Mon 03 Oct, 2016

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

How to provoke, challenge and even offend in the right circumstances

Jonny Mellor / #community, #conversation, #ethics

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?

I rap. I write. I help run Sputnik. Yes yes y’all.

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