November 30, 2010 by Jason Hood
Let me say that I could argue either way on this one as both have very strong points. But let’s critique the original essay a bit for starters. (Let me clarify that I know nothing of the church or musicians in question other than what is said in the essay, so what I’m saying is only about the essay and the argument than their ministry, which I would not call into question; I’m certainly in favor of contextualization.) I’ll highlight a few quotes and give my own thoughts.
“Youngren hoped to plant a church that could specifically minister to artists and clear a place at their feet where the entire congregation could sit and learn from them.” Later Fujimura is cited: “So much of God’s truth is located in the eternal and invisible. God is in the sublime, but the sublime is often only accessed by artists.”
In my experience the church really needs to be sitting at the feet and hearing from down-to-earth missionaries, businessmen who have made radical economic sacrifices, people who have loved dirty lost people into faith, and couples who have worked very hard at love, trust, and forgiveness. Some of these people may be artists, but that is incidental to their value to the church.
Teaching a dehumanized child how to be human appears less sublime than hip artistry and “creative impressions”. But in fact, the art of radical Christian living is far deeper and more human than mere artistry. I’ve been a worship musician, an inner-city schoolteacher, and a parent (among other things) and I was more creative when teaching and parenting than with a guitar in my hands. I’ve known many Christian musicians whose belief in the importance of their “art” (sometimes called an anointing) led directly to a narcissistic, self-centered approach to life. Making artists out to be anointed priests with unique access to the divine can lead artists to confuse service and superiority, regardless of how highly their craft scores on the sublime scale.
I guess I would want to know what artists have to teach us that cannot be taught or learned by someone who has lived for Jesus patiently, seeing God in creation in the midst of working at a desk or in a house full of sinful, ungrateful children. Often there is the assumption that we can and thus should improve the aesthetic values of a congregation, and that such an important thing is well worth our time and $$. That’s true whether high culture (and a million dollar pipe organ) is the desideratum or pop culture in one of its more sophisticated manifestations. I certainly wish most lay people had a better appreciation for art/music, and in that sense I’m sympathetic to pushing back in places where art and artists are not valued. The emphasis in the essay on being better readers is important as well—I was just this morning lamenting the lack of contextual reading skills.
But let’s not make the mistake of making art qua art out to be some sort of priestly venture, capable of stewarding the secrets of divinity to which the unartistic have no access. Not least because that priestly position rather dangerously elevates artists above critique and (arguably) violates the spirit of Deut 29:29.
Moreover, it’s unclear to me that art–particularly art deemed adequately “sophisticated” by those with enough hubris to say so–is to be placed on a pedestal as something to which we must aspire in order to truly or fully worship or experience God:
“Because many don’t treat art as an integral part of living or worship, they do not know how to experience God through creative impressions and musical abstraction. They don’t know how to receive art unless it is spelled out plainly.”
If people are not artists of a particularly sophisticated type, or fans of impressionistic or abstract art, on what basis are we to fault them for such deficiencies? This paragraph sounds a bit like a Christian version of Pleasantville: the masses need to be enlightened, and we are the ones to do it. I get this impression not least from the way “art” as articulated in this essay is some special class of abstract, impressionistic creative expression fully distinguishable from what is commonly accessible.
But every human I know, save for a few computer programmers and theologians, values forms of creative expression as an integral part of living or worship. Unfortunately for them (and almost all humans in history), it often fails to qualify as “art” or garner the label “artistic” because it (say) involves Kincaid, an organ, or an arrangement that is 100 years old whose harmonies are more functional and accessible than sophisticated and ethereal. I find it brutalizing to fault the cultural laity–Christian or otherwise–because abstraction and “creative impression” does not register with them. Still less do I have the right to denigrate their interests and inspirations, however much disdain I have for Thomas Kinkade and synchronized ribbon dancers during worship.
Some parts of this essay sound like a more sophisticated, non-charismatic version of the approach to worship I heard when I first learned to play in charismatic worship bands. We who were anointed always felt bad for (and sometimes even looked down on) those who couldn’t take 45 minutes to “flow with the Spirit” according to our pre-programmed musical pattern on a Sunday morning and experience enlightenment and our own worshipful sense of God’s glory and grandeur. Now maybe there was something wrong with those we looked down on. On the other hand, maybe those folks had personalities that didn’t swing our direction. Maybe they had simply learned a different artistic language.
And if so, then maybe my job as an artist is to speak their language in their idioms, even if it is more readily accessible and not as impressionistic or as abstract as I would like. Leading worship at most churches will inevitably be a cross-cultural experience for most musicians. And if there’s one thing we know about cross-cultural ministry, it’s that requiring others to learn our idioms and making the quality of their spiritual life dependent on our idioms is an error of massive proportions (particularly since it mistakes form for content).
Maybe the laity are artists in their own right, simply looking for God and goodness and beauty in the midst of dreary, stressful, sense-deadened lives, striving for faithfulness and worship in a world where neither is regarded as beautiful. Put another way: if I was an accountant with a tough marriage simply struggling to follow Jesus, maybe I myself would like Kinkade, K-Love, and Christian illiterature. And maybe those of us who are more sophisticated should glorify God not in spite of the fact that people find him there, but because they find him there. I praise him not just for his infinite superiority, but because our God is a God who took his artistic superiority and stooped. Maybe we should do likewise.