Reflections on Catalyst Festival: Artists Are Awesome!

I’m in reflective mood, and this year’s Catalyst Festival is the immediate object of said reflection.

Before I get into the chin stroking, philosophical observations, let’s start with something that is of utmost importance. It struck me at this year’s festival and it’s been striking me with increasing regularity since starting doing Sputnik. Artists are awesome.

Before I shed light on your collective awesomeness, a few definitions. I do feel free to use the term ‘artists’ in a fairly blanket and stereotypical manner. I usually shy away from the term ‘creatives’ as I don’t think it conveys the level of craftsmanship necessary to make work of real value (anyone could technically be described as a creative, but to be an artist, you have to put in the hours, years and decades- my next post may explore this a bit more). Having said that, I think what I mean here is what most people mean when they talk about ‘creatives’. You can define this group not just by their artistic output, but by what makes them tick.

I’ve found two things that artists/creatives most typically have in common. They almost all seem to take Euripides’ approach to dogma and tradition (‘Question Everything!’) They also seem to be massive geeks! Just to clarify, I don’t mean geek in a perjorative sense, akin to nerd or boffin (although I would take all three of these terms as compliments if you chose to apply them to me!) I mean by this that they have an almost fanatical interest in things that many people, especially Christians, consider to be totally irrelevant. At the second Catalyst Festival, I remember exposing Joel Wilson as a massive geek in the q and a, following the showing of his film ‘The Quickener’. This was noted in a conversation afterwards by another colossal geek, Huw Evans, whose omnivorous geekiness takes in anything he wants to write about, but usually comes back to 17th century English author Thomas Browne! This year, I was reminded of this again by filmmaker Pip Piper, whose love for two wheeled transportation methods and independent record shops shine through his back catalogue of documentaries.

A possible third observation is that the artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with often don’t like neat boxes and categories, but I won’t dwell on this too much, as I’m presently defining a neat box to put them all in and don’t want to own up to the trouble I’m probably getting myself in already!

If I am not just wildly stereotyping here I think it should become more comprehensible why artists and church haven’t always got on. Our churches (I’m still speaking from Newfrontiers-land) tend to have a reasonably thought through approach to leadership (apostles- tick, elders- tick, democracy-cross, deacons- question mark) and while again this is a strength, strong, godly leadership and  the ‘my way or the highway’ approach can  look, at first glance, quite similar. Artists would be reasonably adept at telling the difference though and for the rest of us, we can tell them apart by surveying the number of practising artists left in their churches!

Perhaps the second observation is even more telling. Everyone who has read any Christian paperbacks in the last twenty years will be able to roll their eyes and gnash their teeth at the secular-sacred divide that we’ve now all exposed and risen above. However, as with most things like this, it’s easier to shake your head at this aspect of Christian culture than actually address it. Most Christians I speak to recognise that secular employment is a valid option and may even be a spiritual call. However, it’s still assumed that when it comes to our deep interests and passions, they must be contained within the Christian culture bubble or there is probably something untoward going on. Therefore, if I catch 3 different legs of The Rend Collective tour and get a t-shirt at each show, that’s basically a pass to miss Life Group for a couple of weeks. However, if someone asks why I’m not at church one morning, and it turns out that I’m at Download, Glastonbury or the local folk festival- I’d better be going with a ‘non-Christian friend’ or else eyebrows will be elevated! But it’s not just our artistic interests that this affects- in churches, I think it is fair to say, people who are really interested in aspects of our world that are not overtly ‘Christian’ and put considerable time into those interests are viewed as a bit odd. Especially if they’re young. Older people can do their bird watching, stamp collecting and book binding, but for the young and energetic in the prime of their lives, why waste your time studying classical civilisations, ancient mythologies or etymology? (I’m so glad that Tolkien was a Catholic!)

Or for that matter, bicycles, independent record shops, Thomas Browne, 1990s East Coast hip hop, etc, etc.

Oops. I seem to have drifted into chin stroking, philosophical reflections after all. So back to my original (simple and non controversial) point- while these artistic foibles have often hindered church/artist relations, as far as I’m concerned, it’s made my last 4 years an absolute delight.

Hanging out with you lot is one of my favourite things to do. I feel reluctant to name names as I’ll miss people out, but I want to make this specific so please forgive me if I haven’t spent enough time with you to feature in the following fond reminiscences. What could be more fun than spending time with Josh Whitehouse watching videos of cars driving round European cities and discussing My Little Pony? Conspiracy theories with Mantis? Fonts with George Aytoun? Bees (Huw Evans)? Middle aged women in cinema (Joel Wilson)? How could time be better spent than laughing and laughing (and then laughing at the fact that we’re laughing) with Jane Rosier? Or trying to invent new genres of music with Jo Cogle, Leanne Salt, Andy Gordon, Rod Masih and Collin Wallace? There’s an indescribable energy that’s released when Rob Cox starts waxing lyrical about painters he loves and who he assumes that I’ve heard of! If I wasn’t involved in Sputnik, how could I have spent a whole evening with Benjamin Harris reciting spurious and largely unattested ‘facts’ from one of the worst, but coolest looking old Christian books that’s ever been published (superbly entitled ‘Biblical things not generally known’)? And my life would be so much poorer if I’d never had to politely interrupt a particularly animated Kim Seymour in full flow, to suggest that stealing a statue from a Catholic church to exhibit at our first festival would not go down well with the Catalyst leaders (or the police). And I don’t know whether it was more enjoyable that she promoted her artists’ talk at the second festival by pretending to deal drugs to festival go-ers or that Adrian Hurst actually gave his explicit permission that she could do it! Seriously guys. I thought that ‘the ministry’ was supposed to be a sacrifice. Aren’t I risking losing treasures in heaven here!

Joking aside, you guys are an absolute pleasure to know.

There’s a million reasons why artists should be welcomed into our churches with arms wide open. Some may even refer to actual teachings of the BIble. One that is often overlooked though, is that you guys are awesome.

Thank you for your awesomeness.

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