As Managing editor Tim Basselin transitions his work and family to Dallas and his new role in Dallas Seminary’s Department of Media Arts and Worship and Senior Editor Gary David Stratton continues in his summer writing projects we thought we’d invest the summer in passing along some of the best things we’ve read over the past few months. Enjoy!
Artists already know that as Christians they’ll never be fully at home in the world of art, so why should we add the crushing burden of not allowing them to be ever feel fully at home in the church as well?
by Philip G. Ryken • President, Wheaton College
Many Christian artists live between two strange worlds. Their faith in Christ seems odd to many of their friends in the artistic community—almost as odd as their calling as artists seems to some of their friends at church. Yet Christians called to draw, paint, sculpt, sing, act, dance, and play music have extraordinary opportunities to honor God in their daily work and to bear witness to the grace, beauty, and truth of the gospel. How can pastors (and churches) encourage Christians with artistic gifts in their dual calling as Christian artists?
As a pastor and college president, I have made a sad discovery: the arts are not always affirmed in the life of the local church. We need a general rediscovery of the arts in the context of the church. This is badly needed because the arts are the leading edge of culture.
A recovery of the arts is also needed because the arts are a vital sign for the church. Francis Schaeffer once said:
For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God—not just as tracts, but as things of beauty to the praise of God.
In this article, I am taking a fresh and somewhat contrarian approach by seeking to answer the question, “How do you discourage artists in the church?” In preparation, I asked some friends for their answers to my question: an actor, a sculptor, a jazz singer, a photographer. They are not whiners, but they gave me an earful (and said that it was kind of fun).
Here is my non-exhaustive list of ways that churches can discourage their artists (and some quotes from my friends)…
Recently, Generous Mind had discussions with a group of artists who are On Call in Culture in some very creative ways. The goal was to put faces to this important cause and discover what it’s like to live On Call on a daily basis.
How to Engage with the Conversation
Take a moment to get to know each of these artists through our summary of the discussions below and then dive into the posts they have written to explain how they are applying the idea of being On Call in Culture as they practice their art on a daily basis. Then make sure to join the On Call in Culture Community at www.oncallinculture.com as we engage with people just like you who are asking how they can be On Call in Culture each day!
Meet the artists who participated in the Generous Mind Conversation:
Chris Woolley, fine artist and painter
Spiritual activity follows spiritual subjects. That is what Chris Woolley has found throughout his painting career. Creating what he calls, “pretty art,” people are generally accepting toward his work. How can you not enjoy a picture of a striking sunset? But his work is more than pretty pictures. At times, they reflect the spiritual aspects of life. That is when life gets interesting.
Once he painted a piece he called “Emerald Saints.” In the foreground was a tree struck by lightning with evergreens in the back. A rock stood close by representing Christ. At the time, he had a sense of the significance of the piece, thinking it was about martyrs, but he had some reservations about what he thought that meant.
He explains, “…the emerald is stone of the tribe of Levi and…the color emerald represents life and resurrection. This seems to fit so perfectly with theme of the painting. Still I felt somewhat uncomfortable with the martyr idea. It was the right theme but there was something about my idea of martyrs that wasn’t adding up. It seemed too exclusive to me. Somehow the tree needed to connect to all Christians.” While the painting was hanging in a gallery, a pastor came up and began to talk with him about the painting pointing out that “…the word witness in Greek is the word martyr. If we are called to be witnesses, we are called to be martyrs.” Suddenly it all made sense to Chris. He said it was the link he had been waiting for and it came after the painting was complete.
Prophesy is a role Chris hesitantly attributes to many artists who bring out and question things of God through their work. “It’s hard to engage in art without thinking about God. Art brings us back to order and what God did.” It has the power to “bring truths to light.”
Another part of the role Chris sees for artists is to respond to people as they interact with the work. It’s the discussion that follows that can be life and culture-changing. “So many people lurk on the sides. We know there are people listening on the periphery. People watch how you deal with customers and gallery owners. You have to watch yourself because you’re under the microscope.”
Chris’ big dream to be On Call in Culture is to produce a lifetime of good art—creating valuable things that he wants people to see in a different manner. Along the way, he has the opportunity to discuss the questions and thoughts that come when people interact with his work.
Bart sees his role in the band Claymore Disco from the perspective of influence. As we talked, he shared about the role of a platform and how the stage gives you notice. Even if it is only a few inches off the ground, it is amazing how space can have significance.
As a 23-year-old working at a coffee shop, Bart also shared how he has honed his communication skills by having to talk with strangers all the time. As he serves them coffee and chats with the regulars he gets practice in engaging those around him. That comfort with being open to new people and to being in community with others gives him the courage to engage his fans and other bands before and after shows.
While their music is not specifically Christian it communicates what they care about. Bart shared how he often has the opportunity to connect with fans about specific songs. One example is their song “Fire lit Faces,” which is about Moses and the burning bush. Bart shared how the song allows him to challenge people to be paying attention to what is happening in their lives and being open to what might be out there for them.
Madison Wasinger, SimpLEE Organized business owner
Madison is launching a new business called SimpLEE Organized where she will be taking her organizational skills and empowering people to find solutions that work for them. But every business takes time to launch so she is also working at Chick-fil-A as she gets her operation up and running.
Madison resonated with what Bart said about how the job at the coffee shop helps her hone her people skills. “People take advantage of Chick-fil-A because they know we serve,” said Madison. She has seen customers lie to get free food but has realized her job is, “just serve and let God be the judge.” By working hard and not getting frustrated she is learning how to show Jesus to others through those daily actions.
But how will that flow into her new business? As Madison shares in her contribution to the Generous Mind conversation, she wants to bring a heart of service to organizing someone’s home or office. She acknowledged that, “when you organize a home you become part of their life.” You get to invest in them and give them systems that will help people have peace and time.
Just like at the Chick-fil-A, when you have to serve without judging the customer, when you come into someone’s house you can’t judge their home. Madison sees being On Call in Culture as entering a home and making a difference as she gets it organized. She also mentioned how organizing a space allows her to bring her values into that space in an intentional and subtle way.
As a young artist, Chuck Asay thought that success looked like being syndicated and/or winning a Pulitzer Prize. Now he is happy with what he considers anonymity.
But Chuck attracts plenty of attention. Recently he received what he calls a “typical” email that asked, “Were you dropped on your head frequently when you were young?” and “You need serious help – do yourself a favour and get some.” When asked about death threats, he shrugs and says, “There weren’t many.”
Although his political cartoons stimulate strong emotions and opinions, Chuck sees that as an opportunity to engage people who dislike his message. Chuck takes an approach that talks openly about political issues without attacking the person.
When asked what his big dream was for culture change in his sphere of influence, he responded, “I’d like to see change similar to the change the Christian community saw in Paul. He was blind and then he saw. I want people to shake their heads and say ‘of course.’”
So what does Chuck do on a daily basis to affect culture? He says it’s a process and then points to Jesus’ answer of doing his Father’s will. He reminds us of the story of Jesus drawing in the dust when the people were going to stone the woman for adultery. He captured people’s attention by doing that, drawing them in, and this led to a woman being saved. It’s the same with us. It could be a big thing or a little thing that God has us doing.
If you are an artist who also happens to be a Christian, expect to be judged and misunderstood.
If you are a Christian and an artist, you live in the tension of creating art that is neatly wrapped up with a “happy ending,” art that is propaganda, and art that is shallow and without layers of meaning. In my experience, most of the Christian industry gatekeepers insist on one or all of these aspects of what I call “safe” art.
But there is a new generation of artists that happen to be Christians who refuse to bow to the almighty Christian dollar. They have decided to create “edgy” art not in order to be edgy but in the search for art that is true.
1.) Because they are not afraid of the darkness in themselves. Rembrandt painted his self-portrait 63 times not just as “a model for studies in expression” but as a “search for the spiritual through the channel of his innermost personality.” Rembrandt felt that he had to enter into his own self, into his dark cellars as well as into his light rooms, if he really wanted to penetrate the mystery of man’s interiority.
Rembrandt realized that what is most personal is most universal. While growing in age he was more and more able to touch the core of the human experience , in which individuals in their misery can recognize themselves and find “courage and new youth.”
We will never be able to create true art if we are not willing to paint and re-paint constantly our self-portrait, not as a morbid self-preoccupation, but as a service to those who are searching for some light in the midst of the darkness.
2.) Because they understand the healthy tension between art and propaganda. Author Philip Yancey, who also happens to be a Christian, writes, “Counterbalancing the literary tug away from propaganda, many evangelicals exert, an insidious tug away from art.
They would react to Tolstoy’s statement, ‘If someone were to tell me that it lay in my power to write a novel explaining every social question from a particular viewpoint that I believed to be the correct one, I still wouldn’t spend two hours on it. But if I were told that what I am writing will be read in twenty years time by the children of today, and that those children will laugh, weep, and learn to love life as they read, why then I would devote the whole of my life and energy to it,‘ with disbelief — to choose a novel that entertains and fosters a love for life over a treatise that solves every social (or, better, religious) question of humankind!
How can a person “waste” time with mere aesthetics — soothing music, pleasing art, entertaining literature — when injustice rules the nations and the decadent world marches ineluctably to destruction? Is this not fiddling while Rome burns? Currently, novels written by evangelicals tend toward the propagandistic (even to the extent of fictionalizing Bible stories and foretelling the Second Coming) and away from the artful.
Somewhere in this magnetic field between art and propaganda the Christian author (or painter or musician) works. One force tempts us to lower artistic standards and preach an unadorned message; another tempts us to submerge or even alter the message for the sake of artistic sensibilities.
Having lived in the midst of this tension for over a decade, I have come to recognize it as a healthy synthesizing tension that should be affirmed. Success often lies within the extremes: an author may succeed in the evangelical world by erring on the side of propaganda. But ever so slowly, the fissure between the Christian and secular worlds will yawn wider.
If we continue tilting toward propaganda, we will soon find ourselves writing and selling books to ourselves alone. On the other hand, the Christian author cannot simply absorb the literary standards of the larger world. Our ultimate goal cannot be a self-expression, but rather a God-expression.
3.) Because they know life has layers. Even Donkey in the movie Shrek knows this. Writer Madeline L’Engle states in an interview with Time magazine that one of the reasons she loves reading the Holy Bible is because it has layers—layers of meaning.
The artist writers of the Old Testament did not shy away from portraying the depths of depravity and heights of redemption. If the Old Testament were a movie today, it would be considered edgy at the very least. With scenes of incest, murder, lust, child sacrifice, magic and much more, the Bible does not shy away, as the typical Christian artist does, from vividly painting the layers of real life.
As a boy, I loved action-figures. GI Joe was my hero and if there was one guy I’d ever want in my foxhole, it was him. I had the GI Joe Navy S.E.A.L. Scuba set. The G.I. Joe Egyptian Explorer Jeep set complete with sarcophagus-mummy-winch holder. The G.I. Joe Jungle Python-Slashing set complete with authentic plastic machete. I was all things G.I. Joe. Boy, could I accessorize that man-doll: grenades, ammo, M-16, Howitzer, you name it.
What did I love about G.I. Joe? Popping muscles and cammo aside, G.I. was a man of action. He represented courage, initiative and risk-taking. Every quality one needs to be an action-oriented artist. Though G.I. Joe never practiced “The War of Art,” he has a lot to teach writers, actors, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists–every kind of artist imaginable–about the importance of being an action-oriented artist.
The Action Oriented Artist
If you’re an artist, you cannot afford NOT to be an action-oriented. Or, if your dream is to use your God-given artistic and creative abilities to become an artist, you must connect that dream to action. You need a G.I. Joe action-orientation to become the artist you really want to be and the artist you are meant to be.
I know many talented and successful artists. People who actually make money pursuing their craft. Artists who created high quality art on a consistent basis. It doesn’t matter what artistic discipline or medium they choose to work with; all of this successful artists have one thing in common: They take A-C-T-I-O-N!
The action-oriented artist is what separates the G.I. Joe’s who advance in their careers and the wannabes who fritter away their days with mediocre effort and navel-gazing passivity expecting the world to come to them. Ain’t gonna happen. I wrote about this in a similar post (Good Advice for Young Artists).
So what qualities characterize an action-oriented artist? Let’s start with three…
1. Action-Oriented Artists Balance Action and Contemplation: There is a big difference between contemplation (serious reflection) and paralysis by analysis. Some of the most prolific artists I know (like Wayne Forte) whose art you see on this blog reflects serious contemplation, skill and thoughtfulness. Artists like Wayne think and ponder and swim in the realm of ideas and concepts…then they move to action. Depending on how you’re wired, you may contemplate and work out your ideas as you work or you may need to first contemplate your work, like blocking out Acts 1, 2, and 3 of a play or screenplay, then get to the actual detail work of writing.
2. Action-Oriented Artists Keep Risking in Spite of Fear: I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take my last breath wishing I would have risked more. I want to finish this life completely spent…living in the peace that I did my very best and I didn’t let fear rule the day. Enter risk. There are no promises. No guarantees. Not everyone is going to get a soccer trophy. Failure will happen far more than success and instant success is a spiritual mirage that we best avoid as we walk through the guaranteed deserts in pursuit of the dreams God has seeded in our hearts. I love the verse, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) With God’s love, power, and self-discipline, what do I have to fear? Really?An action-oriented artist steps forward in spite of fear and becomes a better man or woman in the process. It’s bound to show up in their work as well.
3.Action-Oriented Artists Stay Curious & Keep Learning: One sure way to stagnate in your craft is to become complacent by allowing creative and intellectual curiosity to go by the wayside. The action-oriented oriented artist who keeps writing, producing, painting, sculpting, singing, filming, dancing, and shooting will never be lacking for new ideas and opportunities if part of their action-orientation is a commitment to stay curious by exploring various artistic disciplines that can teach, inform and inspire them in their craft. Where do you mine for new ideas? What do you do to improve your craft? What next step, what action step, do you need to take your work to a next level? Take a class. Find a mentor. Join a small group of peer support. Watch that movie. Buy that book. Download that script. Stay curious and keep learning. It’s an essential part to becoming an action-oriented artist.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s all very simple: The world will never experience the beauty, truth, and goodness of God through your art if you don’t take action. Be an action-figure today. You may never blow things up, but you’ll be in good company with G.I. Joe.
Questions: How would you rate yourself as an action-oriented artist (1-low, 5-fair, 10-great)? What is the single most important thing to do this week to become more action-oriented?