Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A conversation about Christians and art

After sending to some friends this link to a series of articles about Christians and making movies, a writer friend and I had the following conversation via e-mail:


Friend: I don't think we should even be asking the question "How obvious should the message of a movie be?"; rather, we should be asking "How can I tell this story most effectively?" Storytelling is probably the most powerful mode of communication we have, but if we stop worrying about telling the story and start worrying about the "message," then we will artificially warp the tale and rob it of its power. Some stories are best told with faith in the background; others with it as the central issue, just the way it is in life---in either case, if the *story* is told well, the message will come through, and people will be willing to receive it, instead of resenting its presence. No one should make a movie (or write a book or pursue any other artistic endeavor) just to preach a sermon, he should be doing it because he has a story he wants to tell. If the person is honest with his story, if he tells it from the heart instead of playing to an audience, then the convictions of the person's heart will come through---maybe in the narrative, maybe just in the subtext, but it will be there. Produce art because you are an artist, not because you feel you should because more Christians need to be in the arts.


Elena: True...but the artist should be about pleasing God...that should be her recognized end in life. Not creating art merely for art's sake. When that is his or her chief aim, to please God and enjoy Him forever, then that aim will inform the art and the work of creating can reliably be said to reveal, somehow, truth/Truth. Read Sense and Sensuality by Ravi Zacharias; the book is a much better explanation of my point than I can make it.


Friend: Certainly, the artist's main goal should be pleasing God; that should be in place in his life long before he considers creating art. Then when he tells his story or writes his song or whatever, he can concentrate on making the best art he can, and that devotion to God will come through. My point was that the "message" should not be an artificial overlay placed upon the art, but should flow naturally from the heart of the artist as he uses his art to express that heart, fully integrated into his creation as it is already integrated into his life.


Elena: Exactly......you just stated it better than I did. I was also thinking about people who elevate art...almost to the point of idolatry.

So...if one really doesn't have anything to say and doesn't know how to say it, even if he did, he's better to stay silent till he has something to say? Perhaps the artist's responsibility to God and to his gift is to hone his craft, even if he has not much to say to the world (it may be just to God and himself, and that's still important).

I'm not sure "what I have to say," other than to relate how truth and beauty touch me---to try to reflect the light I see, so that others can see the original light and want to seek it for themselves: illuminate truth and beauty.

And I don't think in stories. I like to read them and watch them, but I don't usually think that way. I guess I'm frustrated that I can see others' stories, but I can't see mine...or that I can't make up stories.


Friend: I don't think we have to "have something to say," as in having some specific message to convey to the world, in order to create art. Art is an expression of the human heart, an overflowing of our own identities into some outer form; if there is some story, some song, some poem inside of us, then that is a good enough reason to put it into artistic form. Its existence doesn't need to be justified by some explicit theme or message. True art reflects the values and beliefs of the one that creates it, and that is what gives it purpose and worth, that is what will touch the hearts of others and convey to them the "message" of the artist's own soul. Sometimes that message is nothing more than the sheer joy of creation, transformed by the reader/hearer/viewer into the joy of receiving that creation and being part of the artist's world, of being for a while some place other than he is. We identify with stories and poems and songs and paintings and all kinds of art, and it is in that identification more than anywhere else that the heart of the author is communicated. Any more obvious message can add on to that, but I don't think it can truly replace it.

A good example of this is some of my stories. Unlike my novel, I didn't write them with some explicit message in mind, but out of a desire to explore the characters and their world, as well as to entertain. And more than anything else, I wrote them because they were inside of me and demanded to be let out, and the process of doing so gave me great satisfaction and joy. But even though I didn't write them with any overt message, who I am and what I believe are imprinted onto those stories by the very fact that I wrote them; my Christian values are laced throughout the narrative and the characters, even though those characters aren't actually Christians and the story has no overt references to religion. The same thing is there in your poetry. Sometimes it is overtly Christian and sometimes it is about your thoughts and feelings at the time without blatant reference to God, but God comes through in all of it in some way or another because God is in you, and you cannot write your heart and keep Him out of it. So don't worry that you may feel you have no great revelations to give to the world; write what is on your heart and God will do with it what He wills.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with your friend more. Movie makers should make good movies that are interesting and entertaining. This is even more important if they are a Christian. The point of a movie is for people to watch it. If its not interesting it will be ignored. While I agree that there is a market for overt Christian themed entertainment, it doesn’t have to be the only form of Christian entertainment.

Res Ipsa

StarGazer said...

Thanks, though I think that, in the end, Elena and I were pretty much saying the same thing, just approaching it from different angles (that seems to be a common theme for us). This is hardly the only conversation we've had on this topic, and she and I are both rather frustrated at the artistic state of "Christian" entertainment. I have a problem with even the idea of "Christian" entertainment, per se, as it puts rather severe limits on what can and cannot be considered appropriate (how many musicians who are Christian have been criticized and even ostracized from the Christian community because their work isn't "Christian" enough?). It also encourages the misconception that "non-Christian" art has nothing to say to the Christian, that it is somehow below us.

Elena said...

I like seeing the two of you agree! Blesses my pea-pickin' heart!!!

I think I was thinking more about artistic process. I don't usually have a cohesive vision that I am trying to enflesh with some form. It is usually some nebulous something whose form I don't know until I start creating, continue creating, and then stop. It's a journey for me, rather than a birthing of something that's "finished" inside (like a baby). It's more like having something inside and not knowing if it's going to end up being a baby or a submarine sandwich. (Heehee--ever catch the episode of The Cosby Show in which the men are preggers and give birth to large objects? Cliff births a sandwich. One son-in-law birthed a huge ship.)

Anonymous said...

Don't talk about pea pick'n. We got 9 gals from the garden this year and I'm sick of shuck'n peas.

Art has to be interesting for its own sake. More so if the artist is a Christian. I'm not big on so called Christian movies or music, although my wife likes them. Mostly becasue they don't do a very good job of being interesting aside from the theme.

I'm left asking, "Why would a non Christian want to see/read/listen to this"? If they wouldn't then why does it matter if the theme is the main reason for doing the art?

Of course if it is only done for Christians then it shouldn't matter either way.

Res Ipsa

StarGazer said...

"It is usually some nebulous something whose form I don't know until I start creating, continue creating, and then stop. It's a journey for me, rather than a birthing of something that's "finished" inside"

I don't think any artistic work springs fully-formed from the head of its creator, so to speak. Like life itself, art mutates and grows and develops in the creating, and even if you think you know the final product from the very beginning, there will almost always be something to surprise you by the time it's finished. Certainly, my own work often takes on a life of its own, and veers into directions I had scarcely imagined when I began it. This is not to say that I begin it with no idea of how to end it, but that new dimensions and subtleties will reveal themselves during the process of creation, even while on route to a predetermined conclusion (though sometimes even that ending will change, and it is important to know when to accept that change instead of forcing the work to maintain its original identity). But that is just how I work -- I need that goal to shoot towards; but if your muse works better with no intended destination, than go with that and see where it takes you, and don't fret that you don't have the whole in sight from the beginning.

pacatrue said...

I just wanted to add that there are an infinite number of ways to celebrate and worship God through art. Including, I think, celebration of his creation, of the foibles of humans, of the power of humor, etc. Celebrating everything that God gave counts as ultimately a path to Truth for me. Smiles....

digitalcowboy said...

Interesting discussion.

I'm not an artistically creative person. It's just not my strong suit. But I absolutely believe that every human being is a speaking spirit created in God's image.

If that's true (and it IS! I just SAID SO!), then we are all creating all the time. At least we are supposed to.

So I agree with stargazer. Develop your relationship with our Father and create whatever flows out of you.

What's the "message" in a rose bush or an oak tree? What about a giraffe? What's the message there?

If artistic expression wasn't Godly and natural to us, it wouldn't be so frequently co-opted and perverted by God's enemy.

To summarize, seek God first and then let the creativity flow wherever it wants to go with no conditions and without a mission for the work.

Elena said...

pacatrue: Yes, by art I was meaning all creative expressions, whether visual or performing, audio, 3D or two dimensional. multimedia, and on and on.


DC: As a storyteller (PK and I have agreed on this) and a writer (you write, therefore you are a writer), you are an artist. And you have created and are molding two precious little girls...that's art in a way as well. So...you are creative and artistic. Just maybe not in the "usual" way.

I think the artistic process can flow "organically" as you describe, but I think also the person can have a vision of a mission---given to him or her by God, of course. It just depends on how God has wired the person and how the person responds.

And you know that I don't believe that we have the power to speak everything into being---that's "create" in the bara sense, which only God does. We create, but we do not create something from nothing. And our speaking does not drive God into action---we do acknowledge what already is true, and that has much power over the enemy (sword of the Spirit--see Eph. 6).

StarGazer said...

I'm reminded of what J.R.R. Tolkien believed about the relation between art and our connection with God. He said that since we are all created in the image of God, then we all have the urge to create, and that to ignore this was to do a disservice to both God and ourselves. Elena is right in that this creative urge does not always manifest itself in ways that society has labelled "creative", but every time we express ourselves to the world around us -- whether through the written word or music or painting or shaping the characters of those over whom we have influence -- we have made our own "sub-creation".

digitalcowboy said...

DC: As a storyteller (PK and I have agreed on this) and a writer (you write, therefore you are a writer), you are an artist. And you have created and are molding two precious little girls...that's art in a way as well. So...you are creative and artistic. Just maybe not in the "usual" way.

Yes. You're not the first to label me "unusual." As for being a writer... ummm... I don't think so. I like words and sometimes I even figure out how to use them. But, thank you.

I think the artistic process can flow "organically" as you describe, but I think also the person can have a vision of a mission---given to him or her by God, of course. It just depends on how God has wired the person and how the person responds.

I wasn't saying that no one has a mission. I see your bet and raise to this: I believe everyone has a mission. That's where the seeking our Father's heart comes in. We're all born with talents and gifts. Our obligation is to use them properly. That doesn't mean we should become preoccupied with that to the point that we try to make everything a "Bible message."

And you know that I don't believe that we have the power to speak everything into being---that's "create" in the bara sense, which only God does. We create, but we do not create something from nothing. And our speaking does not drive God into action---we do acknowledge what already is true, and that has much power over the enemy (sword of the Spirit--see Eph. 6).

And you know I do. There's a reason that humans are the only speaking creatures in our world. That, among other things, is what makes us "in His image." I agree with you that it doesn't "drive Him to action." But the whole book is about teaching us to use the power of words, like He does. It doesn't drive Him to action, but it enables Him to act. It's spiritual law.

We were created to create and words matter.

But I don't want to get into a theological discussion at the moment. Wanna ride the pony on my boat?

Sorry, you got me in a Lyle Lovett mood tonight over at PK's. There's nothing foul there. It's a reference to one of Lyle's songs:

"And if I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat"

Elena said...

Interesting image...pony on a boat? Why would one take a pony on a boat?

Elena said...

Lemme see if I'm gettin' what y'all are saying... "Leave the overt preaching, as a purpose, as what a person strives to do, to those who are called to be preachers." Correct summarization?

pacatrue said...

Ummmm... My summary might be... "Express the truth as you know it as best as you can, and remember that there are lots and lots of things to know."

digitalcowboy said...

First, I doubt that pacatrue and I completely agree on this.

Second, your summarization was pretty close to my position, Elena.

I think we're all called to be "salt and light" (to use a vaguely scriptural religious phrase) in the world. Having a calling for the five-fold ministry is an entirely different thing.

Here's my summary:

Some are called to preach. Everyone else should just do what they do and seek foremost for their life to be a witness. Honestly, I think that's harder.

With art, express it however it comes. If you're in relationship with God, it will be ministry. He'll see to it.

(I believe that to be true in whatever one is called to, but the topic here is art.)

Miss O'Hara said...

Interesting discussion.

I think writers like Tolkien & Lewis (their fictional works) are fine examples of Christian artists who didn't have a 'theme,' really (blech - I can't stand such obviousness!), but who still managed to catch a reflection of God in their work.

In all we do - but particularly artistically, because it draws from our very souls - what matters to us, our world, that which we long for will come out and be seen. If one is a true follower of God, if one's heart is in the right place and seeking His glory and pleasure, He will guide their hand and minds, and while the art may not be a direct representation of him, or have a "God theme," He will still be found in it. It's impossible to separate Him from the works of our hands - because, really, aren't they the works of His hands, only we're His tools?

Serena said...

You have a very wise friend. If God is an artist's absolute purpose and inspiration, the end product will reflect the artist's spirituality and devotion. As a Christian, an art lover, and a film student, I tend to be discouraged by the work of most Christians. I find it didactic, obvious, and (ironically) uninspired. If only these people let God teach and illuminate others through them instead of trying to do it themselves!

Miss O'Hara said...

You need to update, girlie.

;)

Elena said...

Yeah, I know. I just don't have much to say, unless it's prompted by others' blogs. I've run out of bloggin' steam these days. RLTB, I guess, to borrow The Happy Husband's term.

Wes said...

Elena, I just noticed you're on temporary hiatus. I haven't been around much, lately, because of some pc problems that I recently had fixed. But I hope to see you back, soon. I wish you the best.

Arielle said...

Sorry I hadn't stopped by in a while - seems you disappeared in the interim. I hope everything is going okay for you right now!