Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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?
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.