The Contextual Success of Art

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or so they say. But when the beholder has a bum eye? What then?

Obviously one of the hardest things about art is that is it subjective. Unlike math, with all its absolutes, in art, what is beautiful to one is not so beautiful to another.

Unless of course, you are God.

There is no possible way I could even begin to understand what art is beautiful to God and what is not. Sure, I could project my own opinions on Him, and maybe even hit a few dead on. But to truly know what pleases Him artistically would be a rather unimaginable process to say the least. And you can be sure, God indeed likes art. For a good talking-to on that subject, might I suggest Art In The Bible by Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer.

But while His thoughts on the subject might be elusive, He has given us a means to begin to tap them. As Christians who are connected to God through the Holy Spirit, we have a rare opportunity to tap into the divine nature of Christ, used not only for the redemption of our sinful selves, but also for the display of His glory. And collectively speaking, this gift is a responsibility of the Church. The Body of Christ.

Today we stand on the shoulders of those Believers who have gone before us, those who pioneered the way into a place of cultural influence. And while there are pot-shots I could take at the Christian artistic community, particularly the CCM community, they are mostly derived from personal railings, do not reflect a Christ-like attitude, and subsequently do absolutely no good in advancing the cause of the Kingdom. There is only one Accuser of the Brethren and I have been convicted as of late to distance myself from finger-pointing lest I be counted among his number. As the Body of Christ, we are called to encourage one another and I refuse to throw the savage beasts of manipulation and gossip one more piece of meat from another Christian brother or sister in the name of self-righteousness. A Religious Spirit masks its motives of superiority in the guise of a passion for purity and excellence; the Spirit of God displays its power in those who are flawed and consistently in need of grace.

Why such heavy words when speaking on the subject of art all of a sudden? Because whenever I or anyone else is about to analyze the current state of affairs with regard to a current paradigm in the Christian world, it is of paramount importance that we do so with a sobriety of thinking. And if it smells of anything other than grace, let it not be said at all. I’ll let you be the judge.

In the past three decades, specifically in the world of music, we have seen a massive surge of Christian artists promoted within a Christian record industry. And it has been received, even cherished and revered, by the American Christian community. The current populars have their tour routes and loyal fan bases all set up. And honestly, I’m thrilled for them. Christians are being encouraged and the lost are being saved.

But a significant portion of the Christian music industry is a Christian response to a secular product. No stone throwing here, just an analysis of the past 50 years. Long before Christian artists started drawing crowds as far back as the ’70’s in my parents’ day, their was Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night, Pink Floyd and Santana (yes, he really is that old). When Christians were finally able to gather at large events that promoted Jesus but still used concert staging, massive speaker towers, and dancing, a new “context” was born…an artistic context that would shape the next thirty years of a new paradigm. Christians who bought Christian branded products. Music. Books. Even clothing. And in doing so, segmented themselves from the greater world-culture.

As I’ve illustrated before, one only needs to hit Time Square in NY or Pier 39 in San Fransisco with a clipboard and a pen and ask people on the street a few questions. First, ask if they’ve ever heard of Chris Tomlin or Third Day, then ask them if they’ve ever heard Steve Morison or U2. Contextually, Christians have created a huge amount of success…among themselves…but not among the world as a whole.

Art that stands out in its own context is always deemed “new” or “cool” or “the next most amazing thing.” But it does not last the test of time because its success is based upon the supporting presence of its context. It is only cool because of its proximity to other expressions that represent the status quo; once those standards are forgotten, the art, too, becomes a bygone. Sure, people will have their memories forever imprinted with “our song” or “remember the first time we heard that?” But relative to a global influence, the kind that we have access to now afforded by technology, it will be just another 3-minute-wonder-song made for Christians.

So am I saying I don’t like Christian songs or books? No, I do like them; in fact I create them. And I’ll be among the first to tell you that they have their place, encouraging the Body of Christ and even reaching the lost. But what I’m talking about is an even higher goal. A new paradigm, if you will. Something that will require us to lift our gaze higher than we’ve grown accustomed to.

We need to start creating art within a new context.

I hear a clarion call erupting from somewhere in the heavenlies, summoning the Artists to the forefront of humanity. I feel new giftings being awakened, new concepts that mankind has never thought of before emerging, new means to promote by those in places of power, position and wealth, and new methods being tapped which will stun centuries of orthodoxy. These Artists are not simply song writers or painters or writers, they are Divine Dreamers, dancers who tap the movements of God and photographers who are in prophetic locations at opportune times.

There is a whole new standard being raised, an entirely new level of expectation for those that are in Christ. Not that we simply copy what the world has created, making a Christian version of their style, but that we transcend the human unction and speak with a heavenly one.

And why all this importance on the arts, you say? First of all, why not? If there is art to create, why not let those who have come face-to-face with the meaning of their existence set the pace? But secondly, throughout my travels across the globe, I have found that art has a direct bearing on a culture’s overall perception and quality of life, as well as their connection to the divine. Create beautiful things and you will be drawn closer to a beautiful God.

Lastly, I am tiring of bloggers who rant, even with purpose, and then give no suggestions on “what to do about it.” As you will recall from my earlier postings on blog etiquette under Ranters Beware, I believe that blogs are a powerful tool that need to offer practical steps for change, not just be a person’s personal whine portal for the masses. That being said, I think there are a few very simple, down-to-earth things that we Christian Artists must start doing.

1.) Get Alone With God. If we are bound in our relationship to God through prayer, then receiving divine ideas will come only through time spent with Him. If God’s heart is to continually transmit His heart to humanity, to truly bring heaven to earth, then we must discipline ourselves to get alone with Him. There is no excuse for time in His presence, no substitute for relationship. Ideas that grip mankind and shake the heavens will come through no other means.

2.) Perfect Your Gift. God will not anoint what you do not set apart to Him with reverence. And when we revere something, we are dedicated to making it the best we can. Do everything within your immediate means to better your God-given talent. Study. Learn. Apprentice. Invest. Practice. And then do it all again. If there is always someone out there “better than you,” then you should never stop applying yourself to excellence.

3.) Join With Those Around You. I have really come to adore the Body of Christ in recent days. While many Christians I meet are hell-bent on pointing fingers, “alerting,” “guarding,” and tearing one another down all in the mask of “being a watchman,” (which is actually completely opposite of a real Biblical Watchman’s job), I have fallen in love afresh with the Father’s invention of the Bride. He seems to think pretty highly of her, not because She is perfect, but because She is imperfect. Because She is in constant need of Her Bridegroom. And in that same way, we Christians are in need of one another. This should be yet another harbinger of things to come as the world’s system always says, “You don’t need anyone else but yourself,” God’s Kingdom system says, “Not only can’t you do this alone, but I’ll resist you if you do.” One of the best things I ever did for my writing career was to get together with other writers. No writing group in your area? There wasn’t for me either. So I found one other friend and started one. Now we’re four strong. The fellowship and loving critique I have found has greatly increased the product of my proverbial pen (because it’s a keyboard now).

4.) Affect The Culture Around You. Sure, I want to change the world, too. And I believe I will. But first, God has called me to affect the culture I live in. For me, that’s Northern New York State. God has planted me and my family in Jefferson County and I plan on dominating it for Christ. Yeah, you heard me. Dominating. I’m not sure where it became politically incorrect to use such terminology, but it’s high time we start taking back our God-ordained role to bring the Light of Christ to our regions. This means affecting every aspect of the culture. As Artists, I believe it’s much easier than we think. Find those around you throughout the Church of your region (not the specific church you attend) and start encouraging one another and promoting Godly work. Start an Artists Guild and meet regularly. Have a time of corporate worship and bring in a guest speaker. Then break off into your respective disciplines and put your works on display, share about them, critique them, and combine your efforts. Come up with strategies to beautify your area; donate paintings to banks and other businesses in your region; write songs for your county and sings them in church, or buy time on your local radio stations and let the radio declare them over your county; create new animations or advertising and put them up in your local movie theater (we have gotten a number of new church members through Cinema adds!); choreograph dances or plays and put them on in the local community colleges or rent out a venue; put art in the newspapers, or better yet, create your own newspaper or website! I was just in Tacoma, WA and heard of some Christians (visit Beautiful Angle) that hide a limited number of prints of their newest work in undisclosed locations throughout the city once a month; it has a huge thing now in the city to the point that if you can find the art, it is a collector’s item! The possibilities for you to affect your region’s culture are absolutely endless!

5.) Allow God To Open Up The Nations To You. I believe that scripture is true; if we are faithful with few things, the Lord will make us ruler of many things (Matt. 25:23). Notice the two distinct points of emphasis in that scripture. The first is that we must be faithful in something; those are the first four points I just offered up to you. But the second part is that God Himself does something. He exalts. He glorifies. That’s His part. I am absolutely convinced that old machines and locals of Christian production are being usurped by pockets of Christians who are being faithful to affect their regions for Jesus. In doing so, He is making them epicenters of productivity that will shake the nations. There is a new wineskin before us, brought about not only by advances in technology, such as the internet, computer aided audio & video recording and graphic design, but by a prophetic drive in the Father’s heart to express His Divine Nature to His Creation. For such a time as this.

So I call out to the Divine Dreams of my generation. Come out of hiding. Stop living under rocks. Prophets were never meant to live in caves. The Holy Spirit is calling us to be creative and strategic. This is your day. Do not compare yourselves to the status quo. Your art is to be affiliated with that of a different breed, a divine context, a sound that all the nations will know is Christ-like. Change the priority of the content that occupies your valuable heart-space, and fill your spirit with the songs of the King. This is your day to fly.

CH

  • Hey Christopher,
    You have some great thoughts here. I would like to emphasize the point about art being a marvelous avenue to touch hearts. Look at how effective cinema and popular music have been to promote casual sex, abortion, violence, and anti-Christian sentiment. The arts have been very effectively used by the anti-Christian elements, and it is time for the church to use the same powerful tools to provide an apologetic, as well as the amazing Glory of Jesus Christ. “Let me write the songs of a nation – I don’t care who writes their laws”. Andrew Fletcher.

  • Thanks Tom. Appreciate that! Well put.

    As an aside, I just came across the original context of that Fletcher quote! His is actually a misquote from a Greek Philosopher…[scrambling to find original quote]

    CH

  • As to that quote, there seems to be some debate as to what Greek Philosopher actually said it. But everyone seems to come back to Fletcher and this quote:

    Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, in Scotland, writing to the Marquis of Montrose:

    “I knew a very wise man of Sir Christopher Musgrave’s sentiment. He believed, if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws” (1703).

    And while we’re on the subject of cool things that old dead people said, here’s one famous exchange regarding the scale tuning of a seven-string Greek lyre, taken from The Republic, Plato’s record of Socrates’ debate with Glaucon and others — a series of questions and answers.

    “What, then, are the dirge-like modes of music? Tell me, for you are a musician”

    (Answer) “The mixed Lydian” he said, “and the tense or higher Lydian, and similar modes.”

    “These, then” said I, “we must do away with. For they are useless even to women who are to make the best of themselves, little alone to men. “What are the soft and convivial modes?”

    (Answer) “There are certain Ionian and also Lydian modes [339a] that are called lax.”

    “Will you make any use of them for warriors?”

    (Answer) “None at all,” he said, “but it would seem that you have left the Dorian and the Phrygian.” …leave us these two modes—the forced and the voluntary—that will best imitate the utterances of men failing or succeeding, the temperate, the brave—leave us these.” (398a-399b).

    CH

  • wow. 2247 words, hehe. Here is a quote from a book I am reading:

    “Indeed, the failure of the country’s dominant cultural institutions to acknowledge America’s religious impulse helped foster a degree of religious entrepreneurship unmatched elsewhere in the industrialized world. Pushed out of sight but still throbbing with vitality throughout the heartland and the Bible belt, a parallel universe emerged, a world not only of revivals and thriving ministries but also of Christian television, radio, universities, publishers, and entertainment, all of which allowed the devout to ignore the popular culture as surely as they were being ignored.” – The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama, p.200

    I don’t agree with a lot the guy says, but he hits a home run here. The world will always refuse to accept Jesus, but in recent decades it seems the church has said, “Since you won’t let me in your club, I’ll start my own.” It really has become a parallel universe. Instead of infiltrating the world, we have created our own, where we are safe and comfortable. I am just as guilty.

    I have some crazy ideas, maybe it’s time I walk them out. No fear right?

    Also, on how do I think God sees our art? I’ve seen a tiny bit of what He has created, and it’s much cooler than anything I could come up with. Basically, I think our art is like my child’s crayon scribbles; absolutely beautiful in my eyes.

    – mooney

  • and dude! Love the new layout. Who’s the bald guy at the top? Oh, sorry. Love your guts!

    – mooney

  • This is thought-provoking, C. And congrats! 🙂

  • Mooney: Great stuff…thanks for adding! Very interesting, n’est pas? Let me know how the book finishes up.

    Christian: Thanks for stopping by! And yes…we’ll be announcing “the news” shortly. 😉

  • Great post.

    Hey, I love the idea of connecting with other artistic folks. One thing that kind of “formed itself” before my mind if you will was kind of a musician’s group. I play guitar with a friend every Thursday. (Most weeks.)

    I’ve not mentioned it to him or anyone, my sister excepted. But your post here reminded me of it.

    Humm, I don’t really know of any other writers though. (In the immediate area.) I’ll have to keep my eyes open.

    Great suggestions. I definitely need to get alone with God more. Most definitely.

    It’s interesting you should post this now. Last week at the conference we attended there was a potter who talked about “God as an Artist” and us as his art, and how he designs us as he wants us to be. The same fellow will be speaking at our church again tomorrow night for the Wednesday evening service. In many ways, God is an artist himself, it was indeed him who gave us the ability to create things of our own. It’s hard to decide whether we are lumps of clay to be sculpted and formed or blocks of marble to be chiseled out with blows both delicate and harsh. It is of comfort to me to know that regardless of what material we be, he seeks to make us a thing of beauty. He seeks to make us resemble himself. I think in answering the question of what God finds beautiful in art, can be answered in part with God finding Christlikeness to be beautiful. His own works are ones that create images of himself, in our works, I have to agree with you, I don’t know. And while I know that God is perfectly able to take delight without me, or anyone else. I think he delights in us. (And now I’m off subject.) To answer the question of art, that gets a bit too difficult for me. Certainly he does not take delight in profane art, such as idols, but what separates many things from sacred or profane but the heart of the beholder? Where I see a coin, another might see an object of worship.

    I loved your point about “And if it smells of anything other then grace, let it not be said at all.” If there has been one thing I’ve been learning is the importance of grace. And I’ve still got a lot to learn.

    Indeed, I’d love to see Christian’s art at the forefront. Not that we need to convert all churches into cathedrals or anything, but it blows my mind that some of the most beautiful architecture ever seen are churches. Then of course there is the “Cathedral of Literature” if you will, The Lord of the Rings.

    Finally, it’s quite true that we have a reason to create, an actual meaning. Someone worth creating for.

    A few thoughts,
    -Shane

  • John

    Hey man great job on finishing the Book! And I love those new sketch graphics!
    Have fun on the west coast. I told Jenny that you need to go to the Disney Opera House in LA….if you have time = )

    cya

  • Matt Harris

    Awesome words! So much of what you have said is in mt heart. Love ya bro.