Where is the line with you? Where is the. Li-i-i-ine with you?
So sang Bjork on the lead single from her 2004 album Medulla. As with most of her tunes, I have very little idea what the Icelandic pop Pixie was on about, but it’s definitely a very good question for us as Christian artists to ask.
If you attempt to create art with any degree of seriousness, you will quite quickly crash into some pretty tricky ethical dilemmas. How can we speak to the world we live in and reflect the experience of people who are in the world without ourselves sinning? How can we work together with people who hold very different values to us, whether as collaborators or clients? What is the balance between artistic self expression and integrity and our biblical mandate not to cause our brother to stumble? (Romans 14:20-21)
The answers to such questions are seldom easy and it seems that it is up to each of us to grapple with God’s word and the Spirit’s promptings in deciding where the line should be drawn.
In my experience, church leaders take one of two courses of action when helping artists in this area. The first tactic is to encourage a healthy fleeing from sin in our artistic practice as in our everyday social interactions. For example, it is wrong to use bad language in general conversation (Ephesians 4:29) so the same goes for your novel, on stage, etc.
However, sensing the need for a little nuance, a second tactic is often preferred. Recognising that they don’t really understand the world of the artists in their churches, some leaders steer clear of them so as not to be drawn into having to make judgements on things they recognise they don’t understand. This results in artists being treated with a sort of respect, often given such ambiguous labels as ‘edgy’, but practically left to their own devices (and definitely not given any responsibility in church, just in case their propensity to draw nudes is actually sinful after all or, if made public, could lead to a culture of moral degeneracy).
To be honest, I think that both approaches do seem quite sensible in their own way. I know, as a church leader, that I have vacillated between the two on a number of occasions. I also know that as an artist, when these tactics have been used with me, I haven’t found them overly helpful!
So, what can we do? Well, to try to offer some assistance, we’ve asked a whole load of artists we respect to share where they’re up to in this whole discussion and tell us where they draw the line. It’ll be something of an ongoing feature I hope, so keep your eyes peeled.
None of these guys will claim to be perfect, but they’ve got a lot of wisdom to share. So, whether you are an artist desperately trying to be righteous but also relevant and authentic in your practice, or a church leader, wondering what to do with those ‘edgy’ creatives in your church, these posts are for you.
To start with, I’d like to introduce you to Danielle Wilson, singer:
As a singer I’ve always sung in bands (usually as a backing vocalist) with non-Christians and have felt very clear that part of my calling is to be in the mix, sharing my life and my faith in doing that. Early on, I set some principles for myself. Obviously, if someone else is the songwriter, you are somewhat a servant to the song if you choose to put yourself into that environment. For me in this context, it wasn’t fair to be ultra critical of the lyrics, saying something like “I don’t agree with what this song is saying conceptually, so I’m not going to sing it.” I decided that if someone was honestly expressing an emotion or making a (political, for example) point they felt strongly about in a clear and respectful way, I would sing backing vocals on it, even if I didn’t agree (and possibly even if it used words I would not myself use). This was really tested when I was in a kind of soul/gospel-style band called the Lobsters of Freedom. They had one song that was so rude I can’t even write the name of it down! In addition to having profanity, it was overtly sexual without any redeeming value that I could see! I (very nicely) told them why I couldn’t sing it and said I would step off the stage when it was played and come back on afterwards. The band was fine with that and I did that for the whole time I was in the band … for several years.
I could have said, “this band has a super rude song so I am going to opt out entirely” but that would have meant that I wouldn’t have been able to continue those relationships in the same way, and that would have been a real shame. I think as a Christian artist or performer the important thing is to go into a situation where you are working creatively with non-Christians really clear on why you are doing it and what your boundaries are. These are things we can really think, pray on and ask for advice. If you wait until a tough situation to make a decision about boundaries, you may make a choice you regret because you don’t have the time to think it through. Having some basic boundaries in place (and knowing that I had a history of sticking to them with the Lobsters) has actually been very helpful and reassuring in the years since when other creative situations have come up that have been even less straight forward.