187. Christianity and culture (part 2)
(Finally got back to finishing part 2. You can find part 1 in blog 184.)
Culture can most simply be defined as, “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group” (Apple OSX Dictionary). And is it just me or do you get the sense that American culture has reached a kind of dead-end? Think about it. When’s the last time you saw a TRULY original work of art or television show or movie? Movies and television are all about remakes and sequels and genre pieces. Paintings have run the gamut from hyper-realism during the Renaissance to nonrepresentational abstraction in the twentieth century, and today every painting just seems to fall somewhere along that spectrum.
And art in general is seen as irrelevant by the general population. And this is a puzzling phenomenon because, as I heard in a speech given by current National Endowment for the Arts chairperson, Dana Gioia, we are living in a time of unprecedented access to works of art in all its forms. There are more journals of poetry than ever before, there are more art galleries than ever before, the internet provides access to art at all levels from the mediocre and the banal to the accomplished and sublime.
But at the same time, interest in art is at an all time low. It’s seen as an elitist, merely academic interest. It doesn’t speak to (unless speaking down to) day to day persons. Its immediate influence only extends out to a small, rather exclusive circle of practitioners, patrons, and critics. And I qualify that statement with the word, “immediate” because even though it goes largely ignored at the time, certain shifts and eruptions in the art world can eventually be felt at all levels of society – particularly as it finds expression in advertising.
“Okay, big deal. So what does this have to do with Christianity?”
Here it is. As Christians, we should have the most compelling stories to tell because we commune with the ultimate Creator, the God of the universe and we make it a practice to study the story that he tells in his revealed word, the Bible. The first thing we learn about God in Genesis 1:1 is that God is a creative being – an artist. Later in that same chapter, we learn that we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). Put the two together and I think a powerful argument can be made for the idea that one of the primary things that separates humans from all other animals is the capacity to create not just tools, but culture-building works of art.
But Christians today, have neglected this mandate. Christian institutions have not nurtured, supported, or even encouraged the practice of art at the highest and most innovative levels. Instead, it perpetuates an unfortunate and inferior imitative model where we take what those outside the church have created and fashion our own derivative copies.
This pattern can most clearly be seen in the area of popular music. Innovations in music come from those outside the walls of the church and at first, the church ridicules, criticizes, and attempts to censor it. Think of how churches first responded to rock music and more recently to hip hop. Eventually, they come to accept the form and then Christians start producing the very music that their churches once tried to suppress.
“Uh huh, you already said that in your other blog about Christianity and culture (see blog 184).”
What I’m trying to get at is the idea that Christian institutions (be they churches or para-church organizations) need to start encouraging (with words) and supporting (with money) new, life-affirming, culture building works of art.
“Art? You think art is going to make Christianity relevant to society?”
Yes I do. Go back to the definition at the top of the blog. Culture can be defined as, “”the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group” (Apple OSX Dictionary). And I believe that a true, redemptive, beautiful new movement in the arts can play a huge role in building bridges, in healing wounds, in bringing back a sense of community to our nation and ultimately to the world. And who better to bring about this new vanguard than true, God fearing (as opposed to church fearing) Christians?
“Geeze Randall, when did you start writing speeches for Mrs. America pageants?”
No, I really mean it. If churches would pull their collective heads out of the ass of the Christian sub-culture; if we would remember that our task is to be about ushering in the Kingdom of God; if we would stop retreating from this aching, lonely world and start the long, hard work of healing and reconciliation. If churches would reclaim their rightful place as leaders and examples, there wouldn’t be seats enough in all the church pews in the world to contain the masses longing to worship together.
“Seriously, Randall, you’ve lost it.”
And it begins with art because people will sooner rally around an image than an idea, a story than a theory, a song than an essay. I think of the movie Braveheart and how the stories that circulated about William Wallace were larger than life and that is why men followed. And (to use another work by Mel Gibson) I think of the movie, The Passion of the Christ, and how churches from denominations that would otherwise have nothing to do with one another, sat together in rooms around the nation.
That is what art can do. It can remind us to look beyond ourselves and focus on prizes larger than statistical church attendance charts or doctrinal nit picking. A good story, the right cause, excellent craftsmanship can help us lift our eyes from the storms and waves that rage around us and to strain towards our Savior who waits for us with outstretched arms.
“You’re mad if you think that art can do all that and you’re downright daffy if you think the church has any hope of being at the forefront of such a movement, should it ever happen.”
And yes, it is mad and daffy and stupidly impossible. But isn’t it time we started praying for things that are larger than our ability to bring them about? What’s the use of praying that the ATM will give you a twenty when you’ve got hundreds in your account? Besides, I think this is something God wants to do and he’s just waiting for people with enough faith to believe in the impossible.
Truth be told, that last paragraph is more about me than about anyone else. I only have enough faith to write about it. Does that qualify as a mustard seed amount? Because I really do believe that we are at a crossroads and that the church has a great opportunity to stand up and point towards faith, hope, and love, to bring meaning back to humanity (humanity that modernism stole from us), to take the lead in society instead of huddling together in subcultural bubbles. And yes, I really do believe that it starts with the arts.