Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Struggles of Christian Art: Part One.

Psalms 33:3 “Sing a new song to Him; play skillfully on the strings, with a joyful shout.”

Fundamental to the creation of any work of art is a unity between the devices employed and the theme(s) of the work. A poem mourning the death of a national hero would not be good if it used light, simplistic rhymes, unless of course the poet was attempting to force the reader/listener to reconsider their conceptions of that “hero”. Likewise, a musician would not write a dark, sorrowful song recounting the joys of his first love, unless he was pointing out that young love is often ill conceived and has a tendency to end over-dramatically. In good art all elements of the work should evoke, in some way, the theme(s) of that work. Sometimes this will lead to extremely complex forms of art as the artistic devices refine theme. It is easy to paint a picture, which exposes the suffering of death, one would only need very simplistic devices to do this; however, if you wish to show how death is a horrible fact of life that points to an innate knowledge in all men that suffering is abnormal, then you must use a very complex web of colors, images, subjects, space, and lighting to reveal this.

For the Christian artist this as often been a difficult lesson to learn. In many worship songs for instance, if one listens only to the lyrics the theme might be our brokenness and the need for repentance; however, the music itself might be similar to a pop-rock or alternative song, with a simple four-chord progression and an uplifting melody line suggesting a theme of unbroken-ness. Esthetically we might say that it is “good” music, because it is similar to what we hear on the radio; it is not old fashioned. But, the question must be raised: “How can one truly worship God, singing of our own brokenness and need for repentance, while the music is the same as a pop song glorifying sensual pleasures in a hopeless world?” That is not to say that we cannot rejoice in the fact that Christ has given us the ability to repent; rather, what I wish to focus on is those particular Christian works of art which:

1. Emulate popular art purely for the sake of appealing to younger generations without any regard to the appropriateness of the artistic devices they employ. (This has been supported by some based on 1 Cor. 9:22 “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.” But Paul does not mean that we should blindly do what “all men” do; rather, we should understand what, why, and how the world makes art so that we can know when it is wise to emulate them and when it would be a stumbling block.)

2. Are done in a style that is completely ignorant of modern art forms. If Christian art ignores the particular problems of modern man, than it has nothing to say to either the believer or the unbeliever, for all men are subject to the sufferings of this life.

3. Are created with cliché elements, language, chord patterns, colors, melodies, images, lighting, narratives, or themes. Why is it that an unbelieving artist will spend weeks to years perfecting a work but a worship song will use simplistic language devoid of genuine emotion or worship? (I do not mean to suggest that all Christian art is like this, however we must be honest and admit that in some cases this is true.) If, in the case of worship songs, we are creating a work specifically for the glory and worship of our Lord and Savior, then how can we create poor art? And by extension, if we cannot make good art when the explicit purpose is to worship God, how can we possibly create good art in general?

4. Confuses the old for the sacred. This problem is similar to the second one I have already listed.

The question then is how can a Christian artist overcome these issues to create works which both glorify God and edify humanity. In response to the first issue I have listed, I believe that the Christian artist should be aware of what each element they use in their work denotes and connotes. If we keep the second and forth issue in mind, this becomes difficult: we cannot simply copy what others are doing, because our understanding of life, suffering, and the world is different and therefore demands an art which reflects that difference. (This is no different than the situation with any other artist. The Buddhist musician makes music which speaks specifically from his/her worldview, shouldn’t we?). What we must do then is be aware of the current artistic movements, understand what they mean, how they work, their ideologies, and their roots. We must understand the specific dilemmas facing humanity in our times and that does not exclusively refer to politics and war, but also philosophy, science, religion, culture, etc… We should create art that is conscious of these elements but with a fundamental difference; and that difference should come from our worldview as Christians. In practice this should mean that a worship song could incorporate some movements and structures that are similar to what might be heard on the radio; however, the fundamental difference should be such that no one listening to the song would confuse the themes of that song with those of the pop song. If the modern artistic elements add to the themes of a work of art, they must and should (moral imperative) be used. When, however, they distract, dilute, or hinder the themes, they should not be used. Therefore, it is fine to use an electric guitar in a worship song as a melody which adds to the dynamics, but if that guitar melody becomes a bombastic, flashy solo, distracting from the spirit of worship, we should question its value. And likewise, a heavy metal song about the joy of salvation would be a poor work of art because the music devices work against the message.

As for the third issue I raise, perhaps the best thing a Christian artist can do is be conscious of the fact that our creative ability comes from God, it is unique and important. If we look out into creation we can clearly see that God Himself was and is concerned with beauty, complexity, themes (does not all of creation speak to the struggles and suffering of life? The sorrow of death, the wonder of birth, the infinite and vast beauty of the sky, the sea, space, do not all these things speak to what humanity is confronted with in life?), and skill. Therefore, we also should treat the creation of art as something extremely serious and worthwhile. As David tells us, we should “Sing a new song to Him; play skillfully on the strings, with a joyful shout.” Notice that David says a “new song”, and that there is an emphasis on skill here. We are called to innovate, and to do so skillfully.

In the next post, I will address how Christians can, and should understand artistic movements and how we should properly incorporate them into our own art.


Tim Fields said...

While in your post you mention that Christian music has gone too much the way of pop, I had thought you would attempt to argue the value of different styles for a unique quality. However, you then denounced hard rock as a viable means to produce the intended artistic effect.
I agree to a certain degree, I don't associate praise with frantic
guitar solos and screams that are actually asking for praise (for the
band) rather than offering it to God. I also agree that, as we don't
see too much inspirational music heading into the hard rock genre, we do see it in pop, which is to an effect equally as harmful to the
purpose of the art.
This was very evident in an episode of South Park, I don't know
whether or not you've seen it, but the kids have competing bands.
Cartman goes out and starts a faith band, and they simply take love ballads and change all the babies and girls to Jesus. They played at the Christian music festival, and masses of people bought their album because they felt impelled to. If you watch a lot of South Park, you will know that most of their newer episodes have a great deal of reflective depth toward societal issues. But I digress. In essence, the episode said more about the fallibility of people that feel compelled to buy into all forms of a genre, simply because they want to keep a coherence in the artform to maintain continuity. All these
people heard the lyrics "I want you Jesus.... deep inside me," and
interpreted it to their liking.
Whereas I agree with you on keeping a standard for an artform so as not to let it become subjugated by everything else, in particular the inspirational genre being swallowed by mainstream music trends, I don't agree that inspirational should stick to the cliche churchy hymns that overwhelm the majority of the music. When you can almost guess the lyrics of any given song on the Christian music stations,
there is also a problem. This forces the adage: Can we call it art if it isn't saying anything new?
I know what you are getting at--a better aesthetical quality of the
music so that it compliments the setting of a particular song, or part of a song, so that they exist together rather than one being more
dominant than the other in order to appeal to a certain audience. I
argue this same point about all music, which is why I hate modern punk bands. Not only do they flaunt a lack of talent by purposely singing nasaly or in that sort of Billy Joe from Green Day accent, but they mock the old form of punk by pushing into a mainstream alternative-pop acoustic sound. I fear that too much music is headed toward one big
gray matter and nothing will exist anymore but top 40 stations, though
it's very possible that the music industry will move and back forth in that fashion forever. I just hope I'm alive to see the next age of music that rewards the integration of talent and style with intended artful disposition.

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