Are Christian Artists Called To Influence Society?

Phew! This whole influence thing is a lot more complicated than you might have thought. 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?

 

Jonny Mellor

 

 

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