9/30/2011

Waste Land: A Story of Redemption

As artists engage in the four chapters of the biblical narrative (Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration), they offer insight into the character of God in light of the way the world is meant to be. In my last two posts (about Banksy and Derek Webb), I looked at artistic depictions that are creative and also expose the fall, now we will look at the way art can offer glimpses of redemption and restoration.

An artist that exemplifies redemption is Vik Muniz, who specializes in photographing unique physical creations and displaying them as enlarged photographs. Looking at one of Muniz’s photographs from afar, it looks like a regular image or a rendering of a familiar piece of artwork, but when examined up close, one discovers the use of various and surprising mediums, like chocolate syrup, peanut butter and jelly, plastic toy soldiers, and garbage. Muniz takes trash and discarded rubbish and transforms them into something beautiful, exemplifying the act of redemption.

In the movie Waste Land, Vik Muniz takes a journey back to his homeland of Rio De Janeiro in order to meet those who live and work at Jardim Gramacho, the world's biggest garbage landfill.



As his helicopter first flies over the terrain of the landfill, he sees the hundreds of people working like ants, digging through the trash heaps picking out items that can be sold to recycling companies. He assumes that the “pickers” must be savages, filled with bitterness and violence.

What he finds is different.

As Muniz begins to talk with the people, getting to know their stories, he finds that the human spirit to more than just survive but to flourish, to find meaning and hope, is alive and well. There’s Tiaõ, the young, energetic president of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho. He has been a picker since he was eleven, and hopes that the fledgling union will grow in influence in order to improve the lives of the pickers. There’s Suelem, a young woman of eighteen who has been working on the garbage heap since she was seven. She has two kids and is pregnant with a third, but she is actually proud of the hard work she does at the landfill, because she has not taken the route of prostitute that she has seen many other pretty young women take.

We watch her go home after a long day of work to the loving embraces of her children. There’s Irma, who loves her role as the landfill’s chef, cooking wonderful meals for the pickers made from the ingredients that she finds amidst the fresher garbage as it arrives at the landfill.
Muniz convinces these pickers that they should let him take photographs of them in order to create his artwork. They understand that Muniz is a world-renowned artist whose artwork sells for incredible amounts of money. Muniz explains to them that by cooperating with him, he will be able to give them and their difficult work the recognition it deserves and that he will donate all the proceeds from his portraits back to the pickers.

Muniz takes portraits of the pickers in different fascinating poses, and then blows up the black-and-white images to the size of the floor of a large warehouse. In the next step of the process, Muniz has the pickers help him fill in the details of the images on the floor with all sorts of discarded trash items that the pickers have saved from the landfill for recycling. There’s old sodapop bottles, toilet seats, plastic bins, traffic cones, shoes, etc., meticulously placed in such a way that the portrait takes shape through the objects. Muriz then takes a high-resolution photograph of the final project, and frames the large portrait for display.

Irma's Portrait under constructionTiaõ accompanies Muniz to the art auction for the portraits, where the portrait featuring himself follows a piece by Andy Warhol. The final bid for the portrait was $50,000!
As Tiaõ is overwhelmed and weeps and Muniz hugs him, we experience in a very real, cathartic way the pleasure of redemption.
Tiaõ has been recognized for the work he has been doing since he was a little boy, and he now has the money to make his union flourish in order to bring dignity to the work of the pickers back at Jardim Gramacho.

Art can move us to see redemption in real, physical existence. The stuff of art is the stuff of our existence, whether it is paint squeezed out of a tube, or refuse discarded at a giant garbage dump.

When art tells the story of redemption, it is tapping into the truth of the cosmos – that God created this world as it ought to be, that things are broken and not the way it should be, but that something needs to be done about it so that there can be hope for the future. The artist, whether he knows it or not, is retelling the grand narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration, the truth of the gospel found in Jesus Christ revealed in the Scriptures.

9/29/2011

Subversive Prophetic Music

In my last post, I asked, “What would it look like if a new generation of Christians took seriously the task of being subversive prophetic voices in their culture?”

Derek Webb takes a prophetic stand against the homophobia that exists in the evangelical subculture with “What Matters More.”

Webb’s label, INO Records, found the song too scandalous because Webb uses the word “shit” on it, so after much wrangling, Webb and the label agreed to not include it on INO’s release of the album Stockholm Syndrome while Webb could include it on his personal website’s version of the album.
The song is a subversive prophetic voice to those of us who act self-righteous with our words against homosexuality, showing that we have our priorities out of whack about the things that really matter.
If I can tell what's in your heart
By what comes out of your mouth,
Then it sure looks to me like
Being straight is all it's about. 
It looks like being hated
For all the wrong things,
Like chasing the wind
While the pendulum swings.
'Cause we can talk and debate
Till we're blue in the face
About the language and tradition
That He's coming to save.
Meanwhile we sit
Just like we don't give a shit
About fifty thousand people
Who are dying today.
Tell me, brother what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister what matters more to you?



Besides being perhaps the first song from a Christian musician to use the word “shit,” this is perhaps the first to rage against the injustice of homophobia.

Of course, Derek Webb is not the first Christian ever to write something using a shocking word for excrement as a device to get our attention. The Apostle Paul, writing about all his past religious credentials, wrote to the Philippians,
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as σκύβαλον (skubalon - dung, human excrement, “shit”) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:8-9).
Sometimes it takes a little rebellious language to get the attention of those who are “religious” while Christ and his Kingdom demand us to change our ways.

9/28/2011

Art as Prophetic Subversion

banksy_christI have already stated emphatically that art is good simply because it is creative. Art glorifies God simply by being imaginative and original. Art’s value is not based on its instrumentality or on its commercial value. What proceeds below must not serve to undermine this foundational assertion: Good art is good art; it glorifies God “as is.”

Beyond the inherent goodness in art, there are also other ways that art can bring glory to God. Today we will look at how art can be both creative and prophetic. Tomorrow we will see how art can be redemptive and restorative.


Art can be prophetic, creating critical awareness of injustice, brokenness, oppression, and the need for action to alleviate suffering.
“Using the arts to create critical awareness is not new. In the Old Testament Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, and other prophets used drama, allegory, and poetry to jolt people and nations into thinking about their lives in the world. Jesus, by his presence and his storytelling, often confused and angered those around him who did not want to recognize their own role in oppressing the poor. He created critical awareness among the poor by causing them to see and act on the new life of freedom that was possible outside the accepted cultural boundaries based on status, wealth, power, religion, gender, and ethnicity.” (Corbitt and Nix-Early, Taking it to the Streets: Using the Arts to Transform Your Community, p. 129)
In the movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, an eccentric Frenchman Thierry Guetta has an obsession to videotape the secret lives of the most famous street artists as they create their art. Even though he tells the street artists he is making a documentary, he in fact has no ability to do so, he simply collects box after box of unmarked videotapes. In his exploits, Guetta meets many of the most famous street artists in the world, including Space Invader, Shephard Fairey (known for his Andre the Giant stencils and made famous through his colorful Barack Obama posters during the 2008 election) and the most famous and most mysterious street artist of them all, Banksy, whose legendary art mysteriously appears on walls, bridges, and streets throughout the world. All we know of Banksy’s identity is that he is a 30-something male from the Bristol area of England. In the film, Banksy’s face is obscured in black while he wears a hoody as he is speaks to the camera.

Banksy - No_LoiteringBanksy is one of today’s greatest creative geniuses. Most of his art is created through a unique stenciling technique (though he also creates physical props) and these masterpieces are often satirical and subversive, using irreverent dark humor to offer insightful social commentary.
banksy - palestinian wallHis art has appeared throughout the world, including buildings made derelict by Hurricane Katrina (one painting depicted an old man sitting on a rocking chair waving a small American flag under spray-painted words “No Loitering”), the wall that divides Israel and Palestine (where he created nine provocative paintings depicting escape, freedom, and beauty on an object that represents imprisonment and the ugly reality of political faction), and even Disneyland (where he placed a life-sized replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee next to a roller coaster). When an art museum commissions Banksy to display his art, the museum is vacated while he secretly comes in and installs his art. One of his most provocative paintings depicts Christ crucified, but instead of being on a cross, his spread arms and hands are carrying shopping bags full of Christmas presents. The street prophet is asking us, “What is Christmas really about today? How has commercialization and commodification usurped the real story of Christ?”

banksy-disneylandIn Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy realizes that Thierry Guetta is not really a creative artist capable of making the movie and therefore takes over the direction of the documentary. Flipping the script on Guetta, Banksy suggests to the crazy Frenchman to become a street artist himself, which he excitedly does. Guetta takes the alter ego “Mr. Brainwash” and mass-produces street art for a big debut show in Los Angeles.

Banksy successfully transforms the movie into the story of Thierry Guetta, whose only talent is to copy the art of those he admires for commercial monetary success. “Mr. Brainwash’s” show is a success, as people line up and pay a lot of money for pieces of pop-art that are totally derivative of the true street artists.

Bansky’s film shows, through the character of the shallow Guetta, that not all art is authentically creative. Banksy also exposes the desire in our culture to commodify everything, even art.
So, in the film, we get insight into both the creative and the prophetic aspects of art that glorifies God.
Art is art when it is not derivative, when it is done with authenticity, and when it is not subsumed under the weight of commercialization. This is art that is done by image-bearers reflecting the creative imagination of the Creator.

Art can also be prophetic, as exemplified by the work of Banksy, whose subversive creations speak against injustice and unrighteousness. While the authorities paint over his art because they are classified as “defacing graffiti,” Banksy continues his defiant agitation of the status quo.

What would it look like if a new generation of Christians took seriously the task of being subversive prophetic voices in their culture?

9/27/2011

We Need a Vertical and Horizontal Theology of Art and Culture

love neighborIn what has been called the “Great Commandment” of Mark 12:28-31 and Matthew 22:34–40, Jesus tells us that we must love the Lord our God and love our neighbors.

Artists that want to be used by God need to embrace both the vertical and horizontal aspects of this love.

Art certainly can be a “vertical” expression our worship of God. We should compose and play music, paint, draw, write, sculpt, photograph, film, etc. objects that directly worship God. Art that celebrates God is very important to the life of the church, for these artistic expressions are capable of moving hearts in ways that didactic teaching rarely does, making disciples through praise and worship. It is one of the primary ways that we fulfill the first of the two-part commandment—we are to love the Lord our God.

But there is a second part to that commandment that many in the evangelical church have missed when it comes to the arts. Not only are we to create art that expresses our love for God, we are to create art that expresses love for neighbor. Art is not just for the praise of God, it is to be an instrument for good to our neighbors.

J. Nathan Corbitt and Vivian Nix-Early correctly state,
“Christian artists should indeed ‘lift holy hands in praise of God’ with their arts in the sanctuary and in their lives, but they should also be challenged and encouraged to give others ‘a cup of water’ in Jesus’ name and put a song in people’s hearts through the arts in the streets outside the sanctuary…Excellent worship demands excellent love and forcefully propels this love out of the sanctuary and into the public square.” (Taking it to the Streets: Using the Arts to Transform Your Community, Baker Books, 2003, pp. 20, 21.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book on Art is appropriately titled Art in Action. In it, he states,
“Works of art equip us for action. And the range of actions for which they equip us is very nearly as broad as the range of human action itself…Art—so often thought of as a way of getting out of the world—is man’s way of acting in the world.” (pp. 4, 5)
This week, we will end this series dealing with Christian theology as it relates to popular art and cultural engagement by looking at ways that art can “love neighbors” through being creative, prophetic, redemptive, and through offering hope.

Subversive for the Common Good: Seek the Welfare of the City

God, through the prophet Jeremiah, not only tells those in the Babylonian exile to live holy lives, he also gives them a calling as they live in the midst of this oppressive empire.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
As Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat wrote,
“This call is profoundly subversive—right up there with ‘pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44)—precisely because it is completely antithetical to all the empire could ask or imagine. The empire wants nothing more than to break the spirit and will of the foreigners in its midst. But with the call to seek the welfare of the empire, the exiles are living out of the vision and hope of Genesis, for the good of the empire itself. This is a call to be God’s people by bringing shalom and healing in places of brokenness and despair. And what could be more broken and more in need of healing than the place of oppression, the heart of the empire?” (Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 68).
We who are in the Kingdom of God are called to bear witness to that kingdom within the broken world that we reside by our subversive actions for the common good.
In his first letter, Peter tells us that good deeds are the ultimate witness that Christ is Lord. As the Kingdom of God advances over the dark twisted ways of the fallen world, people will see that God is indeed good.
“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:13-16).
Doing what is right and good is simply a practical way of stating the “Great Commandment” of Mark 12:28-31 and Matthew 22:34–40, where Jesus tells us that we must love the Lord our God and love our neighbors. How can we create cultural artifacts that are for the common good, that act as leaven in the world, transforming it from the inside out?
Next: A Horizontal and Vertical Theology of Cultural Engagement

9/26/2011

Christian Faithful Presence in the Culture

For the past month, I’ve been exploring a proper Christian engagement with popular cultural art. If Art is to be “Missional,” then artists must take seriously that the kingdom their work can act like yeast that is mixed into the culture (Matthew 13:33). In my last post, I quoted Al Wolters saying that the gospel is a leavening influence in human life wherever it is lived, which “makes possible renewal of each creational area from within, not without.”

James Davison Hunter, in his influential book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, calls this “Faithful Presence.”

Christians are called to be “fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence, whatever they may be: their families, neighborhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work…to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.” (p. 247)

This “flourishing” is the Shalom that I spoke of earlier, the way things are meant to be – “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight” (as Plantinga says in his book).

Hunter says,
“Faithful presence in our spheres of influence does not imply passive conformity to the established structures. Rather, within the dialectic between affirmation and antithesis, faithful presence means a constructive resistance that seeks new patterns of social organizations that challenge, undermine, and otherwise diminish oppression, injustice, enmity, and corruption and, in turn, encourage harmony, faithfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, security, and well-being.” (pp. 247-8.)
What Hunter is advocating is for Christians, through their vocations, to act in subversive ways in order to bring God’s kingdom to bear upon the fallen world, “for he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-13).


NEXT: “Faithful Presence” as Subversive Art  within the Empire of Oppression

9/16/2011

Structure and Direction: A Better Paradigm for Cultural Engagement

There is a superior way to deal with culture rather than the pietistic path of arbitrarily deciding what in the culture is bad and then shunning those things.

structure-directionAlbert Wolters suggests that if we think in terms of the biblical storyline of “Creation, Fall, Redemption,” we will have a better paradigm by which to engage culture.

“Creation” is the way things were originally created, “very good” in God’s eyes. It is the “structure” that God originally intended, not just for the primordial creation, but also the latent potential embedded in the creation from the beginning which enables humanity to create new technologies and art.

“Fall” and “Redemption” are then the two opposing “directions” that humanity is now engaged in exercising upon this God-ordained structure. Thus, if we think in the paradigm of “Structure and Direction” we will be called not just to shun the things of the Fall, but rather to actively engage in changing the trajectory of those things toward Redemption.

In Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, Albert Wolters writes,
“This twin emphasis makes a radical difference in the way Christian believers approach reality. Because they believe that creational structure underlies all of reality, they seek and find evidence of lawful constancy in the flux of experience, and of invariant principles amidst a variety of historical events and institutions. Because they confess that a spiritual direction underlies their experience, they see abnormality where others see normality, and possibilities of renewal where others see inevitable distortion. In every situation, they explicitly look for and recognize the presence of creational structure, distinguishing this sharply from the human abuse to which it is subject.” (pp. 88-89)
This paradigm then moves the Christian toward redemptive action. It is not enough to identify that which is good, true and beautiful as opposed to that which is evil, lies and distortion. It is the Christian vocation to intentionally turn that which is in the latter categories toward God’s good intentions.

In Matthew 13:33, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Wolters writes,
“We learn for this that the gospel is a leavening influence in human life wherever it is lived, and influence that slowly but steadily brings change from within. The gospel affects government in a specifically political manner, art in a peculiarly aesthetic manner, scholarship in a uniquely theoretical manner, and churches in a distinctly ecclesiological manner. It makes possible renewal of each creational area from within, not without…
Everything in principle can be sanctified and internally renewed—our personal life, our societal relationships, our cultural activities…
What was formed in creation has been historically deformed by sin and must be reformed in Christ.” (p. 90. 91)
A “Missional” attitude for artists and for those who patronize the arts, then, is to be actively reformational: Intentionally seeking to be change agents, changing the direction of God’s good creational structure away from the depravity of the Fall and toward the re-creation of all things in Christ.

9/15/2011

Is Your View of Ministry Too Church-Focused?

In my experience in church ministries, I have found that the pastoral staffs get so caught up in the daily workings of church ministry that we often miss the Kingdom work that we are supposed to be doing. Here’s a quote that drives it home for me:

“Much of the positive Christian influence on me and my seminary friends was through people who thought that God’s most important task is world evangelism and that the most important thing we can do is tell people about Christ, help them become believers, and then teach and train them to be faithful to Christ, to lead and disciple others…
After several years of ministry, a friend of mine refused to stand up in church one morning when I called on everyone to stand as a way of expressing their desire to serve Christ sacrificially as Christ’s servants. He told me afterward that the way I described Christian ministry left out all those folks who were focused on trying to be God’s servants in the workplace and marketplace. I had become so intent on building up the local church, seeing it become strong and healthy and active, that I was apparently implying that’s all that mattered.

My friend got my attention.
I realized I had unconsciously developed a view of the ministry that was too narrow – too church-focused.”
-John Yates, Rector, The Falls Church, speaking at the commencement for Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, MO, May 16, 2008

Everything is Permissible - But Not Everything is Beneficial

There is a deeper discipleship of discernment that Christ is calling his followers to practice when it comes to patronizing the arts.

It is one that echoes what Paul says in his first letter to the Christians struggling with the ungodly culture of Corinth: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

In other words, we must be careful not to use our freedom to justify becoming bound by those aspects of the culture that tempt us to sin.

broken-heartJesus taught, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15).

Jesus was not just simply talking about what we eat, but a deeper spiritual truth. He explained to his disciples, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).

The reason for being careful about how we patronize the arts in popular culture is not primarily because of the evil in the art itself, but because of the evil that is already present in our hearts. Any defiling cultural ideas, beliefs, or values found in art do not have the power to warp our hearts and thus defile us. Rather, they can only tap into the evil that may already be there, tempting us to act out of that sinfulness.

The good news, however, is that hearts can be transformed. Hearts that are spiritually mature, that are being shaped by faith and an authentic reliance on the Holy Spirit, have the power not to be twisted in this way.

This is why Paul can tell us that some Christians can, with a clean conscience, take part in some activities while other Christians cannot. “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Romans 14:2-4a).

Each Christian must realize that, in his or her own personal devotion to Christ, even though everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial to their personal walk in Christ.

9/14/2011

Should We Mindlessly Consume Culture?

In his excellent book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch’s fourth “posture” that he observes in evangelical Christianity is the current trend of “Consuming Culture.”\


Many of today’s North American Christians watch and listen to what everyone else does, believing that pop culture is simply innocuous entertainment and rarely giving a second thought to what they consume. Crouch says that in his interactions with evangelicals, “they are content to be just like their fellow Americans, or perhaps, driven by a lingering sense of shame at their uncool forebears, just slightly more like their fellow Americans than everyone else.” (p. 89)

A “consumption” mentality affirms the important doctrine of God’s “Common Grace,” but it does not take seriously the balance to this doctrine found in another important doctrine: “The Antithesis.”

We see the antithesis in verses like Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.”
It must not be forgotten that the Kingdom of God is in opposition to the evil reign of Satan, sin, and death. Those yielded to the Lordship of Christ are moving toward conformity to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). But those who are not redeemed in Christ persist in a state that resists God’s will in many ways. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).

There is, therefore, an antithesis between the thoughts and affections (and the manifestations of those thoughts and affections—i.e., art) of those who have the Spirit of God and those who are unredeemed. And therefore, the only reason we witness any manifestations of godly thoughts and affections from those that Paul calls “natural” rather than “spiritual” is because of God’s Common Grace. And, as we have said for the past several weeks, as Christians, we need to look closer for these divine sparks in the creations of popular artists. There is a lot more common grace there than Christians have historically been willing to admit.

But we must not assume that all that we see in popular cultural artistic expression is a manifestation of this common grace. While the minds and hearts of the regenerated are being transformed into the image of the Son, Scripture consistently warns us to be careful where we place our affections. The Apostle John wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16).

It should be obvious to the mature Christian that much of today’s Entertainment Industry is filled with market-driven, narcissistic ideologies that are counter to God’s Kingdom.

However, many Christians pay no mind to this. While they think that others may be affected negatively, they believe that they are immune to any negative effects and thus consume what the culture produces without much worry, thinking they are mature enough to handle it.

But this is not a sign of maturity, but the opposite, for those who are maturing in Christ intentionally set their minds and hearts on the things of God, not on the ideas and affections of the fallen world (see Colossians 3:1-4).

9/13/2011

Copying Culture–Can We Do No Better?

Yet another way of dealing with Culture, according to Andy Crouch’s analysis in Culture Making, is to “Copy” it. In an attempt to be counter-cultural, “in the world but not of it,” Christians have created their own versions of that which is popular in the culture.

Walk into a Christian bookstore, and one will find Christianized versions of the latest styles of pop music, romance novels, hip t-shirts and fashion accessories, and movies that are meant to be evangelistic and/or safe for the family.


“Plus One” – A Christian Version of the “Boy Band”

Crouch looks at the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry, praising it for its openness to the “common grace” present in current musical forms, but correctly assesses that “the flip side of this openness to form was a nearly puritanical approach to content, illustrated in the widely shared belief that to succeed in the CCM market, a recording had to meet a ‘Jesus quotient’ in its lyrics.” (Crouch, Culture Making, p. 88)

In the March/April 2011 issue of Relevant Magazine, a publication targeted at young adult Christians, an article appeared on page 77 titled, “2011 could be the year when CCM as we know it disappears (except worship music).”

Back in 2001, William Romanowski identified the reason why CCM was doomed to fail:
“If you listen to most contemporary Christian music, you would think that all Christians do is worship and evangelize... (Christians) don’t want to be preached at, but instead want popular music and stories that are fun and entertaining, artistically good and sometimes innovative, but are also concerned with addressing the issues of life with artistic flair.” (William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Brazos Press, 2001), p 29)
Copying artistic styles to merely masquerade them for evangelistic purposes actually demeans the imago Dei in humanity because it says that art cannot be art for art’s sake and still glorify God. It says that art has not value as is; that it must have a pietistic message in order to have value.

Mike Wittmer writes,
wittmerheaven“Because we know that this creation is the good gift of God, we are not only permitted but encouraged to enjoy it as is. Unlike those who think that worldly objects are somehow enhanced by stamping Scripture verses on them, Christians who understand the goodness of this world celebrate the freedom to enjoy God’s creation as is…
Consider the arts. Because we know that the ability to draw and paint, write and sing all belong to the goodness of God’s creation, we are able to fully participate in the arts. No one should enjoy a good book, painting, or symphony like a Christian.
We can enjoy every good form of artistic expression—including bluegrass!—even when the art is not making a distinctively Christian point. It’s wonderful to use the arts to creatively spread the gospel. But the point is that even when they do not, even when a piece of art is ‘secular,’ we may still enjoy it as a vital piece of God’s good creation.” (Michael E. Wittmer, Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You DO Matters to God, pp. 66-67)

9/12/2011

Critiquing Culture Only Gets You So Far

In his excellent book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity Press, 2008), Andy Crouch helpfully identifies the historical “postures” that evangelicals have had toward artistic popular culture:


(1) Condemning Culture, (2) Critiquing Culture, (3) Copying Culture, and (4) Consuming Culture.

On Friday, I looked at how we have “condemned” culture as our way to interact with popular art. This week, I will look closely at the rest of these postures.

Crouch’s second historical “posture” was found in the neo-evangelicals of the mid-twentieth century. Francis Schaeffer and others encouraged Christians to engage the culture, critiquing philosophy, art, music, and cinema.

This engagement of culture is still alive and well in many Christian ministries, including the one I am a part of, the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO). CCO ministries are often centered on “worldview formation” for Christian college students, encouraging them into a lifestyle of deep analysis of culture.
Crouch writes,
“To ‘engage’ the culture became, and is still today, a near-synonym for thinking about the culture. It was assumed…that action would follow from reflection, and transformation would follow from information.”
Crouch does not pull his punch on his critique of ministries such as ours:
“It is perhaps not unfair to say that to this day, evangelicalism, so deeply influenced by the Schaeffers and their protégés, still produce better art critiques than artists.” (Culture Making, p, 87)
This is a fair assessment. I have seen that we can indeed produce mere observers and critics if we are not intentional in moving students into the next step of actively engaging in the creative process of making cultural artifacts (art, music, movies, poetry, websites, etc) as God’s image-bearers.

While a truly neo-Calvinist understanding of “worldview” (from which the CCO’s ministry operates) is more nuanced and holistic than this, it is far too easy to fall into the rut of Enlightenment Anthropology, which sees humanity as primarily a thinking species, succumbing to what Descartes reduced humanity to: thinking beings contained in superfluous bodies.

Ironically, in our zeal to teach people that platonic dualism is wrong, we have unwittingly acted like platonic dualists! James K. A. Smith helps us understand this:
“Such construals of worldview belie an understanding of Christian faith that is dualistic and reductionistic: It reduces Christian faith primarily to a set of ideas, principles, claims, and propositions that are known and believed. The goal is ‘correct’ thinking…But what if our bodies are essential to our identities? Weren’t we created as embodied creatures? What if the core of our identity is located more in the body than the mind?” (Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, p. 32)
Smith argues that what shapes disciples of Christ is less in the realm of the mind and more in the realm of the heart:
“Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.” (p. 32-33)
Smith’s book is an excellent primer on how to re-orient Christian education so that it shapes what we love rather than merely what we think. What we love is seen in bodily action, what Smith calls “liturgies” that shape our hearts.

In other words, true discipleship is not to just be hearers of the word, but also doers of the word. We are transformed into the image of God’s Son not merely by thinking with a biblical worldview, but by loving what God loves and enjoying a life of doing what he wants done in the world–a life that actually intentionally participates with God in the shaping of culture.
totaltruth
Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey are often the go-to worldview shaping authors in evangelicalism. In Pearcey’s book Total Truth, she writes several chapters on the importance of forming a cognitive Christian worldview. Andy Crouch, however, makes a stunning point:
“For Pearcey, ‘worldview’ and ‘worldview thinking’ are all but synonymous, ‘the heart of worldview thinking lies in its practical and personal application,’ she writes, but the section of her book on that subject, titled ‘What Next? Living it Out,’ takes up 21 pages out of the book’s 480.
On the very last page we find the language of embodiment, in a quote from theologian Lesslie Newbigin: ‘The gospel is not meant to be a disembodied message,’ Newbigin writes, ‘It is meant to be fleshed out in a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.’” (Culture Making, p. 62)
For Pearcey and for many of us, true discipleship of embodied engagement in the culture is just an afterthought, an endnote to all our worldview thinking. Let it not be so.

When Christians are encouraged to merely think critically of the culture, they are often rendered incapable of “looking closer” and appreciating that God is actually very often already present and active in the culture that they are critiquing.

And when they simplistically see the prevailing culture as the enemy, they are less likely to be a gospel witness within that culture, further marginalizing the gospel message that God wants to reconcile all things back to himself (Colossians 1:15-20).

9/09/2011

How should Christians interact with art?

What is the best, most God-honoring way to be a patron of the arts (not just the “high arts” but also pop culture)?

In the evangelical church, there has been a wide range of attitudes toward popular art.
Andy Crouch, in his excellent book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, differentiates four strategies that, by themselves, have failed to have any effect on culture. Any one of these four strategies, when seen as the only possible Christian response to art, become what Crouch calls “postures.” “Our posture is our learned but unconscious default position, our natural stance.”

He contrasts “postures” with “gestures,” bodily motions ranging from embracing to being stand-offish.
“Something similar, it seems to me, has happened at each stage of American Christians’ engagement with culture. Appropriate gestures toward particular cultural goods can become, over time, part of the posture Christians unconsciously adopt toward every cultural situation and setting.” (Culture Making, p. 90)
Crouch helpfully identifies the historical “postures” that evangelicals have had toward artistic popular culture:
  1. Condemning Culture
  2. Critiquing Culture
  3. Copying Culture, and
  4. Consuming Culture.
Some Christians have historically condemned new artistic innovations (especially in popular culture) as ungodly, especially if the art is from the world of mainstream, secular culture. The presumption is that Hollywood, modern art, or the latest musical styles are aligned with the realm of evil and are thus opposed to the Kingdom of God. Since popular culture is from the devil, the only proper posture for the Christian is total abstinence. Crouch writes, “‘Holiness’ for fundamentalists came to be closely associated with negative choices—avoiding cultural activities like dancing or going to the movies.” (p. 85)

While there are some cultural artifacts that deserve this kind of condemnation (pornography or sadistically violent music come to mind) and it is appropriate at times to use this “gesture,” Crouch correctly states that a permanent “posture” of condemnation is not what Christ wants from his followers.

A posture of condemnation is an easy, simplified way of uncritically dealing with the nuances of art by taking the theologically wrong “secular/sacred dualism” approach.

Next Week: Critiquing, Copying, and Consuming Culture.

9/07/2011

Finding God in Secular Movies?




The Apostle Paul makes it clear that God reveals himself in a myriad of ways besides the Bible. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

In his book, Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies, Christianity Today film reviewer Jeffrey Overstreet writes,

“God’s truth is not available solely in Scripture or in the mouths of preachers—it can also be discerned in the way a tree grows or the way a sugar cube absorbs coffee. God may be revealing Himself not just through the charity of a compassionate saint (Dead Man Walking) but also through the shocking evil of a desperate preacher (The Apostle)...Christ’s incarnation teaches us that spiritual things and fleshly things are not separate. The sacred is waiting to be recognized in secular things. Even those artists who don’t believe in God might accidently reflect back to us realities in which we can see God working.” (pp. 55-56, 56-57)

In other words, God is at work outside the sphere of the believing community of the body of Christ. He can, and often does, show himself in the popular art of those who are not believers.

As Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor write, Christians should learn how to “look closer.”
“We challenge you to ‘look closer,’ to discover the surprising messages God may already be broadcasting through the mass media…Learning to ‘look closer’ will take time; it will take work, it will take patience. But those willing to engage pop culture with eyes wide open may find themselves pleasantly surprised and spiritually energized. The theological term behind learning to look closer is ‘common grace.’ It begins with an appreciation of the creative side of God, the goodness initiated in Genesis that continues through the Spirit’s ongoing work of conscience…Common grace explains why the most spiritual movies are often made by people outside the formal borders of the church.” (A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, pp. 16-17)
In chapter 5 of this book, Craig Detweiler goes into detail as to how God speaks in and through the movies of our popular culture.
“Movies teach us (almost) everything about our world that we need to know. Film noir such as The Maltese Falcon reveal the evil hidden in every human heart. Romances such as Say Anything suggest that love is worth waiting for. Science fiction such as the original Planet of the Apes teaches tolerance. Fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings dream of a better world, challenging u to environmental preservation. The Marx Brothers promote laughter in the face of absurdity. Humphrey Bogart offers a code of honor and ethics. Katherine Hepburn demonstrates brains and bravura. Sean Connery models wit, grace, and style. Clint Eastwood communicates the power of silence.” (p. 156)
Detweiler is bold in daring to suggest “that if God can speak to us through the pummeling effects of Raging Bull, then Fight Club, Magnolia, and Dogma might be God’s latest, greatest sermons—but only if we follow the advice of the provocative poster and trailer for American Beauty: “Look closer.” (p. 156)
Is it theologically possible to believe that God is pleased by the artistic endeavors of unbelievers? Richard Mouw believes so. In his excellent book, He Shines in all that’s Fair, he writes,
“When an unbelieving poet makes use of an apt metaphor, or when a foul-mouthed major league outfielder leaps high into the air to make a stunning catch, we can think of God as enjoying the event without necessarily approving of anything in the agents involved – just as we might give high marks to a rhetorical flourish by a politician whose views on public policy we despise.” (p. 37)