Evangelical Tracts and Real Art
- Thursday, July 26, 2012
A high profile Christian music website posted a discussion of another song ("This Is Not the End"), along with a walkthrough of the music a few months ago. The comment thread - to my sorrow, but unfortunately not my surprise - read much like that iTunes review. "Why isn't Jesus mentioned explicitly in this song?" wondered nearly half the comments. "How can this be a 'worship' song?" The closing lines of the song, "We will shine like the stars / Bright, brighter" came in for particular criticism. Complaints ranged from that lack of explicit reference to God to comparisons to New Age philosophies.
This revealed a certain lack of Biblical literacy, of course - Esther conspicuously fails to name God; the closing lines of the song are a direct allusion to Daniel - but they also revealed an inability to grasp the song in its context, or to understand how art can carry meaning without functioning didactically.
That, of course, is as it should be. God called the world good in the act of creating it: before the fall, before the need for the evangel ever arose, the world was good. Creating beauty is good. The world has intrinsic value, not merely as a means to an end, for it was made to show forth the splendor of God, and so it does. Artistic endeavors themselves have merit1 even (or especially) when they avoid preaching and stick to painting.
It may be cliché to say that evangelicals are bad at art - we are, and I think most thoughtful folks know it - but we struggle to identify why we are bad at art. Some point to the liturgical traditions from which great Christian artists have sprung. There is likely some merit to this point: liturgical traditions consciously embrace the role of beauty and narrative in the service in ways that evangelical services generally eschew for simpler and more viscerally emotional responses.
More fundamental, I suspect, is our tendency as evangelicals to see the world in terms only of mission.2 Along the way, we lose sight of many important truths: the beauty of vocation dimmed by overemphasis on vocational ministry, the delight of community buried under the weight of too many programs, and the value of art hidden in its subsumption under propagandistic didacticism. We struggle in each of these areas because we do not recognize that all things work to the glory of God.
My aim is not to diminish evangelism. (Quite the contrary, as will become clear in a moment.)
When we fail to see the other goods in the world, when we attempt to turn everything to the single aim of evangelization, we break those other goods. We cease worshipping God in our vocation, considering it inferior to the work of the paid pastor or missionary. We cease worshipping God in our ordinary fellowship, considering community to be pointless unless it's doing something. (We're often not sure what we should be doing, but definitely more than just enjoying food and prayer, right?) We cease worshipping God in the making of and enjoyment of good art, considering it worthless unless it can be turned toward explicitly evangelistic or didactic ends.
In so doing, we not only diminish those other goods; we hurt our evangelistic cause. We paint a shallow picture of a God smaller than He is: a God who has no time for ordinary men and women, for simple joys, for the beauty of the world He made. And the remedy cannot be trying to do each of those better for the sake of getting people to recognize him; that's just more of the same. Rather, we need a recovery of the value of each sphere. Family, government, vocation, art, community, sport, and yes, evangelism: these are distinct goods. Christ is at the center of all of them, but they point to him differently. Art is not for propaganda; it is for beauty and for meaning.
That Güngör's music is not an evangelistic tract, not readily turned into yet one more worship anthem, is in fact one measure of its real artistic quality. That alone does not qualify it to be good art, but it is a prerequisite. Until we grasp that, we will be left making gospel tracts into movies and songs and novels, and wondering why our art is so terrible.
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