So, we’ve spent 4 posts exploring the question of whether Christians are called to influence society and, if you’ve missed it, you can catch up with the discussion, starting here. Today then, we finish things off by focusing in on how all of this affects our art practice.
There’s no getting round the fact that our lives outside of our art are vital if our art is going to have a significant positive impact, but we mustn’t neglect the work itself either, and this care for our craft, and respect for the disciplines we work in, is actually in itself a very practical way of loving and serving people who engage with our work. It’s also a key way in which we make ourselves available to be raised to positions of influence through our work.
Sloppy practice is unlikely to profoundly bless anyone, but even worse, a slapdash approach to the artistic culture you inhabit actually communicates a lack of love and care.
When an artist produces work they step into a tradition. It’s a bit like moving to another country, and for a Christian making art with a concern to serve others through their work, it’s a bit like doing so as a missionary. It’s generally understood that the colonial way of doing mission is deficient. To go into a country with nothing but distaste and condemnation for the traditions that are cherished in that culture is highly disrespectful and arrogant. As the prominent 20th century Christian leader John Stott put it so well:
‘The overriding reason why we should take other people’s cultures seriously is that God has taken ours seriously’ (Coote and Stott 1980: vii-viii)
God had some pretty major issues with human culture, yet he came down into that culture to serve not to be served, to save not to condemn, he came down with a call to repent, but at the same time he had a clear respect for us and our strange practices and traditions.
Therefore, in the light of Jesus’ example, someone may have the opinion that Jesus is superior to Mohammed as a spiritual guide (at the very least), but if they don’t know anything about Mohammed or actually, if they know about his life, but have nothing good to say about him at all, it’s probably best that they don’t move to the Middle East or give their life to try to reach Muslims. Respect is a form of love and because all people are made in God’s image, all human cultures will contain things that are good and right and true, however obscured they might be.
So to return to our practice as artists, Jesus’ model is very relevant to us as well as we step into our different artistic disciplines and traditions. As a rock musician then, as soon as you start making art in that discipline, you step into a tradition. The tradition of rock music. Therefore, to do this without knowledge of its key practitioners and history, or even if you have this knowledge, to enter the tradition of rock music simply taking the moral high ground over the individuals who are cherished in that culture, is genuinely disrespectful. If you really have nothing good to say about Kurt Cobain, James Hetfield, Kerry King or artists like them, I’d go as far as saying that you shouldn’t put yourself forward as a practitioner in that genre. To use another example, if you can find nothing good in the work of artists like Cindy Sherman, David LaChapelle or even Robert Mapplethorpe, you probably shouldn’t try to be a fine art photographer. You could apply this to any artistic discipline.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you go away from this blog and stream Slayer’s Reign in Blood while checking out Mapplethorpe’s body of work in google images (seriously, I’m really not suggesting this. No, seriously!) And you don’t have to have a thorough knowledge of the work of artists with this level of ‘edginess’, but if you can’t at least see some things to praise in the heroes of your discipline, however much else there is to condemn, then to put yourself forward as an artist in that discipline is unloving, uncaring and not practicing ‘faithful presence,’ however nice you are to the people you engage with through your work.
Nurturing your own craft then is a form of serving people and respecting the discipline that you work in is a way of loving your neighbour. Funnily enough, doing these things also enables God to use you to influence people more widely. As Solomon wrote:
‘Do you see a man skillful in his work?
He will stand before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men.’ (Prov 22:29)
Love and influence. Win win!
So to round off our series, a summary: When I read the Bible, what I see is that God is regularly on the look out for people to raise to positions of significant cultural influence. We’re not all going to be those people, and those people are not more important than everyone else, but we need him to do that in our society today.
For all Christians I think this means that we should live in such a way that we make ourselves available to being used in this way if God sees fit. As artists, with the opportunities that lie before us, this is especially relevant, and as a result of this whole discussion, my encouragement would be for the artists among us to look to be a faithful presence in the world, through how we live, how we practice our art and through our art itself.
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.