The Culturally Creative Church
An interview with Infuze Magazine.
Infuze Magazine is an online journal of Christians and cultural creativity. Their editor Matt Conner interviewed me by email, showing tremendous patience in waiting for my replies, over the past year. It’s a wide-ranging conversation about culture-making and the church.
I’ve read an article of yours in which you discuss the idea of differing generations pushing for key influencers in culture in differing areas. The older generation pushes for Christians in political leadership to influence culture, while the younger tends to push for influencers in entertainment. Can you describe this further? Is there a problem with this?
Let’s remember that forty years ago, white evangelical Christians were largely disengaged from culture in general. [And from now on, when I say “Christians,” I’m going to be talking about white evangelical Protestants. Little of what we’re saying here will be true of Catholics, mainline Protestants, or black Christians.] They had a strong, not to say rigid, dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, between the church and the world. Both in rhetoric and reality, Christians simply didn’t connect their faith, conceived largely as saving souls for heaven, with any kind of cultural activity.
Grassroots culture should be just as excellent, honest, and gospel-saturated as elite or mass culture.
What happened to change that?
Two very different things happened. First, the national legalization of abortion by Roe v. Wade, with the additional catalyst of some key evangelical voices like Francis Schaeffer, galvanized Christians. The pro-life movement was the first time since the 19th century that Christians had acted in a concerted fashion politically.
The second, very different, development was that the gap between mainstream culture, especially popular culture, and church culture got to be unsustainably wide. This was most visible in music, with the church committed to a small and ossified musical vocabulary all through several decades of amazing musical innovation in the wider culture, from Sinatra to Chuck Berry to the Beatles. Eventually a group of Christian rock musicians, most iconically Larry Norman, broke free from “church music” and began to pour the Christian message into the culture’s new musical wineskins.
Think about the difference in these two movements. The first was a fairly desperate attempt to reclaim lost ground in what we now call the “culture wars.” It was a fight, a pitched battle, on the political stage against known enemies. The second was an essentially creative, generative enterprise with no real “enemy” except the people who didn’t like drums in church.
Would you say these were battles worth fighting?
Well, thirty years after both Roe v. Wade and Larry Norman, how have those two movements fared?
The truth is that Christian political engagement, while undoubtedly necessary and undertaken for the most noble of motives, has little to show for thirty years of “war.” We are only marginally closer to overturning Roe v. Wade, which in any case would simply return the issue to the states. The allegedly evangelical president, Bush 43, has shown very little interest in advancing the causes of his evangelical supporters—witness the tepid progress on rolling back abortion rights, the apparent disappearance of any activity on restricting gay marriage, the marginalizing of the much-vaunted—and among secularists, much-feared—faith-based initiatives. What, exactly, have politically conservative Christians gained for their years of activism and cooperation with the Republican Party?
Meanwhile, the political process turned out to be a principality and power—fantastically capable of twisting good intentions into demonic outcomes. Christians became the pawns of the powerful, nowhere more powerfully illustrated than in the sordid tale of Ralph Reed, once head of the Christian Coalition and now linked to the pro-casino lobbying of Jack Abramoff. Many of the original generals of the culture war either capitulated to the logic of interest-group power—like Reed—or withdrew altogether—like Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. It was a sorry sight.
The contemporary Christian music movement, on the other hand, had an utterly different trajectory. It was fantastically successful from a commercial point of view. CCM is one of the few decade-in, decade-out success stories in the otherwise turbulent music industry. Of course, for many years, its products were derivative and only appealed to Christian consumers. But in the past ten years that has changed quite a bit. CCM artists-turned-producers like Charlie Peacock and Steve Taylor parlayed their CCM credentials into the wherewithal to launch some excellent talent into the mainstream market—Switchfoot and Sixpence come to mind. The CCM industry continues to turn out a great deal of dreck, just like the mainstream music industry, but it’s dreck with very high production values. And it makes tons of money.
So, if you were twenty years old, which would you want to give your life to: a creative enterprise that promises to find a wide audience (and perhaps make you both wealthy and cool), or an adversarial slog in the muddy fields of partisan power that has little more to show for the past thirty years than lots of dirty hands and cynical players? I know which I’d choose. Entertainment, baby!
But I might well be wrong, or at least foolish, to make such a quick choice. (And note that there’s an enthusiastic minority of young Christians, witness institutions like John Henry College, who can’t wait to get to the Hill.) Because while CCM is superficially a more successful enterprise, it has utterly failed, generally speaking, to avoid a principality and power even more insidious than politics, namely the logic of the consumer market. I know brilliant musicians, once signed to CCM labels, doing music of the highest excellence and faithfulness to the perplexing wonderful thing we call the gospel, who were let go because they are not commercially viable in the publicly-traded mass-media world that CCM has become. Meanwhile, though CCM was indirectly responsible for Switchfoot, it was also indirectly responsible for Jessica Simpson. Yikes.
And the truth is that politics is the place where our culture makes hard choices. If you care about protection of the most vulnerable, namely the sick, children born and unborn, the poor, and the elderly; stewardship of the earth; and giving the crazy enterprise called marriage and the family a fighting chance (all things I happen to care about passionately)—you have to be politically engaged. Entertainers can shape the environment in which politicians make choices, and in that sense they are “upstream” from politics, a reality that makes entertainment important and attractive. But someone - lots of someones actually - has to be where the laws are being written, interpreted, and enforced, in order to influence the process.
So is there one area of influence that’s higher than the other?
The truth is that there is not one “right” place to seek cultural influence. If you’re looking for influence, actually, you’ve already lost, either to politics or to the market, the two great arbiters of influence. The only “right” place to be is where we are called to be, making laws, writing books, producing movies, making tortillas, changing bedpans, or holding a child on our lap, with the highest possible excellence, integrity, and truthfulness.
Playing devil’s advocate here, for lack of a better phrase, you mentioned the dreck produced by both the CCM and the mainstream industry. Later you then say that we are called to make things with excellence, integrity and truthfulness. This is becoming a popular slant to take, and is even what we focus on here at Infuze, by and large. But is this really the only responsibility of the Christian who is in entertainment? Just make something that is good and honest and true? Or is this just a backlash against the previous generation saying that things have to be so overtly Christian that it ties our hands to be creative?
I’m honestly a bit perplexed. What else would there be beside good and honest and true? Perhaps beautiful? But sometimes true is not beautiful. Perhaps what you are getting at is whether the creative work of a Christian should somehow bear the visible stamp of Christian belief. This is something we don’t ask of the tortilla maker—apparitions of the Virgin Mary aside—or the plumber. Perhaps that should give us pause.
But the answer is already latent in the idea of good, honest, true creativity. If the Christian story is the truest, best, most honest story—perhaps even, in some ultimate sense, the only story, I don’t see how someone who knows that story could make good, honest, true art without being faithful to the story.
That doesn’t mean that the story must meet a certain quota of Jesus words, allegorical references to Pilgrim and Vanity Fair, visions of candlelight shining through faux-Victorian cottage windows, or what have you. But it does mean that we should be able to hold the inevitably partial, fragmentary work of any artist up to the comprehensive gospel story and find a resonance there.
What exactly do you mean by this?
Two clarifications to this: Part of being “good, honest, and true” requires finding, and being true to your calling. For some of us, that means that our work has overtly Christian content. That’s true for me. I can’t write about anything without eventually writing about the gospel in fairly explicit terms. So much for a lucrative career in secular publishing. I just turned in a piece about shaving (believe it or not) to Books & Culture, and as you’ll see when it comes out, I can’t even write about shaving without writing about Jesus!
But there are many, many Christian artists of every kind whose work has no overt “message.” That is fine. On the other hand, those of us who do find ourselves including a “message” are doubly responsible to make sure that our art (in my case, my writing) is good, honest, and true—most of all, honest. To allow the fact that we’re “proclaiming the gospel” to excuse shoddy craft is the most basic Christian temptation. I face that temptation every time I sit down to write. Some days I don’t resist enough.
What is the other point of clarification?
The other clarification is that we’ve got to get away from the “silver bullet” theory of art interpretation. This is the idea that we can judge any work of art—music, writing, etc.—in isolation from its broader context, most of all the artist’s entire body of work. We need to let artists develop, explore, resist, refine—and in that process, any given piece of work may or may not seem to line up nicely with the gospel.
But if the artist is being formed into the image of Christ, I think we will be able to see, over the course of his or her life, the form of creation, fall, redemption, consummation stamped upon their work. And of course to understand how that form is seen in the artist’s work we need to know the context in which she or he is making art, the longer story of which the artist is trying to make sense. Thus the shape of a blues musician’s career may be dramatically different from that of a greeting card writer, because they are responding to different traditions, different contexts.
By the way, I’ve switched to using the word “artist” in this response because I’m not sure anyone should aspire to being an “entertainer.” Goodness. The last thing Americans need is more entertainment. Much good art is entertaining, but most entertainment is escapist, false, and hollow. Let’s aim higher with our short lives, shall we?
Based on the above, what, then, is the role of the organized church in this whole mess? What role does the organized church play in creating culture or judging art?
Well, once upon a time, as we know, the church was the primary patron for the arts. That is still overwhelmingly true, actually. The vast majority of ordinary Americans’ firsthand, unmediated experience with, exposure to, and opportunities to participate in the arts come through their congregations. As far as music goes—the cultural realm I know best, aside from writing and publishing, there simply is no other place where ordinary people sing together any more. Even at baseball games, we outsource the singing of the national anthem to professionals these days. I think this is a beautiful and wonderful thing.
Unfortunately, many churches squander this opportunity to give people a chance to be culture makers in two ways. First, they fail to teach their people even the most basic rudiments of shared musical performance. Second, they employ music leaders who are manifestly unconcerned with congregational experience and preoccupied with their own performance—a performance which is all too often poorly prepared. This applies equally to organists and electric guitarists, by the way.
But you’re speaking about congregational music, right?
To restrict “culture” to what gets played on the radio or exhibited at the Getty Museum is to miss a vast amount of valuable human culture. Call it grassroots culture, and it should be just as excellent, honest, and gospel-saturated as elite or mass culture. Especially because grassroots culture, the kind that is modeled week by week in a typical church, is the training ground for the kind of cultural intelligence that can, combined with talent, luck, and hard work, produce the occasional person who is capable of contributing to elite or mass culture. Our best example of this is, as in so many things, the black church in America, source of countless musical artists who grew up on gospel.
The more fundamental cultural role of the church, though, is simply to make disciples: people who have Christ alive in them, who carry his presence into every cultural setting. I don’t want to load the overworked pastors of the average congregation down with another to-do list item: “make sure to create some culture this week!” It’s enough to realize that the disciples we are forming are culture makers, whether they are plumbers or poets: people who have a sacred calling to create something that reshapes, even in a small, local way, the horizons of possibility for future generations. They are not here just to serve the interests of our church or its mission, however important that is in its own sphere. They are here to bless their culture by participating in it, and making something true, honest, and good in the midst of it.
You talked how churches have squandered this opportunity to give people a chance to be culture-makers. How does the church change in this way, then? What are some immediate, tangible, next-step sorts of things that cane be done, both locally and on a larger scale?
Well, every local church is full of culture makers, whether they realize it or not, because making culture (and cultivating culture—tending and preserving existing cultural artifacts) is what human beings do. So the first thing the pastors and leaders of a local church can do is simply start talking about what their congregation is doing with much of their waking hours: creating and cultivating culture in the workplace, in the home, on the sports field on weekends and in the pub after work, and of course in the church itself.
What are we making with our lives? What excellences are we pursuing? What skills are we developing? What good things are we affirming and tending in the culture around us? What cultural brokenness are we trying to repair in the many different cultural domains we pass through every day? It’s astonishing to me how little such topics come up in the week-to-week routine of sermons and small groups that most churches offer.
Speaking more specifically about the arts and the imaginative and expressive forms of culture, I already mentioned how much I long for churches to simply teach people the rudiments of shared musical performance. Singing is something that every human being can do, universally accessible yet capable of tremendous emotional and intellectual depth. It also has been an essential part of biblical worship since the days of Israel. To actually create a singing, corporately worshipping congregation is an amazing way of opening up people’s cultural awareness and creativity. It also requires real pastoral effort, because singing is one of the most vulnerable things we can ask people to do in public, and our culture has ceased to ask it of us anywhere, probably for that very reason.
More generally, churches can be serious about providing places for training in the basics of the performing and visual arts. This is something that some churches do very well—I’m very encouraged by churches that have invested in recording studios, for example, and give their members and musicians from the community a place to record projects that might not be commercially viable, at least initially.
Our own church has an incredible weekly arts program for children that teaches them the basics of vocal performance, pottery, dance, and theater. Of course, most people who take advantage of these resources will not become world-class artists, because that takes such a rare combination of raw talent, perseverance, and luck. But having people stretching themselves creatively inside the church provides an intelligent audience for the world-class artists who desperately need such an audience.
And finally, I simply would love for churches to become art galleries and performance spaces for their local community (not just for artists from their church), ideally with a jury process in place to ensure that the work displayed is serious and of high quality. Not long ago I was at a conference on the church and culture at a fairly young suburban church with a black-box sanctuary. We were sitting on stage talking about the need for the church to return to its role as a patron of the arts, and I realized I was looking at the ultimate gallery: acres of blank wall space, adjustable lighting, and a built-in audience every week. And all we were doing was talking about art! We could have been looking at it all around us!
You can see that these four ideas form a kind of progression: from simply acknowledging that people are cultivating and creating culture right now, to inviting them into an initially uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding basic form of culture-making, to offering training to everyone who’s willing to risk learning more about the arts, to supporting the talented minority who are called to do serious art. We need all four levels.
Who is doing this well right now? Are there any tangible examples to look to?
Well, the two churches that come most immediately to mind, with respect to the arts, are both in Texas. One, Ecclesia, is located in an uber-artsy district in Houston. When I visited there several years ago they were putting their worship space to work as an art gallery, with intellectually demanding works of real merit displayed around the sanctuary. They also have a recording studio and a totally kicking worship band that makes it impossible for the congregation to sing, but I don’t hold that against them! What’s much more important is that the community is suffused with the sense that art matters, that artists can bring their talents, questions, and struggles into the community, and that there is a thoughtful, appreciative community waiting to engage with the arts.
Even more impressive, in a way, is a church called Hope Chapel in Austin, which is one of the very few churches I’ve encountered that has a full-time arts pastor, David Taylor. I say it’s more impressive because David has done an extraordinary job of cultivating the arts in a church that is _not_ in an artsy downtown area, but rather in a rather normal-looking suburb of Austin and filled with rather normal-looking suburban people! The church helps to sponsor a film festival every year, the Ragamuffin Film Festival, that draws submissions from around the country; it regularly hosts exhibitions and gallery talks; and it, again, provides a supportive community where artists and their gifts are taken seriously. David blogs intermitently at artspastor.blogspot.com.
There’s one other resource especially worth mentioning, the DC-based enterprise called Brewing Culture. BC’s impresario, Erik Lokkesmoe, sends out a thought-provoking email every week with half a dozen arts-related stories geared toward the intersection of creativity and commerce. It’s a terrific starting point for discussions with others in a church about the arts.
On the broader front of being culture creators rather than mere spectators, this year I produced a series of short documentary films called intersect|culture. It’s packaged as a six-week DVD-based curriculum for small groups that want to find the place where their faith and their culture meet. The DVD includes a story about one of America’s premier Christian artists, Mako Fujimura, but it also includes stories about inner city redevelopment, reconciliation between First Nations and more recently arrived Canadians, spiritual disciplines for culture makers, and more.
My partners at Christianity Today did an outstanding job creating a leader’s guide that makes it very easy to take a group through a six-week experience to think more deeply about our cultural calling as Christians. And it’s quite unique in the world of Christians-and-culture resources, as far as I know, in being very multicultural—the stories we tell and the experts we consult come from far beyond just white middle-class evangelicalism. You can see the trailer at intersectculture.com.