is still provocative and interesting. I’m glad that the church is talking about these things.

  4. “The message of the artist may not be as opaque as that of the preacher, but therein lies its power to unsettle and transform.”

    Freudian Slip?

    “Christian artists must produce art that corresponds to a Christian worldview.”

    Surely artists must be free to stretch, tweak, question and challenge Christian worldviews. Otherwise they are propagandists not artists. And Christian world views become stagnant and sterile.

    Artists as prophets perhaps? Being an artist, it seems to me. is first about seeing differently and then inviting us to see differently. They function as specifically Christian artists to the extent that their seeing coheres with God’s seeing. They become prophetic when that vision is made available to others.

  5. Hi Glen, I want to stick with the statement that ‘Christian artists must produce art that corresponds to a Christian worldview.’ Maybe ‘biblical worldview’ would be better. I mean the worldview Christians should have rather than the worldview they do have. It may be that the church scene of which they are part has deviated from a Christian worldview in certain ways. In that context the artist may call people back to a more Christian worldview (the artist as prophet as you put it). It may also be that the artist is deviating from a Christian/biblical worldview and his church community needs to challenge him or her. We are all always reforming and artists have a role to play in that. Just as importantly, they have a missional role – not as preachers, but as those who perhaps prepare the way for preaching by unsettling, raising questions, causing people to see the world in new ways and so on.

  6. Pingback: How can Christians Engage & Create Culture (Rather than simply reacting, copying, or abandoning it)? | missional musings

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