For some time now there’s been a significant debate raging with regard to Christians, the arts and cultural engagement. It seemed the Christian Hip Hop world might tear itself apart over whether those involved are primarily “Christian artists” or “artists who are Christians.” Associated with that question is the perennial question of whether or how to “engage the culture” for Christ.
You can find the usual camps. There are those who argue for a fuller engagement with the culture with requisite innovation in order to do it effectively. There are those who argue for distinction from the culture with the requisite abstention from certain forms and practices. And there are a good number of folks somewhere in the middle, somewhere between immersion and isolation.
As a pastor, I’m really interested in that third group. It seems to me that’s the group, the so-called moderates, who will tip the tide. Often this is the group that has thought least about the issues and therefore are most susceptible to snap judgments, over-reactions and being carried away with bad ideas. I put myself in this group. You can call me “Malcolm in the middle.”
But this group in the middle is also the group that stands to gain the most when those in the arts do what they do well. And by “do what they do well” I have in mind representing Christ, the gospel, the church, and themselves as artists with an excellence befitting all four callings.
“As a pastor, I’m really interested in that third group.”
Now, to be clear, I think the debate thus far has focused on the wrong sorts of questions. A lot of pixels have been posted on whether Christians should be engaged in the culture. Of course they should. To be human is to be ensconced in a cultural milieu and to be busily producing more of it. A lot of effort has gone into debating whether artists should bear evangelistic witness in secular settings. Of course they should. That’s simply a Christian artist’s Matthew 28 responsibility to go into all the world. And there’s been a fair amount of exchange about whether it’s possible or good for Christian artists to produce art that is not explicitly evangelistic. Of course it’s possible and good. Excellent art bears witness to the majesty of God even if it doesn’t bear direct witness to the glory of the cross.
The real question for me as I watch interviews and read exchanges is this: But how? In what way should a Christian artist (the term I prefer, which I hope to justify shortly) involve herself in the production of cultural works, conduct himself in the so-called “secular” spheres or art, and bear witness generally and specifically to the majesty and redemption of God? How can one do that with full integrity as Christian, church member, artist, and human being?
Without a clear methodology we’re always going to feel vulnerable in our theology. I wonder if much of the theologizing over the questions isn’t symptomatic of uncertain praxis, methods not yet consistently linked to sound doctrine. When we’re done with theologizing we’re still left asking, “But how?” So, this isn’t a theology of cultural engagement. It’s a very rough sketch on a very simple “how to” level for how we might live out our callings in “secular” settings. As a pastor, I hope it applies to everyone, not just Christian artists.
So here goes. Five friendly, simple pastoral suggestions:
1. Beware giving friendly nods.
I sit on a lot of panels and I sometimes find myself politely nodding when, in fact, I don’t agree with what’s being said. It’s a nervous tick. The body needs to move while I’m trying to listen closely. A lot of times I then get to share my position, which makes clear that by nodding I’m not agreeing as much as I’m being polite. But the problem comes when the conversation moves on too quickly, and I don’t get a chance to clarify. Or I forget to clarify. Then my nodding looks like an affirmation! And if I’m nodding at the wrong things I’m misleading people. My entire appearance risks becoming an endorsement of things I reject.
Here’s what I’ve learned to do: lean in, smile slightly, and keep my head still. Two things usually happen: the person speaking has to pause to ask what I think and those watching who know me normally suspect I’m not agreeing because I’m not nodding. If you’re a Christian inhabiting “secular” space, stiffen your neck a little and avoid the bobble head. You will serve your viewers and get more opportunities to state your own position.
2. Finish the thought.
Once you move from the Christian bubble into the wider world, you have to keep in mind that “Christianese”—that jargon and language we use inside the Christian world—no longer communicates as readily. Folks don’t know what you mean by “gospel,” “grace,” or even “sinner.” So you can’t use those in-group terms as shorthand the way you would in the church. Saying “I’m a sinner, too” is misleading when your host wants you to minimize sin while you want to maximize redemption. You have to finish the thought. You have to say, “Though I sin, my sins are forgiven and paid for by Jesus Christ.” Or, you have to say, “We’re all sinners, but some of us have been redeemed through faith in Christ.” If you want to communicate the fact that you sin every day, do so in a way that also makes it clear that Christ’s blood cleanses you every day and His righteousness adorns you every day.
Don’t be comfortable with incomplete thoughts, Christian jargon or assuming you and your unbelieving counterpart mean the same thing when you use the same words. Many of you are wordsmiths. Before you appear on the show, think through pithy answers that convey full thoughts. Then you’ll be bearing witness without being overbearing.
3. Remember: You can’t follow Jesus at a distance
One disciple tried that when our Lord was arrested. He found himself warming himself by the fire with those who arrested and crucified the Lord.
“We’re all sinners, but some of us have been redeemed through faith in Christ.”
We’re meant to follow Jesus closely, which means our association and loyalty has to be known unmistakable. Again, a lot of this comes down to good non-verbal communication and expressing complete thoughts. For example, don’t laugh or scowl when those around you engage in coarse joking. A sober “That’s not funny” will do, especially if the joke is at the expense of our sisters. And remember that “but” is a magic word; it erases everything that comes before it. So avoid sentences like, “I’m a Christian, but…” You’re about to at least moderate and possibly invalidate the claim to be a Christian. Flip it. Say something like, “I don’t harshly condemn people for their sins, but I am a Christian.” Or, better yet, just say, “I am a Christian,” then complete the thought with, “and that means….” Take every natural and legitimate opportunity to affirm your loyalty to the Lord without excusing it. Which brings me to my next suggestion.
4. Don’t cheat on the bride.
Sometimes it’s tempting to put distance between ourselves and the church. It’s tempting to accept the world’s criticisms of the church—after all, we know the church has her problems. But when we side with the world’s criticism—even with a misleading head nod—we appear to be dumping the bride for the world. Many of us are married and we would never criticize our wives or allow others to criticize her. We protect and honor our wives. If we have siblings, we would not likely allow people to gang up on them. We would step in to fight with our brother or sister.
So it ought to be with the bride of Christ. We want the world to not only know our affection for Christ but also our love for His bride, the body, our brothers and sisters in Christ. This means we have to embrace the church with all her faults. We have to embrace the inconveniences she causes and work to better her reputation. We can’t strengthen her reputation if we’re signaling our distance from her. That might help my individual standing and endear people to me, but it won’t actually help people draw near to Christ, which necessarily means taking their place in the church. If the host says something critical of the church that you agree with, then nod and say, “We do have that problem.” Identify yourself with the church; accept the reproach as your own. It’s the only honest way for us to respond since, in fact, we are part of the church and we are part of the church’s problem. So, identify with the bride, then finish the thought with “This is how Christ….”
5. Accept the fence.
A lot of the debate has to do with our identity. Which comes first: artist or Christ? How you answer that determines where your fence posts are staked. It determines how we view ourselves and what we permit ourselves to do or think. Here’s why I prefer the term “Christian artist.” It frontloads our identity as Christians. I am Christ’s and He is mine. And where that’s uppermost in my thoughts (and I wish it was always uppermost in my thoughts) then I’m more likely to have my intellectual and artistic fences in the right places.
Again, I understand why the label “Christian artist” can be and feel inconvenient. In the art world “Christian” can be a synonym for “cheesy” or it can suggest that only churchy issues are addressed in your art. There may be a lot to overcome to redeem the title. But isn’t that precisely why we’re in the world? We want people to become Christians. We want them to be serious disciples. So, we want converts to wear that tag gladly. But if those of us who bear the name do so hesitantly and distance ourselves from “Christian,” we do little to disabuse people of their prejudices and we may break in their minds the link between our excellence and Christ’s grace and glory. It seems to me the better work is to embrace and redeem the term “Christian artist” by putting forth a level of excellence that cannot be denied and therefore must be attributed to Christ and His grace.
Being an “artist who is a Christian” may create more space and access for individual artists (which is not a bad thing), but I wonder if it bears witness for Christ and the church as it ought. Shouldn’t we rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer for the name? And I wonder if “artist who is a Christian” isn’t putting too much stock in our art or ourselves as artists. As Phil Ryken put it, “Art is always tempted to glory in itself.” He continues, “The problem is that artistry easily becomes idolatry, and when this happens, art is seen to exist only for its own sake and not for any higher purpose…it is the best things in life that threaten to steal our worship, and art is such a wonderful gift that those who love it sometimes forget to praise its Giver.”
That should never be true for the Christian artist—even when they’re legitimately dealing with “non-Christian themes.” We need to avoid the temptation to exalt our art or artistry—whether we’re pastors who write, visual artists, poets, or singers and rappers. We should address “non-Christian themes” or produce art that isn’t explicitly “evangelistic,” but we should do that from a distinctively Christian point of view as worship of God the Greatest Artist. We may be helped to faithfully apply that point of view if we allow ourselves to be fenced in by the phrase “Christian artist.”
These are five simple suggestions from a brother friendly to the effort to take Christ where He is not worshipped, including the artistic world. Sisters and brothers, let us avoid nodding, finish our thoughts, follow Jesus closely, protect the bride, and embrace the fences. I suspect that doing these five things (and others) will keep us tightly tethered to the church and faithfully engaging with people who are not yet Christians. We’re called to both, which is a balance perhaps most difficult for artists to maintain since most of the evangelical church world has such a deficient view of the arts and the artist’s vocation. Those artists who keep the balance will not only be faithful themselves, they’ll be helping all us “Malcolms in the middle” be more faithful in our thinking and support, too.