Thursday, March 30, 2006

Christian Art and Community

Phi 2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy,

Phi 2:2 fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal.

Phi 2:3 Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.

Phi 2:4 Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others

Lately I have been in several discussions with other Christian thinkers about how to improve Christian art. The general consensus has been that community is probably one of the most important keys to working towards art that glorifies God in spirit and in truth. The question that has been bothering me is how this community could practically work. While everyone seems to agree that supporting each other, sharpening each other, praying for each other and so on is really necessary in order to transform Christian art from a commercial enterprise in entertainment to a Biblically mandated form of worship, my anxiousness to begin this work is stifled by a confusion over what this “community” would look like and how it would operate.

Last night, as I was lying in bed I began to reflect back on Biblical examples of community. I didn’t want to see something in the Word that wasn’t there, to pull some verse out of its setting and twist it beyond all sense until it spoke to me and my desire for artistic shalom; but I did want to know if I could base my desire for community in the Scriptures, rather than some Marxist influenced nonsense. A few weeks ago I was teaching out of Philippians in the small group Bible study that my wife and I attend. This book is probably my favorite, or at least one of them. The passage I quoted at the beginning of this blog came to mind as an example of what a Christian community of artists should look like.

  1. Verse 1: The Source of Unity. Their unity comes from Christ, His love, His gift of the Spirit, His intimate love, and His forgiveness of our sins. This is listed as the foundation for Christian unity by Paul and it is no less important for artists. Without Christ as our truly conscious example and support, we will be unable to handle the difficulties and differences that will inevitably arise from a community. I say true consciousness because it is a dangerous thing to just allow this idea of Christ’s support and encouragement to become merely intellectual. It has often been necessary in my own walk to consider what I really believe and make a conscious choice daily to rely on Christ, not in some ethereal sense, but practically and specifically. The love that will be produced if this command is fulfilled will result in a community that is guided by God’s will rather than personal egos.

  2. Verse 2: Single-Mindedness. Almost every person agrees that the members of a community should be single-minded; however, they generally think that the whole should be single-minded in their agreement with their own ideas. But this verse is not saying that we should all sit down and come up with a list of goals, while that might be an acceptable form of obedience to this command. The single-mindedness referred to here comes from the first verse; it comes from a desire to worship Christ and an active choice to remember His love for us. If this is done, single-mindedness will follow.

  3. Verse 3: Selflessness. The next outgrowth of focusing on Christ for support is that the purpose of an artistic community will not be to further the career or boost the ego of any member, but to serve God and each other. Practically, this means that criticism will be honest but loving; spiritual, financial, emotional, and intellectual support will be sincere and not self-serving; and the only boasting will be in the work of Christ.

  4. Verse 4: Sincere Interest. Our modern culture tends to be very splintered and segregated. People who are into certain subcultures shun other subcultures, people who love certain genres or mediums of art ignore, mock, or are indifferent to others. Within a Christian community this is unacceptable however. Paul calls us to be really concerned about the interests of others. In this verse it suggests that the whole of their life, not just their spirituality—which ought to be joined with everything—should be our concern. As a community, our time and efforts should not just be spent encouraging people who work within our medium, or our age group, or our church. The mandate is to all peoples. Now that does not mean that we must agree with the use of a particular medium as a form of worship to God, but that does mean that we are interested. Again, this interest will only come from the love of Christ. In our flesh we will only love those who serve us and who immediately relate to us, but the love of Christ extends beyond our personal interests. A godly community of artists will be open, accepting, and eclectic without sacrificing purpose and Truth in the name of “unity.” In addition, this means that we will also be interested in the lives and particulars of those outside of the arts. We are not allowed to be an insulated elitist group; rather, we must actively take an interest in those around us in the body, not just like-minded artists. The benefit for this kind of concern for others should be obvious. The art we create will not be in a vacuum, it will be human art which speaks directly to the people around us (since we will be with them and in intimate relationships with them) and to the love of Christ.

One of the things that strikes me so much about Paul’s description of how the Church should act is that it is exactly what the world innately knows to be True. Imagine how this artistic community would look if believers were to set aside their selfishness and submit to Paul’s command: there would be no egotism and capitalistic motives that the world so detests, there would be a real care for the individual and a concern for the group as a whole, there would be an acceptance of people and ideas without the loss of Truth, and there would be criticism that was honest but not hurtful. When I reflect on things like this and I consider how so many people (Marx in some ways) have spent their lives trying to achieve this balance, it reassures me of the truth of the Gospel. People seem to innately know that this is the way people ought to work together, yet they struggle and fail to gain this because they deny the one element that allows for true community: Christ.

So to return to my question of the practical incarnation of community, it seems to me that based on Paul’s commands we should be cautious not to assume that an artistic community needs to have any conventional form. Paul’s love for the people in the churches he would visit, and the urge to love each other in these verses is a universal command. This means to me that our goal as artists who desire community is to first summit to Christ and try to follow Paul’s words here. The community will naturally arise out of it. I am not suggesting that there should be no formal artistic communities; rather, I would urge artists to not allow a specific “community” to become a designated area for love and concern for each other. Our call is to love everyone and be particularly concerned for the interests of those in the Church, the whole Church, not just our writing workshop or whatever. If we do form formal communities we must guard our hearts so that we treat fellow believing artists outside our group just as lovingly as those inside.

I might come back to this issue again later, for now, please leave feedback agreeing, disagreeing, or continuing the discussion and check out the discussion here of the same topic: Faith Art Community Exploration


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Well, I can't really see anywhere I disagree with you in that. There are certainly areas where I get convicted, but none where I really disagree.

However, for me at least, I think it's an important concept that "single-mindedness" is only really in the goal, not in the means of getting there.

For example: I am currently writing a novel which has a good deal of foul language. A friend of mine challenged me about it, and I sent back a reply e-mail giving the many reasons why I felt it justified, and acknowledging my faith in Christ's ability to correct me if I"m wrong (through Scriptures or life or friends.) He wrote back that he hadn't thought of many of the points I made, and that he now saw where I was honestly trying to wrestle with Scriptural claims and submit to God.

I guess my point about single-mindedness is that my friend never said "I am in single-minded agreement that your methods for writing fiction are correct." Instead, there was a common realization that Scriptures were ambivalent, and God (not us) is responsible for the Truth--if we don't speak his Truth, the very rocks will.

I think that's largely what you were trying to say, though.

Stejahen said...

Good thoughts, I agree. Too often I say things without truely caring or loving or thinking, I don't love Christ with my life, and so I don't love my brothers, but I do love my agenda, my vision of art or of theology, or of whatever.

But God forgives and washes us clean.

Thanks for the reminder.

brian said...

It is good to see you struggling and working through this. It is constatnly on my radar and I don't have many answers. Selflessness seems to be a huge issue in my context at the moment. Ultimately, I believe our struggles with living in community begin with the fact that the church doesn't know how to embrace artists and artists don't know how to embrace the church. Maybe we haven't matured much beyond the reformation. Or maybe it is time for another reformation. Either way, I'm glad to see others on the same journey.

kgrimm said...

I am looking forward to your progress in the development of a 'christian artist community.' I have already begun to build one at my own site. It is true that as artists we have selfish agendas, however the Holy Spirit can and will aid us in these personal battles if we sincerely mean to tackle the problems of building community. I will link to your small blog for now and work on giving those bloggers over the internet their own page on my website after the holidays. There are many artists everywhere in the Body of Christ who are excited and discussing your interests even as I am typing this responce. Jesus will show us the way to His heart if we let Him.

Also Bezalel, please change the black lettering on your blog to another color. I can't really read it against this navy background. Some of us have old eyes.

God bless you.