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Explore our virtual gallery for the 2021 Online Catalyst Festival

Update: This gallery is now offline. You can see our new gallery of 2022 work, here.

Sputnik as a project was born out of the Catalyst network of churches, and the bi-annual Catalyst Festival has often been an opportunity for us to showcase Sputnik artists, through exhibitions, workshops and performances.

This year, with the Catalyst Festival taking place online, we’ve put together a virtual gallery of work created by artists in/around the Sputnik network. Most of the work has been created over the course of the last year; some of it tackles the pandemic directly, as artists reflected emotionally, searched for meaning in the chaos, and looked ahead to new things. Other pieces don’t address the pandemic in themselves but were created in moments of stillness, stress, inspiration, or frustration.

The Year That Wasn’t

You can use the menu button in the top-right corner of the gallery to view in fullscreen – or alternatively, open the gallery in its own browser window.

Click on an individual piece of work, and click the ‘i’ button to see more details about that piece, including the artist’s website.

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2020 by Artists: Looking forward to new things

In an interview a few years back, the American installation artist Theaster Gates said this:

“There are two ways of approaching the plight of a place. You could either focus on the absolutely negative and curse the government and curse the people and curse the apathy. Or you could focus on the possibilities, you could focus on the hope of a place.”

I don’t know whether Gates’ hope is simply a humanistic hope for the best or something more than that, but his focus on looking forward to a better future rather than wallowing in a less than satisfactory present is a very Christian one.

As Christians we are people of hope. Like Gates, we understand that the future mostly consists of possibilities, not certainties, but we do hold on to one as-yet-unrealised state of affairs with some force. As followers of Jesus, we have a firm confidence that good will ultimately triumph. A confidence not based on wishful thinking but on verifiable facts of history, deep reflections on the nature of reality and personal experiences of interactions with our creator.

Many Christians, especially Christian artists, land here too quickly and their hope can come across as a flimsy optimism. I was so pleased to see that, in the work submitted to the ‘in the rough’ exhibition, the hope communicated was a little more rugged and I’d like to end our review of the year by highlighting four pieces that lead us out of our present plight into a future of glorious possibilities.

Gunwall Stretch by Jeremy Bunce

‘Gunwall Stretch’ – Jeremy Bunce

“The hills are alive!” sang Julie Andrews as she whirled around the green pastures of Salzburg. I’m sure she’d have repeated the sentiment if she’d ever had the pleasure to witness Jeremy Bunce’s Gunwall Stretch. I have nothing particularly profound to write about this painting except to say that it reminds me that there is life out there amidst all the death. There is vibrancy waiting to peep through our sorrow. There may be dark clouds on the horizon (note the top left corner), but you hardly notice them when you see the crazy energy and joy that God has injected into his creation.

‘Veni E’ – Finglestein

‘On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned’ Isaiah prophesied about 2 and a half thousand years ago. About half a millennium later, that light came. God with us. Immanuel. John Mason Neale’s famous advent hymn ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ expresses the rugged hope I wrote of earlier. It is mostly a desperate plea to God for deliverance but, of course, each verse concludes with God’s answer, the promise of His own dramatic intervention to not just rescue his people but come to live with us. However, despite this explicit call to celebration, this is usually the reflective, somewhat sombre scene setter for the carol service (and a fine scene setter it is too!). Not for Mark Farrin, a.k.a. Finglestein. This is boogie around your kitchen music. And when that crunchy guitar solo comes in at 2:30, I’m forgetting the loneliness and captivity of the pandemic and I’m rejoicing. Jesus dispersed the gloomy clouds when he came to us once before and He will come again. Rejoice!

Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues

Rounding all this off, I want to finish with two of my favourite COVID motivated pieces from the Sputnik stable, and they both feature David Benjamin Blower. At the end of April, one of two lockdown EPs appeared, entitled ‘Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues’. It’s all gold, but for me the title track shines the brightest. Though it was written less than a month in, it is the most penetrating and profound reflection on the Coronavirus crisis that I’ve come across anywhere.

On one level, listening to it simply plonks you straight back into that ‘strange hiatus’ of the first lockdown as David reminds us of the days when we all applauded from our windows, tried to suppress coughs in supermarket queues and suddenly noticed the deafening birdsong that had been drowned out when cars were allowed to leave their driveways.

But David heard something else. A groaning going on within our ‘Sabbath of grief’ that did not go away when the first round of lockdown measures began to be lifted.

For many of us in the last year, we’ve stared vacantly out of the windows of our isolation bedrooms and we’ve also gazed wistfully out of the windows of Jozef Pyper Egerton’s beachside apartment. David calls us now to a new posture. He pictures us…

‘… praying out of windows
for the soul of the earth
Oh for a New Thing
Oh for the Day of Rebirth’

For him, the experience of seeing the natural world come alive just outside our windows, but somehow still remain painfully out of reach to us while locked inside, awakens in us the desire for the coming kingdom that is nearby, but still not yet. The final verse gives us an encouragement to remember that groaning, but for me, it strikes me more as a warning not to forget:

And all are awaiting
For the world to awaken
From this strange and apocalyptic dream
but not back to how it used to be
Remember what was seen
In this sabbath of griefs

But what do we do as we wait, as we pray and as we groan? Well, one of the things we do is make art. This is far from a futile gesture. It is not even just assisting our own mental wellbeing. We’re documenting moments, infusing them with meaning and casting new and hopeful visions of what is to come. But we can’t do this on our own. Even in our creative practice, we must refuse to give in to the loneliness and separation of lockdown and embrace a new thing. We must cross borders and connect with like minded practitioners and allies.

Making art is far from a futile gesture. It is not even just assisting our own mental wellbeing. We’re documenting moments, infusing them with meaning and casting new and hopeful visions of what is to come.

In the first post in this series of reflections on 2020, I shared a lesson I’d learnt this year, and I want to finish with another one, before illustrating it with a final piece of art. I end this year convinced that art is very important. I also end it convinced that artists need to be connected together, and perhaps Christians need these connections even more. So, I look back on a year when Sputnik have done all we can to connect artists who follow Jesus, even though all of our normal ways to do that were blocked. We put on our online Industry Notes events, we moved all our Hubs on to Zoom and we started our Sputnik Slack, which is already proving to be a great environment to facilitate genuine, meaningful relationships. (Want to find out for yourself? Be our guest!)

Cabin fever is not fertile soil for good art. We need to cross borders and we at Sputnik HQ are very much looking forward to taking the skills we learnt this year into 2021 and beyond to help you do that.

And why do I think that may be a fruitful enterprise? Well, because of pieces like Sarah Rabone’s ‘From The Windows’ (inspired by David Benjamin Blower). Even when we’re locked up in our houses, we can be inspired by other pieces of work to create our own ‘new things’. Our lockdown kitchens can become dance studios. Our separation can still breed collaboration.

I’m looking from the windows and I’m praying for new things. Yes, the fulfilment of that groan will come when Jesus returns, but in the meantime, I’m expecting many other deposits of the new creation. New things that his groaning people create along the way. New things that you could bring into existence as a secretary, a commentator or a hope bringer.

Here’s to 2021. A year of new things.

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2020 by Artists: Searching for meaning in the chaos

Artists don’t just document events, they seek out the meaning that lies behind those events. As Pope John Paul II put it:

Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.

(Letter to Artists, 1999)

In a sense, no true piece of art ever just documents, as I’m sure you can see in the pieces I’ve mentioned so far. However, some pieces that were submitted to the ‘in the rough’ exhibition were certainly more explicit in their commentary on the events of the year. It’s probably best for me to say at this point that the commentary that I see in these artworks may not have been intended by the artist in exactly the way I will suggest, but in the context of the events that surrounded them, I hope I’m not wildly misreading them.

The Great Worldwide Dugnad by Trygve Skogran

‘The Great Worldwide Dugnad’ – Trygve Skogran

Norwegian artist Trygve Skogran’s ‘The Great Worldwide Dugnad’ is a playful editing of a masterpiece by painter Adolph Tidemand. Skogran explains the concept of the piece:

In my home country Norway, we have a much-beloved word: “dugnad”. It means: working voluntarily and without pay for the common good. In a small, and up to quite recently, very poor country, the idea that we all have to stand together and work together to survive has been so important through generations, that now it is cemented as one of the main things we believe define us as a people.

For Skogran, the sacrifices we are enduring through the pandemic are a dugnad, an act of service for the common good. The dugnad that he focuses on in this piece is Christians enduring restrictions to the way we worship. I don’t think he intended the piece as polemic against Christians who have refused to take up this dugnad, but it certainly exists as one now!

Banquet of Consequences by Duncan Stewart

‘Banquet of Consequences’ – Duncan Stewart

Even if Skogran’s piece acts as a gentle indictment, its tone is gentle and playful. The same cannot be said for Duncan Stewart’s ‘Banquet of Consequences.’ Posted on to the artist’s facebook page on 7th July, it landed as the public mood, at least in the UK, had dramatically shifted. The early days of the pandemic were marked by an ‘all in this together’ sort of camaraderie, clapping for carers, praying for Boris Johnson, checking on our elderly neighbours, but by July, tensions had significantly heightened.

Politicians weren’t following their own rules, millionaire footballers were partying while the rest of us self isolated, and those who were appointed to protect and serve murdered a man in Minneapolis, seemingly because of the colour of his skin. Notice though that this painting doesn’t single out any specific wrongdoer or wrongdoing. It simply stands as a stark reminder: actions have consequences, the chickens do come home to roost, you reap what you sow. Or as Robert Louis Stevenson said in the quote that inspired the painting’s title ‘Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.’ As I look at the silhouettes of figures in the picture, I’m asking are we the vultures or are we the meat? Perhaps the artist is implying that we’re both.

It reminds me of Ezekiel 24, where God pictures his people as meat to be thrown into a pot and cooked, because of the blood that they themselves had shed. Is the pandemic itself divine judgement on us all? I think that any kneejerk answer to that question is a bad idea, however, it’s a question that we surely need to ask and wrestle with. Duncan helps us do that brilliantly with this visceral, ominous image.

untitled – Kate Crumpler

And wherever we land on that question, in the Bible there is always a fitting response to disaster. Repentance. In Luke 13, Jesus comments on two local tragedies and he raises a question very similar to the one above: did these things happen as direct punishment for the victims’ sin? He answers ‘no’, but applies it to his hearers as if he’d said ‘yes’: “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13, 3 and 5). Kate Crumpler’s short video piece presents her as the performance artist/prophet in the mould of Ezekiel, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Like the bloody cross in Benjamin Harris’ ‘Friar’, her message is unheeded as the streets are empty, but repentance is always first and foremost a personal act. As she enacts her weary trudge through suburban streets, clad in actual sackcloth, she surely points us to the most fitting response any of us could have to this year’s events. Again it leaves us with more questions than answers. For example, who is she repenting for? Herself? The church? Her nation? More excellent questions to ponder. Thank you Kate.

Well, that’s a downer! Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas and all that. In my defence, it has been a pretty grim year! However, for all its grimness and for all the sin and death and vultures and sackcloth and consumable human flesh, as Christians, we are a people of hope. And as Christians who make art, the artistic instinct to reimagine the future, combined with the Christian hope of the restoration of all things is a potent combination. As I’ll share tomorrow, you can see (and hear) that for yourself.

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2020 by Artists: An emotional response to lockdown

As the pandemic hit, we had to pull the plug on our Spring and Summer programme. We were left with a blank page. As we thought about how to fill it, one of the first projects to emerge was our ‘in the rough’ exhibition. We wanted to collate and exhibit the artwork that was going to be produced during this time. The pandemic certainly hasn’t been a creative muse for all artists but, for many, as we guessed, it has turned out to be an environment very conducive to creative productivity – and some of that has been captured in our simple online gallery.

Some of the work was simply people processing creatively to help them stay sane. Some pieces were conceived of before we’d ever heard of wet markets, furloughs and lockdown and the pandemic simply allowed these ideas to be brought to completion. However, other pieces in the exhibition either stand as powerful documents of 2020 or commentaries on the events of the past year.

The jazz musician Max Roach once wrote:

Two theories (of art) exist. One is that art is for the sake of art. That is true. The other theory, which is also true, is that the artist is like a secretary… He keeps a record of his time.’

Several artists in and around our network have performed this function admirably this year. Five images stand out for me in this regard.

Isolation Bedroom (ink) by Hannah Carroll

‘Isolation Bedroom’ – Hannah Carroll

A number of friends have told me that they struggled to get out of bed for days on end in the Spring, but even for those of us who dived straight into PE with Joe or home renovations, I’m sure Hannah Carroll’s ink sketch ‘Isolation Bedroom’ will resonate with you. We all got to know the four walls of our isolation bedrooms (and kitchens and living rooms) very well over those first few months!

Friar (oil and blood on canvas) by Benjamin Harris

‘Friar’ – Benjamin Harris

And when, in mid April, we did gaze out of our windows (an image that I’ll return to again and again in these posts) or go out for our rationed hour of exercise, this is what we saw. Empty roads and closed shops. This painting, ‘Friar (Oil and blood on canvas)’ is part of Benjamin Harris’ ongoing series focusing on the St George’s flag. This piece is probably best viewed in contrast to the other pieces in the series. In ‘St George (oil on board)’ and ‘Victoria Square’, the flag (painted in the artist’s blood) is a symbol for people to rally around. It’s not just that, in both paintings, the object is surrounded by people, it’s the fact that many of these people are gathering to the flag itself. In Friar, on the other hand, the flag continues sending out its rallying cry, but nobody can hear it. That could be viewed as a good thing because of what that flag has come to represent but, for some reason, the idea of a failed rallying cry has a deep air of melancholy about it for me. I find this a haunting and evocative image.

Untitled by Pyper Jozef Egerton

‘Untitled’ – Pyper Jozef Egerton

But then a new feeling set in. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad in our isolation bedrooms after all. Perhaps the stillness of our empty streets didn’t only speak of absence but was also an invitation to notice the world that has always been there, but that we’ve ignored in all of the commerce and commuting. Pyper Jozef Egerton’s hopeful, untitled image is a step outside of the isolation bed and, for me, signals the beginning of an appreciation of the enforced sabbatical that both we and the world around us had to come to terms with. Of course, it probably helps your general mood if you have this sort of view to look out at but, all the same, I can certainly remember the days when the stillness of the outside world turned from an eerie source of fear to a source of wonder.

‘Cabin Fever’ / ‘Crossing Borders’ – Jennifer Litts

Jennifer Litts’ two pieces, ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘Crossing Borders’, bring a number of these themes together. We didn’t have to just reconcile ourselves to an unhurried, unsullied natural world, but also to each other. And I’d like to hope that we did. We found ways to get out of our boxes to support and comfort each other. It may not have involved the physical touch presented in the second piece, but as we got to grips with the situation and the technology at our disposal, we found meaningful ways to connect.

So, that was some of what happened and that may well echo some of what we felt at different points over the year, but what did it all mean? Tomorrow, I’ll highlight some more artworks that look to more deliberately get beneath the skin of what happened this year.

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After the Year of Not Gathering, art is more important than ever

In an alternative universe somewhere, a parallel version of myself is writing a review of 2020 and is waxing lyrical about an event that happened at the end of May, the first national meet up of Sputnik artists since our very early days. “Well, the weather was all right, wasn’t it?” – he quips, May 2020 being the sunniest calendar month on record in the UK.

And what a line up! Daniel Blake, Marlita Hill, TJ Koleoso, Pip Piper… And, of course, all the new friendships, collaborations and encouragements that sprung naturally from a load of us camping together for two days over the May bank holiday at (what we decided about a year ago to call) The Gathering.

A Gathering. Back in our universe, that word seems strange, even somewhat mystical at the end of this year.

2020 was meant to be the year of the Gathering for Sputnik. Instead, of course, it’s been the year of not gathering for all of us!

There’s obviously a solemnity and weight to that. Many people have died. Many people have lost their jobs. Many people’s businesses have gone under. For artists in particular, the inability to gather has made this year particularly difficult. The controversial ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ advert that came out in October may have been promptly pulled, but the reality behind it is more difficult to sidestep. 2020 has certainly forced many artists to consider whether they need to retrain and I wonder how many young people, real life Fatimas, who started the year looking to pursue a career in the arts are now thinking twice about that course of action.

In the light of all of this, I can’t just give you the highlights reel of the Sputnik year like usual. A year like 2020 demands more considered reflection. It’s not like nothing has happened in Sputnikville. Far from it. We’ve adapted, like most people have adapted, and seen many positives hidden in amongst the chaos. However, as I stumble out of the dust and rubble of what has certainly been the strangest year I’ve ever lived through, I want to kick off my reflections by outlining an important lesson that I’ve learnt this year.

I’ve learnt that Art is more important than ever.

I don’t want Fatima to retrain in cyber. I can see why she would but I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t want to trade in our actors for bankers, our musicians for solicitors, our poets for accountants. And I don’t think that this is just personal preference. That wouldn’t end well for any of us.

One thing to be said for COVID-19 is that it has pulled us all to an almighty halt and caused us to question certain elements of modern life that we’d come to take for granted. On the back of such an opportunity, I’d like to hope that there is a genuine possibility for far reaching societal change on the back of this pandemic and, for that reason, we need artists more than ever.

In my experience, artists are at their best when challenging accepted norms and reimagining the future.

Now then is the time for artists to step up, not to jump ship. That means that now is the time to support artists, not to abandon them.

We need whole waves, even communities of artists, who can speak in all the different languages of artistry, to throw their weight behind the re-humanization effort.

The trajectory of western culture in recent times has been deeply concerning. For decades, the human being has been slowly and irresistibly reduced, first into a mere consumer and more recently into that least human of things, data. Our brains have been systematically rewired by the internet so that our attention, or what is left of it, is only able to focus on the most shallow and ephemeral targets. Self interest is now ethical high mindedness. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

And, in case nobody has noticed, evangelical Christianity is very politely doing its best to self destruct before everyone else does. Worship as entertainment. Pastors as celebrities. Abuse of power. Sex scandals.

Many of us have had an inkling that we’ve been ripe for a change for some time. This year, we’ve actually had time to reflect on this and found that our inkling was bang on.

But to step into a different future, we have to be able to imagine that future. To choose a different ending, someone needs to have told us the story. This is where artists come in. This is where WE come in.

Milton Keynes based poet, Sharon Clark, put it like this in a poem she wrote in October:

Writing is
for dreamers
who conjure up different worlds
-better worlds-
in the hope
that this world
will be
through their

But it is not just up to the writers. It’s also not just up to a handful of genius Artists to conjure up these better worlds. We need whole waves, even communities of artists, who can speak in all the different languages of artistry, to throw their weight behind the re-humanization effort.

If this is all sounding a bit humanistic for your liking, consider the examples we find in Scripture. Who are the bridge builders between the Old and New Testaments? Who are the people that God uniquely calls to lead his people from the wreckage of exile into the glory of the New Covenant? It’s the prophets. As we’ve written about before on this website, these people should not be seen primarily as ministers or even through the lens of the modern prophet: all booming voice and charisma. They were artists.  Most of them were poets. Many of them, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, were performers.

And funnily enough, who do we find rounding off the Christian Scriptures and leading us out of the apostolic age? A guy called John who specialized in wacky, subversive, dystopian (or perhaps utopian) apocalyptic literature. Another artist.

And if we rewind to the very beginning, it is God, the artist, who makes the most dramatic re-imagining of all. From something to nothing. Chaos to order. Dancing over the seas. Speaking life into being. Fashioning dust and breath into Adam.

The world needs artists. The church needs artists. God knows it. I think that churches are beginning to learn it.

I really hope that we, the artists, catch hold of it too.

And so, if we’re going to reflect on this year properly, we’d be foolish to turn to anyone else. Therefore, in our next post, we will find out how artists viewed 2020…

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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!

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When Yeezus turned to Jesus: Why ‘Jesus is King’ is not a blueprint for Christian art

For many Christians, Kanye West’s new album Jesus is King is the perfect example of a piece of Christian art. It is wholesome, uplifting and features the highest quality of craftsmanship, but most importantly, its content is unapologetically, relentlessly and worshipfully Christian.

Therefore, I was not surprised to stumble across some responses to Jesus is King putting it forward as evidence that Christian artists should be much more confident in proclaiming Christ through their art and not shying away from filling their work with explicitly Christian content . It seems like an open and shut case. Kanye West can top the charts with an album of simple gospel proclamation, so why are other Christian artists so reluctant to do so? I mean, what else could you want to make art about?

I may sound a bit contrarian, but I’m not so sure. While I appreciate the need to proclaim Christ, I think that pressuring artists to do so in their work shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is, as well as a confusion over why Jesus is King is shifting so many units among people who are not Christians.

Art as a vehicle for our message?

A very common Christian view of the arts is that they are primarily valuable as a vehicle for our message. Art, in whatever from it might take, has a powerful communicative power, and we have a message that we are very keen to communicate, so – this view goes – if only we could use this aspect of human culture more proficiently, it would maximise our evangelistic effectiveness.

This seems well intentioned but also somewhat naïve. I would, of course, agree that art has a powerful communicative power. I recently heard art described as a Trojan horse. Its ‘emotional charge’ (as philosopher RG Collingwood put it) opens the doors of your attention and possibly affection, and before you know it, you are considering and probably warming to beliefs, opinions and maybe even entire worldviews that you wouldn’t have given the time of day to otherwise.

In a world saturated with marketing and advertising, people are getting more and more suspicious of manipulative techniques.

However, while all of this is true about how art affects people, it is probably an unhelpful way to view art generally. If you set about making art with this in mind, you will probably end up producing propaganda. One of the problems with this is that in a world saturated with marketing and advertising, people are getting more and more suspicious of such techniques. This means that art produced in this way can actually have the opposite effect, and if people feel their emotions being pulled in a certain direction by a piece of art, they instinctively bolt the gates – not just to that piece of work, but to the group it speaks for.

In any discipline, art made with an obvious agenda is usually well received by those who are already on board with that agenda, but it is resisted and even resented by those who are not.

Engaging in a conversation through the arts

Art, I think, should be viewed more as a way of entering into a conversation. It involves speaking one’s mind, but it also involves listening. In a conversation, subtleties of body language and tone of voice are key; in art, nuance, empathy and vulnerability are necessary. Importantly, art works are rarely viewed in isolation, but are part of a process, involving an artist’s whole body of work, and even his or her life as a whole.

The typical Christian approach to evangelistic art is to treat it as a megaphone to raise the volume of our message in individual outbursts. We interrupt what everyone else is talking about, shout something about Jesus, then run off. This is not a very winsome way to approach the art of conversation and it is an equally poor way of approaching art as conversation.

Now, let’s consider Jesus is King in this context. Musically, it is very polished, and in places I think inspired. Lyrically, it is very simple and blunt. Some think of this as a strength, others as a weakness, but the fact that people are thinking about it at all shows that people have willingly entered into the conversation with Kanye. The reason for this is quite simple: he has put time into participating in this particular conversation and, for all his antics, has proved himself a highly engaging conversationalist.

Since his earliest releases, he has exhibited a fan-boy enthusiasm for hip-hop culture and a love for the art form. This has earnt him a listening from those within his specific discipline. On top of this, although he is infamous for saying and doing things that are, let’s say, a little bit off the wall, his tendency to fill his music with exactly what he is thinking at any particular moment has meant that people feel like they have some sort of connection with him, and – most importantly – that they relate to him.

We interrupt what everyone else is talking about, shout something about Jesus, then run off. This is not a very winsome way to approach the art of conversation

This means that Jesus is King, in the context of the conversation, is not the simple (even possibly simplistic) work that it appears to be, taken purely on its own merit. It is an unexpected (although not entirely out of character) left-turn on a journey that many people are already heavily invested in.

If Jesus is King was Kanye’s first album, it would not be trending worldwide, just as if Stormzy had released Blinded by Your Grace as his first single, he would not have been invited to play at Glastonbury. They didn’t enter the conversation there, and they probably couldn’t have done.

Expressing yourself honestly through the arts

Interestingly, Kanye’s approach to art making has remained fairly consistent throughout his winding career. He has always justified his media outbursts and the more unsavoury elements of his art, by arguing that it is his job, as an artist, to express himself; to refuse to pretend and instead to faithfully represent in his work what is going on in his head.

In the past this has led him to shoot from the hip on political and social issues and also to unburden the salacious contents of his id on to his listenership. Now, he has decided to follow Jesus and with the fresh faced enthusiasm of a new convert, he is continuing in the same vein- he is being himself. He may well have mixed motives in the whole affair (don’t we all?) but the interpretation of Jesus is King that I find least likely is that it is the product of a calculating mind, trying to tap a certain market. Kanye has spent years killing his editor, often at great expense to his personal credibility, so I don’t see why he’d change that particular habit now.

He seems to be making music about Jesus, because, at this particular moment in time, he loves Jesus. Long may that love continue and grow!

What can we learn from Kanye?

When I reflect on Jesus is King then, I don’t see compelling evidence that Christians should make art that focuses exclusively on Christian content. It is also not a clarion call to use the arts to proclaim the gospel. It is instead an encouragement to Christian artists to join the conversation. To step out of the safety of the Christian subculture, and become a faithful presence in their artistic cultures. This will probably only be possible if they are somewhat more diverse in their content than Kanye is on Jesus is King.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Christian artists should cunningly hide their allegiance to Christ and pretend to be interested in other things, until people take the bait and they can reel them in!

Underpinning my understanding of how a Christian should engage in the arts is the belief that living for Jesus doesn’t mean that we are only interested in things that are obviously of a Christian nature. By his light, all things become brighter, and so Christians should be people who are interested in, and excited about all sorts of elements of life as things that have been given to us as gifts from God.

The musician and songwriter T Bone Burnett put it brilliantly, when he said:

“If Jesus is the Light of the World, there are two kinds of songs you can write. You can write songs about the light or you can write songs about what you can see from the light. That’s what I try to do.”

Art is a tool by which we can explore the depths of what it means to be a human being, and, as Christians, we should be able to do that in the most profound way; in a way that finds many universal points of reference, but that also authentically and beautifully leads people to the one who is the true human, the perfect image of God.

By God’s grace (let’s hope) Kanye West has gained a platform for the gospel by appealing to the more transgressive tastes of the masses. That’s how he got into the conversation. If you’re a Christian artist, you can’t do it like that, but in a funny way, Kanye’s model of honesty and openness is very much something that we should emulate. We should love God and make art about whatever we will, as Augustine would have said if he’d decided to contribute to this particular discussion!

Give artists space to make authentic, weird, silly, earnest, abstract work… they will get into conversations with people that you never will

If you are a church leader, then, please do not use ‘Jesus is King’ as the blueprint of how the Christian artists in your church can now reach the world with the gospel. Instead train artists up in godliness and give them space to make authentic, weird, mind boggling, silly, earnest, abstract work that may seem like a total waste of time to you, but is their way of processing what is going on in their heads. By doing this, they are likely to get into conversations with people that you never will.

And for all of us, let’s celebrate what seems to be going on in Kanye West’s life and also celebrate the existence of an album that is going to direct millions of people’s attention towards Jesus, when, without it, they wouldn’t be thinking about him at all.

And, I know I may not take you all with me on this one, but I’m praying that this is his last gospel album. It would be a travesty for a Jesus following Kanye West to be relegated to just being a successful CCM artist!

This article first appeared in a slightly edited form on the ThinkTheology blog.

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When Yeezus Turned to Jesus: The bigger picture behind ‘Jesus is King’

On Friday 25th October, hip hop superstar Kanye West released his 9th solo album. It debuted at number 2 in the UK album charts and topped the US Billboard Hot 200 in the US. It is Kanye’s 9th consecutive album to debut at number 1 in America, which is a joint record (shared with Eminem). It is a full throttle, unapologetic gospel album, focused entirely on Kanye West’s newfound Christian faith. Its title sets the tone: Jesus is King.

Albums made by Christians about Christian stuff do often sell a lot of units in the US. However, in most cases, the huge majority of the people buying them are themselves Christians (for example, Chris Tomlin’s Burning Lights topped the Billboard 200 chart in 2013). Other Christian artists have topped the American charts and become very popular outside of the Christian sub culture (for example, Amy Grant or POD), but usually, these artists’ crossover albums have been somewhat restrained in their Christian content. Jesus is King is an anomaly in this regard. It is an album of relentless praise and petition directly offered to Jesus and it is pretty fair to assume, given Kanye’s reputation and fanbase, that a fair whack of the 250,000 sales (or 196.9 million streams) in the first week since its release have been to people who do not themselves follow Jesus.

This is all quite a turnaround for Kanye West. Christianity has often been in the background of his music (most notably in the 2004 single Jesus Walks), but he’d be the first to admit that now things are very different. Kanye has recently compared himself to King Nebuchadnezzar. In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar sets himself up proudly as the King of Babylon, but then is dramatically humbled by God and finally comes to recognise God as the King of Kings. It seems like a good reference point. Since releasing his debut album in 2004, his music has been willfully transgressive and probably open to the charge of being downright blasphemous. As a case in point, in 2013 he released a song entitled I Am a God on his album Yeezus (a combination of Kanye’s nickname ‘Ye’ and, well, I think you get it!) But, according to Kanye, he has been well and truly humbled, particularly referencing a psychotic episode and hospitalization in 2016 as a key turning point. Now, he is singing a very different tune. The only topic he is interested in talking (or making music) about at the moment is the gospel.

In a recent interview with TV presenter Zane Lowe, Kanye summed up his present mindset:

‘Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me. I’ve spread a lot of things… but now I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me and in that I’m no longer a slave, I’m a son of God now.’

As you might imagine, this has not gone unnoticed. In the week following the album release, the internet has been ablaze with Christians sharing their opinions on this change of direction. Opinions seem to range from ‘it’s a publicity stunt’ to ‘let’s wait and see’ to heralding Kanye as the new CS Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and William Wilberforce rolled into one.

It’s natural that questions would be asked, especially in light of Kanye’s pretty erratic behaviour over the last decade. However, even if you’re sceptical about his conversion, surely Philippians 1:15-18 would still mean that a modicum of rejoicing is appropriate. In those verses, Paul writes:

It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives… But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.

Within the rejoicing, all of this should require some broader reflection as well. While I think that we should pray for Kanye, and that the album itself is bound to have a positive impact for the church (with some kickback too), it also throws up some questions that would be worth pondering. I’m particularly interested in two: how does this fit into the bigger picture in popular culture at the moment? And what does this teach us about how we as Christians should engage with the arts? Let’s deal with the first today, and there’ll be another post soon about the second.

Jesus is King is an example of a growing trend in hip hop music

Hip hop has always had a religious backbone. Like most musical genres to emerge in the mid to late 20th century, it is not difficult to trace the roots of hip hop back to black majority church culture. However, quite quickly, hip hop reacted against this heritage and leant more towards Islam. Martin Luther King was universally respected, but Malcolm X was the role model. Pop rappers would include a token gospel track to diversify their appeal, but the serious hip hop artists were often either embracing mainstream Islam (like Q-Tip or Mos Def) or, more likely, namechecking fringe Muslim sects like the Nation of Islam (Public Enemy, Ice Cube).

There were many rappers who would claim a nominal Christianity when it suited them, and some who were more sincere, but the picture remained pretty consistent in the 90s and early 2000s. In a musical culture that was built around the urban black experience, Christianity was generally presented as either a religion that was too weak willed and soft to deal with the persisting problems of institutional racism or as an actual facilitator of the oppression of black people in the western world.

And that’s how it seems to have continued until very recently, when a shift seems to have taken place. Two of the key characters who’ve been at the heart of this shift have been Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.

While Kendrick’s music would be, let’s say, somewhat challenging to many Christians, Christianity underpins everything he does, from the sinner’s prayer that opens his 2012 album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D city’ to his 2017 album ‘Damn’ which is a sort of concept album based around Deuteronomy 28! Many hip hop fans would regard Kendrick as the greatest rapper alive, if not the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time).

A year before Kendrick released ‘Damn’, Chance the Rapper had released ‘Coloring Book’. Chance was already very well regarded as a rising star, but his subject matter had been largely standard rap fare. His previous mix tape had been mainly about taking hallucinogenic drugs. ‘Coloring Book’ though was a gospel album, and he stunned the audience at the 2017 Grammys, with one of the songs, a cover of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great is Our God’.

I’ve posted about Kendrick and Chance on this blog before but the story has moved on since then, especially for Chance.

In late 2018, Chance announced that he was taking a sabbatical, on which he wanted to achieve two things: giving up smoking and reading the Bible.

I’m going away to learn the Word of God which I am admittedly very unfamiliar with. I’ve been brought up by my family to know Christ but I haven’t taken it upon myself to really just take a couple days and read my Bible…

On 12th December, he posted Galatians 1:6-7 to his 9.2 million instagram followers, and asked: “Anybody wanna read thru Galatians with me? It’s really short.”

That evening, this is exactly what he did, reading the whole book of Galatians live on Instagram!

His followers responded en masse. Featured amongst the thousands of comments on the post were The NLT Bible app thanking him for the support, famous rappers Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifah encouraging him to smoke weed instead of cigarettes, quite a few Christians who took an aversion to him reading from the NLT, and some fans who vowed to stop listening to his music from now on (@Kralcrolyat  ‘Damn, for someone who did a whole album on acid you think you’d be a little more open minded’). On the other hand, there were a whole load of very heartfelt and encouraging responses. @Mylawnuhh’s is my favourite:

I need to start reading the Bible. I really need to be connected with the Lord before I go any further in my life; I just turned 15 and I want God to be an important part of my future. Especially if I ever have kids.

Earlier this year, Chance released The Big Day on which he opens up a bit more about his decision to become a Christian. Yes, there is quite a lot of swearing. And yes, some of his friends who guest on the album over share about their sexual exploits, but on the whole it’s an album about being happily married, by a reasonably new convert, who continues to publicly thank Jesus for turning his life around and seems to be showing considerable fruit of repentance.

But of course, this would only happen in America, wouldn’t it? For us poor Brits, in our cynical secular country, our rappers are cut from a different cloth? Hmm… Stormzy at Glastonbury, anyone?

What does it all mean?

It’s important to underline here that these are not some fringe happenings within a niche cultural fad. I know that the evangelical church in the UK still seems to think that anthemic soft rock ballads are the height of relevance and cultural engagement, but musical analysts would now rate hip hop as the most listened to musical genre in the world (and apparently it has been for the last 5 years).

Now, I know that all the examples I’ve used in this post raise further questions. These artists are complex and at times quite conflicted in their expressions of faith. Kanye West is perhaps the best example of this, and I know many friends, Christian and non-Christian, who had switched off to Kanye well before his confession of faith in Jesus.

However, I’d want to urge generosity of spirit to those involved in this Christian resurgence in rap music and at the very least that we’d pray for them heartily. Living in a world that seems to be doing its utmost to stamp out Christianity, or at least silence Christians, this rebellion from within the very heart of the culture itself fuels my hope that God is not quite done with the Western world just yet. 

This article was first published in a slightly edited form on the Thinktheology blog

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The Notre Dame fire: How precious should we be about things we’ve made?

Photo: Thierry Mallet, AP

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called architecture ‘the mother art… without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization’. As humans we naturally feel a connection with things we have built – not just personally, but collectively. We even travel around the world to marvel at the greatest achievements of our species, from pyramids and castles, to temples and skyscrapers – seeing these great structures as testaments to our collective ability and ambition, imbuing their walls and towers with our own memories, our own hopes, our own ownership.

It is something marvellous that buildings can hold multitudes of our individually precious moments, or that one architectural achievement can be called ‘mine’ or ‘ours’ by so many through the decades and centuries. Like all good artists and designers, those who make our greatest skylines and landmarks don’t think merely functionally, but create vessels for our wildest imaginations and our most personal experiences.

A world in two minds

Yet the world seems split in its attitude towards architectural art – and I think one recent event brought this out in stark relief. Watching the spires of Notre Dame engulfed in deep orange flame, as smoke poured into the twilight Parisian skies, it was unsurprising to see the international outpouring of grief. The personal connection to its presence could be seen just scrolling through our own social media feed – people we knew shared their heartbreak at the loss (or even partial loss) of such an undeniably beautiful, historic, creatively artistic building: memories of first kisses, of treasured trips, of meeting old and new friends under the shadows of its bell towers. Its place in the cultural canon of French literature – or maybe better yet, in Disney films – as well as its place in the heart of an island in the heart of a river in the heart of the city, means we understand what it means to Parisians, and admirers from further afield, and join with the sadness in its loss.

Then, almost as soon as the news had broken, we saw something like a backlash. Were bricks and mortar and timber worth having songs of worship and prayer sung over them? There were justifiable complaints about grieving a casualty-less accident in a Western, city-centre landmark as opposed to the entirely avoidable loss of life in an inferno in a West London suburb, or even the countless treasures and buildings raised to the ground in Mosul or Palmyra as ISIS destroyed lives and cities. As the rebuild project for Notre Dame raised unbelievable sums of money in mere days, the inevitable questions followed about where those funds might be better used.

What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

Considering the disparity of privilege, opportunity, and diversity between Parisian arrondissements, and in wider France, they’re crucial questions to ask; and they raise alarming, broader issues about the world’s rich – Carl Kinsella’s honest and challenging response on this is worth reading in full. But beneath the questions of wealth, there’s a different tension that artists will recognise: what kind of luxury is art, anyway? What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures that may have some limited functional use, but are more often pursuits of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

The split in the world’s opinion says that either we should move mountains and millions to ensure that the best of our artistic endeavours or architectural wonders remain as pristine as possible for generations to come, or instead they should be treated as the bonus at the end of the list once we have sufficiently and rightfully ensured mouths are fed and families given shelter.

As artists, as much as we value art, we can surely see the argument from both sides. Most of us will have felt the pang of guilt at some point when sitting next to doctors, nurses and fire fighters, trying to describe what our next album sounds like after their stories of lives saved and hearts kept beating. How do we constantly and consistently decide to press on and to know for sure the value of what we do, when what surrounds us are situations that often make what we do or what we have feel like at best small drops in the ocean, or at worst frivolous pursuits?

Does what we build matter to God?

Like so many of these questions, the answer that we can find in the Bible may not be one extreme reaction or another, but something more delicate in the middle. As a starting place, we know that God himself time and time again plans to have a building or a structure that is to be used by His people to glory Him both in its appearance and in its function. Through the tabernacle and the temple and then finally in the new city described in Revelation, we know God recognises the need for a place and the sense of home that provides, but also that God loves good interior design and excellent architectural planning and desires the skill of all the best craftspeople to make it happen.

I think that God understands our very human connection to places too, that goes beyond just spaces built for or consecrated to Him; taking care to put us in specific places at specific times that He knows will be to our good. We even know that the people of God wept when they remembered the home they had and the buildings that they thought were unshakeable that now laid in rubble and ashes – and in fact, Jews still mourn the temple on a specific day now, thousands of years after its destruction.

A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; maybe what is more beautiful still are the meetings and memories that were shared about the place.

Yet God also seems to have a forward thinking nature about these things, not wanting us to sit in mourning or become too precious about the way things were. The physical spaces and places are certainly important to Him, but perhaps more important is what they represent or what they give the opportunity to do. A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; its flying buttresses and stained glass are undoubtedly works of immeasurable skill; but maybe what is more beautiful still are the aforementioned meetings and memories that were shared about the place over the last week. Each time a choir lifted their voices in worship, or each time the familiarity of home’s landmarks made someone feel more settled, or each time it became the focal point for friends or lovers or families or fellowships to meet and share.

Hold on to artistry, hold loosely to artwork

In the Bible, each time God’s own house is taken down, or destroyed, or goes up in flames, or even goes up on a cross, it is rebuilt in a way more glorious that the last and more unexpected. Jesus himself seemed to have a pretty clear idea on what would be left of the temple, and God repeatedly brings down structures that are put up out of either self-ambition or become too precious.

From tent, to temple, to Christ to new Creation, God constantly remakes anew rather than rebuilds the old, and with each remaking the people that are invited in gets wider and wider and the focus becomes more on intimacy and relationship than it does on recapturing any former glories. We get closer to Him, and in doing so get closer and more understanding and more welcoming of each other.

Battersea Arts Centre by Morley Von Sternberg

In 2015, I was privileged enough to have a job in one of my favourite venues – Battersea Arts Centre – when a fire took hold in the roof. Much like Notre Dame, the rest of the structure was saved through the skill and quick response of firefighters. Within hours the community had mobilised; and 24 hours after the fire, BAC was continuing its normal programme through the assistance and help of those who had come to see it as ‘theirs’. For years the building had been at the centre of community life, as well as having run groups for families, young people, those in need, those without money, and those who wanted to work in the arts but didn’t know how. The community decided in those hours after the fire that this was too much to lose, and sprang into action, paving the way for a rebuild project that was completed earlier this year.

Yet to walk through the building now you will find the scars and marks of the fire; scorched walls still blackened and sooty, melted glass and twisted metal, all brought together and held together by a brand new imagining of what the space and the building could be. They didn’t seek to rebuild as was; they sought to think what they needed now, how best to serve their community. For future generations, seeing each mark of the fire upon the Great Hall tells a story of the passion and importance it had for a group who decided not to give up on it. Even other great cathedrals have shown a precedent for creating a new space out of adversity: Coventry’s integration of its war-torn edifices is a living story of history, for example, or Barcelona’s decision to hand parts of its sublime Sagrada Familia over to new artists and architects – meaning it is an amalgamation of styles and perspectives that remains unfinished almost a century after breaking ground.

So can we hold on to the artistry, but hold loosely to the artwork? Can we prioritise what our work is there to do, and not what it means to us – and in doing so, widen up the doorway to invite in different communities and groups who we usually wouldn’t commune with? Can we be less precious about the physical thing itself (how it is experienced, how it is perceived, how it comes across, or even if it gets destroyed) and instead find joy in if it points anyone to the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy things of the world? If so, then I think our art is a discipline worth defending and pursuing even in the most pressing times.

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Everything Conference 2018

Everything Conference 2018 Faith Arts Sputnik
Everything Conference 2018 Faith Arts Sputnik

As David Stroud will often say, the gospel should promote spiritual, social and cultural renewal.

All Christians support spiritual renewal: seeing people born again and spiritually awakened. Most are on board with social renewal: working against the causes and effects of poverty and social injustice. However, David and his wife Philippa’s efforts are most focused on encouraging Christians to pursue the more controversial of the three: cultural renewal.

On Saturday 17th November at St Mary’s Church in Marylebone, London, the Everything Conference trumpeted this message loud and clear.

What is cultural renewal?

Part of the problem people have with cultural renewal is that it is a somewhat slippery phrase. Culture itself is difficult enough to pin down, and when we combine it with the rather open-ended idea of ‘renewal’, we can be left with important questions like “which bits of culture need renewing?” or “what would a renewed culture look like?”

For us as Christians, these questions can multiply exponentially: How much should we expect to renew a culture that is in many ways under the direct power of spiritual forces? (1 John 5:19) How can we differentiate between biblical ideas of renewal and political visions of the future? Should we even bother putting our resources into a world that is, in some sense at least, passing away? (1 John 2:17). Etc, etc.

We could argue ad nauseum on these questions, but the Everything Conference is not designed to enter into such disputes. What David and Philippa and their team do each year is simply bombard us with example after example of Christians who are very clearly renewing the cultures they find themselves in, and doing so in effective, winsome and undeniably Christ like ways. The Sputnik team enjoyed it last year, and personally, I found this year’s conference even more helpful and inspiring.

Quite a line-up!

Michael Ramsden of the Zacharias Trust provided the backbone of teaching for the day in four TED-style talks giving some incisive cultural critique and outlining some appropriate Christian responses.

Around these perceptive observations, we then got to hear from a whole host of people who were putting this into practice.

So Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the Theos Thinktank, talked about how we can all be bridge builders with people who think differently to us. Ici Butcher spoke about the children she and her husband have fostered and adopted. Award winning chocolatier, Will Torrent, spoke of the importance of serving others, doing things excellently and being wise and ethical consumers. Alexander Maclean opened up about his fantastic work helping prisoners on death row in Uganda to get law degrees with the African Prisons Project. And Mark Maciver, otherwise known as SliderCuts, shared about how, as a barber in East London, he looks to act as a counsellor to his clients, who are made up of celebrities, gang members and everyone in between.

And I haven’t even mentioned the artists yet!

The arts were represented by comedian and writer, Paul Kerensa, film director, Stuart Hazeldine and street artist, Lakwena Maciver. Paul Kerensa is an excellent example of a Christian at the heart of the entertainment industry, whether writing for Miranda, Not Going Out or Top Gear or as a regular contributor to Pause For Thought on Chris Evans’ Radio 2 breakfast show. Stuart Hazeldine is most well known for directing Exam and more recently the film adaptation of The Shack – and warned us that waiting around for God to speak to us can simply be a spiritual excuse for doing nothing, encouraging us instead to keep our hearts good and push on in our projects and plans. (Sage advice.)

If you’ve been following this blog, you may well be familiar with Lakwena, who we featured as our artist of the week in September. She shared her desire to tell a better story through her work. It was fascinating to hear her speak about how her mother, who was an active campaigner and protestor against media excesses, had birthed in her a desire to have a voice, which itself showed itself through her striking, hope-filled street murals.

Lakwena Mural Visual Art Ferdinand Feys
Photo by Ferdinand Feys

Refreshment for the soul, peace for the mind

I hope that gives a picture of the mind-boggling range of contributors at the conference. If you got a bit lost in the last few paragraphs, consider what it was like to have that crammed into 5 hours of interviews and presentations!

However, while I am yet to process much of the information I heard and really dwell on what I can learn from each of these pioneers and role models, there were a few things that instantly hit me from the day and for which I am truly grateful.

It was genuinely refreshing to my soul to be exposed to so many Christians who are applying their faith in Jesus, to do people good and show love to the people around them. We live in a society where the church is under the microscope, from within and without, and my Twitter feed and news apps are more than happy to expose the mistakes and foolishness of Jesus followers daily. Much of this criticism is valid and necessary, but I don’t know about you, I find this barrage of critique and calling out exhausting and dispiriting, as someone who believes that the church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.

With that in mind, I left the day encouraged to be given fresh reminders and evidence that the good news of Jesus really is good news. Not just to those inside the church, but also to those outside it. There was nothing imperialistic or colonial about the contributors (which is not always the case when Christians talk of renewing culture) – they simply loved Jesus, and were responding with an entirely appropriate generosity to the people around them in whatever field they were working in. Whether that was to their family, their friends or the faceless (but still infinitely valuable) inhabitants of the wider culture.

It was genuinely refreshing to my soul to be exposed to so many Christians who are applying their faith in Jesus, showing love to the people around them.

And this connects with the second thing I took away from the day. I am not sure that I am entirely on board with every aspect of ‘cultural renewal’ as it is sometimes laid out, but at this Everything Conference I saw it at its best. I think that we need to keep asking difficult questions about the extent to which the church should expect to shape the culture around it and the manner in which we seek to do that, but I was personally challenged that I can overthink this stuff sometimes.

Jesus calls us to love our neighbours. Some of us do that by being friendly to our work colleagues or doing good to strangers or serving the marginalised in society. Others do it by making excellent chocolate or empowering wrongly imprisoned women or making colourful, eye-catching street art. Ultimately, it’s the same thing, and it’s the thing that should be number one on the agenda of all those who follow Jesus.

Of course we have a responsibility to introduce people to Jesus, as the one who can do them the most good of all, but the Bible’s quite happy to intersperse instructions about ‘making disciples’ (Mt 28:19) with ‘living properly among unbelievers’ (1 Peter 2:12), and just we are called to be ‘Christ’s ambassadors’ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we are also called to be salt, light and yeast in the world we inhabit. In other words, just as Everything contends, the gospel should promote spiritual, social and cultural renewal.

Whether you were at the conference or not, I’d encourage you to take that calling seriously, and make art in that mode, as a generous, loving overflow of all that God has done for you.

Book in for next year’s conference here – if it’s anything like this one, you won’t be disappointed.

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Why algorithmic playlists are bad for our cultural soul

Spotify Playlists Faith Art Sputnik Malte Wingen Society
Spotify Playlists Faith Art Sputnik Malte Wingen Society

I first found it easy to ignore Spotify’s computer-generated playlists. I didn’t want music meted out to me by an algorithm – surely, I thought smugly, I have such interesting and unpredictable taste that the AI will never be able to give me what I want.

But, after a while, I got sucked in; it turned out that the machine wasn’t bad at churning out music I might like. For sure, my initial reluctance still held water – my listening history had been a bit lopsided, so by my own standards, the algorithmic playlists were a bit limited, and I was rarely surprised. Nonetheless, it turned up the odd bit of gold.

I should admit that I can be a bit of a music obsessive. From a young age, I was dazzled by older dudes with prolific record collections; interviews with artists name-checking other artists; the little ‘For Fans Of..’ breadcrumbs that helped me discover bands halfway across the world in the pre-internet age. As much as I genuinely loved music, I was also sucked into the idea of being a music buff. In the teenage hunt for identity, it was a way to distinguish myself – to be that guy, with the definitive record collection. John Cusack in High Fidelity, if you like.

Every mini ‘discovery’ was another notch in the catalogue, to throw out with ‘look at my obscure taste’ nonchalance.

It was partly this dubious motivation that pulled me into Spotify’s orbit for a bit; every mini ‘discovery’ was another notch in the catalogue, another song I could throw out into the ether with a “look at my obscure taste” nonchalance. In reality, one of the many valid criticisms of Spotify’s model is that it tends to churn up already-popular bands rather than delivering properly unknown stuff into your lists. Still, I was hearing stuff that was new to me and, therefore, becoming more and more of that knowledgeable music genius.

I’m being harsh on myself, obviously, but that perspective helped me re-analyse my listening habits. I realised I was improving the breadth of my music knowledge, to a degree, but it was a shallow type of engagement. With algorithmic streaming, to turn a (nonsensical) phrase, you end up not knowing much about a whole lot; you can listen to track after track with no knowledge of the person who made it. You might even be listening to a fake artist commissioned by Spotify to save them royalties, or in a few years’ time, music written by machines.

Cultural Pollution

That’s the aspect of algorithms that has finally left me cold – the anonymity of sheer numbers, and the individualising of the music experience. It’s important to know who you’re listening to – not just in name, but by making the effort to dig into their work, make a connection with them, and with the other people who listen to them. The walk of Christ, as I see it, is always to greater empathy, greater connectedness, greater humanity; treating music more and more like a faceless product seems to me to be running the opposite way.

In the West, our culture is over-commodified, turned into a cheap product to give the consumer ‘the feels’ in exchange for their money; artists face pressure to give in to the bottom line, get to the chorus quicker, and tap that mid-tempo rap-friendly goldmine. In the process, our shared culture becomes polluted water. It fails to be a life-giving place where we can all flourish, and turns into just another place where a massive beer conglomerate is trying to get you drunk.

Sitting at home, or at work, with a playlist running in the background, might seem a long distance away from all that, but Spotify is the music industry kingmaker now. Besides, as Lao Tzu could have said, the Pacific garbage patch of a thousand miles begins with a single milk carton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myth of the Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sputnik Faith Post-Truth Politics Renaissance Matt Bosford Art

Faith and art are ahead of the curve

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

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

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

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

Facing fears in the new post-truth era

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

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

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

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

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Kendrick Lamar wins historic Pultizer Prize for Music

Kendrick Lamar Pulitzer Prize Sputnik Rich Fury

Kendrick Lamar was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music for last year’s album DAMN.. The Pulitzer Prize primarily honours notable or landmark work in American journalism, which this year focused on Trump and sexual harassment in Hollywood. The Pulitzer Prize described DAMN. as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

DAMN. is the first work of popular music (rather than classical or, occasionally, jazz) to win the prize since it was introduced in 1943. Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy said in a Billboard interview that the decision was a unanimous one. It’s an unexpected change for Pulitzer, but a thoroughly well-deserved one for an artist whose incisive and uncompromising work is both critically revered, and hugely successful commercially. Read our reflections from last year on DAMN. and the theological depths behind it.

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London’s D&AD Festival addresses how ‘Creativity Shapes Culture’

D&AD Design Festival Sputnik

D&AD (Design and Art Direction) is a British educational charity, well known in the design and advertising worlds for their prestigious and fairly picky awards ceremony. They also run the D&AD Festival, taking place this year at the Old Truman Brewery in London from the 24-26 April.

The 2018 Festival’s theme is how ‘Creativity Shapes Culture‘ – exploring, amongst other things, how those in the creative industries might make positive change in the world, make culture more inclusive, and take ownership of their social influence. It’s a theme that will feel altogether pretty familiar to regular Sputnik readers, since it’s pretty central to our raison d’être; it also seems like a savvy decision for a year where the political and social influence of marketing and technology are coming under a lot of scrutiny.

Tickets for the renowned festival might stretch your pockets a bit, but the discussions look great. And we’re not above enjoying a moment of vindication.

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For the UK economy, the creative industries are huge

John Kampfner, CE of the new Creative Industries Federation, shared some statistics in Creative Review that may (or may not) surprise you. Read the full article here – though it requires a free sign-up to access.

We’d be the last people to measure the value of something by its contribution to the economy, but it’s a thought-provoking read if you (like us) wonder about the future of post-industrial, semi-automated, pre-mid-??-Brexit Britain.

Whenever I recite the following stats in speeches across the country, audiences gasp. The creative industries contribute £92 bn net to the UK economy and directly employ two million people. A further million work in creative jobs in other sectors, for example designers in manufacturing. That’s one in every eleven jobs. Last year alone, employment in this sector grew at four times the rate of the general economy.

This is the one I like the most: the creative industries are now worth more to the UK than oil and gas, life sciences, aviation and the car industry combined. There’s nothing soft or superfluous about this sector, it’s not a ‘nice to have’.  This, alongside technology, is where 21st- century growth should come from.

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Book in to the 2017 Everything Conference

The Everything Conference 2017

The Everything Conference is a day of thought-provoking TED-style talks for Christians concerned with calling, culture, and ‘everything’ – taking its name from Psalm 24: “the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”. Its aim is to break churches out of the confines of Christian culture, erase the secular/sacred divide and inspire Christians to serve God anywhere – in everything.

The 2012 Everything Conference was a massive encouragement and significant inspiration for us in the formation of Sputnik. We’re anticipating this year’s Conference will be equally inspiring again: keynote speaker Andy Crouch is already a firm Sputnik favourite; other speakers include an opera singer, a slam poet, and a rugby player.

Mostly, though, we’re looking forward to sharing a room with Christians who are passionate about affecting our culture with the hope of Jesus, and sparking new initiatives, projects and ideas off the back of it. Click here to book in to the conference – and come and say hello.

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But What Exactly Is Arts Patronage?

So, we’ve just started our patronage scheme, and hopefully we’ve filled you in on what it is and how it works. However, I recognise that it may be worth taking a further step back and delving a bit more into patronage itself.

We’d love to encourage the church to take up a significant role in art patronage again, and when we get a handle on what patronage is and why it is important, it should become clear that this is not just a call for the more creative part of the body of Christ to get our day in the sun. This has potentially huge ramifications for the whole church and for the world we’re called to be salt, light and yeast in.

What is patronage?

The arts have always been underpinned by a system of patronage. In short, this means that artists have traditionally not just received financial support through units sold, but certain individuals or organisations have taken it upon themselves to personally back artists, providing them with opportunities, encouragement and also financial support.

In the Middle Ages, artists were seen essentially as skilled labourers or tradespeople. Patronage then would often take the form of an artist being commissioned to produce a piece of work to certain specifications. So a rich 14th century noble man may have commissioned a portrait, a fresco or a sculpture in a similar way that today we might order a bespoke bed or a birthday cake for a special occasion.

Modern patronage

But times have changed. Since the Renaissance, the image of the artist has shifted dramatically. No longer simply craftspeople, artists have become seen as important thinkers and innovators within society. However, systems of patronage have continued.

Of course, things are now a little different. In modern times, a more diverse range of artists operate under this sort of system. Whereas painters and cathedral builders would have been the main beneficiaries of patronage in days gone by, now there are grants and subsidies for a far wider range of artists- from poets to DJs, fashion designers to documentary makers. Arts funding today is not just given to commission specific pieces of work either, but to develop the arts more organically, for example, helping young artists to develop their potential or developing programmes to help specific groups to express themselves creatively (eg people with disabilities).

The government is probably the major arts patron in the 21st century.

Another key difference (and I’m sure you’ve seen this one coming) is that the Christian church are no longer at the forefront of arts patronage.

The government is probably the major arts patron in the 21st century. In the UK, the Arts council intends to invest £1.1 billion of public money (plus £700 million of lottery money) between 2015 and 2018 ‘to help create art and culture experiences for everyone, everywhere’. However, the role of individual rich patrons is also important. Charles Saatchi was a key patron of the Young British Artists from the late 1980s, and was largely responsible for the rise to prominence of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst et al. Going back a few years, Paul Durand-Ruel did a similar thing for the Impressionists. ‘Without him, we wouldn’t have survived’ was Monet’s verdict.

Why should the church patronise the arts again?

So, the arts still get patronised. Art still gets funded. What’s the problem? Is the church simply sour that it isn’t needed as it was in days gone by?

Actually there is more at stake here than prestige. Patrons directly affect the content and tone of the work that is produced from their support.

Historically, this has been taken to some reasonably silly extremes. For example, patrons in the Middle Ages often liked to be included in the paintings they commissioned. For example, in Jan van Eyck’s ‘The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’, the titular canon is depicted kneeling on the right before the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

However, it is easier to miss the more obvious way in which patrons affect the work they patronise. Take Van Eyck’s masterpiece above as a case in point. Canon Van Der Paele was a clergyman. The painting he commissioned as a memorial may have shoehorned himself rather anachronistically into the scene, but he is far from the main character! When the Christian church was the key art patrons on the scene in Europe, the paintings tended to be very heavily focused on biblical content and the tone of these works would have shown a deep respect for this content. I suppose it’s common sense that if you pay for artwork, the artwork will likely reflect your values.

To use a simple example, imagine I was to commission someone to paint my portrait. It’s unlikely (though admittedly not impossible) that my painter would go out of their way to accentuate the size of my nose, my receding hairline, or the bags prematurely congregating under my eyes. They shouldn’t ignore them, but it would be fair to expect that there would be a measure of generosity they would show me as the one who is footing the bill.

This may seem a little off to you. Some may accuse this kind of arrangement as stifling artistic freedom. However, it’s important to recognise that this situation cannot be avoided.

In our day and age, people often cherish the view that they are totally objective and biases and prejudices are things that other people have. This is especially likely to be the case for those who would have no religious or political commitments.

I remember when I was training to become an RE (Religious Education) teacher, and a friend of mine reacted dismissively, bemoaning the fact that I wouldn’t be able to give the students a balanced take on religion because of my own personal faith. I doubt that he would have made the same complaint if an agnostic (or probably even an atheist) friend had chosen such a career path – and this is where the blindpsot lies. Everyone has a set of values and philosophical commitments, whether they are a Christian, a Buddhist, an anarchist or a typical post modern agnostic. And these worldviews will affect how we live and how we interact with others, whether we acknowledge them or not.

This is true of every artist, and it is true of every patron of the arts. I think that for some, they look back in horror at how the church influenced the art it paid for years ago, as if poor old Michelangelo would have much preferred to have decorated the Sistine Chapel ceiling with obscene imagery, mythical creatures or even just a simple vase of marigolds, but was forced to tow the line by the man paying his bills. Now who knows what the great man would have done if the chapel had not been a chapel and Pope Julius II had not been a Pope. However, we can say with some certainty that if Michelangelo was around today, he wouldn’t be getting Lottery money for decorating the Bristol docks with pictures of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel either!

It is not only the artists of yesteryear who produced work that reflected the worldviews of their patrons. It is how it always works. In Britain nowadays, art is largely patronized by a government that operates upon secular humanist principles. And what kind of art is in the ascendancy? James Elkins professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art, put it quite bluntly in 2004, when he wrote:

“Contemporary art is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been and that might be its most singular achievement.”

What a coincidence!

Now, I know that I am simplifying things hugely. There are plenty of other non-financial factors at work in this whole picture, but with that said, if you ever want to find out why people do things, ‘follow the money’ is never a bad place to start.

So what?

What do we learn from all this then?

Well, perhaps it shouldn’t have taken 1,500 words to come to this conclusion, but the main thing I glean from all of this is that if the church would like there to be more art that reflects the Christian worldview, then it’s probably going to have to pay for it.

Or let me put it another way. Think of the effect of Charles Saatchi’s patronage. Whatever you think of dissected sharks and unmade beds, through his financial support, he propelled an entire art movement into the public eye that otherwise would have fizzled out completely. Think of Paul Durand-Ruel. Without his patronage, we would never have heard of Monet, Degas or Renoir.

If the church would like there to be more art that reflects the Christian worldview, then it’s probably going to have to pay for it.

Patrons don’t just get to support artists. They can shape entire arts movements. And as we keep underlining on this blog – art shapes life.

Now, I know that very few readers of this blog would have the expendible income of Charles Saatchi, but the church would. The church would have it many times over. In fact, if every church in the UK gave £10,000 to the arts each year, we could match the Arts Council funding goals.

I know that sounds like a lot, but it would only mean about £200 per year per Christian.

Is that likely to happen any time soon? Not really, no. But we’ve been out of the game for quite some time and I’m very interested to see what happens if we get the ball rolling again.

Perhaps you can join us in doing just that.

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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.

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Is It Ever Right To Destroy a Piece Of Art?

At roughly 7:10PM on Monday the 14th of August 2017, protesters in North Carolina toppled and destroyed a confederate statue. The video of this act become viral with over 110,000 likes and 58,000 retweets on twitter. Within two days, seven campaigners had been arrested on the charges of inciting rioting, damage to public and private property, and defacing a public monument. These self-styled anti-racist/fascist protesters had taken to the streets in response to a white-nationalist gathering in Charlottesville two days previously in which one person tragically lost their life.

But, why all this fuss around a statue?

On the one hand, the protestors confessed to destroying this icon in order to symbolically “smash white supremacy”. The argument goes that these monuments celebrating the heroes of a pro-slavery past implicitly support white supremacy and instil it into the symbolic landscape of the United States.

However, many would disagree with this point of view: the president of the United States being one of them, tweeting,

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.

Surely to destroy public monuments, donated by philanthropic organisations, is not a legitimate form of protest. In regards to the law, public image-smashing is criminal. (Ed: It is also interesting to ask whether our reaction would be different if another form of art was destroyed- burning books for example.)

So, what are we to make of all this? Are the seven image-breakers champions on the right side of history or senseless vandals who simply got up on the wrong side of the bed? Are we right to break art that we disagree with?

Iconoclasm vs Vandalism

Throughout the ages art has been smashed, slashed, dashed and destroyed for many different reasons: we Christians have played a significant part in the history of the ‘destruction of images’ (particularly in the Byzantine ‘Quarrel of images’ and the Protestant Reformation). In the Church’s internal spats about images and icons, two terms were frequently used: iconoclasm and vandalism.

Those who supported the image-breaking antics of the revolutionaries branded the actions as ‘iconoclasms’ (icon = image, clasm = breaking). The perpetrators of these violent acts were celebrated and labeled iconoclasts. Now, iconoclasm implies the reasoned and purposeful destruction of images from what is usually assumed to be rightful moral/religious indignation.

Vandalism on the other hand (from the Latin ‘vandalus’, a pejorative term relating to barbarous peoples of Germanic origin) is conceived as the deliberate destruction of public or private property, usually in a mindless manner with no particular purpose. Vandals smash and destroy out of barbaric instinct and an inability to appreciate what they either do not own, or cannot understand. In common perception, vandals do not wear suits but hoodies and masks. Vandals attack telephone boxes and masterpieces alike: with no rhyme or reason.

The distinction appears to make sense. One would not call (at least not from where I am sat) reformer Zwingli’s denunciation of idolatrous images of Mary and the subsequent smashing of public pilgrimage sites as mere vandalism. Nor would we be willing to label a brick thrown through a car window as intentional iconoclasm.

Many groups have taken to destroying art as a symbolic protest against the current order. In British history the Suffragettes used this tactic to shock the world into listening. When Mary Richardson infamously slashed the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in 1914, she was portrayed in the press at the time as a vandal and labelled “Slasher Mary” -a title usually reserved for the worst of murderers. When questioned on why Richardson would attack such a treasured artwork she referred to her fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who was under arrest at the time, stating,

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Others have argued that her motives may have stemmed more from her frustration with men fawning over the Venus all day, but whether the attack was against lust or a political demonstration demanding an activist’s release, it was certainly to make a point. Should we then consider this action vandalism or iconoclasm? At the time, it was considered vandalism. But today, I have no doubt that many would label this art destruction as a deliberate iconoclasm, an assault on patriarchy.


The binary categorisation of vandalism/iconoclasm can be unhelpful for it implies that all iconoclasm is good/rightful/correct and that all vandalism is bad/immoral/wrong. There have certainly been instances of bad iconoclasm, where images are wrongfully destroyed for a message that assumed a greater significance than it ought. No doubt there have also been good vandalisms where property has been destroyed for the purpose of a greater good.

Surely though it is not the individual actions/destructions in and of themselves that are to be regarded iconoclasm/vandalism but the whole series of events and situations both before and after the property-destruction that come together to determine how we classify art-destructions.

In my mind, the key to this question of iconoclasm/vandalism lies first in context. The situations and environment surrounding an incident of art-destruction is far more useful in helping us understand the motives and intentions of the iconoclast than the act of breaking itself. Regarding North Carolina, one could argue that if the white-nationalist rally had not taken place a couple of days before in Charlottesville then this episode would not have happened. Equally, supporters could point to the President’s seemingly protective statements released following the Charlottesville aftermath as provoking this kind of reaction to the recent rise in neo-Nazism in the US.

The second factor key to separating iconoclasm from vandalism is consensus. If the consensus of history writers, reporters and experts agree that an art-destruction is justified, it will go down in history as an iconoclasm. However, if the consensus disagrees or misunderstands an art-destruction (as in the case of “Slasher Mary”) then the act will be recorded as vandalism. The blanket slur ‘vandalism’ is an important tool in bringing the opposition into disrepute. Equally, the cry of ‘iconoclasm’ is important in legitimising violent and illegal actions.

If we are to make any sense of last month’s events and learn anything from this we need to wisely interpret both the context surrounding and the consensus reporting the impromptu art-demolition. Reporters on every side have something to gain from this story: the vilification of their political enemies. In order for us to make any judgments on a case of vandalism it would benefit us greatly to probe deeper into the event, to garner more details before we condemn or praise the individual as either a revolutionary or heretic.

That reminds me of another question…

It’s funny because this discussion seems to touch on much deeper questions about the nature of art itself.

Just as acts can be designated as vandalism/iconoclasm through a consideration of context and consensus so objects are defined as art/not-art in exactly the same way. Perhaps we should look at art itself in a similar way, not asking ‘what is art?’, but instead, ‘when is something art?’, the answer being when context and consensus agree.

“Anything can be art nowadays”, people often bemoan. Well, yes and no. Anything can be art if a) it is considered within the frame of the art world (context, e.g. put in a gallery) and b) people agree to its art-status (consensus e.g., it wins the Turner prize).

Or is that all just far too subjective? Well, that throws us back to one of our favourite discussions on Sputnik, so if you’re interested, I’m sure Huw and Ian can get you started.

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Music Careers and Mental Health

Music as an ‘industry’ has had its unhealthy side for a long time: both self-loathing and callous profiteering are so commonplace that they’re a film cliché. Manufactured pop artists get worked to near-death. Earnest bands work themselves to near-death. What is it about the music industry that lends itself to burnout?

This question is only more topical this year in the light of high-profile suicides such as Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, both of whom struggled with long-term depression. Many commentators, Russell Brand included, look at these deaths in the context of the already-high male suicide rate in the West; similarly, 1 in 4 of us, whatever our profession, will experience some mental health difficulty at some time. There is a larger conversation at play that is not exclusive to artists.

However, there is the fact of the higher depression/anxiety statistics amongst artistic types, musicians in particular. Help Musicians UK found in a 2015 survey that well over 60% of musicians have suffered from psychological issues. Some wonder (perhaps controversially) whether a propensity for mental health struggles is in a way part of the personality profile ‘package’ that comes with artistic creativity, deeply felt empathy and so on. But even if this is true, it’s foolish to ignore the reality that external, aggravating factors – such as constant insecurity of living – make things worse for artists in particular.

Entering this discussion requires a recognition that every person’s experience is different. Cornell and Bennington, for instance, did not struggle with financial insecurity. However, when a famous figure commits suicide, or whenever a small or middleweight band speaks out about their struggles, external factors are always relevant. On the whole, the industrialisation of music – the transition from artist to travelling salesman – creates a brutal bottleneck for psychological issues.

A Lack of Community

Touring, typically a non-negotiable part of the musician’s experience, seems to be the biggest factor. Most musicians want to perform, and touring is still held up, rightly or wrongly, as the primary way to make money. But touring has a cost: that same Help Musicians UK survey reported that 68% of musicians regularly experienced loneliness and alienation from family and friends; 62% said they had experienced relationship difficulties as a result of their career.

On one hand, Instagram makes touring look like an adventure – and it has its high points, no doubt – but it’s essentially one long experience of transit. A friend on tour with Michael Kiwanuka commented there was no time to experience or engage with the places they were travelling through. Hours in coaches, vans or trains. Hours setting up and waiting for maybe one hour of performance per day. Poor quality sleep. Far too many reasons to over-drink. And, most importantly, no friends and family: no grounding. Plenty of musicians find it just too much to handle long term: the compounded years of stress and disconnect take their toll. ‘Success’ is no reliever of stress, either: millionaire heartthrob Zayn Malik reportedly left the biggest boyband in the world because four years of traversing the globe had become too much; auteur success story Tyler, the Creator recently released a single with the hard-to-miss lyric “I am the loneliest man alive”.

On the other hand, for a great deal of artists it’s real life that’s the problem: live performance can be such an adrenaline-pumping rush that touring feels worth the chore, and coming home sparks a kind of ‘post-performance depression’. A contrite Willis Earl Beal said his touring-heightened arrogance, and bad attitude with each domestic ‘comedown’, contributed to the collapse of his marriage; Kate Nash, Everything Everything, and plenty of others have talked about their sense of alienation from everyday existence. One way or another, relationships suffer; but unless you’re Aphex Twin or Radiohead, you don’t get to negotiate the terms of touring.

Then there’s the need to be constantly ‘ON’ and promoting yourself (familiar to any freelancer), the emotional rollercoaster of criticism, and the aforementioned financial insecurity. Are these just facts of life for those who have the supposed ‘luxury’ to pursue a career in music? Or is it okay to suggest that some musicians ‘stray from the path’, for the sake of their own wellbeing?

All Or Nothing?

While I don’t have the answer, right here and now, to fix the music industry or alleviate the pressures of touring (you’ll be disappointed to hear) – I do see signs of change. For a start, music and mental health is a public conversation now. Top-tier pop artists Lady Gaga, Adele and One Direction have spoken about their anxieties and difficulties within the industry. Michael Angelakos (aka Passion Pit) recently announced he’s continuing to make music, but not selling it, saying the music industry “does nothing to promote the health required in order to promote the work it sells.

There is, increasingly, a ‘successful’ middleweight group too: those who’ve found an appreciative audience of a few thousand people and make the most of that relationship. Maybe too much is made of technology like Patreon, but it does suggest musicians can make something of a living from different mechanisms other than just touring; with a bit of internet savvy, artists can score TV slots for their music, collect royalties from YouTube, sell merch, or crowd-fund their next projects. I think it was Amanda Palmer who said that with 15,000 devoted fans (ie fans who show up and buy your stuff) you can have a full-time career. That’s a lot of fans, which you probably can’t get without money and PR, but it’s a good attitude change: The X-Factor and the other financial behemoths of the industry want you to think success is an all-or-nothing, fame-or-oblivion type deal. Aggressive expansion isn’t the only option.

I don’t want bands to stop touring – experiencing live music is precious. Even just the simple pleasure of watching great musicians do what they do is a kind of sacred, life-giving thing. But we can’t put that above the mental well being of the musicians stuck in the entertainment complex.

If you’ve any experience of these issues – as a musician or otherwise – we’d love to hear from you, below, or through

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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.

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Make A Scene

As a kid I became a little obsessed with guitar bands who looked a lot like lost lumberjacks. You know the look, torn jeans, plaid shirts and greasy hair.

It was the early 90s and rock was boring. It was pompous, glamorous and all about showing off. Then came Bruce Pavitt.

Bruce Pavitt turned my world upside down! I was a 14 year old, living in a provincial British town, listening to Van Halen when a friend of mine gave me a pirated cassette. I pushed it into my Walkman and Smells Like Teen Spirit blew my mind. I was listening as Kurt Cobain, Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl were saving Rock music. So, who’s Bruce Pavitt? I had never heard of him.

Bruce wasn’t in Nirvana. He ran their first record label, Sub Pop.

When you’re a music nerd you find out your favourite bands’ record labels and then you listen to their label mates. This involved no algorithms or Spotify playlists, I had to work it out for myself. I would also read the NME (in its pre-internet guise) cover to cover and discovered that before Nirvana went global they were signed to Sub Pop records and came from Seattle. All of this research introduced me to Green River (who became Pearl Jam), Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains etc etc.

Bruce Pavitt had changed my life. Bruce is a scene maker.

Let me explain further.

I now live in Manchester. Manchester is a brilliant and beautiful city with a long history of creativity, social dissent and partying, often all in the same evening.

In the late 1970s Tony Wilson started Factory Records and then in the 1980s he opened the Hacienda. Out of this came Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays (not to mention dozens of other bands, DJs, designers and hangers on).

Tony Wilson is a scene maker. He wasn’t the only one in Manchester but he seemed to have a unique ability to get creative people together and provide a context for them to produce their best work.

These people are rare. They love art, and they may in fact be very creative, but fundamentally they create space for other artists to flourish. Both Bruce Pavitt and Tony Wilson could spot talent, motivate talent and promote talent. These entrepreneurs had the skills required to connect people, find spaces, and find money (and to spend that money).

Calling them entrepreneurs doesn’t quite cover what Bruce and Tony did. Some entrepreneurs can start their own business and become a successful one-person organisation. They create a product and sell the product but ultimately it goes no further as the whole thing spins around them. However, some entrepreneurs can start something that brings other people’s talents in, develops and uses that talent and then provides a space for them to go in different directions.

They create a scene.

Someone has a dream but it’s highly collaborative.

Art needs a scene. Ideas need bouncing around. Creative people need community.

I believe that faith has a part to play here. God is a creative and he loves it when we get creative. When we do, the spark of eternity can be seen.

Christians can be scene makers. It ticks all our boxes. To be a scene maker you need to be able to imagine a better future, to encourage others in what they do, to help them to do better, to build community, to be generous and to be on the lookout for new additions.

Make a scene.

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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?
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Forget about trying to change the world

Think Small Stop Change World Sputnik Faith Art

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

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

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

But we can’t change the world!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we?/Can’t we?

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

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

Back to the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The case for Christians in positions of cultural influence

Christians Cultural Influence Biblical Sputnik Faith Arts

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

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

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

Cultural Influence in the Old Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Influence in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time, Gadget. Next time.

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


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

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Are Christians Called To Influence Society?

Influence Society Christians Sputnik Faith Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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Sputnik’s Long-Term Approach to Christianity and the Arts

About a year ago, I put aside a day to pray. I don’t know how you do it, but for me, if something is particularly on my mind, I like to skip food and pray for a day (the skipping food bit frees up a good amount of time to do the praying bit). On this occasion, the focus of my praying was Sputnik, and more particularly for God to steer back this nation towards his wisdom and how artists could play their part in that.

As often happens on these sort of days, as I talked to God I got an impression that God was talking back. I felt God speak to me about what Sputnik was called to do with a bit more definition than I’d had before. That definition involved the two areas God is calling us to work in, or to put it another way the two landscapes He is calling us to help change: one being the church, the other being the wider society.

A Change in the Landscape(s)

A change of landscape in the church would involve the church generally having a more welcoming and encouraging attitude towards artists, such that churches become known as communities within which artists become better at their art, not worse. (Just to underline, yes, I am saying that at the moment, generally, for most artists, commitment to church, as commitment is presently defined, leads Christian artists’ output to deteriorate regarding quality and importance. Just putting it out there!)

A change of landscape in the world would involve Christian artists operating with a higher profile and more influence in the wider culture, to such a level that when you put together the words ‘Christian’ and ‘art’, there would be a general expectation of quality and excellence, not poorly executed kitsch (Just to underline, yes, I am saying… etc, etc).

A long term outlook

As I prayed I felt a confidence rising that God wanted to do these things and we had a part to play in that. I also felt him encourage me to take a long term perspective in looking to see that happen. I’m not prepared to die for this particular date, but I felt him tell me to not expect that any significant landscape rearrangement until 2050. However, alongside that I also felt him encourage me that while it’s going to take some time to see substantial progress either in the church or in the world at large in this regard, I should expect to look out for noticeable small, but positive changes in each area each year up to that point. This may be slight- more of a shifting of contours, than a wholesale rearrangement of the horizon- but it would be noticeable without having to look too hard.

I know this all sounds very grand, but in reality, while I felt these things reasonably strongly at the time, I’d forgotten about all of this completely until the other day when I started reflecting on 2016. The reason being that one year in, things are very much following the pattern just laid out. Progress is slow, and to most, things would look very much the same both in the church and in the world, but I can look back at a year of subtle, but very interesting changes and feel encouraged as we push onwards to something much more significant.

A year of small encouragements

In the bit of the church we’re involved with- Catalyst churches- there has been a growing sense of favour towards the arts as the year has worn on. Alan Scott’s messages at the Catalyst festival helped in this regard, and wherever I go in church-ville there seems to be a sense that ‘the arts’ are generally seen as an area that is important. It is true that most people don’t seem to have any idea why, and for some, I fear that it’s a bit of a case of chasing after the next fad, but it certainly opens a door to what we’re doing and gives us an opportunity to start chipping away at the landscape and genuinely changing the church’s approach to the arts and to artists. This is most noticeable in the fact that I’ve started to get speaking requests to talk to churches and groups of churches about this sort of thing. That definitely wasn’t happening at the beginning of the year.

In terms of the world, culturally it’s been a very interesting year regarding Christianity and the arts. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll know I’ve developed something of a man crush on Scott Derrickson! The fact that a Christian was able to take the helm of the potentially least Christian film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and do something even slightly interesting with it (Dr Strange was no Brothers Karamazov, but I’d argue that it had some points of genuine and helpful theological reflection amidst the upside down fighting) is important as far as I can see. Switching attention to popular music,  Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape was utterly baffling, probably in a good way (yeah, yeah, I know, rap’s my thing. But this was one of the most critically acclaimed music releases of the year of any genre). It is almost a straight up gospel rap album, but clearly by someone who is not a Christian, at least in the way many of us would understand that label (best exemplified by the moment 2/3 of the way through when “I’ve been drinking all night, I’ve been drinking all night, hey!’ moves seamlessly into a cover of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great is Our God’!!!!) Finally, throw into the mix Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ which hit multiplexes a couple of weeks ago (and which will probably get much more treatment here in the future. All I need to say now is- you must see this film!)

I know that culture on the whole seems to be drifting in a direction that is deeply disturbing for those who love Jesus and value his views on human flourishing, but there are subtle shifts in the arts world that can be noticed that I take as pretty encouraging.

Being completely honest, there have been a number of ‘is this really worth the hassle?’ moments this year, but I think those will be much fewer and farther between if I remember to keep a long term perspective as God seems to have encouraged me to do, and to look out for the small but encouraging shifts within the church and the wider culture.

I’d love it if a load of you guys will join me patiently applying ourselves to what God has called us to do, showing patience with other Christians who have different callings to us, and not giving up hope for our lemming society. The arts aren’t the most important thing in the whole world and artists aren’t the most important limb of the church body, but I’m increasingly convinced that God has an important role for this particular body part in the good things he has ultimately in store for the human race.

In the words of Paul, ‘God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it.’ (1 Corinthians 12:24). I think that God is doing just that with artists at the moment, and while I imagine there’ll be some of you reading this who still feel that lack very keenly, let’s dig in for a change.

Who’s with me til 2050?

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How Should The Church Patronise Art? A Thought Experiment.

Let’s imagine together an undesirable, unhealthy but intriguing situation.

Let’s imagine that Christians temporarily stopped paying artists to make art for the church and ploughed all this money into artists who are making art for those outside the church. I’m not suggesting this money would go to any old Christian artist making art outside the church (many would be getting paid for this already in their jobs). I’m imagining the church diverting funds from resourcing artists who are making art that blesses Christians in order to patronise (providing patronage, not condescending) artists who are creating provocative, engaging, high quality art that is likely to stimulate conversations about faith and warm people towards Jesus.

Okay, parentheses and convoluted sentences out of the way- do you get the thought experiment?

Well, assuming that you do, the first thing to say is that there would be a pretty healthy stash of cash freed up by this. I have heard several artists recently calling for the church to re-establish itself as a patron of the arts as it did in bygone years, but I actually think that the church is still taking on this role today, investing healthy amounts of resources into creative projects and practitioners. It is just that it is only patronising Christian artists who are making art within the church community.

This came home to me recently when a friend of mine went to check out one of the largest Christian worship organisations in the UK. It puts on training opportunities for people who’d like to develop as worship leaders specifically- training days, courses, internships, that sort of thing. He asked the guy who was running it how they helped musicians who wanted to make music for people outside the church and he simply replied that they didn’t cater for them at all. Now, in a sense this was always going to be beyond the scope of the organisation in question which is focused on developing the worship life of local churches (a thoroughly decent aim of course). However, the problem is that there are loads of organisations like this, but very few (as far as I’m aware) seeking to help Christian musicians like my friend who wants to engage with people outside the church.

So, in my crazy thought experiment, let’s imagine all of these musical, worshipful organisations are suspended for a period of time. So, all full time worship pastors are given a hiatus and all the money that churches give to improving the quality of their gathered times of sung worship (smoke machines, lighting rigs, etc) is put on hold. While we’re at it, let’s suspend activity in the whole contemporary Christian music scene as well. Rappers who rap theology. Rock bands who aren’t quite as angry as their secular contemporaries. Dance groups who replace references to illegal stimulants with references to Jesus. All given a break for a few years. (I know it’s a stupid suggestion, but bear with me).

But why stop there as I’m building up a bit of a head of steam! What about the performance arts? Well, this may not be such a significant pot of gold, but there are a good number of Christian dramatic companies who put on plays largely for churches. Let’s free up a few quid there. And writers? I suppose that fiction writers would be the ones to get the chop. There are a few Christian publishing houses you could asset strip, so let’s throw them in too.

As regards the visual arts, we’re not going to save a lot of money from the professional fees of banner designers, flag makers and church hall interior designers, but there may be some cuts we could make to communications budgets. Graphic designers and video makers who make sure that our internal comms are up to date and eye catching could be replaced by amateurs who’ve watched a couple of youtube videos on Photoshop or Final Cut Pro. Again, this would add to the general pot.

Okay, as I’ve been at pains to emphasise, I’m not saying that this should happen, I’m just asking you to imagine if it did. Well, what would happen? As I’ve noted, lots of money would be saved. Harry Enfield quantities of money in fact. The church does have a budget for the creative arts when it comes to creativity towards Christians. But obviously there would be a cost to this madness.

Here’s the question though: what would that cost be? What would be the negative impact of these draconian measures? Would Christianity crumble in the western world? Would our churches fall into apostasy, heresy and idolatry?

Or would Christians simply be less entertained?

Would we have to put up with a few slightly older songs in our worship times for a while?

Would people just have to do a bit more work to find things out about what is going on in the church programme?

Thank you for indulging me for this long everyone. Much appreciated. I’ll leave you to think that imaginary one through in more detail as it is not impossible that I’ve missed a couple of things. However, as you’ve made it this far, I’ll just throw one more crazy, awful, distressing, imaginary world at you.

What if, on the other hand we took all of our resources away from those artists who are both highly skilled and wanting to create work to subtly and authentically turn our society back to Jesus and reach into people’s hearts and minds to soften them to the Christian worldview? Imagine we cut them completely. What if we refused to give any resources to such artists and just left them to make culture shaping art in their spare time, off their own backs, paying for it all from their own pockets?

Just imagine!

We’d risk removing a compelling Christian voice completely from the heart of our culture.

We’d risk only ever being able to reach out to people who are already on the verge of faith, because most people would have no credible Christian voices speaking into their lives from their music collection, from their gallery visits, from their Netflix viewing list.

We’d risk our worldview (and in turn, Jesus himself) being discredited as being lifeless, dull and impotent as we’d be unable to produce more than a handful of people who can create art that expresses spiritual vitality, depth of thought and an honest appraisal of our human condition.

Seriously, just imagine…

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What comes first – your cause or your art?

Photomontage is one of the lesser known skills and disciplines of the artist, within the public eye at least, however it is a skill and discipline that has inspired and influenced me personally far beyond any other specific genre of art as a whole.

The use of images holding multiple meanings, a cut in that chosen place, the position of one image against the other has always brought an instantly accessible depth to the art form that has a force to bring powerful comment and narrative to the audience.

Peter Kennard’s exhibition ‘Off Message’ is to me a bold reminder of this and a nudge to artists with driving force and passion for a cause far greater than themselves.

Kennard is a London based artist whose practice as a political artist and photomontager has spanned nearly 50 years. His work has been published extensively in newspapers and magazines and has been used by activist groups such as CND and Amnesty.

Within a moment of entering the current exhibition at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham you’re looking up at ‘Crushed Missile’ (see above) one of Kennard’s most famous images. Even the most inexperienced of art appreciator couldn’t fail to get the gist! The work is not subtle, and Kennard never intended it to be:

‘It’s important to me as an artist to be like the canary down the mine. Sniffing out danger and coming back up with images that act as a warning. My images are deeply critical of all the status quos that condemn billions to live in poverty while making billions off their backs. It’s art as an ‘early warning system’ or a ‘late early warning system’… we’ve got to hurry.’ 

Art critic John Berger describes Kennard’s ‘terrain as that of the human conscience’ and his themes ‘as nuclear weapons and poverty’ and the underlying arguments behind his work do seem compelling. However, as a great appreciator of Kennard’s work I left the exhibition with another appreciation and in fact a commission.


I went to the exhibition with my family and we chatted through the works on display and as with any good exhibition it caused discussion and debate. My oldest son announced (soon after seeing Kennard’s piece where a soldier is kicking the globe on a football pitch) that he has now decided that when he becomes a famous footballer he will in fact use his huge salary for good and stop to give every homeless person he sees at least 40 pounds! My other half on the other hand felt that the work, although visually arresting, was at times too basic and repetitive in its investigation of the themes.

I however was struck by the sense of a whole life lived for a cause.

Kennard’s cause and not his art comes first. His passions influence all he does and the decisions he makes in his work, from his choice to pursue montage, his production and distribution of his work for free or his lack of change of course or evolution within his work. These are all because he sees his cause as greater than himself as an artist.

As a follower of Jesus, I have a cause that is greater than me as an artist and as a person. I am a way off it yet (which is good because I think I have a bit of catching up to do) but when I get there, will the 50 years retrospective of my life work show such a passion for my cause?

How about you?

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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?

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Re-presenting our Communities

In my community there is an owl called Perry Chocobow Swanet. It was commissioned as part of Birmingham’s ‘Big Hoot’ in 2015, which aimed to celebrate the diversity of Birmingham and its different communities through giant customised owls, as well as celebrating a kind of civic unity. Without the paint, the owls were essentially uniform.

I have mixed feelings about Perry Chocobow Swanet. All of the different motifs depicted on the owl are explained on the Big Hoot website. I understand the references, but I don’t feel that Perry the owl represents them. When I chatted to the artist, who’d visited different parts of Perry Common to come up with the design, I found that he had similar frustrations.

In visiting so many different groups within the community, who all had very strong ideas about what the owl should represent, the final design ended up looking like ‘something that could belong in any park anywhere’. In attempting to satisfy the diverse outlook of a community, the owl said nothing distinctive. The intriguing name, which was apparently chosen by children at a youth group I volunteer at, was quietly ignored on a local press release about the owl, which referred to it simply as ‘Perry’.

As part of a collective of artists, and as part of the community of the church, I find the challenge of representing a people fascinating. It sounds really difficult.

A couple of years ago, I came across an artist whose body of work accomplished this really well. KC McGinnis is a friend (and a photojournalist) from America. Hailing from Iowa, in the Mid-West, KC’s work frequently represents communities in the States in a way that is striking, unique and incredibly reverent; three words that probably couldn’t be used for the Big Hoot project. I sat down with him over Skype to ask some questions about how he looks to represent communities through his art.

Most of the communities KC has photographed are local to him, but different. These include Iowa’s Iraqi and Roman Catholic communites, as well as what one might view as a more ‘traditional’ picture of rural America.

I ask how KC approaches a community as a photographer, and how he goes about being an ‘outsider’. KC says that accepting you are foreign is an important step. Photography is inherently autobiographical. You are present and so people are different. KC embraces this autobiographical element, attempting to be fair in what he represents, but not trying to blend in. Having some knowledge of the community helped, though. Knowing how mass worked, or learning some Arabic enabled small talk and engagement.

Representing is a good verb, says KC, because he aims to re-present. Although he wouldn’t identify as a ‘representative’ for these communities, KC instead aims to say ‘this is what I interpreted with the tools available to me.’ He then asks ‘is this voice fair?’ A photo can be stylised and effective, but for KC, the fairness of the voice is a deciding factor. He references a series of photos he took of a GOP rally with a harsh flash that made the most of a gathering storm in the background. The image was striking, the symbolism clear, but KC and his editor decided they were unfair. And so the photos didn’t get published.

My thoughts turned to PJ Harvey, whose album The Hope Six Demolition Project, released in April of this year, attempted a cross between song-writing and journalism in documenting housing projects in Ward 7 of Washington D.C., a city KC incidentally moved to shortly after our interview. Ward 7 was a community to which Harvey did not belong, and though the album drew generally positive critical reviews, it backfired spectacularly in the projects it attempted to document, where PJ Harvey was accused of desertion, described as ‘inane’ and worst of all, as ‘the Piers Morgan of music’.

I ask KC if strangers have ever reacted negatively to his work. ‘Oh yeah’, he says. There was an Iraqi man whose hair was receding. When this was made evident in a photo of KC’s, the man objected, believing the photo was taken to make him look bad. We live in a snapshot culture, says KC. Intentionality is unexpected, and so people can be annoyed if a photograph is not overtly formal or spontaneous. People think photography exists to either make you look good or exploit you, and as a result the photographer is themselves both trusted and distrusted.

I’m also intrigued to understand KC’s identity as an Iowan. Though worlds apart from Birmingham, Iowa is often dismissed in familiar disparaging tones. It is renowned for its corn, and when I tell Americans that I’ve been there, most respond with an incredulous ‘why!?’

For KC, Iowa is home and he says that the best storytellers are always the locals. Preconceptions about Iowa generally include corn, farmers, and weirdly, food on a stick. I ask KC if he tried to combat these assumptions. He says that he can be a bit defensive, but that ultimately stereotypes are there because elements of them are true. He instead sees Iowa as a microcosm of the United States, with sustainable energy, agriculture, faith and the loss of rural life all important national and local themes.

KC is currently working for USA Today in Washington D.C. You can have a look at some of the work described here on his website. Hopefully this can provide some insight into how we re-present our city, the church, our neighbourhoods, whichever community you are a part of. How can we tell local stories in ways that are striking, unique, beautiful and fair?

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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.

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Alan Scott and Swimming Against The Whirlpool

So, to finish these Catalyst Festival reflections, let’s turn our attention centre stage- well, to the main stage anyway.

The single most encouraging thing for me at the festival this year was Alan Scott’s message on the Tuesday morning (although perhaps just Alan Scott in general!) Alan is the lead pastor of Causeway Coast, a Vineyard church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. I heard him speak at a leaders’ event a couple of months earlier and felt very encouraged. This was partly because he bigged up the arts and artists in a way that seemed like he knew what he was on about, but even more than that, he managed to hold on to two extremes that seem to polarise many modern Christians. He (like Errol Brown) believes in miracles and was passionate in encouraging us to do these supernatural, crazy sort of things today.  At the same time, he also believes that the church should serve our communities and engage meaningfully with our culture, and to that end look to encourage, empower, equip and propel outwards teachers, doctors, businesspeople, artists and anyone else who has the potential to leave a church building! (Evidence relating to Errol Brown’s position on the mandate for Christians to culturally engage is sparse, but he seemed like a sensible fellow, so I’m sure he would have concurred on this point too!)

He continued in this vein at the festival and articulated a very clear challenge to our family of churches to take these things seriously, emphasising the second side most provocatively.

It’s not like this is new to us. I remember Dave Stroud bringing a similar challenge at the first festival, Andrew Wilson prodding us in this area in 2015 and Dave Devenish is always banging on about this kind of thing. However, it’s not an easy one. Church seems to have its own sense of inward pull, drawing everything into the church meeting and programme like a whirlpool. Unless we vigorously fight against this, whatever our theology or missionary convictions, we continually end up prioritising full time Christian ministry over other jobs, seeing church as defined by a series of meetings and valuing people disproportionately regarding their contributions to those meetings.

I personally felt that while what Alan Scott brought wasn’t novel or original he articulated it in a way that really hit home and seemed to incite faith in peeps (always a bonus.)

My hope then is that as we take a break from the Catalyst Festival (we’re giving 2017 a miss) our churches can reflect on all that God has taught us in the last 4 years and practically wrestle with how to put this into practice. When the festival returns in 2018, I’d love to see our family of churches learning how to swim against the whirlpool even more effectively and increasingly making a difference to the people who need it most (who, just to clarify, are not in our churches).

I’m so pleased that over the last 4 years, we’ve started to model something in the arts that embodies this outward motion, and it’s been a great privilege being involved in the first chapter of Catalyst Festival (and indeed Catalyst full stop). If you’re an artist in a Catalyst church, you’ve got a huge part to play in chapter 2, so I hope you feel encouraged too.

So, to finish, here is Alan’s talk from the Tuesday morning. Well worth an hour of your time methinks. (Ignore the slightly maniacal video still, even the first minute or two will convince that Alan is not a crazed criminal mastermind as his picture below might suggest).

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Welcome The Stranger – Benjamin Blower

Benjamin Blower has been a Sputnik favourite since before Sputnik even existed (technically impossible I know, but I think you understand the sentiment). I have not come across many Christian artists who have thought through their practice so carefully so as to match their medium to their purpose, and I find Mr Blower to be a very helpful  challenge and provocation to me both as an artist and also as a follower of Jesus. He also makes some great tunes, which is always handy as well!

Therefore, it was with some delight that I heard last week that he was dropping a new album totally out of the blue. Welcome the Stranger was released yesterday and you can pay what you want for it (through the  Minor Artists shop or just through his band camp). I messaged him last week to see if he could give us a bit of a lowdown and he kindly obliged…

Let’s start with a quick introduction… 

My name is David Benjamin Blower and I’m a musician and a writer from Brum.

I’ve put out a number of records, between rap and junk-folk, always very apocalyptic, sometimes with a loose knit protest collective called The Army of the Broken Hearted.

I’m very inspired by the biblical prophets, who didn’t politely pop their music up on soundcloud and carry on. They jarringly interrupted public space and public life with their often shocking work. So the Army of the Broken Hearted was pulled together to bring radical faith art into public space, and to integrate our work more and more with movements of protest and redemptive change.

My first book Kingdom vs Empire came out 2013: a sort of modern apocalypse of British life.

It’s been almost 3 years since ‘Kingdom vs Empire’ though. What have you been working on in that time?

I recorded almost nothing the whole time, oddly. I’ve had a daughter, renovated a house and begun making pallet crate furniture. I’ve written a second book which should come out late summertime. And I’ve written a lounge-folk musical about Jonah and the Whale. Hoping to do a living room tour with that later on this year.

The new album focuses on the refugee crisis. What is it about this particular situation that led you to build this project around it?

I was talking with a friend a few months back, who’d been spending time in the refugee camp at Calais. She was describing and showing photos of the scenes from February 29th this year, when French riot police tear-gassed the camp to get people out of the way, before bulldozers came and destroyed half of it. They made thousands homeless, including women and children, hundreds of whom have now disappeared to goodness knows where. After this, a number of Iranians – mostly Christians – sewed each others’ mouths shut and went on hunger strike, demanding humane treatment for everyone in the camp.

No doubt I began, like everybody, with a feeling for peoples’ suffering, but this crisis is also something more. It’s revealing something about us. Who are we, if we tolerate this? Who are we, if we just “keep calm and carry on” now?

Many people I know, who’ve been spending time volunteering in the refugee camp at Calais, have the air of pilgrims. They go to help, of course, but they also go to recover their humanity, love, truth, the image of God. They come back more sorrowful and more human than when they went.

On the other hand, I know others who want the refugees gone. We’re used to seeing refugee camps on television, in far away lands, but there’s a rising panic at seeing the world’s “problems” making their way across Europe, all the way to our borders… panic that we can no longer keep re-arranging the world “out there” in order to maintain ourselves “in here.” Everything’s changing.

So I think we find ourselves at a fork in the road, and an identity crisis. Who will we be in this emerging future?

The first half of the record simply tells people’s stories – true stories – of people in Iraq, crossing the Mediterranean, slumming in Calais.

The second half of the record is theological, partly because I think the voice of Jesus speaks more forcefully into this question than anybody’s, but also because I think Christian communities in particular need to have this discussion, because, as Bonhoeffer’s famous quote goes, “silence in the face of evil, is evil itself.”

“Keep calm and carry on” is a charming mantra of defiance when a hostile enemy is bombing your country. But when traumatised and homeless people are slumming on your borders, while you, and everyone else, bomb their countries back home, “keep calm and carry on” becomes the mantra of diabolical evil. I made this record around the refugee crisis, because everything is changing and we need a new mantra.


Well, nothing else for it but to go and buy it! If you want to hear more of BB’s reflections on the refugee crisis, this insightful article is a good place to start. If you’d like to hear more about the man himself, one of the more junior members of our team interviewed him in a bit more detail a few years ago and you can find that interview here and here.

Oh, and one last thing. If you’re at the Catalyst Festival this year, Benjamin Blower will be performing on Monday afternoon. If you’re not at the Festival, it’s another reason why coming along may not be such a bad idea. Just saying 😉

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The Responsibility to Dissent

In my last post we looked at how dissent relates to Romans 13, checked out some of the legacy of dissent in the Bible, and how today’s meme-based, Facebook-bound efforts seem a little disappointing in comparison.

The modern trend of ‘social media dissent’ is a reflection of a world where dissent is becoming more and more popular. People seem angrier than ever with the way things are, and seem to be exploring more and more extreme avenues in order to realise some kind of change. It’s created something of a crisis, as protest movements claim power. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Corbyn within the Labour Party, Trump in the States. Even the so-called Islamic State must be seen as the most twisted and perverse kind of protest movement. It is a statement of dissatisfaction, an attempt to create what its members would view as a better reality.

Why the political recap? Because I believe that what all of these people are looking for has already arrived. The Kingdom of God which forcefully advances and which forceful people lay hold of. As Christian artists who, following Francis Schaeffer’s imagery, aim to carry big, mysterious ideas down the staircase to the majority, our role at this point is more profound and important than it has ever been. It’s perhaps a little damning of the church that so many people are turning to completely unhinged methods of dissent. For too long we have betrayed the Kingdom by mingling too closely with the spheres of power, offering nothing different to the prevailing narrative other than the prospect of a personal conversion and individual holiness.

Jesus is the model Christian artist when it comes to the Kingdom of God. It’s very difficult to find an occassion where He tells you what His Kingdom looks like without incorporating a short story or some kind of visual artistic device. We can do this too. We need to present to people the beautiful, radical Kingdom to which we belong. I genuinely believe a lot of people are getting pretty sick of The World, but the alternatives they are turning to are terrible.

I really don’t want that last statement to be seen as unsympathetic towards these protesters. Supporters of Trump and members of Isis are seeking desperate measures because of difficult times and horrific environments. I also don’t want it to come across as a bourgeois call to moderation. This whole piece is about why I think dissent is important. Dissent is dangerous because it can lead to evil (if appealing) options. As members of the best, and ultimately only, alternative movement against the powers and principalities of this dark world, our responsibility to communicate that Kingdom to people is enormous.

This isn’t always smooth going, and sometimes bad things have to be broken in order for something better to be birthed. This isn’t all that comfortable, particularly if it comes into conflict with that earlier stuff about breaking the law. However, Jesus’ episode with the money changers in the temple seems to show us that on occasion the destruction of something bad and old is necessary to bring about something good and new. I think it’s more an exception to a ‘don’t break stuff’ rule rather than a justification for breaking things we think are bad, but it’s an important exception.

So, then, after three posts on this important topic, here are some of my conclusions:

  1. Submission is the most important part of dissent. Submission to the authorities, submission to the consequences of our actions, but most importantly submission to the Spirit as we seek to be part of God’s creative story.
  2. Within the church we should foster and encourage healthy dissent. The political dynamic of ancient Israel was to have Kings with power, and prophets who reminded them of their calling when they strayed from righteousness. One of my favourite protest figures, Benjamin Blower once told me that he didn’t want to rebel in a way which meant his children would rebel against him. This is spot on. We need to continually be open to dissent; not for dissent’s sake, that we might swing from one extreme to another, but that we would be continually reminded of our calling.
  3. The most profound way we can artistically advance the Kingdom against the forces of The World is to make things that are better. Kingdom art should be more beautiful than the world because the Kingdom is more beautiful than the world. ‘Be the most excellent’ is particularly patronising advice, but we don’t have to aim at provocative art. The excellence of the Kingdom, when compared with the World’s offering should surely be offensive enough.

And now, once again, over to you:

  • How do we as Christian artists do dissent well?
  • How do we most profoundly combat The World in our art?
  • Do you know of any Christians who excellently practice dissent?
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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.

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Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Exploring Our Tradition

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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Cildo Meireles and Creating Cracks In The Current Order

“Art shapes thought, and thought shapes life”: The Sputnik maxim speaks not just of the ‘fine’ arts such as painting and sculpture but also of all types of art; high and low, public and private, global and local alike.

From the images that dominate billboards to the tunes that hum out from the radio, our cultural furniture helps shape the way we think, both collectively and individually. It becomes our language, our words, and our means of understanding and interpreting life itself. This is by no means a purely negative phenomenon, without these systems of cultural significance and value judgements, we would have no readily available means by which we would measure worth.

All cultures have ideological circuits in which certain ideas and ideals are upheld, and other concepts are rejected. To use an example from within Christianity, certain church denominations will sing their own songs, build their own kind of buildings, publish their own brand of books, and ultimately uphold their own ideology. I became a Christian in a Pentecostal church and am attending a Pentecostal bible college: from the index of books in our library through to one of our lecturer’s own rendering of church history, our culture is saturated with this denominational stance.

The same would be true in wider culture. The books we read, the songs we sing, and the media we watch all contribute to the ideological circuit we are operating within.

Though ideological circuits are by no means ‘closed’, they certainly do legitimize their own orders, and therefore refrain from questioning their own authority. Though an abstract reality, the circuit is upheld through concrete and physical means; art, music, advertising, and so on.

Cildo Meireles’ Insertions into Ideological Circuits (1970) sought to insert ruptures into these systems of circulation. The Banknote Project printed politically volatile anti-US messages onto US dollars and Brazilian bank notes in both Portuguese and English such as ‘Yankees Go Home’ and ‘Straight Elections’. The mobile graffiti attached itself onto the symbols of cultural power, and were unknowingly circulated around, under the nose, and in the guise of the dominant order.


The Coca-Cola Project similarly printed such statements onto glass coca-cola bottles that were recycled back into production. These symbols of the American dream thus became vehicles of the subversive messages that sought to undermine their hegemonic control over cultural manufacture: a witty take on the ‘message in a bottle’. Meireles’ resistance art attempted to, in a brief moment, destabilize the ostensible reign of American capitalism oppressing the Brazilian artist’s homeland (the Coca-Cola bottle had become an image of US imperialism in Brazil.)

Ultimately Meireles points to the existence of these controlling circuits, and also to their passivity to the individual agent. There are cracks in the current order: the objects that embody unquestionable cultural authority temporarily became messengers of treason to their consumerist kings. In this, Meireles looks to an exchange of information independent of a centralized system of production. By transmitting an opposing message through hijacking the (literal) currency of cultural exchange, the artist is able to demystify the claims to absolute authority.

As implied above, Western Christians, with our sanctified radio stations, denominational publishing houses, and holy film industries tend to create our own ideological circuits that can be equally unforgiving to the external. And so, as Christians who engage in a culture with an alternative (dare we say, defiant) perspective, how are we to make inserts into the ideological circuits around us? We, with Meireles acknowledge, “the container always carries with it an ideology”, and so how are we to insert the ‘counter-information’ of the Kingdom? For example, the Kingdom principles of love and the absolute value of the human being in the face of a demoralizing system that further impoverishes and punishes the poor for being poor?

I do think that it is of interest that biblically, Yahweh is seen to wrestle with the circuits of language by modifying phrases in cultural circulation through the prophets (“the children’s teeth are set on edge” in Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31). Doesn’t Jesus deliberately re-assemble the law in the Sermon on the Mount as well (You have heard it was said… but I say to you…)?

As Christian artists who believe that we live in a world under the ideological influence of the “god of this world” (2nd Corinthians 4:4), is our response to create our own circuit in which we isolate ourselves, or are we to make insertions into dominant ideological circuits around us? If so, how are we to subvert the current system?

What I am speaking of here is not the poles of east and west, north and south, capitalism and communism, or even sacred and secular, but the divisive “the Kingdom is like…” that seems to cut through all of these binary opposites. The ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy simply is not part of the dialogue; rather it is ‘us and Him’.

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Suffering and Healing in Arie A. Galles’ Fourteen Stations

Arie A. Galles’ (1944-) Fourteen Stations drawings take a radical departure from the customary representations of Christ’s Passion stations. Traditionally, viewers meditate upon a series of works that trace Christ’s physical and mental agony from condemnation through to resurrection. I would like this post to open a dialogue into how unorthodox approaches to the Passion can deepen our understanding of people, place, suffering and healing.

Station 7 – Dachau” 1999 47”1/2” X 75” Charcoal and Conte on Arches

Galles’ painstakingly mimicked aerial photographs of Nazi concentration camps based on Luftwaffe and Allied reconnaissance film. The meticulous drawings reproduce the mechanical photographs in incredible detail; the stations that were to be the final stations of millions of transported prisoners. There are four theological themes in this work I would like to contemplate.

Firstly is the theme of Kaddish; the Jewish burial prayer exalting God and yearning for the establishment of his Kingdom which is embedded in Hebrew and Aramaic through the series. Galles himself confesses, “The most sincere and honest way I know how to pray is through my work, So many people died in these camps, and there’s no one to say Kaddish for them.” In this we find a paradox; how can these depictions of the some of the cruelest and most heinous places in history come together to glorify the seemingly all-too-quiet God? The burial prayer reads, “May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life upon us and upon all Israel”. The charcoal sketches proclaim a sense of immovable hope in death; quite characteristic of the historical Jewish faith, and the hope in the cross; possibly an aesthetic theodicy?

The most similar Biblical source to this enacted/embodied Kaddish would be book of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah. The dirges and final psalm in the book are exemplars testifying to the marriage of craft and passion; of spontaneity and preparation. In both the Fourteen Stations and Lamentations, the laborious process involved in the works’ creation only intensifies the emotional turmoil portrayed. The artist-mourner writes, that the project “has been the most intense endeavor I have ever undertaken”.

Identification is also big theme in this work. It is most notable that some of the artist’s relatives died in Belzec, one of the camps drawn. The artist identifies the suffering and attempted annihilation of the Jewish people of last century with the crucifixion of Christ almost two thousand years ago. Is this to be read as a theological or simply art-historical theme?

The suffering of Jewish people today is therefore not isolated from the Jewish and Christian biblical accounts, and subsequently our minds are drawn to the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations, and the similar atrocities the people have survived. The ground of Jerusalem on which Christ (and many other patriarchs) suffered, the lost homeland, is somehow identified with these horrific places of utter desolation.

Finally, it is interesting that Galles spoke of a particular feeling of objectivity. Galles says he experienced the feeling of being “strapped to the belly of a bomber, looking down.” The aerial, God’s-eye view portrays an apparent scientific objectivity through which the viewer can leave with a haunting feeling of corporate responsibility. The atrocities are evident, and the passion is factual. The height and dislocation of both the photographic method and the birds-eye geographic view stand in tension with the intensely intimate reality of both the creative method and the on-the-ground systematic massacre.

Galles’ alternative stations come together in the creation of a distinct Passion narrative, one that prays, laments, identifies, and objectively condemns an irrefutable yet unthinkable period of recent history.