Posted on

To keep the arts alive, we need a lot more imagination

Over the course of the pandemic, unemployment in the arts has cut deep – perhaps deeper than any other industry. The New York Times have called it a looming ‘Great Cultural Depression’. Many actors, musicians and writers have clung on – despite slipping through the furlough net, or witnessing endless setbacks – only to find themselves facing predictions that their sector won’t ‘recover’ for five years at best.

Yet the truth is that the problems in the arts pre-date Covid. The pandemic has accelerated a growing rot in our cultural sector. The arts need help – more than that, the arts need change. Somehow, it’s become not just accepted, but ingrained that being an artist means precarious work, completely uneven shouldering of risk, and high barriers of entry for anyone without privilege to stand on. Public opinion sees all that as the price to pay for ‘doing something you love’, and artists have accepted those sacrifices. But it’s certainly not the only way the arts could work. And after the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether it really will continue to ‘work’ at all.

The state of the arts

Money is a problem in the arts. Not the lack of it, but the distribution of it. As with many things in our society, the wealth gravitates towards a minority. Those who have “made it” are the obvious ones, but more significantly I’m talking about the managerial class who create stable jobs for themselves on the back of precarious workers. This trend is increasing, and will continue, for as long as this group consolidate their power and, in turn, transform the cultural sector towards their primary goal (ie. making lots of money, whatever they might say to the contrary).

One new example of this is Hipgnosis, a UK investment fund that treats songs as financial assets. This means they buy up the rights to songs, like Bob Dylan’s back-catalogue – whereupon their goal is to increase the value of said songs for their new owners – eg. giving them prominence on streaming platforms, getting them placed in adverts, films and squeezing all the nostalgia they can out of them. But, of course, they’re only likely to buy songs from artists who are already a safe bet, most likely older artists willing to cash in their pension, as it were. They want already-proven “hits” that can be squeezed anew, and why not: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing'” was streamed 10 million times a week in the last year.

Nothing reveals the truth more than that moniker “content creator”. The frame is the focus: you just fill it.

Putting aside the many questions this raises – and I think there are very pertinent questions about what this trend does to our culture – just ask yourself this: how can a sector of the economy worth £92bn – more than oil and gas, life sciences, aviation and the car industry combined – be creating steady, profitable jobs for investment funds, or PR companies, but be notoriously, flagrantly unstable for the actual art creators making work now? To the extent that the phrase ‘starving artist’ is a cliché?

It’s because the priority is the machine, the investments, the shareholders – not those doing the work. Nothing reveals that truth more than the moniker “content creator”. The frame is the focus: you just fill it. This ready acceptance of precarity is part of what made the arts uniquely unprepared for something as destabilising as a pandemic.

What hurts the arts, hurts our society

So far, so capitalism. But these trends, applied in the arts, have an outsized effect on our wider, communal life in our country. In a nutshell, what hurts the arts, hurts our society.

Culture and community are so interwoven as to be essentially the same thing. Culture is both the basis of community and the outworking of community. What affects our cultural spaces, affects the very core of our common life. In this case, if money is the driving factor in the making of art and culture, then our communal life itself becomes commodified. Our ways of gathering together, to sing songs, or watch games, or hear stories, happen in the shadows of vast advertising billboards, or on the stages of bizarre game shows.

Author and painter Makoto Fujimura puts it like this: 

An industrial map in the mid-twentieth century colored New York’s Hudson River black. The mapmakers considered a black river a good thing—full of industry! The more factory outputs, the more progress. When that map was made, “nature” was widely seen as a resource to be exploited. Few people considered the consequences of careless disposal of industrial waste. The culture has shifted dramatically over the last fifty years. When I share this story today, most people shudder and ask how anyone could think of a polluted river as good. But today we are doing the same thing with the river of culture. Think of the arts and other cultural enterprises as rivers that water the soil of culture. We are painting this cultural river black—full of industry, dominated by commercial interests, careless of toxic byproducts—and there are still cultural mapmakers who claim that this is a good thing. The pollution makes it difficult to for us to breathe, difficult for artists to create, difficult for any of us to see beauty through the murk.

Fujimura uses ‘beauty’ here in a very broad sense. It’s not just some pleasant ‘nice-to-have’, but the very humanness of life itself: meaningful human connection, spiritual revelation, joy, purpose, compassion: all of these things are threatened by a machine-like, money-driven approach to our own cultural spaces that alienates us from one another and any sense of community.

Yes, for now, art still flourishes in the dark, despite its constant manipulation: it’s a testament to its life and its potency, and of course to the many good people, inside or outside of the church, who strive for beauty and humanness against the tide. The many grants, funds and initiatives that exist are wonderful too, but they only underscore the fact that the ‘market’ approach to the arts doesn’t work on its own. Given the increasing pressure, soon it may not work at all.

Why should the church help? And how?

Frankly, I believe that everything I’ve described is the work of those ‘powers and forces’ that the Apostle Paul warned about: the dark influences warping human intent and appropriating good things for chaotic ends. As followers of Jesus, we long for our society to be more like the Kingdom of God, even though we accept that the work won’t be complete before Christ’s return – and in the arts, this has to mean overturning some tables, or rather, overturning the outdated concepts of work and value that have dominated our thinking (to the minority’s benefit) since the industrial revolution.

We should see the job of an artist as something like a carer: an unpaid, undervalued role, which nevertheless stops society from collapsing.

I began by mentioning just how much the arts are worth to our economy – but I no longer believe that the answer lies in simply paying artists more. Rather, we need category shifts in the way we look at art. Like Makoto Fujimura, we should worry about the state of our culture in the same way we worry about the state of our environment: because it affects all of us, and it reflects pretty poorly on us Christians if we are the ones neglecting it. Like Rookmaaker, we should see the job of an artist as something like a carer: an unpaid, undervalued role, which nevertheless stops society from collapsing.

If we haven’t seen in the past year how much we need culture-makers – the ones who cultivate our shared social spaces – then I can’t imagine what will convince us. But if artists are indeed carers of sorts, then expecting them to simultaneously make their work economically viable, while they keep our local communities alive, undermines everything.

To create a new model for artists is indeed a big feat of the imagination. But as Ursula LeGuin said:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.

I love that Sputnik can give out £500 grants to a few artists a year – it’s a joy to be part of. But we haven’t begun to change the power dynamic at play. We want to think much bigger, and I long to see the church catch the vision for how important, and spiritually revitalising, change in the arts could be. For now, why not let your own imagination run for a minute: if we accepted that artists play a necessary social role, but an essentially unpaid one, how do you think the church should treat them? And what could we do, right now, to make that role possible? If we don’t start asking ourselves that, it may stop being feasible altogether.

Posted on

Are you a patron, or a consumer?

Arts patronage sounds very grand. It’s the kind of lofty practice that built St Peters. It is the realm of rich philanthropists and open handed millionaires.

The only thing is that, well… it’s not. In a way, we are all patrons of the arts whether we like it or not. We all buy stuff, or at the very least stream stuff, and our attention and the capital behind it encourages more art like that to be made. 

This should cause us to be careful about the art we consume, but more than that, I think it is a warning against viewing our art engagement through the lens of ‘consumption’ at all.

Our society is not known as consumerist for nothing. We are offered different diets in all the different areas of our lives, and we make almost all of our choices like we’re ordering from a menu. The watchword is value for money and the key question is how can I get what I want for as little money as possible?

Now, it’s easy to write off this system completely, but I personally think that this is an acceptable course of action when deciding which green beans to buy in Aldi. 

It is not, however, a good way to approach art.

Muddy digital waters

Obviously in the good old days, this was more clear cut. Let’s take music, for example. Twenty years ago, to listen to the music you wanted to listen to when you wanted to listen to it, you had three options: a) Buy a physical copy, b) Copy it, c) Steal it. 

C was obviously bad. B was basically the same as C (and deep down we all knew it). Therefore, if we wanted to appease our consciences, we were left with A!

Fast forward to today. Not saying it’s better. Not saying it’s worse. It’s just different. At least in some artforms. 

Take music and film as two examples. Almost none of us pay for individual artistic products in these disciplines anymore. Obviously, there are still DVD collectors and I’ve heard cassettes may be making a comeback, but for the vast majority of people, we choose our provider, pay our subscription, then stream.

I think, for music, it’s 0.004p a song. Might work if you have 10 million streams (and an advertising deal, and a sold out world tour). Not good if you are feeling your way, trying things out and producing promising but flawed music that could evolve into something great. 

If we all continue to approach art as consumers now, we will probably kill off the artists who exist in the ‘aspiring’ category, and ensure that the art that survives is unchallenging, populist and totally forgettable.

Yes, the production costs for emerging musicians have gone down (no CDs to press) but there was always a real buzz about breaking even when you’d printed up 1,000 CDs. It is not so encouraging when you spend hours and days and weeks crafting your opus, only to receive back £12.50 from AWAL for 6 months of solid streams. 

It must be even harder for filmmakers, and it’s likely to get harder. In terms of film, we’ve already got very used to watching most of our content for free on YouTube and Vimeo. Of course, we stream major releases, but you are not likely to find your friend’s short film in the Amazon Prime search bar. 

If we all continue to approach art as consumers now, we will probably kill off the artists who exist in the ‘aspiring’ category, and ensure that the art that survives is unchallenging, populist and totally forgettable. 

Or worse, any artist who wishes to make a living from their work will have to bow before corporations to sell their products. Who knows what the future holds for live art, but what we do know is that we’re likely to be spending more time in front of screens post-COVID, not less. This means that we will be spending more time being sold stuff. This means that, while other revenue streams dry up, the lure of advertisers will increase and artists who are willing to jump on that train will get paid, while others won’t.

I’m in no way suggesting that artists shouldn’t work for corporations or contribute towards advertisements. In many disciplines, to draw a line here would be career suicide. However, surely this should be an exception rather than the rule. Surely, we don’t want the corporations to be the sole patrons of the arts. That would be a bad thing, right?

Approaching art as patrons, not consumers

Now, I’m not suggesting there is an easy fix for all of this, and there are complexities here that need to be fleshed out at much more length. However, if enough of us made an effort to approach art as patrons not as consumers, surely it would improve the situation.

When it comes to art, especially our friends’ art, I think we need to learn to turn off the consumerist part of our brains and act in a different way. 

What could this look like? Here are a couple of practical examples.

1. A local musician releases an album on Bandcamp, asking you to pay whatever you want. 

A consumer does one of two things. They either download it for free or shrug their shoulders and wait till it comes out on Apple Music. 

But what does a patron do? A patron pays them for their trouble. I mean seriously, even if it’s not a classic, have you heard many albums that are of less value than a medium sized Costa latte? Surely £2.50 is not asking too much just as an act of respect for the human enterprise of music making. If you actually enjoy it, why not go back and download it again and bump it up to a tenner?

This is not generosity. This is not giving to charity. This is common sense. If you want more music like that made again, pay the artists so that they might have another go. 

2. A film maker friend of yours goes off the radar for 6 months to work on a short film. 

You hear about the project when you see a Facebook event for the film screening (this is, of course, in the far distant future).

A consumer again does one of two things. He assumes he can blag a Vimeo code off his friend later on, so stays in that night to continue binge watching The Crown from his sofa. Alternatively, he pesters his friend for a place on the guest list. After all, they’re bound to have got an Arts council grant at some point anyway, so why do they need my money?

But what does a patron do? Firstly, a patron turns up. Secondly, she pays for her ticket without moaning. Thirdly, she, at the very least, buys her friend a couple of drinks afterwards. Maybe some merch, if there is some.

If we care about the arts, we need to change our mindset, from that of consumer to that of patron when engaging with the art that we say we care about.

Again, these are not the actions of a maverick altruist. They are simply the things you do if you value the art that you are consumi… sorry. Start again.

They are simply the things you do if you value the art that you are enjoying. The art that is firing your imagination. The art that is putting you in touch with your humanity. However imperfect it may be.

These are just two examples, and I’m sure you can think of many more. The specifics are not the point. The point is that, if we care about the arts, we need to change our mindset, from that of consumer to that of patron when engaging with the art that we say we care about.

And that is the case whether you are an appreciator of art or an artist yourself. At Sputnik, we’ve always underlined that we’re here to give money to artists, not pester them to give money to us. This is still the case and will not be changing any time soon. However, the call to patronage is for artists too. In fact, there is a sense that if you don’t pick up this role with others, it is hard to see how you can complain if others (for example, your church) refuses to take up this role with you.

I remember a few years ago, a friend of mine moaning about the fact that an album that she’d just released (on a reasonably reputable label) had been downloaded illegally something like 12,000 times from a particular torrent site (I told you it was a few years ago). I expressed my condolences, but was slightly less sympathetic when she revealed that she downloaded almost all of the music she listened to from similar sites. This was blatant hypocrisy. 

Let’s model the attitude that we want others to have to our art and if, to fund this spirit of patronage, you need to pass on the occasional medium sized Costa latte, well, you know, your reward will be in heaven!

Posted on

Don’t patronise artists by not patronising artists

One of my first questions to artists when we started Sputnik was “how can the church support you more effectively?” The answer was always immediate, instinctive and apologetic, and it was always the same.


At first, I thought that they were being facetious. I mean, you can’t go around asking for money. From churches at that. How brazen! However soon, it started to sink in.

After all, it’s not that different to what James writes in his letter:

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

The churches that I connect with have an increasing openness to supporting the arts and artists, but it is often of the ‘God bless you. We appreciate you’ variety, but often stalls at the payment end of things! You could say that this is better than nothing, but in reality, to do the first without the second is demotivating, annoying and quickly appears very insincere. 

I got a small flavour of this a few years ago when I was in talks with a church about putting on an event for artists. Leaders from this church had been very encouraging to me personally and verbally supportive of Sputnik (we love your heart/what you’re doing is valuable and important/keep going) and as far as I saw it, they’d agreed for me to put on an event for the artists in their church and others from surrounding churches too.

I was happy to do all the legwork, do the presentation, etc., and I wasn’t expecting payment. However, I also wasn’t expecting to be told that I’d have to pay for room hire and for the attendees’ lunches too! Not getting paid is one thing, but paying £800 to provide a service is another thing entirely. I politely declined the ‘opportunity’.

It seems that when it comes to church and art, there is certainly a disconnect regarding money. Although this is only one of many reasons churches and artists often miss each other, it is an important one.

Therefore, we don’t want to just talk about art. We don’t even just want to build community for artists or profile their work. We want to fund them. In fact, we don’t even want to stop there. Why keep all the fun to ourselves? We want to sweep Christians (individuals and churches) back up in the joy of arts patronage.

We want to be able to say: this is from the church. The church that has made mistakes in this area. The church that may have taken you for granted before. But the church who is really trying to learn in this area.

For this reason, we started our patrons scheme in 2017, and since then we’ve slowly built up a group of lovely patrons, both individuals and churches, who provide the funds that we can distribute to artists in the form of grants for specific projects. When COVID hit, we rerouted these funds towards our Emergency Artist Fund, but now, we’re swinging our attention back to the patronage scheme. In light of this, we wanted to shine the spotlight back on to arts patronage and put forward the ‘whys’, ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ of supporting artists.

Yes, we are going to be asking you to give money to something. But, it’s not to us. We want to be a funnel to get money to as many Christ following artists as we can. And, with every penny, we want to be able to say: this is from the church. The church that has made mistakes in this area. The church that may have taken you for granted before. But the church who is really trying to learn in this area.

I’m not looking for the evangelical church to wind the clock back to the Middle Ages. If my memory serves me correctly, the church’s benevolence towards the arts in those days had its drawbacks! However, I am hopeful that we can do better than we have done in recent times.

Take, for example, the church I mentioned above. I was pretty fed up from the interactions described above, but with a bit of hindsight, I kind of get it. I probably didn’t communicate all that clearly and made assumptions along the way. More to the point though, that same church have more than made up for that slight misunderstanding in subsequent years and have given us genuine, concrete – and yes, financial – support since, for which I am very grateful.

If we can see past the blunders of the past, I think that this is a real moment for the church to grab hold again of its important role in patronising the arts, and if you’re even a little bit interested in getting involved, stick with us for the next few blog posts and we’ll spell out how that might look.

In the meantime, please feel free to peruse our back catalogue on this subject and hopefully we’ll see you next time. 

Posted on

Can arts patronage help reshape our post-COVID culture?

Since late 2017, arts patronage has become one of the core pillars of Sputnik’s work, and raison d’etre. There are certainly some things we’ve learned in the last 2-3 years, but if anything, we’ve only become more convinced of the need for this role, and the opportunity for the church to do more.

Right now, considering the damage facing the creative industries in lockdown and its aftermath, we’ve temporarily shifted our approach – to simply offer emergency funds to out-of-work artists. But at some point we’ll be returning to funding artistic projects, and as we consider the future, it’s time to raise the bugle again (sadly still in the office) and talk about the need for change in the arts at large. 

So, why is arts patronage needed in this moment?

The arts are (part of) the lifeblood of society

I’ve written before that ‘culture’ can be thought of as the fruit of human community. When humans join together in clans, tribes, cities: culture happens. Culture isn’t exclusively art, but the arts are a pretty big part of it. 

Under lockdown, I believe we felt pretty quickly our need for culture, for shared experiences and that connecting lifeblood. It wasn’t just that we missed our friends; we missed the contexts in which we usually see our friends: pubs, cafés, gigs, theatres, football grounds. Streaming services, and the usual online chat around films and shows, patched some of the gap. More interesting were the bursts of community activity: musicians playing for their neighbours, online table readings for the fun of it, tennis games from tower block windows, zines and arts initiatives springing up to capture the moment.

No doubt our threshold for boredom is embarrassingly low compared to previous generations, but even so: can you imagine lockdown without art? And yet our government continually stumbled in understanding the threat, and the needs, of the creative industries. It’s hard to shake the feeling that it was the continual reminder of the industries’ financial heft (£111.7bn in 2018), rather than the real value of culture, that moved the government’s hand. I couldn’t help but face-palm as our Culture Secretary seemed to conflate ‘the arts’ with ‘classical music in the park’.

Arts and capitalism doesn’t really make sense

I’m glad the arts make a financial difference, but no-one should have to explain that stimulating the economy isn’t where art’s value lies. What about the arts programs lifting up disempowered youth? What about the spoken word nights where sparks fly and confidence is found? What about – gasp – the amateur arts organisers who bring community to disparate daydreamers?

Anyway, how do you measure the value of a song? Not so long ago, I could pay 79p to download a song that changed my life: and 79p for a waste of three minutes. Now that I pay a subscription charge to listen to any songs I like, it only gets muddier, and the only thing that seems remotely clear is that no-one is getting paid anywhere near enough for their work.

Capitalists are not blind to the fact that artists are still going to create the precious ‘content’ pretty much whether they’re paid or not.

The funny thing is that many (not all!) artists seem to have a desire to give away their work for free. Perhaps it’s knowing that the artistic process is not finished until the art is received by an audience; perhaps it’s a sense that to be ‘gifted’ is not something you possess, but rather an imperative, something you need to get out of your hands for it to fulfil its purpose as a ‘gift’. Unfortunately this internal desire is frequently exploited: capitalists are not blind to the fact that artists are still going to create the precious ‘content’ pretty much whether they’re paid or not. But it does build the sense that art and capitalism are odd bedfellows at best.

There seems a low-level hum around the fact that most Britons don’t want post-lockdown life to return to ‘normal’ as it was. (Colour me surprised). There also seems to be a new energy – out of necessity, I suppose – for local, grassroots initiatives in pretty much every sphere of public life. Depending where you live, these might involve local councils; equally likely is that they’ll spring up as a form of collectively-run projects, a more active form of citizenship.

Out of the tragedy of the last few months, the painful loss and all the rest, there is a window for re-thinking things that have seemed bleakly unchangeable for too long. But we need imagination, and we need risky generosity. Can we create better, less capitalist ways to get art made?

We need to play our part in culture

Makoto Fujimura, in his eye-opening book Culture Care (now a podcast!), compares our culture to a local ecosystem, like a river: in a polluted culture, heavy with the demands of commodification and mass-consumption, artists are pushed to make shallow and un-nourishing work, just to survive. Everyone suffers from the loss of a rich common life. 

Caring for our mutual culture, he asserts, is a societal good. We do it in the way that we clean parks, or we clothe the homeless; not as a thinly-veiled excuse to share the gospel, but as a thing that is good in itself, a way to bless others and create the environment for faith and spirituality to grow.

There is a counter-cultural current growing: a desire for a common life not merely precipitated on cruel markets. I believe it’s a current worth encouraging. Ideas like arts patronage are a part of this: a way to allow artists to make work that enriches culture, not just what sells. It is, of course, an old idea – most of the art that has endured through history was supported by patrons – and in a sense, its ethos already exists in a hundred arts organisations who make constant sacrifices for the arts. Sputnik alone can’t support the arts sector! But we want to go further. 

There is a counter-cultural current growing: a desire for a common life not merely precipitated on cruel markets.

It’s a difficult time for many, not just artists, so it’s an odd time to talk about fundraising: but let’s not talk as if this is ‘charity’. This isn’t about ‘starving artists’ needing a leg-up. This is about an apocalyptic moment that could allow us to rout the profiteers, the moneylenders if you like, from the spiritual heart of our common life.

We’ll be talking more about our particular Patrons scheme in the coming months as we relaunch things, but we want to hear from you, too. What can we be thinking about? What should we try?

And, of course – you can currently sign up as a Patron yourself from as little as £5 a month!

Posted on

‘Bad’ Language: Communicating in a Profane World

Huw Evans Bad Language Profane Sputnik Faith Art
Huw Evans Bad Language Profane Sputnik Faith Art

In this, the second part of my post, I am stepping out from behind my C S Lewis-shaped stalking horse to address my final question: how do we as artists represent and reflect a vulgar and profane world, particularly as much of our business is directly concerned with its vulgarity and profanity? Or, to be fairer, how do I, as an artist, create work that interacts with this world and its people with their (and my) profanity and vulgarity?

Before I go any further, let me get two things out of the way. First, niceness, pleasantness, loveliness and keeping everyone happy are not the primary business of the artist: we have a job to do, and success is not measured by contentment.

Neither is the opposite true: offending for the sake of offending is pointless. I have no interest in Épater la bourgeoisie (shocking the bourgeoisie). That is not to say that no one will be offended: some people might, but that should never be a primary consideration.

Secondly, the boundaries of offence also change, with words, expressions and representations moving from one side of the line of acceptability to the other as society’s attitudes change. When George Bernard Shaw wrote his play Pygmalion in 1913 ‘bloody’ was a shocking enough word for the stage: when they came to film My Fair Lady, the musical based on the play, in the 1964 ‘bloody’ wasn’t enough: it had to be ‘arse’. (We can, in passing, note the hypocrisy of men in the audience who between themselves would use language far ‘worse’ than ‘bloody’.) Those boundaries are never entirely logical, and often seem counter-intuitive: currently film-makers can show grotesque killings, but cannot show a penis.

So how do we go forward?

Communication is the Context

As I have written elsewhere on this site, our fundamental business is with language (again, language, not merely speech or words). We are attempting to use language to communicate emotional truths to the audience: and the truths are no less true for being emotional. The communication is not exactly the feeling, which is too deep to be transferred to another person, but what R G Collingwood refers to as ‘the emotional charge’. It is that ‘something’ in Elgar’s cello concerto which we know as a deep melancholy, or the ‘something’ in Dylan’s Tamborine Man which evokes a near-unidentifiable longing for a world beyond the song.

That is what lies behind the frequent injunction to writers to ‘show not tell’. Telling (‘Carl was angry’) places Carl’s experience outside ourselves. Showing (perhaps how Carl has been subject to subtle persecutions throughout his childhood) enables us to receive the emotional charge of anger. As the Sung Dynasty poet Wei T’ai put it: ‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.’

That understanding of what we are about as artists supplies an objective, communication, and a methodology for evaluating an artistic expression. We can interrogate a piece of work and ask of any aspect of it ‘does this contribute towards the intended expression or away from it?’ We can address that question to a style of costumes, a choice of instrument, the casting of an actor, a particular slash of colour, a movement of a hand. Each of those will tend to work with or against the communication.

As we create, we grope towards the expression of that inner ‘something’ which is nagging us for existence. We ask whether that particular word, image, scene, contributes to the communication of that ‘something’.

That may sound like a tick-box approach, but in practice, the questioning of the work by the artist is embedded in the creative process. I may not explicitly ask myself whether this word or that word is right or wrong, but in the course of writing a poem I will use one word instead of another, replace a phrase, strike out an expression, and so on, until I get to something that is ‘finished’. Yet if I was asked to explain those decisions there would be many points where I could not say much more than ‘that word wasn’t right’ or ‘that’s a better phrase’, where ‘right’ or ‘better’ are my occult (ie. hidden), subjective judgements of how the word or phrase contributes to the overall thrust of the poem.

As we create – painting, sculpting, choreographing, filming, writing – we grope towards the expression of that inner ‘something’ which is nagging us for existence. We find the means within our practice to give that ‘something’ a form. Along the way we assess what we have made to see if it is ‘good’; that is, whether it adequately conveys that ‘something’. The growth of this faculty of evaluation is an essential part of every artist’s development and makes the difference between the ‘this will do’ of the beginner and the perpetual dissatisfaction of the mature artist.

We engage this faculty when we look at matters of vulgarity and profanity, and either explicitly or implicitly ask whether that particular word, image, scene – even though it may be vulgar or profane – contributes to the communication of that ‘something’, or does not. If it does, it stays. If it does not, then it goes.

Protecting the ‘Weaker Brother’

‘That’s all very well,’ you may say, ‘but what of the “weaker brother”?’ Ah yes, the person whose faith may be shaken by my use of vulgarity or profanity in a work (see Corinthians 8). Well, bluntly, they shouldn’t read the poem, see the film, look at the picture. Such a work of art is unlikely to be displayed in church, so there isn’t much chance of them coming across it accidentally. If they deliberately seek it out, when they have been warned not to, well, that’s their look out.

However, that does not preclude someone asking whether my artistic judgement was correct: that is a reasonable question, one which may be most helpful for artists who are getting to grips with their craft and are still developing their evaluating faculty. (Note that asking question ‘does this contribute to the work?’ Is not the same as saying, in an anguished tone, ‘why on earth did you include “that” in the work?’)

In the end, I think I am not that far from Augustine: love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.

See the first part of this blog post, here.

Posted on

Help Musicians UK launches 24-hour mental health hotline for musicians

The charity Help Musicians UK has officially launched their 24/7 helpline, Music Minds Matter, after a recent study discovered that musicians were three times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression compared to the general public – the world’s largest study into music and mental health to date.

Amongst other things, the study highlighted that music makers’ work is integral to their sense of self, that their precarious careers exist in an environment of constant critical feedback, and that guilt, insecurity and unsympathetic working conditions are rife in the industry.

The hotline on 0808 802 8008 operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A statement on the official website reads:

“Help Musicians UK understands the complexity of working in music and recognises the need for support to reflect the nature and unique challenges those in the industry can face. If you want someone to talk to, or even explore avenues for ongoing support, get in touch, anytime. We’re here to help.”

Read Chris Donald’s opinion piece on this subject from August, ‘Music Careers and Mental Health’.

Posted on

Keir Shreeves sees the arts as a journey of Faith

Last week, we posted about Keir Shreeves’ excellent booklet ‘Art for Missions Sake’, a helpful introduction to some of the points of intersection between the arts and the church. Behind the booklet is not just the author though, but a husband and wife team, who are well experienced in these matters and we thought it would be great to catch up with both of them to pick their brains further. Today, we’re starting with Keir, and next week, we’ll let Jessamy have her say.

So, Keir, introduce yourself…

I’m on the clergy team at St Peter’s Brighton and pursuing doctoral studies in theology. I previously studied theology at St Mellitus College and King’s College London. I’m also Chair of Shift ( Before ordination, I qualified as an Industrial Designer and had a career in manufacturing management. I’m married to Jessamy, a painter, and together we have two young children.

The ‘Art For Missions Sake’ booklet is concise but packed with a great depth of understanding about the arts and their place within the church. What has your experience been of art and the church and the mysterious place where the two things meet (or perhaps don’t!)?

My background is Design and Dieter Rams is my favourite designer. I studied Industrial design being part of the last cohort to train at a little campus of Brunel University in Runnymede, Surrey, which closed in 2004 and which we all considered to be our own Bauhaus. After graduating I project managed the acquisition and relocation of a company that makes the London Underground signs, re-designing the manufacturing process. Whilst I was on the Senior Management Team of the company, God called me into full-time Christian ministry. After studying theology, being ordained and on the back of conversations with my wife Jessamy (who is a great thinker and practitioner of art in mission) I became fascinated about theological aesthetics. The booklet is one of the results. It’s a recapitulation of my Master’s dissertation. I’m grateful that I’ve always been in churches that haven’t been suspicious of the arts but I’ve also been aware of a general lack of theological confidence; it’s that, which I hope the booklet might spark in some small way.

What I really like about the booklet is that it contains both why and how the church should engage with the arts. If you could deal with the ‘why’ first: in short, why do you think this is such a big deal? 

The wonder of the arts is that they can take us beyond conventional or established patterns of reason, drawing with a subversive quality. When words might bounce off, image, music or drama can impact in a different way with evangelism coming as something of a surprise. However, the arts have been a neglected theme in the life and mission of the evangelical church because of its Protestant roots and its residual mistrust of art, especially the visual. William Dyrness, Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, warns: ‘It is possible that we might actually win the battle of words but lose the battle of images. And losing that battle could well cost us this generation.’  Thankfully, the evangelical church has increased its engagement with the arts over the last fifteen to twenty years and this booklet seeks to help support this by offering theological foundations, a consideration of the role of the artist in the church and the world, and examples of how the creative arts are faithfully contributing to Christian mission.

“whilst the arts are non-utilitarian, they are also a wonderful starting point for many in a journey of faith”

As regards the ‘how’ then. If you could outlaw one common practice in churches and enforce one new practice, both in a bid to improve the church’s engagement with the arts, what would they be and why?

I would outlaw treating the arts as purely decorative because whilst the arts are non-utilitarian, they are also a wonderful starting point for many in a journey of faith, something Hans Urs von Balthasar and Tom Wright affirm. One thing I would encourage is artists and church leadership teams working together to evoke wonder because in doing so we bear witness to the deep reality of something more.

How can we get our hands on ‘Art for Mission’s Sake’ and who is it specifically for?

You can purchase a print copy or digital copy for only £3.95 here.

It’s aimed at artists in the church and those in leadership positions in the church. Whilst, the booklet seeks to encourage artists by affirming their value, it also urges church leaders to support a fresh generation of artists in expressing passion, pain, hope and glory in both the church and the world.

Posted on

Making Work That Requires Work

A few months ago, a much publicized national survey revealed Banksy’s ‘Girl With Balloon’ to be Britain’s most loved artwork. Firmly beating the Lowrys, Turners and Hockneys of this world, the result caused much eye rolling and consternation, particularly from newspaper arts correspondents.

This was the evidence they’d been looking for that artistic taste is finally dead and that Britain, culturally speaking, has well and truly gone to the dogs. It must be noted that a lot of the outrage was pretty reactionary considering that the survey in question was carried out to promote a Samsung TV and comprised of only 2000 participants. However, an interesting trend emerged among the various critiques: ‘Girl with balloon’ is simple and obvious, but art should be more than that.

‘Girl With Balloon’, Banksy

Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian put it like this:

‘Real art is elusive, complex, ambiguous and often difficult. Actually, remove that qualifier. It is always difficult.’

Now, I’ll stay out of the Banksy argument, as I have no strong feelings either way about that particular cheeky Bristolian scamp. However, I would tend to agree with Jones’ description of ‘real art’. In fact, this has been one of my main gripes with a lot of the typical output from within the Christian subculture. ‘Christian art’, as it is known in its modern sense, is often one dimensional, easily readable and instantly reducible into a simple sentiment or teaching point. Whether anyone can declare authoritatively that something is real art or not, this stuff does often seem less like a deep exploration of the nooks and crannies of existence, and more like a car advert or a party political broadcast.

As we conclude our series on the Old Testament prophets then, I find it heartily reassuring that there are at least hints in biblical art practice of Jones’ ‘real art’. It’s true that Isaiah et al had pretty didactic intentions, and they were certainly not locating the meaning of their work in the mind of their audience. However, their performances were deliberately ambiguous and as they drew their audiences in, they gave them considerable work to do. As mentioned earlier in this series, Jesus was just the same in making his parables difficult and, to some, completely opaque. The Bible records many people in both cases, who simply didn’t get it. And this wasn’t a failing of Jesus or the prophets.

A Justifiable Desire For Clarity

As Christians, we hold certain truths about the world so dear and we consider the stakes so high in other people understanding and subscribing to those truths, that clarity of communication is very important for us. In a Sunday service, everything must be clear. The sermon must be clear. The notices must be clear. Even the worship songs must be clear. Therefore, it is no surprise that this tendency is transferred to the church’s expectations of its artists.

Paul asks the Colossian church to pray for him ‘that I would make the gospel clear, which is how I ought to speak.’ (Col 4:4) And so the concensus has been that it’s not just Paul who has such an obligation. It’s how all Christians should speak. All the time. Even if they happen to be film makers or poets or photographers or dancers.

But Paul is not the only model of communication found in the Bible. God understands that clarity is key if you are talking to people who want to listen, but if that desire is lacking, it doesn’t matter how clear you tell people something, they simply won’t hear it. This is the situation that both the Old Testament Prophets and Jesus found themselves in. It’s also where we find ourselves if we want to communicate something deep and significant of the Kingdom of God to ears tuned to the frequencies of the kingdom of the world.

For us then, making work that requires work from our audience is not evidence of us being obtuse or obscure. It’s biblical.

Communicating through ambiguity

But surely we can’t just leave our audience to come to whatever conclusions they want to. How can we make difficult art that still nudges people closer to Jesus? Well, once again, Ezekiel helps us out.

In Ezekiel 12, Ezekiel acts out Israel’s journey into exile, with God providing the stage directions. It is, in many ways a simple performance, but its meaning is kept hidden from the casual observer. There was to be no running commentary (a peculiarity of Ezekiel’s calling was that he was to be silent except when there was a divine command to speak- Ezekiel 3:26-27) and no programme with explanatory notes. In fact, as Ezekiel went to bed after his successful opening (and only) night, his audience had absolutely no idea what he was up to. It was only the next morning that God told him what to do:

12:8- 10- ‘In the morning the word of theLordcame to me:“Son of man, did not the Israelites, that rebellious people, ask you, ‘What are you doing?’

“Say to them…’

God didn’t care too much about the onlookers who grabbed 5 minutes of the show, ate some popcorn and went on their way. He designed the whole show for the questioners- those who would let themselves be drawn in. Ezekiel wasn’t delivering a sermon, he was starting a conversation.

For us, we must be prepared to make work like this. Work that can’t be digested in one gulp. Work that may befuddle, frustrate or even offend. Work that requires work. But we must also be prepared to pick up the conversations that our work begins.

And here lies the challenge. If we are to take the Old Testament Prophets seriously as artistic role models, we have to take on board that we do have a message to communicate. God has a way of seeing the world that he wants us to share and encourage others to adopt. Not every piece we ever make will do this, but, if we’re to take our prophetic calling seriously, some of our work will. We don’t need to straitjacket our work or blunt its edges to make this happen, but we probably will need to be prepared to enter into conversations about our work with people who ask ‘what are you doing?’

Fortunately, Joel (Wilson, that is, not the son of Pethuel) has already written a brilliant, concise post on this already, so I’ll direct you towards that if you’d like some tips on how to do this.

Let’s close this series though by switching testaments. In 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul writes:

‘Eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy’ 

Yes, he was speaking mainly in the context of Christian meetings to Christians looking to communicate God’s word to other Christians or to seekers. However, as we’ve seen, in the context of the whole Bible, it wouldn’t be unfair to take the gift of prophecy a bit more broadly than that.

Are you eagerly desiring the gift of prophecy? Are you prepared to take up the call to be a prophet to your generation and culture?

I think the world needs some more Ezekiels, Joels, Isaiahs and Jeremiahs right now. Perhaps God wants you to be one of them.

Posted on

The School Of Prophets: Reflections On An Arts Manifesto

“This is a book about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived…” So begins Abraham Heschel’s paradigm shifting book The Prophets. He continues:

“The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither “a singing saint” nor “a moralizing poet,” but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends. [. . . ] The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretentious.” *

In truth, I had adopted the biblical prophets as my guides long before I ever sat down to reason out why. I met plenty of Christians in the early noughties who were uncertain and anxious about what a Christian artist ought to look like; I ignored such discussion and dived after Ezekiel (my favourite) in his wake of woe and madness.

It was the end of the noughties when I decided to sit down and sketch this sort of approach out into a manifesto. I did this partly because others found the approach compelling, and I thought describing some principles might be helpful. But the greater reason was that the idea of the school of prophets had taken hold of my mind. The biblical prophets were not all loners. We often read of prophetic communities (eg 2 Kings 2:1-18) who together sought mystical experiences of YHWH, and embarked together on their strange prophetic activities. I had a notion that perhaps some like-minded artists of faith might similarly work together and create jarring public spectacles to interrupt the numbing rhythms of the broken present.

And so we did. There was performance art in front of the giant screens and coercive advertising campaigns. We played music on buses to disrupt the public numbness, and on monuments to call the images and powers into question. The manifesto kept us very much focused on aesthetic actions in public spaces (such as the prophets seemed to do). It was, on the other hand, very much against the safe containment of art in the abstract echo-chambers of cyberspace, or the domestication of art into the capitalist lounges of record shops, art galleries and billboards, and the mythos of the aspiring artist. It was also against art as a thing prescribed by empire for introspective moments, to sooth unsettled emotions while the world itself withers. Certainly not! Our art was to be offered directly to the everyday public in a manner that promoted immediate public discourse.

All this finally culminated in our participation in the No More Page Three campaign, which – after several years of slogging – finally succeeded in persuading The Sun to remove its soft porn images from the paper.

After this (or even before, really), the loose collective dispersed. People got married, had children, moved to other cities, and so on. I, who had been the chief organiser (and quite unsuited to organising anything), collapsed exhausted. And the manifesto went on the shelf, where I still occasionally glance over and wonder about dusting it off.

To reflect on this brief experiment: it was hard. Doing subversive art in public space is emotionally draining. Taking a public stance on an issue is costly. Aiming art exclusively at public life, to the exclusion of inner life, is unwise – as Jeremiah would have told me if I’d listened. Although others sometimes took the initiative, I was mostly the driving creative force. I was hoping to create a structure within which others felt empowered to thrive and speak with their own voice, and launch their own creative actions. This happened occasionally, but was pretty rare.

On the other hand, it was fun. We bonded. We lit up spaces with discussion and merriment that were otherwise numb and atomised. We saw small changes in response to our actions. We made new friends and connected with new people. One pair connected, got married and now have a third child on the way. We were all somehow enlarged and changed, and various people were, I think, positively influenced.

If I were to re-ignite such plotting, rooted in the example of the school of prophets, I suppose I would work harder at two things: first, a slow, sustainable pace. And, second, a prayerful common life.

I don’t think it entered our minds that one ought not to emulate the prophets. It never occurred to me to think of the Hebrew prophets simply as verbatim mouth-pieces for God (like Mohammed, say). I think if we try to capture a sense of them in their own moment, we find social, cultural and political activists working out of their Yahwist faith, and toward their Yahwist hope. They had no idea that they (or their disciples) were writing canonised religious texts. They were faithfully responding to the world as they found it in their own day. If someone decides to canonise your babblings in a few hundred years, that’s their business. Ours is to speak faithfully into the hope crisis of the present. God help us if we don’t.

One of the curious and marvelous outcomes of the experiment, for me, was the very mixed group that formed around it: some Christians and some not. I think one of the reasons (besides canonical anxiety) that people aren’t sure of how to emulate the prophets, is that their religious paradigms are quite different to ours. The prophets didn’t really try to “convert” people in the religious sense. They certainly called people to right living and authentic worship, but the Ninevites, for example, didn’t convert to Judaism, as such, neither did Nebuchadnezzar, or Naaman. As I reflect back on our little collective, it occurs to me that those who engaged most deeply with the Manifesto itself, were not Christians. And indeed, they helped shape and refine it. Non Christians took part in our actions, and we as a collective threw our weight behind secular movements (such as No More Page Three). Meanwhile, it was sometimes Christians who criticised us most fiercely. How did all the boundaries get so jumbled?

For now I’ll just reflect that that was how it went: being salt and light in this sort of paradigm felt a lot more like a mutual discipleship with others toward God, than the usual sorts of images (us in a boat, holding a hand out to the drowning folks in the water). In this respect, it chimes with my experience that Chris Donald might point to Kate Tempest as one of the most authentically prophetic voices in the present. The prophets so often jarringly critiqued the ordinary, ubiquitous, and systemic evils, in which all are enmeshed. And so the dividing line is, as Paul might say, abolished. All have sinned, and all – prophets included – are called to change, to metanoia, to repentance. No doubt, this raises questions, but it was, on reflection, very refreshing to engage the world this way.

*If I may recommend two books to read on the prophets, these would be The Prophets by Abraham J Heschel, and The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

Posted on

What Do We Do With The Old Testament Prophets?

Following on from Chris’ post on Tuesday, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into what it means to make prophetic art. We’ll get to the art in the next post, but to give some context, I wanted to focus today on the thorny issue of prophecy.

I am what could fairly be described as a charismatic Christian. I am aware that, if that label means anything to you at all, you will now see me as anything from a faithful adherent to New Testament Christianity to essentially a snake handler. Well, I’m in no rush to fill you in on exactly where I would sit on that spectrum, but hopefully, whatever your theological tribe, there’ll be something in this post of interest, amusement and maybe even of value.

Charismatics, as you may be aware, are very fond of prophecy, and picture God as a very chatty father, who loves to speak to his children. But, someone might object, what if you get the wrong end of the stick? What if you just have a vivid imagination or happened to eat a lot of blue cheese before bed or just downed half a pint of adder venom or whatever? Well, of course, that’s a possibility, and for that reason, all prophecy should be weighed, as per 1 Corinthians 14:29. The image that’s always stuck with me regarding this process is someone weighing a lump of what appears to be gold, to work out how much of it is actually gold and how much is accumulated dross. So how do you weigh prophecy? Well, you recognise that we’ll always be slightly faulty receptors of God’s word (we prophesy in part- 1 Cor 13:9) and therefore listen carefully, hold on to what seems valuable, and graciously reject what seems a bit ‘off’, always using God’s revealed word (The Bible) as the gold standard.

But, what about Deuteronomy 18:20-22? I hear you cry! If I’ve misheard your particular cry on this occasion (probably something to do with the cobra fangs latched on to my right forearm), Moses says in these verses that if a prophet prophesies something and gets it wrong, they should die. This seems a far cry from giving an encouraging pat on the back and gently suggesting that, after all, there are other gifts of the Spirit.

Now, here is where we get close to the actual focus of this post, because at this point a certain move is made. In my opinion a good move, but a move that perhaps needs looking at again. In answer to this very reasonable objection, the modern charismatic would tend to draw a line between the gifts of prophecy in the Old and New Testament. Yes, in the Old Testament, there was a weight that was expected of all prophets (total infallibility), but now that the Spirit is freely available to all, and all ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17), there is more grace available to those wanting to communicate God’s will to people (and presumably also an expectation of more wisdom in those who are listening).

And so, with this line drawn, all the teaching I’ve heard on how to prophesy has been taken from the New Testament, with very clear instruction that we should not look to emulate the Old Testament prophets at all. The concern is that, if this is not underlined, we will open the door to the ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’, ‘I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger’, ‘sackcloth and ashes’ brigade. And we can’t have that.

But the result is that we no longer know what to do with the Old Testament prophets, except to discuss their theology. The bit about the suffering servant is great, but you obviously shouldn’t lie around for three years, eating food cooked over poo (Ezekiel 4). Agabus (Acts 21:10-11) may be a fine role model, but not Isaiah. And, if in doubt, (because let’s face it, Agabus seems a bit on the spectrum himself!) 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 help us out. In these chapters, Paul tells us exactly the purpose of prophecy for the modern day Christian, especially in 14:3-

‘But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.’ (1 Cor 14:3)

So basically as a brief summary of the teaching I’ve had on prophecy over the years: God still speaks. We should listen. If I’m going to share what I think He’s saying, I must make sure it’s a) in line with what the Bible says and b) is potentially strengthening, encouraging and/or comforting for people.

Now, just to underline what may have been lost in my slightly flippant tone, I like this stuff. I’ve hugely benefited personally from listening to God’s voice and from accepting what God is saying to me through others. I also love being part of a church that listens to God and encourages the use of the gift of prophecy.

However, at the same time, I do think that we need to reassess the role of the Old Testament prophet in this whole scheme. I think that the ancient Hebrew seers, both major and minor, have things to teach us about how we should communicate God’s truth, not just about how we should think about God.

And I don’t think that we need to make a huge shift here, but simply to do what this particular blog is adamant that Christians need to do in all spheres of our lives: we need to remember that we’re not just called to speak to the church.

1 Corinthians 12 and 14 gives instructions for the use of the gift of prophecy in a gathered meeting of Christians. Yes, there are allowances made for guests to the meeting who are not followers of Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:24-25), but the focus of this teaching is upon how we communicate God’s word to people who already have a certain openness to that word. The Old Testament prophets on the other hand spend most of their time speaking to people who are very resistant to God’s word.

God makes it clear to Isaiah that this will be the context for his whole ministry. As the prophet faithfully puts himself forward to serve God, God spells out, in Isaiah 6:9, what his message is to be:

‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;

Be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

For Ezekiel, his call is very similar:

‘Son of Man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebeliious nation that has rebelled against me… the people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.’ (Ezekiel 2:3-4).

Now, of course, these prophets were mainly ministering to those who were seen as God’s people (although not always, eg Jonah), however, God was making very different assumptions about the group these guys were addressing, than Paul was about the audience that were receiving prophetic input in Corinth.

In short, the teaching I’ve received (and often given) on the prophetic seems to have assumed that we are communicating God’s word only to Christians who need encouragement, or to people who aren’t Christians but have come to Christian meetings. If, as this website regularly asserts, the church needs to learn how to communicate much more effectively with people who don’t already follow Jesus and have no intention of coming to our meetings, I think we need a new model. And by a new model, I mean an old model. And by an old model, I mean the model of often eccentric, outspoken and unpredictable Hebrew prophets who brought God’s messages of hope and judgement to Israel and the surrounding nations between about 900 and 400 BC.

Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that by following their example, we should have a different message from what we communicate in our church meetings. It’s important to remember in all of this what the Old Testament prophets actually did: they pointed people towards the Messiah. That is still the goal. In one sense, ultimately, it is the only valid goal. And my motivation behind this encouragement would be that this is so important that we shouldn’t neglect a method of achieving this goal that God gives over such a large chunk of his word to.

The reason why I am examining this topic on our arts blog is that I reckon that a helpful way to view the Old Testament prophets, at least at times, is as forerunners to the performance artists that began to emerge in the 20th century. When seen through this lens, I think we start to see who may be able to step into their shoes in our times, and how they could do that. We can also pick up some very important lessons for all artists who wish to strengthen, comfort, encourage and perhaps also dramatically confront those outside of the church who are presently hurtling happily towards disaster and trying to take the rest of us with them. Just like the Old Testament prophets, an artist has the ability to cause people to stop in their tracks, think about their present direction and ultimately turn towards Jesus.

So let’s look at that more in the next post. In the mean time though, where did I put my flaggon of poison?

Posted on 1 Comment

Does Our Work Have A Future?

I have a soft spot for a little story of Tolkien’s: Leaf by Niggle. It strikes me as a piece written by someone who is engaged on creative projects which he knows some people question and others despise; creative projects which seem to be futile and fragmentary.

Niggle is a painter, continually distracted from his painting by the demands of his neighbour, Parish (who, in his name conveys the ever-present demands of social obligation – and, I think, going further back, the law itself: and is Niggle’s own name a hint at that creative itch, that desire to make which keeps coming back, however often it is suppressed?) He finds himself become obsessed with painting a great tree; he works on each individual leaf, making it as detailed as possible, but finds that even using all his skill he cannot make the tree match his vision. Eventually, with his painting unfinished, Niggle dies. He spends some time in purgatory, and then finds himself creating a garden, which has as its main feature an enormous and beautiful tree, rich with birds and animals. It is also the true embodiment of what he was attempting to convey in his paintings.

As someone firmly in middle-age, who has many more creative dreams unrealised than realised, Leaf by Niggle gives me hope: hope that my creativity is not wasted, that things attempted on this earth are not wasted.

And there, apart from noting the latent platonism in the story – which is also there in Lewis’ Last Battle, I left it. Until this evening. I was continuing my theological equivalent of swimming the Atlantic, pushing a few pages further into N. T. Wright’s Paul and the faithfulness of God, when I came across this, in a section on Paul’s re-definition and re-working of Jewish worldview and praxis:

The only time in Galatians that he specifies the content of this klēronomia, it is ‘the kingdom of God’. I suspect it is the subtly false reading of this in the whole western tradition (where ‘kingdom of God’ has been flattened out into a synonym for ‘heaven‘, and ‘heaven’ has been thought of as ‘the ultimate destination of God’s people’) that has thrown readers of the scent. For Paul, God’s kingdom is not a non-material, post-mortem destination, but is rather the sovereign rule of the creator over the entire created order, with death itself, which corrupts and defaces the good creation as the last enemy to be destroyed. In other words, the final ‘kingdom of God’ is the whole world, rescued at last from corruption and decay, and living under the sovereign rule of God, exercised by the Messiah’s people. [PFG 336-7]

While the main thrust of Wright’s argument is the inheritance of the land and Paul’s re-thinking of the Jewish land of promise to the promised inheritance of the whole world, it was not that which caught my eye, rather it was that flattening out of kingdom of God to post-mortem paradise, and the implication of a reflated kingdom for Niggle.

Niggle was in a platonic universe, perhaps not as overtly platonic as the one Jill Pole and Eustace Scrub found themselves. He lived in the Shadowlands, where the great realities were only manifest in the dark outlines cast onto the cave wall. After he died, he found himself recreated and face-to-face with those great realities: a tall tree and brightly-coloured birds. The small things he attempted in this life were lost, forgotten and destroyed (astonishing to note how different the fate of Tolkien’s own work has been, with carefully curated editions of his myths and stories, and now his translation of Beowulf); they were unimportant, because they were only the shadow.

Paul, although sharing the Eastern Mediterranean with many real-life platonists, did not live in a platonic universe. Paul could not have envisaged the death of Narnia, the blowing of the great horn and the closing of the door. If Paul had written The Last Battle Aslan would have come roaring out of the stable and put Narnia to rights; more than that, made Narnia what it was fated to be from the very start of the song before the beginning of time.

If Paul had written Leaf by Niggle those little leaf paintings of Niggle’s would not have been fragments lost in a nineteenth century civic art gallery; they would have been transformed, taken up, with their promise and their heart fulfilled in a new and astonishing way. Paul’s story gives me even more hope than Tolkien’s. Paul’s story teaches me not that my work is a faint penumbra of something great, but that it is the start of a greater thing: a thing which will – when Christ has returned to claim his inheritance and put everything under his feet – grow, like the mustard seed into the biggest of shrubs, with the birds of the air roosting on its branches. In Paul’s story, the work of creating the garden is already in hand.

(And if you’d like to read the actual story, ‘Leaf By Niggle’ is available to here)

Posted on Leave a comment

Patronage in Practice

As we continue our series looking at arts patronage and all the hows, whats and whys thereof, we thought it would be good to give a concrete, practical example of patronage in the 21st century for those of you who don’t happen to have Charles Saatchi’s expendible income. Therefore, I asked my friend Adam Haywood, from Woodside Church, Bedford, to share how he became an arts patron.

I’ve been to a lot of gigs, seen a lot of bands. Most of them now I don’t remember too much of; just a loose memory of what happened and a lasting resonance of the emotions stirred at the time. Some great. Some good. Some bad.

I remember seeing Green Day at V98, when the band set their drum kit alight as Bille-Joe closed out their set with ‘Good Riddance’. I remember the next band (The Seahorses, I think) trying really hard to follow it with their slow melodic brit-rock, whilst trying to coax the audience into creating some semblance of an atmosphere. They didn’t. And their attempts were joyously hilarious. Me and my friend Rob were still laughing as we made our way back to our tent. That was a good memory.

I remember watching Gomez in Leicester in the early 2000s as I stood bored for 2 hours whilst they refused to play the songs which everyone loved (‘Tijuana Lady’, anyone?) Why? Because they were now loved songs. And that meant they couldn’t play them anymore. Musicians, huh? That was a bad memory.

But a great memory? One of the best? Well, watching ‘The Augustines’ take their post encore-encore (muscians, huh?) outside of the venue, on to the high street in Oxford because the curfew at the venue had passed. That has to be up there. Standing there on the pavement, singing along with 100 other people as pedestrians slalomed around us in to the oncoming traffic and watching then, as the lead singer, aware of the increasing likelihood of an imminent fatality, took the sing-along to a low-lit, real ale serving, traditional pub, not 10 feet away- which my friend Dan got a back-row view to by clambering through a half-open window – yeah, that was a great memory.

Thing is, maybe a year after that, the band broke up.

Now bands break up all the time: band members can’t get on, the trappings of rock and roll decadence, the inability to write any good new songs, but this wasn’t that. It was financial. The lead singer posted a very honest explanation of the situation which ultimately said that because of the current state of the music industry, with content being consumed through mediums such as Spotify, Music Unlimited and what-not, people are not buying albums like they used to. When this is coupled with the increasing challenge of touring and making money- financially it just wasn’t viable for them as a smaller band. Therefore for them, breaking up was the only option.

When bands that I’ve enjoyed have broken up previously, even for those reasons named earlier, it’s got to me a little. But to have broken up because of financial challenges, whilst making sense, felt really unjust- like I’d been robbed of something unfairly. These bands we listen to are a part of our lives; our childhoods, our teenage years onto adulthood and beyond. These bands who write these songs spark memories of events, people and personal feelings that really are a massive part of you. And as such, they’re priceless.

I often checked in with the band’s online profiles, just in the hope that something would change- and after about a year the lead singer of the band posted that he was going to try something different; a new way to try and release music again that might be more financially viable. It was through something called Patreon.

Now, at 38, and not being on the digital graveyard quite yet, I was already aware of what this was- an online method of personally supporting artists financially so that they can make their art for others to continue to appreciate. So this is what I did- I supported him financially. I signed up for a monthly amount simply because this music is something that is important to me. And it feels good knowing that I’m part of continuing to keep this music going.

Two months ago, at Bush Hall in London, me and my friend Dan saw the lead singer again; we got a grossly overpriced Mexican meal prior and caught up on all things ‘life’; stood in one of the most impressive venues around as the lead singer told stories which we laughed at and sometimes pretended to laugh at; sung at the top of our voices to new and old songs and tried at the very end to steal the set-list that was stuck to the stage (unsuccessfully). The beer was overpriced. The journey back overlong due to roadworks. A great memory. And one I can genuinely say I had a part in making happen.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Case of The Magical Statues

So they have pulled down a statue in the United States of America. Benjamin Harris asks whether we should be worried about a destruction of a work of art: is it vandalism or iconoclasm? These are good things to think about, but let me begin by asking why weren’t we having these discussions fifteen years ago when statues of Saddam Hussein were being pulled down in Iraq, or ten years before that when statues of Lenin were being removed all over Eastern Europe? Is it because ‘we’ associated ourselves with the ‘winning side’, or that we identified these as tyrants whose images therefore deserved to be obliterated?

Let me park that question while we consider the broader matter of what those statues, and the United States examples represent. Are they, in fact, art?

In his book The Principles of Art R G Collingwood comes up with three categories to hold what is commonly referred to as art (this is after separating works of art from works of craft). Aside from art proper (which I have touched on here and here), there are two categories that fail to meet his criteria for art.

First, there is amusement art, which is as the name suggests is produced primarily for amusement. A key characteristic of amusement art is that it is designed to raise and then dissipate emotions during its consumption, leaving the audience unchanged at the end of the experience. The commonest examples of amusement art when I was growing up were Mills and Boon romances, which were read and almost immediately forgotten as the reader moved on to the next one: amusement art is frequently formulaic. If you want a case study of the workings of amusement art in Hollywood watch Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, and more generally, The Truman Show.

Collingwood’s second category is magic: he uses the word in the sense familiar to anthropologists rather than that of Dungeons and Dragons. Magic encompasses activities, rituals and products that are designed to evoke a specific emotional response which is carried forward into everyday life. It is important to note that magic is not a pejorative term but a functional one: there will be many occasions – including public worship – where generating certain emotions is appropriate.

What sort of things does Collingwood put in the category of magic?

 I refer to such things as the prose of the pulpit, the verse of hymns, the instrumental music of the military band and the dance band, the decoration of drawing rooms, and so forth … Equally obvious, or hardly less so, is the case of patriotic art, whether the patriotism be national or civic or attached to a party or class or any other corporate body: the patriotic poem, the school song, the portraits of worthies or statues of statesmen, the war memorial, the pictures or plays recalling historic events, military music, and all the innumerable forms of pageantry, procession, and ceremonial whose purpose is to stimulate loyalty towards country or city or party or class or family or any other social or political unit. (The Principles of Art, pp72-3.)

This is the category to which statues of Lenin, Saddam Hussein and Confederate generals belong. It also contains L’Arc de Triomphe, statues of Churchill (with or without a grass mohican), and statues of Union generals. They are not art, they are magic. We may therefore ask what emotions are these statues designed to evoke?

For the statues of the Confederate generals we may say they were, at best, designed to stimulate loyalty towards the defeated Confederacy and the slave society it sought to protect. There is also the flip side: to demonstrate to former slaves and their descendants that despite its military defeat the spirit and power of that slave society continues. (For an analysis of the timing of the erection of the statues see here).

To my mind, removal of those statues (and the Lenins and Saddams I mentioned at the start of this post) is not about the destruction of works of art, but about the removal of works of magic by people who no longer wish to evoke the patriotic (and fearful) emotions intended by the those who erected them.

The deeper question about the destruction of works of art (which hopefully will look at the Chapman brothers defacing Goya prints, Robert Rauschenberg erasing a William de Kooning drawing and maybe Lady Clementine Churchill’s destruction of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston) will have to wait for another time.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Art Of Not Knowing: Embracing Discomfort and Nuance in our Work

The tension that can sometimes exist between the ‘Christian’ world and the ‘art’ world is something which will doubtless be familiar to readers of Sputnik.

It’s no secret that the art that many Christians prefer and expect of their artists does not always correlate with the art those artists end up creating. Often, there is an expectation from Christians for work that is easy to understand and interpret. Christian art, in the minds of many Christians, should have a clear evangelistic or worshipful bent – delivering transparent messages about the goodness of God or denouncements of evil and thus reflecting reassuring truths and a sense of certainty. Behind it all, there is a genuine need to ‘know’.

Our discomfort with uncertainty

Granted, a preference for certainty is not unique within the Christian sphere. Guardian writer Jonathan Jones recently published an article decrying the selection of Banksy’s Girl With Balloon as Britain’s best-loved piece of art – the key criticism being how immediately ‘readable’ the image is, how it lacks subtlety and depth of interpretation. Jones comments:

“Banksy makes art for the media age, particularly the social media age – art you can share in a second because it gives up its entire meaning immediately. He has invented the artistic equivalent of a tweet. You see it, you get it. (…) This is what scares and depresses me about Banksy. The very lack of art in his art is what makes it popular. Real art is elusive, complex, ambiguous and often difficult.”

While the need for reassurance through certainty represents a barrier to engagement in complex and nuanced art generally, I have been wondering whether the issue has particular relevance within the church. Which is to say, within the protestant church tradition especially. At least, this is the view taken by Stephen Proctor of the Illuminate podcast. He argues that in the wake of the reformation “mystery was excommunicated from the church”, leaving a “purely didactic religion that fed black and white information to the mind”, a change which followed the removal of artwork from churches as they now represented a ‘distraction’ rather than a legitimate form of spiritual engagement.

The need for reassurance through certainty represents a barrier to engagement in complex and nuanced art

Although I would not describe my own protestant upbringing as “purely didactic”, I do recognise in myself a desire to have answers and ‘be right’ when it comes to spiritual matters, something which has caused internal conflict when faced with the realities of living out a religious faith.

As an example, a couple of months ago my church small group were studying the tricky Bible passage regarding Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). It was interesting to reflect upon how the passage raised difficult questions for us and that our immediate urge was to scour the text and commentaries, in the hope of gaining definite answers to these questions and therefore ease the discomfort associated with our uncertainty.

The conclusion of that evening was that perhaps the sense of unease the passage engenders within us is an important thing to ‘sit with’, rather than something to be explained away.

The implication and tension for artists

If there is some wider truth to my observations, this will no doubt pose a problem for the Christian artist. As Jonny has previously noted, artists are often the type to question everything and sometimes these questions don’t lead to clear answers. As Keats famously said, a key characteristic of an artist is their ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, something which he termed ‘Negative Capability’. The presence of such individuals and their work is no doubt going to rankle those members of the church for whom questions are useful to the extent that they provide answers, and doubt is useful to the extent that, in time, it serves as a catalyst for greater certainty.

Of course there is a balance to tread. We cannot go the whole way and embrace post-modernism. If an artist calls themselves a Christian, they are making claim to a certain number of presuppositions that they choose to believe (if not ‘know’ in the absolute sense). If we chose to believe in the existence of God, this initial belief will colour our world-view with a number of assumed absolute truths and certainties pertaining to God’s nature and character. However, we must also acknowledge that, due to our limitations as humans, our abilities to understand and engage with these truths and certainties are, for now, somewhat unsatisfactory.

Wrestling with questions, ‘being with’ uncertainty and discomfort under a lack of definitive answers are challenges the Christian artist can, and must, embrace

Philosopher Albert Camus talked about the absurdity of life – for him as an atheist, this represented the tension between our need for ultimate meaning and purpose and the inability of the Universe to provide this. Although this particular tension is more easily recoiled for a Christian, we too will have to struggle with certain ‘absurdities’ arising from our understanding of reality.

One example of this, and  perhaps the most obvious, is the problem of evil – much time and effort has been engaged in providing theological justification for the existence of suffering, but for the Christian who has both compassion and a firm belief in the benevolence of God, this is likely to be something they will have to wrestle with for the rest of their lives. And ‘wrestling’ with questions such as this, ‘being with’ uncertainty and discomfort and bearing up under lack of definitive answers are challenges which the Christian artist can, and must, embrace.

The fulfilment in not knowing

As a final point, one example of such ‘wrestling’ is found in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky uses the text to grapple with a number of questions regarding the nature of morality, religious faith and the existence of God. Furthermore, despite being an Orthodox Christian, The Brothers Karamazov contains one of literature’s greatest arguments against the traditional Christian faith, delivered via the character of Ivan, a compassionate and atheistic intellectual. One of the reasons I read the book was because I was told the rest of the text contains an ‘answer’ to Ivan’s challenge.

Yet whereas the beliefs and actions of Ivan’s brother Alyosha provide something of a counterpoint to Ivan’s challenge, nowhere in the text does he provide a logical, knock-down counter-argument to Ivan’s reasoned critique. Dostoyevsky portrays the actions and interactions of his characters and then allows the reader to draw their own conclusions without providing any definite answers. This is no doubt one of the reasons the book had become lauded by believers and atheists alike – like all great art (and unlike Girl With Balloon), the text is open to multiple and nuanced interpretations.

Yet despite the lack of clear answers, the book overall is emotionally satisfying and shows that sometimes there is a paradoxical sense of fulfilment that arises from not knowing.

Posted on Leave a comment

Show respect for your discipline, and nurture your craft

Sputnik Influencing Culture Faith Art Respecting Discipline

So, we’ve spent 4 posts exploring the question of whether Christians are called to influence society and, if you’ve missed it, you can catch up with the discussion, starting here. Today then, we finish things off by focusing in on how all of this affects our art practice.

There’s no getting round the fact that our lives outside of our art are vital if our art is going to have a significant positive impact, but we mustn’t neglect the work itself either, and this care for our craft, and respect for the disciplines we work in, is actually in itself a very practical way of loving and serving people who engage with our work. It’s also a key way in which we make ourselves available to be raised to positions of influence through our work.

Sloppy practice is unlikely to profoundly bless anyone, but even worse, a slapdash approach to the artistic culture you inhabit actually communicates a lack of love and care.

When an artist produces work they step into a tradition. It’s a bit like moving to another country, and for a Christian making art with a concern to serve others through their work, it’s a bit like doing so as a missionary. It’s generally understood that the colonial way of doing mission is deficient. To go into a country with nothing but distaste and condemnation for the traditions that are cherished in that culture is highly disrespectful and arrogant. As the prominent 20th century Christian leader John Stott put it so well:

‘The overriding reason why we should take other people’s cultures seriously is that God has taken ours seriously’ (Coote and Stott 1980: vii-viii)

God had some pretty major issues with human culture, yet he came down into that culture to serve not to be served, to save not to condemn, he came down with a call to repent, but at the same time he had a clear respect for us and our strange practices and traditions.

Therefore, in the light of Jesus’ example, someone may have the opinion that Jesus is superior to Mohammed as a spiritual guide (at the very least), but if they don’t know anything about Mohammed or actually, if they know about his life, but have nothing good to say about him at all, it’s probably best that they don’t move to the Middle East or give their life to try to reach Muslims. Respect is a form of love and because all people are made in God’s image, all human cultures will contain things that are good and right and true, however obscured they might be.

So to return to our practice as artists, Jesus’ model is very relevant to us as well as we step into our different artistic disciplines and traditions. As a rock musician then, as soon as you start making art in that discipline, you step into a tradition. The tradition of rock music. Therefore, to do this without knowledge of its key practitioners and history, or even if you have this knowledge, to enter the tradition of rock music simply taking the moral high ground over the individuals who are cherished in that culture, is genuinely disrespectful. If you really have nothing good to say about Kurt Cobain, James Hetfield, Kerry King or artists like them, I’d go as far as saying that you shouldn’t put yourself forward as a practitioner in that genre. To use another example, if you can find nothing good in the work of artists like Cindy Sherman, David LaChapelle or even Robert Mapplethorpe, you probably shouldn’t try to be a fine art photographer. You could apply this to any artistic discipline.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go away from this blog and stream Slayer’s Reign in Blood while checking out Mapplethorpe’s body of work in google images (seriously, I’m really not suggesting this. No, seriously!) And you don’t have to have a thorough knowledge of the work of artists with this level of ‘edginess’, but if you can’t at least see some things to praise in the heroes of your discipline, however much else there is to condemn, then to put yourself forward as an artist in that discipline is unloving, uncaring and not practicing ‘faithful presence,’ however nice you are to the people you engage with through your work.

Nurturing your own craft then is a form of serving people and respecting the discipline that you work in is a way of loving your neighbour. Funnily enough, doing these things also enables God to use you to influence people more widely. As Solomon wrote:

‘Do you see a man skillful in his work?

He will stand before kings;

he will not stand before obscure men.’ (Prov 22:29)

Love and influence. Win win!

So to round off our series, a summary: When I read the Bible, what I see is that God is regularly on the look out for people to raise to positions of significant cultural influence. We’re not all going to be those people, and those people are not more important than everyone else, but we need him to do that in our society today.

For all Christians I think this means that we should live in such a way that we make ourselves available to being used in this way if God sees fit. As artists, with the opportunities that lie before us, this is especially relevant, and as a result of this whole discussion, my encouragement would be for the artists among us to look to be a faithful presence in the world, through how we live, how we practice our art and through our art itself.

Posted on 1 Comment

Living with integrity makes for great, influential artists

Walking Integrity Influencing Culture Sputnik Faith Art

Should Christians look to gain influence in society? Well, yes. But, of course, also no. How do we tie all of this together?

To conclude our series on influence I’ve got two more posts thinking about how all of this practically relates to us as artists? Should we as artists look to influence our culture and if so, how?

To summarise what we’ve looked at in the last 3 posts, I like to put it like this: I don’t think we should chase after influence, but we should make ourselves available for God to raise us to positions of influence if He sees fit. Our priority is not to change the world but to live obediently and faithfully to Jesus right in the thick of our culture. While that is worthwhile on its own, it is Christians who live like that who I think God is keen to raise to cultural influence to enable him to show his kindness more widely.

As James Davison Hunter puts it, we should seek to practice ‘faithful presence in the world’.

Or as Jesus puts it, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:15)

Or Peter, ‘ Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’ (1 Peter 2:12)

Or Paul ‘… Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands,just as we told you,so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…’ (1 Thess 4:11)

To break this down even further for us as artists, I think this should affect our lives and our work. Let’s start today with our lives…

Your Life Outside Your Art Matters

As artists we often focus on our work, and rightly so. Our work is important to us and we want it to be important to others too. However, as artists who want to follow Jesus, we’ve got to show at least the same care for our lives.

We can often bemoan the lack of Christians making art that is widely respected in our culture. However, perhaps this is not the problem. There are artists who self identify as Christians in most art forms operating at the very highest levels, many of them skillfully presenting aspects of the Christian worldview through their work. However, very few of them seem, at least on the surface to be living lives of radical submission to Jesus and his wisdom.

Just as a preacher’s words ring hollow if the congregation know that he is not living out his message, an artist’s influence does not just depend on the content of their work (and the skill that lies behind it). It also depends on their lives.

To use a personal example, one of my all time favourite artists is Chuck D, the front man of seminal rap group, Public Enemy. When I first heard PE, I was impressed by their overall sound and also by the urgency of their message. This impression was greatly enhanced as I found out that Chuck D was not just some rabble rouser, crafting a unique selling point out of anti establishment rhetoric. He lived out his message with integrity. He is tee-total, has never even experimented with narcotics and, most impressively, has been married to his wife for at least 30 years (as far as I’m aware). I don’t share all of Chuck’s convictions, but my respect for him as someone who practices what he preaches has caused me to look into even some of his more extreme political and theological views and actually I have warmed to some of these ideas, that otherwise I would have dismissed out of hand.

You could push this too far, and none of us are going to represent Jesus perfectly. However, if we in any way aspire to have a positive influence for Jesus through our work, we have no other option but to take seriously the call to be disciples of Jesus. To die to ourselves daily. To resist temptation. To love our spouses. To parent our kids faithfully.

It is no coincidence that many Christian artists in the public eye who have struggled to live out the teaching of Jesus consistently in their lives have also become disconnected from a local church. I am in no way implying that this is solely these artists’ fault, but the whole tenor of the Bible seems to be that we cannot follow Jesus in isolation, we need to do it knitted in tightly to a community of Christians who encourage each other in our faith. Churches need to stop unnecessarily alienating artists, that’s for sure, and I think there’s a slow dawning on church leaders like myself that we need to change our ways in this area. However, at the same time, I’d urge all artists to persevere with their churches and if you’ve stepped out of church, to trust Jesus enough to trust his body again. (If you’d like to think about this some more, check this post out too).

Love and serve others as you practice your art

I remember playing gigs in which I had my mind so set on the audience as a whole or my overarching goals as an artist, that I showed no care to the actual individuals who were there. Performing from a stage is one thing, but how you act beforehand and afterwards is also incredibly important if you want to serve God in your artistic practice.

Sometimes it was because of insecurity and vulnerability, but often it was simply arrogance. And so I could present a certain allegiance to Christ on the stage (in rap, you’re often able to be a little more blatant than in other art forms) while being dismissive and surly with crowd members, sound men or promoters.

This is one of the key dangers of seeking influence. If our minds are always focused on the masses ‘out there’ that we could be influencing, it is very likely that we will neglect the people who are under our noses- our neighbours- who we are called to love. Wherever you land on all this influence stuff, one thing we can surely all agree on is that if it’s a toss up between ‘influence society’ or ‘love your neighbour’, the Bible is reasonably clear on which one should take preference.

Sometimes, then, we love those we connect with through our art by having a humble attitude when people come to us, but we also serve others by overcoming our insecurities and starting to proactively engage with individuals about our work itself. (By the way, Joel’s advice on this a few months ago is still pure gold).

In short, we’ve got to remember that the way we live our lives is important. As artists, we don’t get a pass on this. We may well live out the wisdom of Jesus slightly different to other Christians, and this isn’t a call to simply tow the line. However, if we think that we are serving Jesus in our work when we’re not really serving him in our lives, I think we’re making a bit of a blunder.

With that said, we do need to apply all of this to our work as well, and to that we will turn next time. Until then, some questions to consider:

  • Are the same values that are visible in your work also visible in your life?
  • Are you mainly looking to influence people you’ll never meet, or people who are physically present when you practice your art?
  • What steps can you take to make sure you’re not going it alone in your art practice as a Christian?
Posted on 4 Comments

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 😉

Posted on 2 Comments

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.

Posted on 8 Comments

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)

Posted on Leave a comment

Francis Schaeffer identified a very real phenomenon, that is still with us

It’s been over thirty years since I last read Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There. Given that Schaeffer’s views and the book are part of the founding mythos of Sputnik I thought I should give it another read.

I was interested to see whether the book was still relevant fifty years after it was first published. As I have had some unexpected time on my hands I have just finished my re-reading of The God Who Is There and the two subsequent ones: Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent (see footnote). So, how does it read now?

It is, fundamentally, a book with one idea: philosophy from Aquinas onward has resulted in a de-coupling of the human understanding of man, the world and the universe (‘below the line’ in Schaeffer’s terminology) from questions of meaning, purpose and morals in human life (‘above the line’). The line that separates the two is ‘the line of despair’. Different aspects of human activity come under the line of despair at different points: philosophy going first, then the arts, music, writing and at last general culture: that stepped descent gives us Schaeffer’s staircase, so beloved of Jonny Mellor.

Because the book was written in the 1960s it doesn’t get any further than the existentialists and their attempts at self-realisation through a final experience or authenticating experience. There is no treatment of any of the post-modern thought that we have been living with since then, but much of what we have seen over the last thirty to forty years – for example, deconstructionism and suspicion of grand narratives – is a further outworking of the initial crossing of the line of despair. I am clear Schaeffer identified a real phenomenon; one that is still with us.

As an example, shortly after I had finished the book I read a review of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. After a couple of columns of positive remarks the reviewer, Steven Poole, homed in on Sapolsky’s determinism: he does not believe in free will as ‘every human action is inescapably caused by preceding events in the world, including events in the brain.’ Yet, Sapolsky still urges his readers to think carefully about their actions, and is optimistic for the gradual improvement of humanity.  As Poole concludes:

Yet the question remains: if human beings are simply reactive robots, slaves to natural law who are causally buffeted by a zillion factors of biology and circumstance, why would we have any say in whether things will get better? Either they will or they won’t, but on this magisterial account it seems that we can’t really choose to do anything about it.

If Schaeffer had read that he would have given a sad sigh of recognition, as it is almost a textbook expression of the consequences of the decoupling of the ‘upper storey’ (human meaning and purpose) from the “lower storey’ (finite knowledge of nature) produced by the line of despair.

That is the big picture. There were two other, smaller things that struck me; first, at the end of chapter 4 of Escape from Reason, he comments on the role of philosophy:

The interesting thing today is that as existentialism and, in a different way, “defining philosophy” have become antiphilosophies, the real philosophic expressions have tended to pass over to those who do not occupy the chairs of philosophy – the novelists, the film producers, the jazz musicians, and even the teenage gangs in their violence. These are the people who are asking and struggling with the big questions in our day. (p244 in the single volume)

As artists we do not have to limit ourselves to addressing the questions of the philosophers or to wait for them to come up with answers we can propagate: we are commissioned to do our own thinking.

Secondly, Schaeffer takes the view that Christian faith frees us in the realm of the imagination:

The Christian may have fantasy and imagination without being threatened. Modern man cannot have daydreams and fantasies without being threatened. The Christian should be the person who is alive, whose imagination absolutely boils, which moves, which produces something a bit different from God’s world because God made us to be creative. (He Is There and He Is Not Silent, chapter 4, p340)

For me, that is an absolutely liberating thought, a call to make and create. Let’s get on with it.

Footnote:All three of Schaeffer’s books referred to here are available in a single hardback volume – Francis A Schaeffer Trilogy –  with the revised text from Schaeffer’s complete works, from  Crossway, for under £10 from a certain on-line shop

Posted on Leave a comment

When Bad Things Happen To Bad People (And We Enjoy Watching)

Earlier this year, Richard Spencer was punched in the head whilst being interviewed at the Trump inauguration in Washington DC. The clip soon went viral, with a number of people praising the attack and circulating musical remixes, among them rapper Killer Mike and comedian Tim Heidecker.

For those who were aware of Spencer’s status as the president of a white supremacist think thank, the clip represented not just violence against him as an individual but an assault on his views and prejudices. As such, the joyous celebration of the attack on social media can be understood as a natural and passionate response, a public decrying of the evils of white nationalism and an empathetic stand with those Spencer would seek to victimise. As David Benjamin Blower observes in his excellent book Sympathy for Jonah, the normal response when faced with evil is to desire its destruction. In other words, punching Richard Spencer in the head does not only feel emotionally satisfying, but morally correct.

This natural desire for cleansing or redemptive violence, is one of the oldest and most reliable currencies employed by the world of film and television. A large number of Hollywood blockbusters, both those aimed at adults and children, will depict physical violence in the hands of a ‘good’ entity as the ultimate solution against evil. Upon viewing them, many Christian movie-goers will satisfy themselves by reading Christ-like narratives into the action. However, biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink describes this plot structure as ‘The Myth of Redemptive Violence’, stating it has its origins in a Babylonian creation story, to which the central message of Christ stands in opposition. Though worth reading in full (here), the Babylonian myth can be summarised as the idea that violence is an inevitable aspect of the human condition and that conflict must be resolved by greater powers establishing aggressive dominance over lesser powers, thus bringing order to chaos.

It should be noted that the Babylonian myth contains a good deal of insight into human nature. However, the life and death of Christ gives us not only an alternative to the Babylonian myth, but a story which subverts it entirely. As N. T. Wright states:

“People want to defeat force with force and it can’t be done, if you do that, force is still in charge. The only way you defeat force is with love and that remains the great challenge of the gospel.” (reference)

Christ’s victory is achieved in love and self-sacrifice, not by murdering or dominating his enemies but by being dominated and murdered by them. In other words, he demonstrated that the mechanism of love is to absorb rather than to inflict damage.

Carnal Thrill

But the Babylonian myth is very popular in our culture, and this presents a challenge to both the Christian consumer and the Christian artist (particularly those working in television or film). When people pay for an experience with their time and money they expect to be rewarded. With regards to film and television, this expectation is often along the lines of comfort and/or entertainment. It is much more enjoyable for audiences to vicariously live the defeat of their enemies via identification with an action hero than to be reminded of Jesus’ command to “take up your cross”. Perhaps Jesus does not wish us to defeat our enemies, perhaps he wishes us to die. However, that’s a hard sell for a screenplay.

It’s also a hard sell for many as an evening’s ‘entertainment’, at least in my experience. One such ‘take up your cross’ screenplay that did make it to the big screen was John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. However, despite the clear and powerful analogy between the actions of the protagonist and those of Christ, this film has received a mixed reception among my Christian friends. Complaints are not often levelled at the plot, dialogue or acting but rather the film’s ‘heaviness’, with the comment that ‘I usually watch films to switch off and enjoy myself’. Therefore it seems there are times when even Christians don’t like to be presented with the gospel outside of a Sunday morning!

The undeniable reality is that there is a certain carnal thrill to violence which is hard to resist. Many would argue that it is generally more exciting to view cinematic conflict resolved through violence than dialogue (although to some degree this depends on the strength of the writing). Many of us are also lucky enough to experience film and television violence as something of a novelty not present in our daily lives, where hopefully peaceful conflict resolution is the norm. Thus engaging with violent media allows us a safe space with which to indulge our primal instincts and natural human desire for power and dominance. An example of this is the 2008 smash-hit Taken, which sees Liam Neeson murdering swathes of Albanian sex traffickers in an effort to find his missing daughter. I can only comment on my own experience of the film, which was that it was fun insomuch as it provoked and then satiated a frenzied bloodlust. As a cathartic celebration of my base impulses, it was enjoyable in the same way that pornography is.

Moral Reassurance

As well as being somewhat comfortable and exciting, Walter Wink argues that the myth of redemptive violence also allows the audience something of a moral reassurance. Film and television within the redemptive violence model are often presented as simplistic ‘good versus evil’ stories. Wink states that this allows the viewer to:

“identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust (…) When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and re-establish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil.”

A clear example of this is Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film which allows the audience to gleefully indulge in gratuitous violence, which is guilt-free due to being directed towards an unacceptable enemy (Nazis). The purpose of the film is not to consider the actual nature of humankind’s inhumanity during a horrifying period of our collective history, but to use this tragedy as justification for our entertainment. The audience is left with the reassurance and self-satisfaction that they are good because they hate Nazis, regardless of how they would have acted as a citizen of Germany within the 1930s and ’40s.

A similar approach was taken for Tarantino’s follow-up, Django Unchained, this time the historical bogeyman being represented by 19th century Texan slave-owners. Once again, audiences can cheer for the good guys on their violent conquest against the villainies of slavery and finish the movie with the knowledge that all is well and justice has been served.

Released a year later, a point of comparison can be made between Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave – a harrowing slog of a film which represents a much more serious piece on slavery and differs wildly from Django in terms of tone, approach and intent. Yet when viewing 12 Years a Slave in the cinema, I was struck by one scene in particular where the protagonist, Solomon Northup, retaliates against the savage treatment from a plantation owner by attacking him with a whip. This was met with cheers of delight from subsections of the audience, yet surely this was because they’d fundamentally misunderstood the scene by interpreting it through the lens of a light-hearted revenge thriller, such as Django. Surely the scene was not supposed to be viewed as the point in the movie where Northup starts ‘kicking ass’, but rather the tragic depiction of a formerly peaceable man driven to animalistic rage by the brutal injustices of his environment. Has the approach taken by films like Django and Inglorious Basterds, often defended as fantasy entertainment, become so commonplace that it can now dominate the way in which we interpret and understand cinematic violence?

But it’s a myth! 

Violence remains an intrinsic part of our nature and thus of our culture, its ability to thrill, excite and engage is something which will continue to be undeniable. However, this doesn’t meant that as creators and those who engage with art, we shouldn’t question the stories we are being sold about the role and nature of violence. Christians remain in the paradoxical position of being somewhat tied to their natural and violent impulses, but also given the instruction and example from Jesus to transcend them. They are called to something higher and more difficult than redemptive violence, a call which though painful is given in love. For it should not be forgotten that the myth of redemptive violence often is that – a myth. When the credits have stopped rolling and the action hero wipes the blood from his hands, how often will his actions have truly brought peace and salvation?


Posted on 1 Comment

Learning from ‘Silence’: Rejection and Success Often Go Together

I can’t work out whether I’m late to the party or should have left this a little longer to marinate, but I’ve got round to writing some reflections on ‘Silence’. Last week, I focused on the work itself; today I wanted to turn my attention to some lessons we can learn from how ‘Silence’ was actually received.

Making faithful, powerful art can still get you rejected

The response falls quite neatly, but still jarringly, into two camps. We’ll come to the general reception later, but when we look at the response of the church, it is fair to say that Endo’s book was not embraced, initially at least, with open arms.

On its release in 1966, Silence, as a book, was condemned by several Catholic churches in Japan and some sectors of the evangelical church across the western world were similarly suspicious. Mark Williams, professor of Japanese studies at Leeds University, notes that despite the fact that the book sold well in Japan, the “hardcore Catholic community view it as heretical and blasphemous… Endo was persona non grata among Japanese Catholics. You can’t find the book in any Christian bookshops…’ (Here‘s the full source)

Having said this, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of knee jerk condemnations of the film adaptation from evangelicalism this time around (although that may have more to do with the fact that we’re much more comfortable with doubters like Scorcese raising difficult questions of faith, than we are with card carrying believers like Endo doing the same).

In a way then, it wouldn’t be pushing it too much to say that Endo shared the fate of Father Rodrigues: considered apostate by the very church he loved, for doing what, he at least, thought was right. However, while there is a romantic poetry in this symmetry, we mustn’t neglect the personal anguish this would have caused. Endo had to endure real rejection for carrying through his artistic vision, and I personally don’t think that this was an indication that he did anything wrong.

I think that we too, as artists in the church, have to embrace this reality. If we make authentic, powerful work, we will experience similar rejection from our Christian brothers and sisters. This may be simply in the form of misunderstanding or in feeling patronized or undervalued, but recent history would suggest that the greater the impact our work has outside of the church, the greater the rejection may well be from other Christians (Lecrae is an interesting example in this regard).

There are clearly lessons here for the church in general, but for us as artists, who I guess would make up the majority of the people reading this blog, we must go into this with our eyes wide open. I don’t think it should lead us to distance ourselves from church, but to realise that if we are looking for affirmation and even validation there, we will be sadly disappointed. I would wholeheartedly encourage all Christians to knit themselves in tightly to a local church , but at the same time, I’d equally encourage Christian artists to make sure you have strong friendships with other Christian artists who will ‘get you’, although they still may challenge you in your practice. (I guess, in a sense, those last two sentences explain Sputnik’s own raison d’etre very neatly)

Art like this can smuggle Jesus into the heart of a culture

But for many people, they may wonder why we should take the risk at all?’ Why shouldn’t Christians play it safe and go on making sanitised, well intentioned art? Why make work that could lead people to wildly different conclusions to the ones we intended- both in the church and outside it?

I’m sure that there will be a future blog post about the parables of Jesus that could be slotted in at this point, but as it is not written yet and as that would be veering from our immediate subject matter, I’ll simply redirect you to the parable of the shrewd manager (Lk 16:1-9) and then add a  WWJD?

The story of Silence itself though gives a compelling response to such questions. The fascinating thing about this story is that the events depicted were very real and still have a huge effect today. There are countless examples throughout history of brutal anti-Christian persecution leading to church growth- ancient Rome and modern day China spring to mind. However Japan is an anomaly. In many ways, Japan successfully suppressed Christianity in the 17th century and it never really bounced back.

Today, under 3% of Japan would self identify as Christian. That’s a smaller number of Christians than you’d find in Burkina Faso, and a smaller percentage of Christians than you’d find in Saudi Arabia. However, at the heart of modern day Japan, Endo’s Silence is revered as a crucial cultural artefact.

In 1966, it won the Tanazaki prize, one of Japan’s most sought after literary awards, and it is still held in high regard in his homeland where he would be listed in any compilation of modern Japanese literary greats.

This is a remarkable achievement. Whatever you think of Endo’s work or of Rodrigues’ example or of Scorcese’s adaptation- this work has burrowed Christianity into the heart of a culture that has systematically suppressed the Christian message in the public square. And anyone who wants to study this book is going to have to burrow themselves even deeper into Christian theology as, let’s face it, it’s not like Christianity is a peripheral theme in the book. Everything is here- from the atonement to repentance to grace to forgiveness. And Jesus comes out of it incredibly well.

It was very moving to read Andrew Garfield’s reflections on playing the role of Father Rodrigues in the film. In preparation for the role, he underwent a whole course of Jesuit retreats and exercises and when he was asked what stood out for him in these exercises, his reply was this:

“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”

I think that anyone approaching Endo’s work with a spiritual openness would be able to navigate their way to the same affection, and that is something remarkable.

For all their failings, perhaps the apostate priests of the 17th century have left behind a legacy. From their stories, marred by human weakness and failing, Jesus has regained a place at the heart of Japanese culture- hidden from view, yes, but still accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. And now, they are speaking through Hollywood too.

Whether that vindicates them stepping on their fumi-es all those years ago, I don’t know, but it is certainly a wonderful and unexpected epilogue. For all Christians who long to see every culture come to fall in love with Jesus, it’s certainly a huge reason to thank God for Shusaku Endo (and for Martin Scorcese). For all Christians who want to make art that speaks into their specific culture, we should be doubly thankful, because here we have someone who has given us a pretty good model of how it should be done.

Posted on 6 Comments

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).

Posted on 7 Comments

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)



Posted on Leave a comment

Wolf in a White Van: Effective Escapism

Last year I read John Darnielle’s novel Wolf in White Van. Though his first major literary work, I have been a long-time fan of Darnielle’s band the Mountain Goats, through which his ability to craft short but emotionally nuanced stories has been consistently demonstrated through his role as the songwriter and lyricist.

As such, I approached the book with high expectations and was pleased to find it did not disappoint. The story Darnielle has crafted is one which is psychologically incisive and strangely unnerving. Yet what stayed with me the most was the way in which the novel examines the power of escapism.

Wolf in White Van focuses on the first person experiences of Sean, a young man recovering from a violent incident which left him hospitalised and requiring facial reconstructive surgery. As a way of passing the time and distracting himself from his injuries, Sean develops Trace Italian, a play-by-mail, choose-your-own-adventure game. Players are tasked with surviving a post-apocalyptic desert landscape whilst searching for the titular Trace Italian, a vast fortress which provides refuge from the brutal conditions outside.

Trace Italian provides Sean with an escape from his immediate surroundings and a coping mechanism for the painful and constrained situation he finds himself in, but even despite Darnielle’s love for all things fantastical, he is not afraid to explore the negative side of such escapism through the book. Sean seems to be aware that his creation offers no ultimate solutions other than a temporary distraction from the player’s immediate surroundings. He confides to the reader that reaching the centre of Trace Italian (the eventual purpose of the game) is impossible, leaving the experience one of endless searching, with no hope of a satisfactory conclusion. Furthermore, when one of his players decides to give up half-way through by committing suicide he treats his decision with a respectful admiration, noting that “He had made the right move.”

All of this got me thinking about the purpose and value of escapism. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy’ escapism can come in many forms. Arguably sports, espionage thrillers and romantic comedies can all fulfil this role. However, when I think of the term it’s often Dungeons & Dragons or science fiction that comes to mind, possibly because their fantastical and otherworldly settings provide a more obvious counterpoint to our own. And whilst nerd culture is becoming increasingly commonplace, it’s hard to ignore the old stereotypical view that the champions of these genres have traditionally been stigmatised as people who escape to fantastical realms to gain a degree of power or worth not afforded them in ‘the real world’.

The point of criticism is obvious. Such entertainment amounts to a kind of ‘emotional fast food’, artificially fulfilling our hunger (for power, importance, nobility, adventure) whilst providing nothing of real substance.

However, there is another way to look at it. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, for example, espoused a very different kind of escapism. Few would deny the artistic value of The Lord of The Rings and Narnia series, but what elevates them above the cheap and short term fixes many associate with escapism in general, and the genre of fantasy, in particular?

Firstly, I would argue that though the settings are fantastical and otherworldly, The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series portray real human conflict and emotion within their fictional settings. Although Tolkien has argued that The Lord of The Rings is not an allegory for either of the world wars, the epic battles he portrayed mirror the actual conflicts which occurred during the writing process. Other real-world concerns echoed in the novels include the corrupting influence of power, the dangers of industrialisation and the importance of courage in the face of evil. Relatively speaking, the Narnia series has tended to operate on a smaller scale. However, the conflicts faced by the protagonists have remained engaging, relatable and believable, despite the inherent fiction in their premises. For instance, in discussing The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe fellow fantasy writer Lev Grossman notes:

“Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.“ (Source)

However, if the true value of these works is in the re-framing of ‘real’ conflicts and concerns within the context of a fantasy setting, what worth is the setting itself? Is all the talk of elves and dragons just a hook to get people invested? For Lewis, the role of fantasy was much more than this – it allowed for the suspension of disbelief, the entering of ‘another space’, removed from that which is familiar. Following this, Lewis (whose books were plainly but not offensively evangelistic -a rare thing indeed) used the space to communicate to the reader a ‘higher’ truth, one regarding the nature of good and evil and the presence of spiritual forces, without the reader becoming defensive and disengaging due to their own preconceptions on such matters. In discussing the value of using ‘Fairy-Stories’ to communicate spiritual truth, Lewis writes:

Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to. I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of the stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” (Source)

Arguably most modern readers would lack a sense of obligation to reverence concerning spiritual matters. However, most will have their own (often negative) preconceptions of Christianity, often dismissing its more fantastical elements (e.g. Jesus’ divinity & resurrection) offhand. However, I would argue that in wilfully choosing to enter an otherworldly space such as Narnia, we abandon our vice-grip on the need for complete rationalism and become accepting of events which make sense not according to strict scientific and logical consideration, but rather those which have an aesthetic and emotional cohesion. (FOOTNOTE 1)

Therefore for Lewis, the question is not ‘Is escapism acceptable?’ but ‘Where are you escaping to?’  For Tolkien, the answer to this was ‘to Joy’. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ he writes:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale) in its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Source) (FOOTNOTE 2)

However, Tolkien also gave thought to where people were escaping from and why they had need to escape at all.

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”  (Source)

The ‘Prisons’ Tolkien primary discussed were the forces of fascism and communism operating at the time of writing. However, they could just as well apply to our own dominant world-views. Indeed, for Lewis himself, the fantasy writings of George MacDonald caused a ‘baptism of imagination’ which allowed him to ‘break free’ from the prison of his materialist world-view.

In an age in which materialist and post-modern narratives dominate, we need art to divulge truth about the world, ourselves and the nature of good and evil. The need for good to triumph over evil in our fantasy stories is because we have a sense deep down that this is true, yet it is not something that is necessarily self-evident from the world around us. Being honest in the workplace can earn us the ire of our superiors, making self-sacrificing purchasing decisions on ethical grounds can feel like a token gesture and a relative drop in the ocean. Bad things happen to good people and evil prospers. If there is truth to our basic instincts that a coherent and moral structure to the Universe exists, we need it to be validated by the art we engage in. Taken in this context, the ‘escapist’ literature of Tolkien and Lewis (among many others) becomes, in fact, a kind of ‘hyper-realism’ transporting us away from the illusory hallucinations we find ourselves confronted by (‘Humans are just DNA replicating machines’ / ‘truth and morality are socially constructed’) and into a place of emotional and spiritual truth surpassing that of our immediate surroundings. In the words of Lewis, effective escapism will give the reader a desire for “They know not what”:

“It stirs and troubles [the reader] (to their life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond their reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new ‘dimension of depth’. They do not despise real woods because they have read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. (Source)


FOOTNOTE 1 Though we still like to think of ourselves as logical and scientific, in a ‘post-truth’ world, we are quickly abandoning the notion that people are driven primarily by rational thought and are re-learning the importance of emotion in people’s beliefs and decision-making. If we are to champion Christianity, the arts’ ability to portray this aesthetic and emotional ‘sense-making’ is something which will be undeniably valuable. After all, can anyone truly say that the idea of penal substitution is ‘logical’ more than it is beautiful?

FOOTNOTE 2 Interestingly, this quote echoes Sputnik favourite Flannery O’Connor and her discussion of ‘the moment of grace’ in her writing. However, in the stories of O’Connor, the ‘moment of grace’ operated on a much more individual and personal level than the cosmic event which Tolkien seems to be referencing.



Posted on 1 Comment

How do you make challenging art without causing people to stumble?

The Bible is very pro-art. Throughout the books of the Christian Scriptures, there is much praise for artists and exhortation for artistic practice in all sorts of disciplines. Not only this though, the Bible is art! God communicates to the world artistically, whether it’s in some of the most beautiful language that human culture has ever produced or in striking narratives that retain their power thousands of years later.

However, there are some passages that have been seen to set such tight parameters on artistic practice that some Christian artists have found themselves unable to operate in certain fields according to biblical teaching. Many have given up entirely because they’ve felt that creating art in an authentic and powerful way clashes with what God says in his word.

Just to be clear, if this is true, I’d go with God’s word over our right to self expression every time (and even over our calling to communicate to people effectively). As my friend Ally Gordon once said to me, success for the Christian artist is obedience, and if obeying God means holding back in certain areas of our work, we’ve really only got one option.

Having said that, I’m not sure that we’ve often been that clever when approaching ‘proof texts’ on artistic practice, and I’d love to start raising some of these on this blog as I’m increasingly convinced that the Bible isn’t quite as restrictive on radical artistic practice as some may think. I’d like to start today with a passage that I’ve scratched my head over for a long time. Romans 14:21 says this:

It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

What does Romans 14:21 have to do with artists?

In this passage, Paul is addressing disagreements in the Roman church between Christians who have quite strict rules about what they should eat and drink (and whether they should observe certain holy days and things like that) and others who are a bit more chilled out. Paul makes clear that we are free as Christians to go with our consciences and we shouldn’t go about turning our noses up at one another. However, at the same time, everything we do should be done out of love. It’s no good appealing to our right to eat meat or drink wine, if by doing so it offends other people or worse. That’s not acting out of love (14:15).

The classic example would be if I went to the pub with a recovering alcoholic. I am free to have a beer, but that may not be entirely helpful to my friend, who does not share my sense of freedom in this area. Therefore, it may be best to order a soft drink.

But let’s now apply this to artistic practice. You may not be seriously tempted to be a potty mouth. You may not have anger issues or get frightened easily or find the nude human form massively problematic. However, someone in your church will, so there may well be elements of content or even style of almost any piece of work that could potentially cause someone somewhere a problem.

And this is no small issue either. Jesus puts it a little more bluntly in Matthew 18:6

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Gulp! You can probably see why many have urged artists to tread pretty carefully on this one!

The general direction for Christian artists has often been then to try not to offend anyone. Ever. In anything. However, I think this approach is a little problematic.

Two problems with trying to avoid offending anyone. Ever. In anything.

The first problem with this approach is that art usually carries the potential to shock in its very nature. Artists aren’t necessarily just being obtuse when they provoke and annoy- they are simply making art. Art should challenge us. It should get under our skin. It should confound our expectations. Of course, some artists just offend for the sake of it and it’s often quite painful to hear a flagging pop artist trying to sound edgy by peppering their choruses with f-words or a desperate art student resorting to getting naked to try to pass their degree. However, think of the art that you initially reacted negatively to that, for that very reason, drew you in and then encouraged you to see the world differently. For me, Everything Everything’s recent album ‘Get To Heaven’ would be a case in point. As would David Foster Wallace’s brilliant ‘Infinite Jest’. Both offended me in different ways, but ultimately have proved very rewarding. (For what I think is the best example of this, check this link. Warning- you MUST read to the end. And have a strong stomach.)

Now, I recognise that this alone is not enough. Just because Christians have applied verses like Romans 14:21 in a way that has led to a proliferation of dull, safe, neutered art, it doesn’t mean that they’ve applied it wrong. Perhaps that’s what God wants us to do. Perhaps the Christian artist who wants to actually have an impact on the world is on to a loser from the outset. However, there is a second problem with the ‘never offend anyone’ position and it is more fundamental- the heroes of the Bible are constantly offending people to communicate a message.

Take Paul wishing he could castrate the Judaizers in Galatia (Galatians 5:12) or Isaiah wandering around naked for 3 years (Isaiah 20:3) or Ezekiel eating food over poo (Ezekiel 4:12). Or (sorry to do this, but here’s the trump card) Jesus telling people to cut off their own limbs. Or hate their parents. Or basically anything he happened to do on a Saturday. The Bible sets a precedent of offence as a potential end of our communication.

What to do?

As always with the Bible, we should never play one bit off against another in a way that nullifies it all. I think we should feel the force of all of this wisdom from our creator and apply it to our practice. Here then are some thoughts on a way forward:

We must always create out of love– there’s no way of getting around this, this is basic Jesus following. In our work, the most important question is not- ‘is it any good?’ but ‘is it loving?’ If we’re deliberately trying to wind people up just to make ourselves look clever or to sell more units or to grind our particular axe of choice, it’s not justified biblically.

We are free to provoke and challenge and even offend in some circumstances– The Bible doesn’t tell us that we should never offend anyone ever. It simply tells us to be careful. If we are acting out of love and we submit our work to God and, in good conscience and following biblical teaching, conclude that it is righteous (even if a little earthy) we can go ahead. But it cuts both ways I guess. We need people who’ll provoke, challenge and offend us too! I’d thoroughly recommend finding Christian friends who get what you’re doing who you let speak into your life and your artistic practice. There’s an incredibly fine line here, and for those who feel called to produce work that treads very close to ‘the line’ (as Isaiah, Ezekiel and even Jesus did) we may get it right one day and wrong the next. We won’t always be the best judge of that on our own.

We must consider our audience– When we consider the context of both of the verses quoted, we see something interesting. The group we shouldn’t make stumble are clearly Christians. Neither verses seem to say anything of how we relate to people outside the church. In fact, if we take Jesus’ example, we need to make people who aren’t Christians stumble in some ways to help wake them up to the reality of God (Romans 9:33). Therefore, I’d suggest that if you are making work primarily for people outside of the church and you feel free (conscience and Bible considered) to delve a little deeper into the darkness than many of your church pals may be comfortable with, just keep it for the audience it’s intended for. Don’t plug it on your church Facebook page or flog your albums/books/comics/pictures/etc on a Sunday morning. If you’re really worried, use a pseudonym, so they’ll definitely not find out about it (although of course, point 2 above). This isn’t being sneaky, it’s simply being wise. We don’t want to stir up temptations that some of our church friends may struggle with but we do want to start conversations with people outside of the church in a visceral, provocative and attention grabbing way. I think that it could be possible to do both if we don’t feel the need to seek validation and boost likes from our Christian friends.

And I wonder if here we hit a difficulty. For many Christian artists, we really want our Christian friends to ‘get us’ and to appreciate our work. However, I’m not sure we can have it both ways. If you make art mainly for Christians, people outside the church probably aren’t going to appreciate your work fully, if you make art mainly for people who aren’t Christians, Christians probably aren’t going to appreciate your work fully. If you try to please both, you will probably fail to please anyone! And apparently, if we get this wrong we could end up in a situation that’s worse than swimming with the fishes gangland executioner style! For all of these reasons, I think a bit of wisdom wouldn’t go amiss in how we promote our work to our Christian brothers and sisters.

As always, those are just some of my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours. I’ll try not to take offence 😉

I’d also love to hear how you interact with the Bible. What are the Bible passages that most affect your artistic practice? Which ones give you most freedom and encouragement? Which ones do you find most restrictive?

Posted on Leave a comment

Daniel Blake: How can Christian arts professionals do their work for Jesus?

I’m really looking forward to meeting Daniel Blake at our Catalyst4theworkplace day. Daniel is a fashion designer with a couple of fashion labels under his belt as well as some pretty tasty freelance credits and a teaching role at the London college of fashion. In short, he’s the real deal! We’re delighted that he’s agreed to come and share his expertise and make himself available to help you guys who are working in the arts on 8th October.

But why wait til then?

This video is a great introduction and encouragement on its own. The whole thing is worth watching but Daniel’s bit about working in the fashion industry as a Christian is particularly helpful for any of you guys working professionally in the arts who really want to shine brightly for Jesus in your work. It’s only a minute as well.


Posted on Leave a comment

Suicide Squad: Mental Illness For Fun And Profit

In recent years superhero movies have enjoyed an explosion in popularity. Almost every new release seems to be a major movie-going event, thanks to their colourful accessibility and widespread appeal.

Not one to be left out, the church has also taken the genre to its bosom, with youth outings or small group socials often planned around the latest offering. This is perhaps because of their high-budget, action-packed thrills, combined with a low statistical probability of encountering any naked bums (most depicted skin-on-skin contact will be a big manly fist connecting with a big manly face). Or perhaps it’s because the movies normally promise glossy blockbuster entertainment with a relatively straightforward good-verses-evil message; this message undoubtedly a wholesome influence on the church’s young men – teaching them to never give up in the fight against evil with the continual use of physical violence and an absolute faith in their own moral compass. Young women are also assuredly provided with a positive role model in the form of the obligatory female who Can Kick Just As Much Ass As The Boys (albeit one with a third of the dialogue and a mandatory skin-tight costume).  So we sit munching a £6.99 bag of popcorn, soaking up the bloodless violence and eagerly await the upcoming article about how the aforementioned manly fist represents Jesus and the aforementioned manly face represents satan (or perhaps, in the more subtle efforts, Western Consumerism).

The latest superhero movie, due to grace our screens on the 5th August 2016, has taken a slightly different approach. From the DC stable (trailing pitifully in the wake of the Marvel juggernaut) comes Suicide Squad – a movie adaptation of a comic series where a number of supervillains team up to do a thing. Judging by its title and promotion material, Suicide Squad has spurned the family blockbuster market and plumped for a ‘dark’ tone, mixed with wanton destruction and insufferable zAnY hUmOuR. For example, the initial trailer is largely set in a grimy cityscape and features a string of explosions interspersed by smug quips from the rounded-up roster of rapscallions.

Now I’m a surly sourpuss who doesn’t find the prospect of Suicide Squad particularly exciting or amusing. However, beyond the movie’s jarring technicolour kookiness there’s something else about its overall branding which perturbs me. Specifically I’m referring to the way that it seems to be using the ‘exoticism’ of mental illness in its promotion. [FOOTNOTE 1]

The most obvious target would be the movie’s title. However, I don’t see this as particularly offensive, given the reference to the concept of a ‘suicide mission’. It would also be remiss of me to pretend that I haven’t previously enjoyed the mythos of characters like the Joker. After all, who can truly resist the anarchic allure of an unhinged malefactor, whose loose grip on reality nonetheless fails to prevent him preparing several elaborate, city-wide traps (whose mechanics encompass a series of tricky moral quandaries)? However, whereas previous DC media seemed to encapsulate the Joker’s disposition by a kind of non-descript ‘madness’, things seem a little different this time.

Perhaps I was previously ignorant, but the employment of mental instability as a marketing tool feels more pointed around the release of Suicide Squad – particularly in reference to specific mental health experiences and terminology. For example, in promoting the upcoming movie, a number of entertainment blogs and websites seem to be confusing the terms ‘psychotic’ and ‘psychopathic’. Despite them both containing the same root word, this is not a mistake that should be made lightly.

Broadly speaking, ‘psychopathy’ is characterised by callousness, remorselessness and a lack of empathy. In comparison, ‘psychosis’ refers to a spectrum of psychological and sensory experiences which may involve, for example, unusual sensory experiences (e.g. hearing voices), or holding strong beliefs that others find odd (e.g. ideas that may be considered suspicious or paranoid).

What’s key about this distinction is the kind of behaviours assumed by each term. While high levels of psychopathic traits are associated with an increased risk of violent and antisocial behaviour, people with psychosis are much more likely to be at risk of violence themselves than perpetrators. This may be partly due to negative portrayals of mental illness in the media, including insinuations that psychosis leads to violence. And while there are tragic occasions where people with psychosis commit violent acts, these are rare, overrepresented by the media and often perpetrated by individuals who are responding in fear against a perceived threat to themselves. Furthermore, people with psychosis can internalise negative media portrayals of themselves as dangerous and immoral, which can result in more mental health difficulties and a fear of seeking support from others.

Granted, much of my beef is with various entertainment websites covering the film and not the film itself. However, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Suicide Squad is trying to court a certain type of promotional material. For example, there’s the article boasting of the need of a therapist on set. Then there’s the interview with Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang in the movie) where he refers to director David Ayer’s creative approach as ‘psychotic’. Perhaps a misjudged comment, but various websites lapped it up, running the term ‘psychotic’ within their main headline. One site reblogged the story by describing Ayer as ‘psychotic, but in a good way’, noting this was ‘rather fitting for a film about a group of dangerous criminal weirdos’.

Pre-release, the jury’s still out regarding the film itself. However, there is one moment in the trailer which doesn’t bode well. The clip features Harley Quin – former psychiatrist-turned-badwoman who Can Kick Just As Much Ass As The Boys (albeit one with seemingly too much of the dialogue and is featured in one scene stripping down to her bra and pants.) About a minute into the trailer, Harley makes a quip about voices in her head telling her to kill everybody. It’s a joke sure, but the tone in which it’s made is flippant and insensitive. Plus the fact that this was chosen as a crowd-pleasing, ‘sizzle reel’ moment is a sad indictment that people who hear voices presumably aren’t considered important enough to avoid offending, even from a purely commercial perspective.

I don’t believe that Suicide Squad holds deliberately malicious intentions. And it may seem churlish to attack a film on the strength of its trailer and a few misjudged quotes. However, there is something about the marketing of Suicide Squad which seems to be cashing in on the misplaced mystique around mental illness and in doing so co-opts a larger narrative, one which lumps psychosis with violence and moral bankruptcy. This is not a new problem, but it’s one which gives us a false understanding of psychosis and risks stigmatising those who may already be experiencing significant distress and difficulty. In other words, if mental illness is explained as justification for immorality (fictional or otherwise), we may begin to equate the two [FOOTNOTE 2]

Still, who’s excited for Aquaman (2018)!?!


1) Note that some people who experience psychotic experiences would reject the term ‘mental ill’, finding it unnecessarily victimising. There are also debates around the utility of terms such as ‘ill’ and ‘well’, given the continuum of experiences which could be classified as ‘psychotic’ and difficulty in establishing demarcation criteria for a valid and reliable medical diagnosis. In reference to this I have largely tried to avoid using traditional diagnostic terms, however, this discussion is beyond the scope of the current article. For further information, see here.

2) The waters get muddier when you consider that most people who commit violent atrocities and mass murders are presumably not completely mentally ‘healthy’. However, it could be argued that in high profile cases, the label of mental illness is often used post-hoc as a justification for amoral acts, excusing the perpetrators of responsibility and further stigmatising those with established mental health difficulties. It’s a complicated area, which I don’t have space to fully explore in the current article, however, see here for further discussion.

Posted on 2 Comments

Me Against ‘The World’

In my last post on the role of dissent for the Christian artist, we looked a little bit at the definition of dissent and why it might be a good thing for us to get involved with.

One of the biggest theological obstacles when thinking this through is the place of authority. In saying ‘no’ to the prevailing opinion, in disrupting ideological circuits, we often come across states, governments and law enforcement – those who might protect the status quo for the sake of order, or for their own security or profit.

Whatever our political persuasions as Christian artists, we have to acknowledge that all governmental authority is appointed by God and so deserves our respect and submission, as Paul makes clear in Romans 13. In many situations though, Paul’s instructions here don’t seem easily applicable and it’s worth giving them some careful thought in their own right (here’s a short resource from Jonny Mellor or a more extensive examination in this four-part John Piper sermon series- ‘Subjection to God and Subjection to the State’).

The relationship between dissent and civil disobedience is an important one to explore, because the Bible and more recent history shows that civil disobedience does have its place and must be used very carefully. However, civil disobedience is not really the kind of dissent I’m trying to get at here. A while back I conducted a poll among some Sputnik artists. Only one artist recognised that when they dissented, it was against civil authority. The most popular adversary was the biblical concept of ‘The World’. The World is what we as Christians should be continually dissenting against, because Jesus commands it. We are compelled to be non-conformists when it comes to the patterns and cycles of The World. It is the kingdom that is not God’s. It is the gate which the forces of heaven will prevail against. It the strong man who must be bound up that we might raid his house.

And sometimes it is ‘the principalities and powers of this dark world’ (Eph 6:12). The World and the systems of government therein often collaborate. Under these circumstances the subject of our dissent might be the government. The message of submission in Romans 13 is rightly emphasised. The idea that all authority is appointed by God, especially in the realm of an Emperor whose power was in part derived from his claims to divinity was also an incredibly bold statement of dissent. Other examples of civil disobedience litter the Bible. It might be when the state commands us to do something God forbids, in the case of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego. It might be when the state forbids something God commands, in the case of Daniel praying towards Jerusalem. Don’t even get me started on Jesus. In each of these stories, the dissenters submit to the punishment the state sanctions against them.

The majority of modern dissent against the state in the UK is a lot less inspiring, creative, or costly. Largely it is formed by our own worldly political convictions. Some Christians dissent against abortion, equal marriage and ‘political correctness’ but pretty much nothing else seems to bother them. Plenty of other Christians will rail on social media against everything the Tories do, particularly in regard to the poor, without their dissent getting any more creative than contributing towards a culture of memes and puerile name calling. At different points in my lifetime I could have been seen in both of those stereotypes.

So, before we conclude this discussion next time, a few questions to consider:

In your art, are you often aware of the tension between ‘being all things to all men’ while ‘not being conformed to the patterns of this world?’

How far can we go as Christians in our dissent against human authorities? Is there a line over which we shouldn’t go?

In your art, do you focus your dissent against ‘The World’?

For the last post in the series, try here.

Posted on 1 Comment

Getting a dose of horror movies in your diet

Great work Thinktheology and Nathanael Smith for not playing it safe with Tuesday’s post- a review of Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch’ and general reflections on the horror genre. The guys at Think asked me to do a sort of companion piece that went up there on Wednesday, but I thought I’d share it here as well. 

Should Christians watch horror movies? Twenty years ago, in the kind of churches I grew up around, this question would have been met with a uninanimous and curt response and Nathanael Smith would have probably found himself facing something not dissimilar to the Salem witch trials!

Things have moved on and for some that is enough to settle the argument. Christians have made our peace with Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, it’s only natural that we’d continue to repent of all of yesteryear’s knee jerk cultural prejudices.

However, it’s really important that we stop and think this through. I’ve got mixed feelings about the way the church interacts with art (in all its shapes and sizes) nowadays, and as someone who helps lead a church and spends a lot of my time working with artists, I’ll be honest, I’m still working this stuff through. However, I’ve got a few thoughts that I’d like to throw into the pot:

1. We are not to be undiscerning consumers

Andy Crouch charts the Western church’s shift in how it interacts with culture largely as a shift from a posture of wholesale condemnation through to undiscerning consumption. He warns of the risks in such a position:

‘…consumption, as a posture, is capitulation: letting the culture set the terms, assuming that the culture knows best and that even our deepest longings (for beauty, truth, love) and fears (of loneliness, loss, death) have some solution that fits comfortably within our culture’s horizons, if only we can afford to purchase it.’(Culture Making, pp 95-96)

In all of these discussions, I fear that for many of us, when we hear ‘if your conscience allows it’ (which I fully agree with by the way) we hear an encouragement to capitulation. Our consciences certainly have an objective Holy Spirit element to them but they are also educated and trained and they can be seared, it seems, almost beyond repair (1 Tim 4:2). One of the main ways I have learnt to hone my conscience has been by wrestling at length over the art I indulge in. I have smashed more records and CDs, binned more DVDs and stopped halfway through more TV series than I can count. I felt God prod me that some were leading me towards sin, others were leading me to think in unhelpful ways and others just needed to go as I was more interested in them than in Jesus at that time. I have found this costly- both financially and in terms of losing things I loved- but the payback has been that I’ve learnt to hear the nuances of God’s voice as I’ve learnt to discern the prod of the Spirit and obeyed Him along the way.

2. As we think about the true, right and lovely, we must find a place for the ugly, wicked and horrific

Whatever decisions we make regarding specifics though, we must find a place for horror in our lives! When I was growing up, Philippians 2:8 was used pretty liberally to warn me off a whole host of evils. However, I can’t help thinking that Paul’s teaching here has been somewhat abused. Paul teaches the Philippian church to ‘think about such things’ (the true, noble, right, etc) which is very different to ‘only think about such things’. If he’d done the latter, he would have been making the rather radical move of prohibiting serious reflection on large chunks of the Old Testament. Ezekiel would be considerably shorter (Ezekiel 16? 23?) and Judges 19-21 would certainly have to go (imagine Eli Roth getting his hands on that particular passage).

God chose to expose us to the horrific effects of sin in his own perfect word and he hasn’t spared us any of the gory details. It is totally understandable why many Christians treat Christianity as a bunker to hide away in, safe from the horrors of the world, but that’s not what it was ever meant to be. We are meant to be able to look evil in the face, acknowledge head on the depths of depravity in the world and then give our lives to the one who crushed the snake’s head in a bid to rescue people and refashion our culture. A church that ponders flowers, eagles and sun rises all day will likely develop a fairly rose tinted view of the world. God however chose to motivate his people into action by encouraging us to dwell on stories of gang rape, dismembered corpses and donkey’s genitalia. It’s certainly not meant to be entertaining, but if an irregular dose of some cinema that may be deemed slightly unsavoury can wake us up to the horrors of the real world we live in and the desperate need for us to do something about it, then it may be worth a few sleepless nights.

3. Living in Babylon means learning the culture

As I’ve thought about the shift in the church’s attitude to culture, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s largely down to a change in perception of where we live, spiritually speaking. In my early years, Christian leaders talked as if we lived in Israel. Once into my twenties, the general concensus was that we were in Athens. But as has pointed out on this very site, we are now squarely rooted in Babylon.

Therefore, Daniel is a very helpful model for us. He was immersed into Babylonian culture (Dan 1:4) and took the assignment on with some gusto. Of course, he did need to take a stand for righteousness, but he did this by resolving  not to defile himself with the literal consumables he was given; he did not seem to fear the cultural produce he would have been filling his mind with every day.

In Daniel’s footsteps, we must learn the language and literature (and music and film and theatre and visual aesthetic) of our culture. As someone who leads a Christian art network, I’m particularly interested in how we apply this by subverting these norms into high quality, culturally incisive art that can speak back into the culture, however, this can be applied much more broadly to all who want to understand the state of play around us and communicate meaningfully to those outside the church.

In conclusion, I’m not sure exactly how we tie all of these threads together, but I’m convinced that we need to. We have to learn to value what is good and be careful in how we nurture righteousness in our thoughts, words and deeds, but at the same time, we must become more robust, so that we can stomach what Babylon feeds us- in virtually all its forms, artistic or academic- and use it to overthrow, or even better redeem, that horrific city.

Posted on Leave a comment

Artists As Servants: What I Learnt From The Circus

Recently, I went to the circus for the first time. My parents never seemed to be very keen on the circus and my wife’s lingering memory of her one childhood visit was of mangy, ill treated tigers cowering in cages. However, when you’ve got three kids, it’s half term and Living Social are being generous- needs must!

Anyway, quite unexpectedly, I had a great time. Not only was it thoroughly entertaining, it was actually an instructive experience in artistic etiquette.

First off, I was taken aback by the level of skill on display. From the tired looking clown, whose feigned ineptitude enabled him to hoodwink 5 audience members into an absolutely brilliant piece of comic theatre halfway through (totally at their expense) to the Dynamite Riders trio who hurtled around a metal globe on their motorbikes at about a million miles an hour, these were exceptionally gifted performers who’d clearly given their lives to mastering their crafts.

But there was a joy and humility about the whole thing that was remarkable. My 7 year old was welcomed on the door by a friendly steward who turned out half an hour later to be a member of Trio Zetsimekov who were one of the main acts (doing this crazy thing with curtains, poise and an intimidating level of upper body strength). One half of Las Chicas Morales, the duo that kicked the show off by scaling and descending interlocking ramps while standing on enormous globes, painted the kids’ faces in the interval. Chico Rico, the clown, personally saw you out at the end.

Here was something truly unusual- extraordinary skill without any hint of celebrity or ego. And they were clearly having a whale of a time. The Bulgarian duo who performed all manner of gravity defying acrobatics upon ‘the wheel of death’ entered and exited beaming from ear to ear and gave every indication that they felt that it was a genuine privilege to be there. (To put this in perspective, the whole thing was in a tatty big top in a car park at Merry Hill Shopping Centre. All I can say, if you are not familiar with ‘Merry Hell’, is that this would not have been the most prestigious leg of the tour!)

It was remarkable, but I found it quite chastening too. I know that I’ve performed a number of gigs in quite the opposite manner. Perhaps the crowd was a little small, the sound system wasn’t quite up to scratch, the promoter was a bit unhelpful. For whatever reason, I know that at times I’ve performed with a grumpy functionality and have acted before and after my performance with an aloofness that demonstrated that I’d bought a very twisted view of the role of the artist. The artist as one who is there to be served. The main event. The one whose name is on the flyer. Who people have come to see. Paid to see. Someone incredibly special. What’s funny is that I’ve even felt this way sometimes when my name wasn’t on the flyer, there was no admittance fee and nobody had actually come to see me anyway!

Gandeys Circus troupe reminded me of something. The artist is essentially a servant. We have been gifted with talents and skills and hopefully we’ve put time and effort into nurturing these gifts but we are there to serve not to be served. This may involve providing entertainment, it may involve providing a challenge. In fact our service may be to make our audience feel decidedly uncomfortable, but we are there for them. Therefore, we should always do it with joy and humility.

The models in most of our fields will be demanding, self serving egotists and we must be under no illusions- they will affect us. As we follow Christ in our art, we must not then just concern ourselves with our content, but also with our manner. I want to serve audiences with at least the same level of joy and humility as Gandeys Circus.

Posted on Leave a comment

Lamentation: Should Heaven Know I’m Miserable Now?

Probably 40-50% of the songs, raps and poems I’ve written are melancholic. My 2002 album Gondwanaland with Michaelis Constant has the theme of lamentation running through the whole album.

Like many of you, I also connect deeply with other people’s melancholia expressed in songs, poems, classical compositions and raps. These engage a hidden, vulnerable part of my spirit. The catharsis of weeping/praying/raging as I listen to, for example Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, is important to my spiritual, emotional and mental health.

However there’s a distinct lack of acknowledgement or dialogue amongst modern-day Christians about the potency and human necessity of lamentation.

Why aren’t lamentations, which make up the bulk of numerous biblical books, part of our ecclesiastical life? I’m not exactly suggesting a discontinuity-creating a dirge in the middle of an up-beat Sunday morning service- but I am suggesting the need for creative engagement with the unspoken shadows that are a part of everyday human life. A friend of mine observed: ‘the depression of Psalm 88 is given voice rather than cut off and not heard. Why don’t psalms like this make it into our corporate worship?’

Some assert that lamentation has been rendered unnecessary, a part of the old pattern that has been swept aside. I disagree wholeheartedly

I said a few paragraphs ago that lamentation is a necessity. Can I back that up? Some Christians would assert that since death has been defeated and we have found what the prophets and patriarchs were searching for, lamentation has been rendered unnecessary, a part of the old pattern that has been swept aside. I disagree wholeheartedly. Look at what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:

For indeed while we are in this tent (meaning earthly bodies), we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.

A part of our melancholy is the recognition that though some time in the future God’s Kingdom will be fully realized we only get little glimpses of it now. Essentially this sort of lament is not unbelieving despair but rather the visceral pain that believers experience precisely because they believe.

Lamentation is the oil that massages the sore muscles of the Body of Christ. Although I’ve been drawn into the recorded melancholia of David Eugene Edwards, Nick Cave, Radiohead and Chelsea Wolfe, the place where that lamentation oil has been most effective is within a local community context.

I have been fortunate to have friends who have shared their beautiful, sad songs and sound art within living room gigs, local festivals and other community settings. We come together for a moment to lament the loss of innocence or the sins of our nation or the death of a young mother or the loneliness of depression or the ‘Sehnsucht’ in the soul for the fully realized Kingdom. This, I believe, is an underappreciated way we bond as believers and as communities. I also sense that when people who aren’t Christians see Christians lament properly it invites them to approach Jesus honestly.

The band Everything Everything have written some incredibly sad songs. Recently I’ve been meditating to their song The Peaks. It embodies the violence, destruction and sorrow of the age we’re living in and at the end appears to ask a judge/observer/God-type character for answers. It is a song, which echoes the horror and desolation witnessed by the prophet Jeremiah. Laments are a prayer language. You see ‘The Peaks’ leads me to sorrow and anger AND vulnerable, tearful dialogue with God.

And I’ve seen more villages burn than animals born,
I’ve seen more towers come down than children grow up…
Come now, Decider, sit down beside me
Tell me my world is gone

Do you spend time lamenting? Should lamentation be a normal part of Christian life? When we neglect it do we lose a vital form of prayer?