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The Renaissance had us fooled. We were always ‘post-truth’ people

Renaissance Post-Truth Politics Sputnik Faith Art
Renaissance Post-Truth Politics Sputnik Faith Art

At the tail-end of 2016, the Oxford Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ their new word of the year. If we’d needed any further proof of the mood that was spreading through politics at the time, we had it – the post-truth era was in full swing.

I’d find it hard to deny that recent years have felt like a new low in politics within my lifetime; there have been scandals that came close, but the freewheelin’ buffoonery, shifty evasions and straight-up lies going unpunished daily does feel like a new ‘era’ of sorts.

But there are some things that get bundled together under the ‘post-truth’ umbrella that I’m not so convinced are new phenomena at all. Amidst all the casual dishonesty is the idea that now, suddenly, people’s opinions are not shaped by competing, logical arguments, but by pure gut instinct. Throwing logical arguments at people is like water on a chip pan fire, they say; opposition only strengthens people’s resolve to double-down, encouraged by the cheering-on of their like-minded tribe.

This isn’t new behaviour, and in fact, I think we know it. The bottom line is this: humans form our worldviews as much from stories, relationships and emotional attachments as we do from cold, hard facts. Meanwhile, it’s hard-wired into the Western mindset to deny that we have any ideology other than reason alone: and it’s that misconception, rather than some new unruly way of thinking, that left us singularly unprepared for the apple-cart-upsetting blowouts of the last two years.

The myth of the Renaissance

The West has long been on a mission to convince itself that rational, empirical thinking is the only valid form of thought; true and false the only measures of value. This is the legacy of the Renaissance – Europe’s rediscovery of ancient Greek thought, which led us to the Enlightenment and the onset of the modern age. The Renaissance reignited the idea that rational insight was a higher form of ‘knowing’ than other forms of thought, including actual experience, or imagination.

Thereby ‘myth’ became an ugly word, something that needs to be ‘debunked’. Ironically, that attitude is the very myth – the story –that the Renaissance gave us. And, in the way that stories do, it became woven into the fabric of everyday life; it was the engine that drove incredible scientific discovery, but it also re-energized the European monarchies in their colonial conquests.

Nowadays it echoes in Douglas Adams (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”) or in Richard Dawkins: “we don’t have to invent wildly implausible stories [because we have] real, scientific investigation”. But I was pleasantly surprised to see Dawkins’ friend Philip Pullman distance himself from this:

“On the contrary, I’d rather say that there are times when we have to keep our reason in line. I daresay that [imagination] is in fact where a good deal of scientific discovery begins. In the old expression, reason is a good servant but a bad master, and its powers are limited.”

And even this is to make it seem like ‘reason’ and ‘imagination’ can be easily separated. But as Pullman rightly says, earlier in the piece: “Everything that touches human life is surrounded by a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown.”

It’s a common knee-jerk reaction in Western societies to think a ‘knowledge gap’ is the issue; that problems will be solved if we give people enough facts. But it doesn’t stand up, as Sarah and Jack Gorman conclude in Denying to the Grave. No matter how well-educated, humans are capable of maintaining wrong beliefs for a lifetime, even beliefs which harm themselves. To try to persuade humans to behave totally rationally is a lost cause.

Sputnik Faith Post-Truth Politics Renaissance Matt Bosford Art

Faith and art are ahead of the curve

This is the artist’s home turf, though. Or not just artists, even; as an avid reader, I know that my worldview isn’t based on cold facts alone. Stories like The Grapes of Wrath, Brave New World and Infinite Jest genuinely changed my opinions and rewired my thinking. It doesn’t bother me for a moment that they’re not ‘true’ stories.

And while I’d obviously disagree with Philip Pullman when he puts faith in the exact same bracket as magic or imagination, it is true that a faith tradition like Christianity, because of its Hebraic roots, is already in touch with a pre-Renaissance (or pre-Greek) form of thought. So you would hope that Christians are ahead of the curve by being comfortable with how stories shape worldview – mythopoesis, as Alastair McIntosh calls it. After all, we constantly make decisions based not just on facts, but on faith.

Christianity in the modern age has spent a lot of time making factual arguments like the historical case for Christ, or the scientific case for God. Far be it from me to criticise any of that, but in the end, I suspect it is typically experience – subjective, emotional, personal – that makes the difference in creating lasting faith. I don’t have any stats to prove that, but I think Francis Spufford is quite right to argue that Christianity makes emotional sense in a way that even watertight philosophical arguments can’t match.

So as Christians should know, and as artists certainly know, we all draw inspiration from stories that we can’t entirely explain or quantify in a rational sense. The value of a myth simply doesn’t lie in being true or false. It has value if it points us in a good direction, and that direction affects how we make rational decisions in the future.

Facing fears in the new post-truth era

As I said at the start, ‘post-truth’ can mean many things. And whichever way we look at it or define it, we are still feeling the weight of irreconcilable differences between tribes in the West. It’s also true that some of the deeply-lodged stories in people’s hearts are actively harmful to others, and that’s a real issue.

So I don’t want to conclude this by seemingly sweeping things under the carpet, like necessary protest or much-needed justice. But I will say – if Christ’s call to love your enemy means loving the person that you hate to think of as human, then in my case, I have to admit that includes right-wing politicians. The way I talk and think about them implies they’re “not even human”. And I need to give that consideration.

I do think politicians in particular have a responsibility to learn, and look outside their experience; I do think that, in practice, our government sorely lacks empathy. But should I really respond by dehumanizing them in turn? Looking across the table at my ‘enemies’ I have to choose to see humans, shaped by stories – rather than faceless ghouls. It’s not enough to complain they “won’t listen to reason”.

Because we’re all post-truth people. We all have stories that tell our hearts what to believe. I hope, in a strange way, that this gives us less reason to despair, or at least helps us to face our political adversaries with humility. Changing the hearts of a people is not just an artistic, but a spiritual task that it’s up to us to embrace. There is no easy path; it turns out Christ’s challenge is harder than most of us can imagine, and in an age of absolute division, the narrow road is the road filled with empathy, contradiction and nuance.

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Escaping our siege mentality and sharing the richness of the world outside

Sputnik Siege Mentality Faith Art Bible Werner du Plessis

In 2 Kings 7, there is a story about the people of God in a spot of bother. Samaria has been under siege for a while and it’s taking its toll. Inflation is through the roof, women are eating their own babies, you know, standard Old Testament siege stuff.

Finally, four lepers decide they’ve had enough – they’re going to die anyway if they stay in the city, so they decide to surrender to the Aramean army. It can’t be any worse than eating overpriced donkey heads and living next to cannibal mothers.

So they go over to the Aramean camp – and find, to their surprise, that the enemy camp is deserted. There are tents; there are horses; there is food, and there is even plunder from previous battles. But the army has fled.

The lepers do a fair amount of revelry, eating and drinking and stashing away some gold and silver; but finally, they decide this is too good to just enjoy themselves. They go back into the city and report what they’ve found. As a result, the plunder is shared out to the people of Samaria. The famine is lifted. People stop eating babies (presumably). All is good.

Strangely, as I reflected on this year’s Catalyst Festival, and particularly the things we were involved with, I started thinking about this story. I wondered if it could be taken as a parable for the church, and how we can potentially relate more fruitfully to the culture around us. I imagine that it’s not immediately obvious what I mean, so I’ll explain.

Siege Mentality

I grew up in a context where I was encouraged to think of the church being in a similar position to Samaria in this passage: we were a people under siege. Inside the church community (and wider than that, the Christian sub-culture) we were God’s holy people, set apart and distinct. Outside, ‘in the world’, everyone was out to get us. The culture at large was populated by godless heathen, trying to attack the church with every weapon at their disposal. Scientists conjuring up half baked theories to undermine the Bible, politicians passing laws to erode biblical values, and – the most devious of all – artists, trying to seduce innocent Christians with their libertine tendencies and coded satanic messages.

Every now and then, we might forage out on a bit of an offensive (picketing an abortion clinic or writing a strongly worded letter to our MP), but on the whole, we responded by shutting the city gates and getting on with life on our own.

And actually, we kind of liked this set up. I mean, wasn’t this what heaven was going to be like? Christians hanging out, thinking about Christian stuff, and not being bothered by annoying others who didn’t share our core beliefs.

But, over time, our isolation started to bite. We found out that we weren’t made to live in isolation, and the culture we created couldn’t sustain us. We became culturally impoverished. We were chewing on the bare bones of Amy Grant, Frank Peretti, Ken Ham and Thomas Kinkade and we were starving.

Eventually, some people in the city decided that they couldn’t take it any longer, so they decided to leave and take their chances with the barbarians at the door.

We found out that we weren’t made to live in isolation, and the culture we created couldn’t sustain us. We became culturally impoverished.

However, to their surprise, they found the situation outside the city was not quite what they’d expected it to be. The fearsome army they were expecting simply wasn’t there. In fact, there was much of benefit outside the camp. There were riches in almost every sphere of human learning that, while by no means perfect, bore the watermark of the same God we allied ourselves with. Ingenuity; creativity; wisdom; understanding.

Rather than getting mowed down by machine gun fire, or being waterboarded till we recanted, these happy adventurers found that, as they explored outside the city, their love for Jesus grew, and their joie de vivre was intensified.

What’s more, their identity as God’s people remained, so they realised that they couldn’t keep this to themselves. They wanted to bring these treasures back into the city and make a way for the people of God to share in the good things they had found.

For example, at the Catalyst Festival…

I think we saw a microcosm of this at the Catalyst Festival this year. On the Saturday evening, Strange Ghost and Mr Ekow skillfully channeled years spent neck-deep in the work of the likes of Lauryn Hill, Hiatus Kaiyote and Outkast. On Monday evening, Huw Evans reflected on his journey with cancer, drawing solace and inspiration from Plato, Thomas Browne and the proliferation of skulls in Renaissance portraiture. And throughout the festival, Alastair John Gordon’s Travels in Hyper-Reality exhibition was on display for all to see. The title of the exhibition is taken from an Umberto Eco book, and the write-up quotes French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard.

Now, this may all sound pretty unexceptional, but it caught my attention because it was unusual in this specific context. In my experience, Christian conferences are events that are, in terms of the above parable, ‘for the city, by the city’ – celebrating the things of the city. Catalyst Festival has always veered from this model to a degree, but I think we went a bit further this year. We had a number of people contributing who seemed to have ventured out of the city gates and survived. More than that, they brought us back stuff that was of great benefit.

Treasure hunting outside the city

I’m sure my analogy is imperfect, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is what the author of 2 Kings was trying to communicate when he came to record this episode. However, I think this picture contains something helpful for those of us who are trying to think through the difficult question of how we, as God’s people, can relate to the world around us, in all its glory and corruption.

As Paul writes in Colossians 2:3, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus. I’m pretty sure that Jesus, in turn, has hidden quite a few of these treasures a little further afield than the church has reckoned on in recent years. My encouragement would be to keep your guard up and tread carefully, but to go and have a look outside the city to see what you can find.

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Forget about trying to change the world

Think Small Stop Change World Sputnik Faith Art

Let’s recap on what we’ve seen so far in this series. Christians holding positions of influence in society is a good thing. In fact, it’s an essential thing, if the good news of Jesus is going to spread and the church is going to grow. So, how should we respond to this?

The obvious application would be to go all guns blazing in this direction. Let’s change the world. Let’s all try to be as influential as we possibly can. Let’s cosy up to all the people we know who have a bit of clout. Let’s ruthlessly recruit 10s of thousands of twitter followers. Let’s forget the marginalized and voiceless who we’ve been helping out all these years and put our effort into people who are a bit more important… Hmm…

I’m sure you can see that this sort of application can lead in all sorts of strange and unhelpful directions. It’s a small step from the language of influence to the language of empire, and, therefore, even from good motives, we can end up with a sort of anti-gospel: prioritise the strong, despise the weak. Gain power at all costs!

But we can’t change the world!

James Davison Hunter puts this case very well in his book ‘To Change The World’. While the title may imply that this is a polemic for maximal cultural engagement and chasing hard after influence, its subheading reveals his more corrective goal: ‘The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility Of Christianity in The Late Modern World’.

Hunter’s basic argument is simple- that changing culture is much more complex than many Christians realise and is likely to be impossible. He puts forward the example of American Christianity over the last 50 years or so as a cautionary tale, demonstrating how the efforts of both the Right and the Left to influence American culture for Jesus have almost all spectacularly backfired.

His conclusion is that ‘changing the world’ really shouldn’t be that high on our list of priorities. Instead, we should aim to be a “faithful presence within” society- humbly living out the values of God’s kingdom in the way we live, wherever we live. Thus:

“Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better.” (P 286)

Greg Gilbert in his helpful review of the book paraphrases Hunter’s conclusion even more succinctly:

“Can we change the world? Well, who knows? Probably not. But we can perhaps, just perhaps, make it a little better by living godly lives as aliens and strangers in it.”

Can we?/Can’t we?

I think Hunter’s note of caution needs to be taken seriously although it could be taken too far (FOOTNOTE 1). If you push what he says to conclude that we cannot exert any influence on culture at all, I think that would be mistaken (and I don’t think that is what he’s saying). We all make a difference all the time, whether we like it or not, in the spheres of influence in which we live. Sometimes that influence is positive, sometimes it’s negative. And obviously some individuals or groups of people do have a significant influence on the values of entire cultures. To use some classic Sputnik examples, it would be hard to argue that Lewis and Tolkien did not change the world at least just a little! However, his basic point still stands, especially in the face of the gung ho optimism some sectors of evangelicalism seem to demonstrate in this area.

I personally agree with Hunter that we shouldn’t be overly optimistic about the effect we can have on society at large, and I also agree that there is a significant danger of being so focused on influencing people we’ll never meet by doing unusual things, that we stop doing the simple daily stuff all Christians are called to and therefore neglect the people right under our noses. But, you may ask, how do I square this with all I’ve said about the need for Christians to hold positions of influence (not to mention all that art shaping life stuff I’m always banging on about).

Back to the Bible

Well, what did the key influencers in the Bible achieve? Joseph didn’t overthrow Egyptian polytheism and Esther didn’t halt Babylonian cruelty in its foreign policy. However, they used their influence to help God’s people to survive and grow. For Paul, we don’t see many of the effects of his interactions with the ‘kings’ he met, but we know that these influencers saw a faithful Christian, living out the message he taught. Some like Sergius Publius and Lydia became Christians, almost all of the others warmed to Paul personally, and by association, that must have softened them towards the Christian church. This must have had an impact on how they used their influence from that point on.

For us, as artists, we must not get carried away with our potential. Yes, in the gifts God has given us, we have a unique opportunity to reach out to loads of people that many other Christians will never get to meaningfully engage with. For some of us, God will give us a measure of influence through our skill and craft that is able to cause a gentle softening of hearts towards Jesus and his church, all across our society and even beyond. At the very least, it is harder to hate Christians because of Fujimuras, O’Connors and Bachs! At the best, as we know, artists who function at this sort of level actually sow seeds that lead people who would otherwise have no interest in the God of the Bible, to seek Him, and even to find Him.

While your work may not have this scale of impact, any artist can do exactly the same among those who appreciate what you do. Your work has an influence in whatever sphere you work in- whether that is in your local community, in your niche genre or on a wider scale. We should take this responsibility seriously wherever God has placed us, and use any influence God has given us for the enhancement of his reputation not our own.

And this is where I think it gets practical for us. Ultimately we must remember that God places people into positions of influence, he doesn’t call us to chase after these positions. Think of all the examples from the Bible- it is interesting that of all the examples I mentioned in the last article, the only one who set his face towards influence was Jesus. The others were placed there, either by vengeful brothers, national exile or, in Paul’s case, imprisonment. God is very keen on increasing his influence and He has every right to do so. He is acting in such a way that one day ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Habakkuk 2:14). To do so, he is looking for people who can faithfully wield his influence how and when he sees fit.

And who is he likely to choose? Well, this is where it all comes together. I think he tends to choose those who, as Hunter puts it, know how to practice ‘faithful presence’ in the world.

What does that look like for us as artists? Give me a few days, and I’ll have some suggestions.

Footnote 1: I would like to give an extra poke to those who merge the talk of influence in with their theology about ‘the kingdom of God’. I keep coming across people whose thinking about the kingdom seems to lead them to the very conclusions that Hunter is concerned about. I struggle to see how the Bible’s teaching on the kingdom leads us to the view that Christians, through our cultural engagement are going to renew and restore the world substantially before Jesus’ return. In fact, the teaching of God’s kingdom implies the existence of another kingdom- the kingdom of this world- which is under the direct rule of the devil (2 Cor 4:4, Eph 2:2, Luke 4:5-6, Jn 12:31, Jn 14:30). Whatever tinkering we do on the surface of this kingdom, surely we shouldn’t think that we can fundamentally alter a system whose key architect and sustainer is Satan! This kingdom will fall, but, according to the Bible, it will do so through the return of Jesus (Rev 11:15). Until then, as I read it, our main responsibility is to signpost people from out of the kingdom of the world, towards the kingdom of God. Where I’m at in my thinking on this at the moment is that any influence we wield in our culture should ultimately be to that end. Happy to be poked back on this, by the way 😉

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Broadcast From The Clubhouse

It’s February 2017 and my friend asks me if I want to go and see Hacksaw Ridge. I’m not sure. The film has been getting some rave reviews amongst my Christian friends – a friend-of-a-friend has claimed it’s one of the best films they’ve ever seen, but I can take a guess as to why.

I suspect a key reason for its popularity is that the protagonist might be a Christian. Which is to say, those who love Hacksaw Ridge are pretty certain he is, but when the topic is raised in a group there are usually others who aren’t so sure. These people are often less enthused about the film.

So I ask Google. Turns out that Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a medic who served in World War II and received the Medal of Honour, despite being a pacifist. His non-violent stance, manifested in a refusal to even carry a firearm, was inspired by his Seventh-day Adventist faith. Ah…

I look up Seventh Day Adventism on Wikipedia. They’re annihilationists. Is this a problem? As Desmond Doss watched the unsaved masses perish on the field of battle, he did not imagine that their souls would endure conscious, eternal torment in hell. Is that a deal breaker? Basically, I’m trying to establish whether Desmond Doss is a ‘real’ Christian. And this is very important. Because if he was, then the film is a triumph, validating the wonderful propensity of God to glorify Himself through the sanctification of His children, allowing them to live in a radically Christ-like manner. For the same reason, this movie should also be earmarked as a crucial tool for witnessing to non-believers. However, if Desmond Doss is not a ‘real’ Christian, this film is the story of a nice man, whose stirring and heroic actions nonetheless represent a futile attempt to buy his own salvation through good works. To elevate it any higher than that would be to suggest that Christ-like actions may genuinely arise from sources other than theologically-sound Christian beliefs, something tantamount to anti-evangelism.

For right or wrong, as Christians we tend to judge on the level of the individual, rather than the action. It’s a little silly to create theoretical scenarios based on the lives and actions of real individuals, but permit me this indulgence – if Desmond Doss was an atheist (or professed another religious belief) would Hacksaw Ridge have garnered the amount of acclaim that it did amongst the Christian circle. Given the significant numbers of American movie-goers who identify themselves as Christians, would it have grossed as much at the box office? And if not, is this justified?

Sometimes it’s tempting to view Christianity like a clubhouse. We love established figures who operate within the clubhouse (Tolkien, Lewis etc.). We also love it when established figures poke their heads into the clubhouse from outside. These are the people like Kanye West, when he asked Jesus to follow him around, or Chance the Rapper and his cheery prosperity gospel. Sure, they may curse occasionally and their theology may be a little ropey, but we’re a welcoming bunch and, more excitingly, we get to lay claim to these people who we previously had no idea were one of ours. That’s why it’s now cool to like Justin Bieber. It’s also the reason a large number of Christians suddenly developed a keen interest in boxing before the 2015 Pacquiao vs Mayweather fight. [Footnote 1]

What we’re less keen on, however, is people bridging the gap between ‘church’ and ‘world’ by poking their head out of the clubhouse. That’s why it’s disquieting to hear Sufjan Stevens [Footnote 2] sing about masturbating, or say the f-word, or to question the degree to which faith really provides any comfort in the wake of bereavement. After all, he should know better. Besides which, Sufjan is one of our hottest properties, and the last thing we need is him leaving the clubhouse to stretch his legs and never coming back.

Anyway, I digress. None of this is answering the question as to whether I should take up my friend’s offer to see Hacksaw Ridge. I return to Google to seek more answers, but am distracted by today’s Google Doodle. It’s in celebration of Abdul Sattar Edhi. I have no idea who he is and I silently chastise myself for my Western-centric knowledge of influential figures. Clicking through to his Wikipedia page, I discover that Edhi was a Pakistani philanthropist whose prolific humanitarian career involved the nationwide establishment of hospitals, homeless shelters and a highly-efficient volunteer ambulance service. ‘Now here’s an inspiring individual’ I think. ‘Given my ignorance, I wouldn’t mind seeing a biopic of this guy’. But my interest is short-lived – I scroll down further and discover that Edhi was ‘often critical of the clergy’ and ‘had never been a religious person’.

Ah well, nevermind. Not one of ours.

Footnote 1: In case you missed the result, God didn’t let the inferior sportsman win just by virtue of being an evangelical Christian.

Footnote 2: For the uninitiated, check out Sufjan’s album Seven Swans. A lovely collection of gospel-infused folk ballards, Seven Swans cemented Sufjan’s place in the tiny slither of the Venn Diagram where ‘traditional Christian beliefs’ and ‘hipster-approved’ overlap. Hipsters much prefer a more poignant, subtle narrative of someone struggling with and eventually losing their religious faith, because faith, although comforting, is ultimately childish and a bit silly.


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The case for Christians in positions of cultural influence

Christians Cultural Influence Biblical Sputnik Faith Arts

Different people’s voices have different weights. Diane Abott has more influence than my son’s primary school teacher. My MP’s voice is more influential than my dentist’s. However, it is not just politicians who have influence. Culture is not just shaped by law makers, but by all sorts of different groups. Cutting to the chase, artists are pretty key in all of this. They live in the middle of the stairs. They build the plumbing of our culture. So often, it is the artists who shape the values and thinking of all of us.

This seems like a pretty non controversial way of looking at the world we live in, but still it may sit uncomfortably with some Christians. Jesus taught his followers to serve, not lord it over others. Paul reminded us that God chose the foolish things and the weak things and often operates ‘in the face of worldly wisdom’. We do not fight with worldly weapons and in some ways we do not see things as the world does, therefore we shouldn’t play the influence game like the world does.

The problem with this view is that God clearly does see the world in this way and is more than happy to ‘play the influence game.’ In the Bible, one of God’s main strategies in pushing his plans forward is by engaging with the structures of cultural influence. That’s a big claim and needs some backing up, so let’s wheel right back to the start and survey the evidence.

Cultural Influence in the Old Testament

In Genesis, God starts to roll out his rescue plan for fallen humanity. It all starts with Abraham. You’ll be a father of many nations, God says. Through you all nations will be blessed, God says. He even throws in some stuff about his offspring- his seed, the Messiah- for good measure.

And so a couple of geriatric parents, an awkward take your son to work day up a mountain and two squabbling twins later, the plan has moved on.

But how does God turn Abraham’s descendants from an extended family into a people? He raises Joseph to a position of cultural influence.

Joseph’s brothers stick him in a hole and ship him off to become a slave in Egypt. (The place is not incidental- Egypt is the key cultural centre of the day). Then after a series of further misadventures, Joseph amazingly ends up as second in command to Pharoah. The result: Abraham’s descendants are saved from starvation and then given a home to grow in.

But how does God then turn his slave people into a nation? He raises Moses to a place of cultural influence.

This all starts at the beginning of Moses’ life, when he is adopted into the royal family. Though he doesn’t take the title with gusto (Hebrews 11:4), he would have been known as the son of the king’s daughter. This meant that when he returned to say ‘Let my people go!’ he didn’t have to queue up to meet with one of Pharoah’s aides, but he got to say it to Pharoah face to face. Repeatedly and forcefully. Moses’ position of influence was crucial in freeing the Hebrews and enabling them to become a nation.

So, time passed. And there were ups (Joshua, David, Solomon). And there were downs (most of the rest). And the downs prevailed and Israel got exiled to Babylon.

So how does God preserve the nation of Israel while in exile? He raises Esther (among others) to a place of cultural influence.

When Xerxes the Persian King, agrees to eliminate all the Jews in the Empire, what does God do? Well, he’s already got this one covered. Esther has been roped into the King’s royal harem and become queen, and she uses her position to save all of God’s people from death.

And how does God get his people back from exile? He raises Nehemiah to a place of (I think you’re probably seeing a pattern here) cultural influence.

Nehemiah, as he is at pains to tell us, was the cupbearer to the king. This role gave him the ear of the king, and he used this influence to get permission and even substantial resources to rebuild Jerusalem and give the returning exiles a home.

So, in the Old Testament, how does God push forward his purposes? Well, obviously he calls his people to personal holiness, social kindness and observance of the covenant, we know that stuff. However, at the same time He makes sure that some of his faithful people are in positions of significant influence at just the right times, in just the right places to keep things moving along as planned.

And seeing as this plan worked so well in the Old Testament, as we cross from Malachi to Matthew, we find that God continues in much the same vein in the New Testament.

Cultural Influence in the New Testament

Luke is the gospel writer who brings our attention to this most blatantly. He does this mainly by laying out a geographical trajectory to the ministries of Jesus and the early church that shows God still working with a keen eye on human structures of influence.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem and grows up in Nazareth. Nazareth, however, was a bit of a backwater. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael scoffs in John 1:46, and while we may want to chasten him for such cultural insensitivity, in a sense it seems that Jesus agreed with the basic sentiment. At the very least, Jesus seems to have concurred that you certainly couldn’t change the world from Nazareth. But you could from Jerusalem. And so to Jerusalem he goes.

Luke presents to us that after he begun his ministry in and around Galilee, in Luke 9:51, Jesus resolutely set his face towards Jerusalem. Why? Well, he went there to die, but not just that, he went to die in the place where the effect of his death and resurrection would resound loudest in that locality. Now, there are surely loads of other reasons why Jesus needed to die in Jerusalem, but sociologically speaking, the cultural currency of that city cannot be overstated.

And when we see Luke’s sequel, Acts, we see a very similar story. According to Luke, the story of the early church begins in Jerusalem (no continuity errors here), but it ends in Rome. Jerusalem was a place of influence, but it was still a capital city of a small nation of limited global significance. Rome, on the other hand was the cultural centre of the entire world at that time. The trajectory is again telling. (Take a peak at Footnote 1 for another interesting titbit).

So, it seems that the picture we get from the Bible is of a God who understands that for his purposes to succeed, he needs people in places of influence. He needs people who bend the ear of kings, he needs people who are speaking into the centres of cultural influence, both geographically and metaphorically.

Now, influence in the 21st century western world certainly looks different to how it did way back then. However, the basic principle still stands. If God hadn’t ‘played the influence game’ then, the people of God wouldn’t have got out of Genesis, let alone the Old Testament, Jesus’ death and resurrection may well have gone unnoticed, and the early church would likely have fizzled out on the fringes of the Roman Empire.

If we take this lesson and bring it up to date, I don’t think that it’s too much of a leap to suggest that if Christians aren’t exercising significant influence in our society today, significant progress is going to be impossible for God’s people in our time and place too.

This means that we need Christians in politics. Christians in business. Christians in the media. And… we’ve got there eventually… Christians in the arts. Many making work that shapes life at a local level or making creative decisions in their jobs that subtly question and challenge the accepted status quo. But also a good number who attain to such a level of excellence and creative freedom that they monkey with the way our whole culture ticks, providing an alternate narrative to the one of unlimited personal autonomy and nihilistic hedonism that presently holds sway, and warming hearts and minds to this narrative in a way that prepares the way for people to give their allegiance to Jesus.

It’s not proud or worldly to think like this. This seems to be how God thinks and we must take that into account. The church needs some of its people in positions of significant cultural influence today. It’s a good thing to hope for and it’s a good thing to pray for. But how should we actually go about living in light of this understanding. Should we chase after influence ourselves?

Next time, Gadget. Next time.

(To get some context and check out the intro to this series, click here. To see how the saga continues, click here)


Footnote 1- It is interesting to note the apostle Paul’s own example in all of this. In his calling was a specific call to kings (Acts 9:15) and Luke relates to us how this plays out by highlighting all the people of influence he engages with as he does his apostle-ing. Sergius Paulus (Acts 13), Gallio (Acts 18), Felix (Acts 24), Porcius Festus (Acts 25), Agrippa and Bernice (Acts 26), the chief official on Malta (Acts 28). This is not to mention Lydia (probably a significant business leader) (Acts 16) and the various high ranking military personnel he regularly bumped into. Even this is the tip of the iceberg though as behind the scenes there seems to have been loads of other influential individuals who Paul had made friends with outside of Luke’s watchful gaze (eg Acts 19:31). So, when God wanted to push the church out of Israel for the first time, he made sure that he had someone on hand who could carry himself well specifically with people of cultural influence.

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Are Christians Called To Influence Society?

Influence Society Christians Sputnik Faith Art

Where has the church gone wrong? This seems to be a question that many are asking at the moment and, looking around, it’s not difficult to see why.

Right now, in the Western world, Christianity is anathema. This hit home to me a few years back when my wife and I settled down to switch off our brains to the knockabout comedy spy caper that is Kingsman: The Secret Service. The film as a whole is unremarkable (probably a generous evaluation) but there is one scene that made me reflect, if somewhat uncomfortably. It is a gory massacre that takes place in a Southern Baptist style church service. Faces get stabbed and burnt, torsos are impaled on spikes, heads are removed with axes. It is a bloodbath. But it is meant to be a comic bloodbath, and the only way the film can achieve the tone it’s looking for is by choosing a group of people to get stabbed, burnt, impaled and decapitated that they assume nobody would really mind being dispatched en masse in this manner. In the past, Communists, Nazis or slave dealers would have performed this sort of function. Now, Christians too can be entertaining, guilt free canon fodder.

Now, of course, you may protest, we’re not all homophobic racists with a perverse delight in hellfire and damnation like the preacher who starts off that particular scene, but that’s not the point. That is how we are commonly seen. And it seems that in some senses, our culture would laugh at any gruesome demise that should come our way.

So, how do we fix our significant PR problem? How do we halt our accelerating slide towards cardboard cut out movie villainy? The answer that many are putting forward with increasing vigour is that we should look to regain influence into our society again.

Christians, it seems, have disengaged from the wider culture, at least in Britain, in the last century, and retreated into our own sub-culture, actively taking people away from politics, business, media, the arts and the other areas that seem to have most influence on shaping the values and thinking of people at large. There are many reasons that have been noted for this, not least the strong divide between the sacred and the secular that has hung heavily in the ether of evangelicalism in recent times (which we explored here). However, whatever these reasons are, the solution is simple, many say- let’s do something about it and get more Christians into those areas again. The church should wake up and step back into the public arena with confidence and intentionality. We need to reclaim the 7 mountains. We need to cultivate and create culture. We need to make art that shapes life.

If that last exhortation sounds familiar, it’s because it is part of our very own tagline. Why does Sputnik exist? Because thought shapes art and art shapes life. Yes, Sputnik itself would have been seen as a pretty enthusiastic proponent of the general picture painted above.

However, I’ve developed a pretty strong distaste for Christian fads over the years, and if only in the name of consistency, it makes sense that ‘fads’ that I am involved in should be subject to the same serious critical reflection that I apply to those I’ve avoided. Over the last few months then, I’ve been doing just that. Reflecting. Not just on cinematic church gorefests, but on influence. And church. And church and influence. And most specifically on whether we, as Christians, should place a high priority on influencing the wider culture that we live in.

And so I’d like to present some thoughts on this topic over the next couple of weeks, and then apply them specifically to artists and creatives.

As something of a spoiler, I haven’t closed down this website, or even changed our tagline! I am still very enthusiastic about people who love Jesus and live their lives in allegiance to him, gaining significant influence in our society. However, how we go about gaining such influence is another matter altogether.

There’s an added issue for artists in this area as well. While this new emphasis on cultural engagement may have caused us to get a bit more respect in Christian circles, for some, this attention may be unwelcome if it leads to people once again reducing their work to a utilitarian formula. I’m fully aware that many artists don’t make art with the express purpose of influencing people. There’s something about art that kicks against any express purpose at all. As Hans Rookmaaker put it- ‘Art needs no justification’. As it doesn’t need to fulfil a ‘gospel content’ quota to be validated, so it is not worthwhile art, if and only if, it gains a certain measure of influence. So, how do we as artists really fit into this picture?

Dun. Dun. Derrr. (For the next installment click here)

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The Grotesque And The Beautiful In Faithful Art

Grotesque Beautiful Faithful Art Sputnik

One occasionally hears complaints from Christians, that art these days is ugly where it ought to be beautiful. Unsettling installations, chaotic abstractions, unsavoury juxtapositions of images and symbols; all seemingly calculated to jar and upset. Why would Christians be joining in with these gloomy trends? The question was posed to me last week, “shouldn’t they be making work of beauty, in order to point people towards God, who is beauty itself?”

I must say, the person who asked me this didn’t think so, but was relaying to me a sentiment brought to him by perplexed others. I have occasionally met with these questions myself, but less often the more I go (perhaps I have been gradually sorted out of those circles). I hope I’ll be forgiven if I seem to be knocking down a straw man. Perhaps, in that vain process, we might also stumble over some useful thoughts on the grotesque and the beautiful in faithful art.

To begin with, I find the idea that upsetting themes and images ought to be avoided very puzzling coming from Christians, of all people, who gather each week around the imagery of ancient Roman torture and execution instruments. We who claim to follow the crucified God (and have done for nearly two millennia before Nietzsche was causing people to faint in their drawing rooms) ought really to be unshockable by now; though by no means un-grieveable. The notion that dark meditations are unfitting for Christian artists, raises more questions about the theology of the questioners than the faith of the artists.

I certainly don’t think that all aesthetic grimness is justified or, worse still, that beauty is somehow theologically deficient. “By no means!” How then shall we navigate the grotesque and the beautiful as artists of faith? Since I’m no aesthetic theorist, I’ll confine myself to considering some examples I have admired (and aped), and to exploring their theological imperatives and justifications.

The Grotesque

The prophets of both testaments have always been my model as an artist, and prophets are called to tear down and to build up. In this spirit I see both grimness and beauty coming into play. I notice the former emerging in several ways.

Firstly, grotesque art often speaks of the things which are, but which cannot be spoken; because they are taboo, or inexpedient, or unpleasant, or ugly. Sentiments like doubt, shame, terror, lust or hate, for example. This is a task which saves the whole, because the whole is poisoned by the unexpressed and unheard suffering within. As regards the individual, the psychologist Carl Jung frankly called this “confession.” Within a community or a society, it is artists among a few other groups, who make this possible. Consider the Psalms; ancient songs for the community which often gave voice to doubt (77:9), despair (22:1), vengeful hate (137:9), self loathing (22:6) and so on.

Secondly, grotesque art emerges when artists attempt to deconstruct the powers and principalities. When power structures become wicked and oppressive, it is the job of their spin doctors, propagandists, publicists and architects to ensure that what remains seen is the image of legitimacy, stability and righteousness. The task of the prophetic artist is to re-present the powers as they really are (as best the artist can discern). What often results is a horrifying image of something we are used to seeing as orderly and harmonious. This is all the more jarring when we find that these are structures that we ourselves are passively leaning on or invested in. Consider John’s re-presentation of the Roman Empire as a diabolical and blasphemous dragon (Rev 13). Or Jeremiah, whose answer to King Zedekiah’s triumphalist propaganda was to walk about Jerusalem wearing an oxen’s yoke (Jer 27).

It must be added that, while the prophets often contended for the people against the powers, it was not beneath them to critique the people too, who were very capable of capitulating to the powers and becoming a poisonous power in themselves (as we plainly still are). Such was the message of Hosea’s work, which makes Tracy Emmin’s Unmade Bed look quite benign. Had he done what he did today, there would surely be no end to the disapproving pastoral visits.

Underlying all this is a theology which is cross-shaped to the last; a theology that doesn’t recoil from suffering but boldly steps into it. The history changing event, of the incarnation of God into human life, human suffering and human death, is also an ongoing practice… a way of being in the world. We are told that, if we want to follow, we will need to take our crosses with us, and the cross is a step into the sufferings of the world, not an off-the-shelf escape from them.

The Beautiful

The route to resurrection is death, and so it is not in spite of all this grimness, but rather through it that beauty triumphs. In the work that I have admired, I think beauty has emerged in roughly two sorts of ways. The first I will find difficult to articulate, and the second is, I think, the concrete practice of living toward that hazy imagination.

A good starting point would be Theodor Adorno, who once wrote this:

“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. [ . . . ] Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day, in the messianic light.”  (Minima Moralia, maxim 153)

This is what Walter Brueggemann calls hopeful imagination – the task of creating encounters where a wholly beautiful future can be imagined. Christian hope is anticipatory. We are not forever looking backwards at a merely mechanistic atonement in the past, nor are we looking sideways for momentary escape from the experience of the present. Christian hope looks, ultimately, forward, to the renewal of creation, to the healing of the nations, and to a time when God’s Goodness resides fully among us. Every glimpse of beauty is a glimmer of this end, a present manifestation of a future which will ultimately swallow up and transform a suffering and broken present, and the faithful artist works to cultivate this sort of anticipatory imagination.

Of course this beauty comes, necessarily, with suffering: with the pathos of anticipation… the intensified longing for what will be revealed, while still surrounded by, and experiencing, the suffering, brokenness and incompleteness of the present. Even in (or perhaps especially in) works of utterly unclouded beauty, like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the pathos is only all the more present in the listener, who listens from the place of his or or her own broken and incomplete experience. Perhaps this is why authentic beauty in the present age is so often met with tears.

On the other hand, work which offers a moment of escape from the world’s ills cannot be, if I may say so, Christian, in that respect at least. It offers escape from the very story we are called to deeply inhabit – the story of God’s suffering creation, which is to be redeemed.

The second way in which I see beauty emerge from faithful artistic practice, is simply by making the world that we and our neighbours inhabit more beautiful. Of all the work I’ve created myself, I am perhaps most delighted with a natural slate floor, a coffee table, a good loaf of bread. These are not things which aim to transport the heart and mind elsewhere, but to make life here and now more beautiful, and to refashion it toward what it must one day become. We badly need to recover the thought of people like William Morris and John Ruskin, who believed everyone should live amongst things well-made, useful and beautiful: gardens that delight, architecture that lifts, furniture that charms, objects wise in form and function. The manner in which people today are housed in shoe boxes and high rises, betrays the fact that we no longer see the image of God in people, we see, rather, populations to be managed by governments. The fact that most objects of use today are neither well made, nor carry the wise human touch of the craftswoman and the craftsman, betrays the fact that we no longer see life in its fullness, but consumer markets for industries. It is the work of the artists, artisans, chefs, bakers, gardeners, builders, joiners, dancers, singers and poets to make life on the ground more beautiful – right there in the places and communities where they actually are. To leave this task to governments and multinationals while we busy ourselves making escapist art to fling meaninglessly into the placeless glitz of cyberspace would be a very sad abandonment of our calling indeed.

* * *

This is one shoddy sketch of why faithful art may well be grotesque, or beautiful, or both. Faithful art lives in the real tension between the cross and the age to come, between suffering and hope. It shouldn’t surprise us too much that the deeper we sit into the biblical story, the more universally resonant our work will be. And never more so than today.

It is, I think, for such reasons that artists of faith are no longer content (if they ever were) to make cosmic tourism brochures for escapist religious institutions. A cruciform people will make cruciform work.

I’m told that some have begun to wonder what sort of art will survive when creation is renewed? It is suggested that perhaps the beautiful will remain, and the grotesque, naturally, will pass away. Maybe so, but the Kingdom of God, as we know well, is in the habit of turning our categories upside-down. The resurrected Jesus still carries his wounds. Perhaps it’ll be so with many things, that the grim marks of suffering, trauma and abuse might themselves be redeemed and turned into a mark of beauty, while triumphal greatness waits outside the gates.

(To read the rest of our ‘Beauty and Art’ series, click here, and for the next instalment here).

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Has Art Ever Been All About Beauty?

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an opinion article titled Remember When Art Was Supposed to be Beautiful with the subheading Contemporary art is obsessed with the politics of race, gender and sexuality. This rant-like post has elicited quite a response through social media, many sharing the article as authentication of their struggle with (or outright rejection of) forms and themes within the umbrella term ‘contemporary art’.

Though there are many holes in the argument to unpick (for example, there is a place to answer the author’s context-less side swipe at identity politics), I would like to simply respond to the assumed generalization that, once “art was supposed to be beautiful”.

The attitude often comes across a little like this: long before the 20th century, the Holocaust, and Nietzsche’s declaration of God’s death, art was concerned with ideals such as beauty and truth. Having divorced oneself from the philosophical base for a hegemonic western culture, the post-modern being is now purely concerned with their own identity in a disenchanted and empty universe.

The sentence reveals a hidden philosophy that divides art history into two time spaces: the good old days and our current decadent situation.

Despite author Sohrab Ahmari citing many examples of current exhibitions that major on themes of gender politics, there is little historic weight to the assumption that art was once supposed to be beautiful (other than an unrelated image of Michelangelo’s David beside the text). My mind wonders: when exactly was art ‘supposed to be beautiful’? Who were the ‘supposers’ that required all art to be beautiful? And let’s not even get into questions around the nature of ‘the beautiful’!

To assume that the weight of art history was conducted as a pursuit of ‘beauty’ as found in Neo-classical art is ignorant to say the least. First of all, it assumes a Eurocentric worldview that sees the heights (or purest forms) of art in Titian, Raphael, and other white male celebrity artists from our retelling of human history that unifies and codifies the spectrum of human existence and expression into our time and culture bound understanding of the world. No doubt ‘beauty’ in art is defined within the limits of referable depiction of three-dimensional reality. The argument seldom looks to other cultures and periods of history and what others ‘supposed’ art to be about. In this sense our throwaway statement reveals itself to be colonial at heart for it assumes the unity of history as a progressive story that reaches its peak in our time and in our lands.

Let us journey to some 15,000 years ago to the cave paintings found in Western Europe. The paintings that adorn the cave of Lascaux in France are filled with illustrations of bison and other animals. Our books and theorists inform us that such images were created, not simply as decoration but as powerful symbols in an animistic world. We refer to the artists as ‘primitives’ and attempt to pin down their intentions in creating these images. Gombrich in his The Story of Art comments that we must not think of these images as something nice or beautiful to see but ‘as something powerful to use’. How would the early people use these images? In order to avoid speculation, I am content to simply state that the leading theories have very little to do with concepts of ‘beauty’ but rather as a means of influencing nature.


Or consider the pre-colonial aboriginal art of the Americas. All we have left of the indigenous central empires is their (loosely defined) art. The totemic structures (totem poles) of the northern peoples embody an approach and attitude towards both life and the arts that understands significance in terms of spirit hierarchies, tribal identities, and mythic stories. At first look the bemoaning western critic may only see a jumble of animal masks lacking in ‘beauty’ and truth to nature, but for the artists within their cultures it was a community identity project with many totemic structures involving the entire male population of any one tribe in their creation.

image by Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
What about the Egyptians? Was the period that is considered the origin of our current civilization solely concerned with the pursuit of ‘beauty’ in their art? Our typical images of the ancient world help us understand the concerns of the Nile people in their art making. Both pyramids and the mummification process were creative preservation projects. Egyptian art didn’t just seek for longevity but eternity: one Egyptian word for sculptor actually translating as ‘He-who-keeps-alive’. The (in our eyes) rigid depiction of animal life appears to correspond to this attitude, for the artist was required to preserve everything in utmost clarity and uniformity: that nothing would be lost. Gombrich puts it “What mattered most was not prettiness but completeness”. Three dimensionality was left in favour for characteristic angles that captured the subject’s distinctiveness.


To turn to a more recent example within our own lineage, Hieronymus Bosch was a 15th to 16th century northern European painter who depicted many subjects but is infamous for his extraordinarily macabre hellscapes. Bosch is an art history enigma, his work too impasto and earthly for the category of pious ‘religious medieval art’ but far too imaginative and surreal for the Northern Renaissance (I marvel as I consider how Bosch’s closest contemporaries would have been the likes of Albrecht Durer and Jan Van Eyck). It would be incredible to claim that even in 16th century Europe ‘Art was supposed to beautiful’ when stood before Bosch’s otherworldly altarpieces.


It is interesting that the modernist departure from the neo-classical norms of ‘beauty and truth’ comes as the dominance of our first world vision is brought into question by a growing awareness of the marginal and minority perspectives of what art is ‘supposed to be’. As the 20th century brought about an explosion of interdisciplinary activity, many art schools were born, each in their pursuit of what art was ‘supposed to be’. Many agreeing that beauty could no longer be a viable pursuit following the horrors of the Holocaust, with philosopher Theodor Adorno even stating “There is no poetry after Auschwitz”.

But let us take a quick look at the most radical departures from a traditional western aesthetic as found in Picasso. A seminal artist, Picasso has helped shape our current world of art; his influence cannot be overstated. Between the years of 1906 and 1909 the Spanish artist deliberately engaged in created art inspired by African art forms that had found their way to Europe. His interest became known as his African Period and was ignited when fellow artist Matisse presented to him a mask of the Dan people, Picasso later describing the event as ‘pivotal’ in his evolution as an artist.

Though these tribal works had became known through colonial exploitation and the indigenous significance of the art was not fully understood, early modern art was marked by the stylistic influences of the African craftsmen and culture. It was becoming widely acknowledged that the traditional formulas of ‘beauty’ in western art were failing to sufficiently depict the world in which the 20th century artists found themselves. Picasso’s 1907 oil painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resulted from many studies of African composition and mask-work and has become a poster image of the school of Primitivism, an art movement that is marked by its borrowing and appropriating of pre-colonial folk and aboriginal motifs.


I will not pretend that the 20th century brought about a golden era of respect and appreciation for pre-colonial people and culture, but something in western art did shift. ‘Beauty’, which was never the sole qualification of Western art (as we have seen), was toppled. Not by gender politics, macabre fantasies, or even the birth of photography but by a wider perspective that encouraged study of historical and contemporary orders and movements outside of the dominant European mind.

Though we may ‘remember when art was supposed to be about beauty’ from our armchairs, the fathers of contemporary art were the ones who questioned this assumption and looked beyond Titian and Michelangelo to ‘remember when art was supposed to be about’ a number of things: totemic order, the spirit world, and eternity being a few examples. To imagine that there was a uniform past era of beautiful art that has been usurped by today’s political art is naïve for it fails to recognize heritages outside of our own, many of which then contributed to the change in what ‘art is supposed to be about’.

(For the previous post in our ‘Beauty and Art’ series, simply click here. For the next one, try here)



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When Christian Art is Pagan (And Pagan Art Becomes Christian)

We as the Western Church have our own brand of art. It is relatively safe, clean, and historical. Though often kitsch and sentimental, it draws from the giants of western art history like Giotto, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. A brief survey of art history according to any well-known publisher reveals Biblical scenes and gospel illustrations aplenty.

With this established history behind us it is tempting for both the Christian artist and art-viewer to refrain from engaging with creative culture beyond our little world. Anything outside of the church’s output can be considered ‘worldly’ and ought to be avoided: all the more so if it contains themes or motifs that are distinctively ‘non-church’.

As an example, for many Christian communities Harry Potter is an absolute no-go. Despite the narrative following the chosen one who overthrows the illegitimate rule of the dark Lord, Christians will often complain that there is too much ‘darkness’ in the series. All that realistic talk of magic and ritual is too close to the reality referred to (ED: I wonder whether the same thinking is behind some Christians’ negative reaction to Doctor Strange).

In this post I want to look briefly at the origins of some of the Church’s ‘safe’ art motifs. As we’ll see, ‘Christian art’ is not quite as ‘Christian’ as we often think and this raises some important questions for Christians making art today.

The early church and the artists who laid the foundations for our brand of Christian art were an eclectic bunch of folk whose unity was found in their faith alone. The first artists in the church found themselves in a cultural Babylon. Naturally, styles and attitudes towards art varied greatly, and with no uniform Jewish art source to draw inspiration from, ‘Christian art’ drew heavily from pagan influence.

Though today we as Christians can prefer work that is sanctified by our particular publishing houses or church record labels, the first Christians had no ‘clean’ art before them. All surrounding and indigenous artistic culture was ‘pagan’: it didn’t represent the monotheism they had inherited from Judaism, and yet as the church began to meet in a increasingly pictorial world, murals and icons soon emerged in their communal places.

The early artists didn’t shy away from the pagan art around them but selectively chose elements from the Roman and Greek world to appropriate into their own in order to effectively communicate the new truths of the Gospel through the old systems. I imagine that the norms of the art world were the letters with which the early artists began to write new words.

Many of our current ‘Christian’ motifs actually originate from this early cross-cultural borrowing. The halos we expect to see enshrining the heads of Christ and the saints seem to have been created in ancient Egyptian times to denote Ra as the sun god and found their way into the Middle East through depictions of the Roman sun god Apollo (there is no mention of haloes in the Bible).

The Egyptian god, Ra (with solar disc)

Another interesting appropriation by the early Christians is the Good shepherd motif. Though we can affirm with certainty that Jesus would have been an almost middle aged bearded Jewish man at the time of his ministry, the earliest ‘good shepherd’ images saw a clean-shaven Yeshua in Roman clothing carrying a sheep over his shoulders (even equipped with pan-pipes on occasion). The now certified-Christian image borrows heavily from the legend of Orpheus and possibly the Moscophorus Calf-bearer image, but within its own system of meaning, it referenced the young King David from whom the Christ King descended.

The sarcophagus of Cyriacus, detail of the good shepherd

As the early Christians looked at their surrounding culture they didn’t just see a debauched world in need of salvation but a whole realm of images that could be used to better communicate their message to all nations. It can be argued and has been argued that Roman and Greek art forms were heavily borrowed under times of persecution so that the early Christian congregations would not be betrayed by their catacomb arts. However, even after Constantine’s conversion, pagan motifs were being assimilated into the church’s oeuvre: for example, winged angels only appear in Christian imagery after 313AD.

But the likenesses didn’t just stop at the visual. The early artists were also theologians who found similarities in the Christian, Jewish, and Pagan stories. In Greek mythology Endymion was a youth who perpetually slept under the protective love of the goddess Selene. Depictions of Endymion soon became the prototype for images of Jonah lying under God’s protective gourd: this then evolved into a reference to Christ’s descent into hell and his story of salvation for the Gentile world.

One of my favourite works of the early church is found on the floor of an early Basilica in Aquileia (Italy). The image sees the whole story of Jonah depicted as one scene, the prophet lay under the gourd while simultaneously being spewed out of a mythical creature’s mouth. The seascape is alive with realistic fish of all kinds, octopi, ducks, and even some fishing cherubs. The vast work would have required great forethought and planning, and though we may not understand all of what has been handed down to us, I can still marvel at this design as a work of brilliance. It is both fully Christian yet fully ‘pagan’ (not-Christian in our understanding of historic Church design).


You may now be wondering where I am going with this. It is not my intention to discredit the early church artists, but quite the opposite. I believe that the versatility of the craftsmen and their openness to the neighboring world helped them envision a universe where all people could find the Christ in all things. It is not universalism or heresy to see the type of Christ in creation and humanity’s interpretations of it.

In fact, C. S. Lewis argues that this is exactly the type of world we should expect to find, writing,

“We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christ’s’- they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.”

Lewis argues that the myths of pagan cultures (and we could add the stories of superheroes and villains of our times) could have acted as a

“preparatio evangelica, a divine hinting in poetic and ritual form at the same central truth which was later focused on and (so to speak) historicized in the Incarnation” (from essays Myth Became Fact and Religion without Dogma).

My questions are:

Is there a place to borrow the contemporary ‘pagan’ images found in the arts in order to more effectively communicate what we have received?

If so, how can we as Christians appropriate from the world around us in order to create words that rightly convey the mystery of the Christ?

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Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Exploring Our Tradition

Christian artists ‘have not only an amazing heritage, but also a tradition’.

When I read that line in Jeffrey Overstreet’s interview with Terry Glaspey, I knew I had to see if I could reproduce the interview for you guys.

Glaspey has recently released the book 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. The book is an introduction to the stories behind a whole load of artistic creations made by Christians over the years and a chance to get inside the minds of artists such as Rembrandt, Bach, Bunyan, Flannery O’Connor and loads more. What a result!

Overstreet’s interview with Glaspey is packed with such helpful insights that I hope it will tide you over until you get round to buying the book yourselves here! We’ve included an extract from the interview below, with permission.


I imagine you learned a lot in the research process. Which entries gave you the greatest sense of discovery and enthusiasm?


There were so many fascinating discoveries I made along the way. Of course I knew a great deal about many of the artists, writers, and painters going into the project. But as I was trying to narrow my list (while at the same time as I was trying to expand the diversity it contained) I got a chance to find unexpected depth of faith commitment in a number of artists.

For example, though I had long admired her novels, I really didn’t understand the depth of Jane Austen’s faith until I began to read some biographies and discovered references to some prayers she had written for use in her family’s devotions. When I tracked them down I found the prayers to be not only beautiful (as would be expected), but also very confessional and heartfelt and self-revealing. In fact, when I discovered that these prayers were not widely known, I contracted with a publisher to print a small volume of her prayers, to which I added an introduction and biographical sketch. It has been published as The Prayers of Jane Austen.

“We are too easily satisfied with fast food entertainment and diversion when there are gourmet meals of creativity available from the master chefs of the imagination.”

Other discoveries, such as the stories behind James Tissot’s collection of paintings of nearly every event in the life of Jesus, the profound spirituality of the great African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and the quirky delight of Howard Finster’s folk art were among my favorite new encounters.


Did you find, when you started out, that you had a list much longer than 75, and had to narrow it down? Or did you have to build your way toward 75?


Well, it was never a problem of finding enough masterpieces to include. The hard thing was to decide what had (sadly) to be left out. My general ground rules for inclusion in this particular project were that:

  1. The creator self-identified as a Christian. Some of them are Protestant, some Catholic, some Orthodox, and some rather unorthodox. Some, like Emily Dickinson, struggled between faith and doubt, but seemed to be people for whom faith ultimately got the upper hand!
  2. I only included one piece by any one artist. It was very difficult in some cases to make that choice. You could have chosen other representative masterpieces for Rembrandt, Chesterton, El Greco, and others which would be just as good a choice. But I had to pick one, and my reasons sometimes had to do with the wonderful stories behind particular works.
  3. The work needed to be a work that has been acclaimed outside of the Christian world. I was looking for works whose greatness was not due just to a message, but to the quality of their craft and the creativity of their vision.

I have actually, just for fun, created a second list of 75 more masterpieces, which maybe I’ll post on my website at some point. I want to explore some of them in the same way in the months and years to come. I’ve written a piece on the painter, Emily Carr, and have done extensive research on Arvo Part. I’d like to explore faith in the tradition of the blues, the connection between the theology of the Franciscan movement and a new realism in early Renaissance painters, and add another icon or two to the list. That is just the tip of the iceberg. So much worth exploring!


Today, those films, books, albums, and paintings that tend to be labeled as “Christian art” are critically maligned. But these selections you’ve made seem to be appreciated across cultures and generations. Why do you think that is?


The problem with much “Christian art” in our time is that it veers too close to being merely propaganda. Preaching has its place. But that place is in the pulpit, and not so much in creative expression. The best art is not primarily about delivering a message but in evoking the right kinds of questions from those who view or read it or listen to it.

Also, I think a lot of faith-based art is so concerned with driving home its message that it neglects to be realistic about the human condition and human motivations. It is either an imagining of what we might wish the world was like (the saccharine little villages of Thomas Kinkade, which are pretty as decorations but tell you almost nothing interesting about the real world) or the triumphal art that aims to show the superiority of Christianity over every other way of viewing the world (such as the bombastic preachments and uncharitable dismissal of all competing worldviews you’ll find in a movie like God is Not Dead). I’m not saying that someone might not get a bit of comfort from a Kinkade landscape or a bit of confidence from a Christian movie, but it isn’t going to offer the depth of insight that a great painting or a great film might.

“A lot of faith-based art is so concerned with driving home its message that it neglects to be realistic about the human condition and human motivations.”

We are too easily satisfied with fast food entertainment and diversion when there are gourmet meals of creativity available from the master chefs of the imagination. Nothing wrong with a little fast food, but I think our palates are enriched by better fare and our souls are more nourished by more complex fare. And much of the great art is a little more demanding — it demands closer attention, more thought, and even a little patient contemplation. The question is, are we willing to expend such effort?

My take is that if a creative person has laboured long over their masterpiece, we should at least be willing to expend a little effort in trying to open ourselves up to it. Sometimes we’ll still walk away shaking our head. But sometimes, with just a little effort and patience, a work of art will open itself up to us and maybe make a last change in us.


I recently saw a quotation of Emily Dickinson challenged by a Christian who pointed out that Dickinson’s poetry reveals doubts about, and dissension with, Christian faith. That person responded saying that we should not waste time “slumming it in secular minds” when we have the beauty of the Scriptures available to us. You’ve included Emily Dickinson in this collection. How might you respond to that rather critical response? What are the rewards of meditating on the work of artists whose ideas about faith may not align with our own?


What I love about Emily Dickinson, Graham Greene, and several others whose work is featured in my book, is that they are fellow-strugglers. They do not traffic in the much-too-easy triumphalism that is the limitation of many Christian artistic creations. They knew themselves too well to try to sugar coat their writings. They are honest about the struggle of believing and living out the demands of the life of faith. Sure, we need works that provoke celebration and worship, but we also need works that are honest about the dark night of the soul, about our doubts and struggles and our wrestling with God.

Frankly, the Scriptures are not at all hesitant about letting us see the struggles and failures of the great people of faith. As “people of the book” we know that the real human story is one of dogged pursuit of God while at the same time battling with our own sinfulness, failure, fear, confusion, and the complexity of our mixed motives. This is a world of darkness and evil, while at the same time a world of wonders–a world filled with what Bruce Cockburn has called “Rumors of Glory.” The best art reflects these tensions.

We need works that are honest about the dark night of the soul, about our doubts and struggles and our wrestling with God. Frankly, the Scriptures are not at all hesitant about letting us see the struggles and failures of the great people of faith.


There is such a wide variety of works represented here. Are there common ideas, though, that the collection as a whole might impress upon readers to help them discern the art that is worth meditating on from the art that might not be worth so much attention? Are there common ideas that come from this collection that might influence artists as they think about their own work?


One of my deepest hopes for this book is that it will inspire today’s creatives. We have not only an amazing heritage, but also a tradition. Today’s artists, writers, musicians, and film makers can nourish themselves with the work of those who have gone before them and then bring forth their own unique take on that tradition. The tradition should inspire, not inhibit.

I remember hearing a live concert recording from Neil Young in which a frustrated audience member, who had evidently heard one too many long guitar solos for his taste, shouted out: “It all sounds the same.” Without missing a beat, Young responded, “It’s all the same song.” In a certain sense, all creative artists are playing variations on the message and the human experience that is part of the tradition to which they belong.

This interview was originally posted on Looking Closer on 14th January 2016 and Jeffrey Overstreet has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here. For the original unabridged version, click here.

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Dirty Words: The Need for Christian Criticism

Last year I wrote a review of a prominent worship-genre album, for a Christian magazine. I thought the album was very predictable and too safe, and gave it two stars out of five. On the way to publication, however, the score was bumped up to three stars, and some polite qualifiers were dropped into my prose.

A bit unusual; but it got stranger. A glance on Wikipedia showed me that all other publications (all Christian) had given this album a minimum of 9 out of 10. The only album I was aware of that had gained better reviews in 2015 was Kendrick Lamar’s frankly blinding ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. Meanwhile, a flick back through the Wikipedia pages suggested this Christian artist is on the longest unbeatable streak since the Beatles.

There’s always room for disagreements in journalism, but it certainly struck me as odd that this merely-alright album gathered such runaway praise. Where was the hunger for good music? Where was the criticism?

Worship can’t be critiqued. Music can.

Let me be clear. One individual’s moment of worship shouldn’t be critiqued. Worship is vulnerable honesty, an act of humbling ourselves; whatever form it takes, the aesthetics are irrelevant. ‘Music’ and ‘worship’ are far from interchangeable anyway, but it’s still valid to say: God is not elitist about who sings to him, or how. We should mirror that.

Unfortunately, we often extend that critical immunity to people who write and record songs, when in fact, critique and deconstruction can raise the standards of art as much as they deepen our own understanding of what we’re listening to. Of course, if the music is intended for churches to pick up and use easily, there are questions of function as well as form. But on every level, when we don’t hold artists to high expectations, we condemn them to mediocrity. And it is a fact often acknowledged, yet to be solved, that popular Christian music is aesthetically mediocre.

Face-to-face criticism is a pastoral art.

Offering critique to the artists and musicians that we know personally is another matter again. There is a place for it, mind you; any teacher or parent would tell you that constant affirmation does not breed maturity or skill. When they know their child or pupil well, they can criticise them in tact and love, knowing it will do them good.

It’s ‘knowing’ that makes the difference. Many artists are given criticism that is way off-the-mark because it just doesn’t understand the person behind the art. If that’s the case, even positive feedback can fail to be constructive. Despite what you might think, artists are not sensitive flowers that need to be constantly encouraged; but if our opinions aren’t well-informed and trustworthy, they aren’t worth sharing.

Published critics have an influential role to play.

With that all said, when facing a published, lauded songwriter, we should be ready to say “impress me”. Not because we want to tear down successful people, but because these artists define trends, and have the capacity to open minds and shape aspirations. Intentionally or not, what these artists do sends a message: “this is what a Jesus-following musician sounds like”.

That message isn’t untrue, but it’s not the whole truth, and critics can crank that statement open to allow a little more colour in. They can be tastemakers, champions of pioneers and scourge of the easy-riders. That sometimes means harsh (and/or hilarious) reviews, out of disappointment as much as anything: calling out artists’ mistakes when they’ve sold themselves short.

Christian music in the UK is such a small world that nothing can change overnight. There is talent out there in the wings, but it’s not as if it’s fully developed, just waiting to be acknowledged. We need to challenge and raise the bar for artists, especially nationally. If we don’t speak what everyone is thinking, we can’t expect things to ever change.