If you are at all like me then you lament the ongoing state of Christian creativity, that is, of the specifically Christian imagination as it is expressed in both the public sphere and the Church. Christian cinema, Christian radio, Christian television productions, Christian media personalities, Christian artwork, Christian music—for each discipline appending the label “Christian” has the effect of qualitatively lessening the seriousness and effectiveness of the creative effort. Regrettably, a so-called “Christian” artist is almost universally not a very good artist.
This is an ironic state of affairs, especially since the Christian story truly is the greatest story ever told, tapping into the full range of human emotions and situations, possessing power to reach humans of any background, any socioeconomic status, any stage in life. Strangely, possession of this story has not succeeded (at least in this century) at making of Christians particularly good storytellers. Christians have at their disposal access to the immeasurable depths of the God who created the universe, but settle instead to pander about as intellectual infants. Christians have the capacity to speak with immense cultural resonance, and yet frequently appeal to the merely sentimental. We have the potential to instruct the heart in the depths of the knowledge of God, but instead choose to bludgeon the emotions with saccharine, simplified, and perpetually “safe” content. We have set as our standard the wisdom of doves, and the consequence is that at times our creative efforts are as harmful as serpents.
A root cause of this situation is an overarching obsession with utility. In the Christian world, if a thing is not considered directly useful for the gospel, then it is not considered beneficial. To expand on this, if a media form does not fit directly within the narrow confines of a specific area of church life—such as evangelism, encouragement, or instruction—then it is immediately suspect. What use is a painting that doesn’t instruct? If it’s not about a specific Bible story, how can I know it is safe? What use is a song that doesn’t function in worship? What use is a radio station that doesn’t encourage? If a movie has “worldly” content in it, doesn’t that mean it is poisoning my mind and my purity? Our ability to categorize and appreciate creative efforts is thus sharply filtered through a lens which measures the inherent usefulness of the effort. Creativity has been enslaved to utility.
This utilitarianism is augmented by a cultivated suspicion of things that are practiced. For some time Christians have concluded (falsely) that something produced by an individual without training is superior to something produced by another individual with training. We elevate the amateur on the grounds that he or she displays a special anointing of the Spirit—in other words, lack of credentials is implicit evidence of the work of God. This was brought into clear focus for me recently when I encountered the following passage in Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching,
As I begin to speak to you about literary style and homiletical construction, I cannot help once more urging upon you the need of hard and manly study; not simply the study of language and style itself, but study in its broader sense, the study of truth, of history, of philosophy; for no man can have a richly stored mind without its influencing the style in which he writes and speaks, making it at once thoroughly his own, and yet giving it variety and saving it from monotony. I suppose the power of an uneducated man like Mr. Moody is doing something to discredit the necessity of study among ministers and to tempt men to rely upon spontaneousness and inspiration. I honor Mr. Moody, and rejoice in much of the work that he is doing, but if his success had really this effect it would be a very serious deduction from its value. When you see such a man, you are to consider both his exceptionalness and his limitations. In some respects he is a very remarkable and unusual man, and therefore not a man out of whom ordinary men can make a rule. ~ Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, 146-147
Brooks’s target is preaching, and in his view he has the powerful and popular ministry of D.L. Moody, the uneducated but globally effective evangelist. If we make a model of Moody, appealing to his lack of education to undercut our own requirements, then we are ignoring the uniqueness of Moody. Not all men are Einsteins, but the existence of a single Einstein does not lead us to conclude that any old person can give a lecture on advanced physics. Why then would we assume that untrained individuals are similarly suitable for Christian service? The source of such an attitude, in Christian praxis, is clearly a form of laziness; I will trust in the Spirit, that is, so that I don’t have to do my homework.
Laziness, let us be clear, is a form of utilitarianism. It states that I will only pursue those tasks which I find directly beneficial to what it is that I am doing. It foreshortens our ability to perceive of how the Christian faith might bear impact on a wide range of subjects. To put this another way, the lazy utilitarianism of the Christian mind sets a list of approved subjects for study; then, searching within that list, typically finds only what it looks for. And it is precisely this simplicity that generates simple-minded, emotionally monotonous media as well. Instead, the Christian mind ought to stretch out into the breadths of the world equipped with the depths of Christian understanding. The Christian mind is not a mind of Christian things, but a mind equipped with the mind of Christ prepared to encounter all the things of the world.
A First Repair: Recovering the Breadths of Christianity
How will we go about aspiring to such a mind, breaking the bonds of our utilitarianism? The first way to repair will be to recapture our conviction of the breadths of Christianity. Brooks’s words about preaching therefore bear impact here as well. He challenges ministers (and I extend this to all Christians) to be individuals who read widely and richly, to explore the depths of the knowledge of God as that knowledge is revealed in all the diversity of the world. This is to recover our conviction, in Arthur Holmes’s phrase, that “All truth is God’s truth.” Practically, this means that the particularly Christian attitude is not to assemble the list of preapproved and “safe” subjects for Christian study, but instead to search out how to expand our Christianity into every subject, to attend for those glimmers and glimpses of God’s revealed character as they present themselves to us in each and every matter. Paul, speaking in Second Corinthians to his actions as an apostle, hints at this process in a way that I think is fair to extend here, that “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). We are not specifically in search of only obedient thoughts, but we are striving to bring all thoughts into obedience to Christ.
If such an attitude is right, then it ought to change the Christian approach to art and creativity, thus elevating our discourse in society. Our focus will not be to be good “Christian” artists, but to be good artists who happen to be Christian. C.S. Lewis speaks to this in a talk he once gave on apologetics: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent” (Undeceptions, “Christian Apologetics,” 67). The supremely evangelistic task, in other words, while it is occasionally served by directly apologetical books (e.g., Mere Christianity), is in fact better served by the faithful presence of Christians doing their own individual work well as Christians. We need not Christian movies, but good movies made by Christians with their Christianity informing their work; not more Christian recording artists, but good music made by Christians with their Christianity bleeding out into their songs. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for expressly pedagogical Christian work. Just the other day I listened to some songs which were scripture, set to music for children. But the purpose of such pedagogy—and the purpose, I might suggest, of our public worship and education as well—is to expand the Christian mind so that it can encompass the world. Our education should not narrow, but broaden the mind, and it must begin by remembering that the Christian story envelops the whole of the world, past, present, and future. Until we regain a conviction of those breadths we will fail to effectively speak our depths into the deep needs of the world.
A Second Repair: Recovering a Conviction of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good
A second treatment for our utilitarianism is to recover our conviction of the true, the beautiful, and the good. If Christian creativity is not to be based on its usefulness, then its basis must be some other thing. We must create, in other words, because we are convinced that a thing is true, or that a thing is beautiful, or that a thing is inherently good, and our creative efforts ought to tether back to these factors. And yet it is possible that a key reason why we have retreated from these three transcendentals to the merely useful is because we have become deeply confused about what they are. Just recently I read an article in the Independent about students who struggle to read all their assigned textbooks. The closing quote was illuminating about the state of the human mind, “Lizzy Kelly, a history student at Sheffield added: ‘Students might be more inclined to read what academics want them to if our curricula weren’t overwhelmingly white, male and indicative of a society and structures we fundamentally disagree with because they don’t work for us.’” Books, in other words, are not worth reading on their own merits, nor because they might communicate something true, beautiful, or good, but because they ought to “work for us.” Utility thus assassinates the true.
There is further confusion even in identifying the qualities of these characteristics. A year ago I heard a Christian literature professor give a lecture on the image of God in Cormac McCarthy’s startlingly dystopic The Road. She persistently described that book, which remains one of the grittiest, darkest, books I have ever read, as “beautiful.” Now, I was willing to agree with her that the book was both gripping and theologically compelling, but to describe it as beautiful felt like a profound misapplication of terms. The book was decidedly not beautiful. The language might have been beautiful, and the contents might have illuminated something of the truth of human depravity and God’s faithfulness, but the contents themselves were fundamentally ugly, even hideous. She had confused the true and the beautiful, and the consequence was to muddy our Christian understanding of the world, rather than illuminate it.
I want to suggest that if we have failed to properly identify these characteristics, it is because we have left off educating ourselves in their pursuit. I find myself drawn again and again to the following passage in C.S. Lewis’s magnum opus, The Abolition of Man,
“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful. ~ C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 28-29, emphasis added)
The point is that we must train ourselves to see those things which are worth seeing. We become hungry and on the lookout for truth, no matter where it might be found. We train our eyes to see the beautiful and strive to find it in all of life. We cultivate a taste for the good and are eager to experience it in all things. We admit complexity and nuance, that God is communicating to all people at all times, reaching out in love through all the world’s corrupted creativity to show something of His glory. And in this way we reject the simplistic, the saccharine, and the safe–exchanging them directly for the true (which is not simplistic), the beautiful (which is never saccharine), and the good (which is rarely safe).
Christian education—that process by which individuals who profess Christ are guided into deepened maturity in all the fullness of Christ, that process by which we are taught to feel pleasure and disgust at those things which are really pleasant or disgusting—is a weakened and sickly thing. We have retreated when we ought to have advanced, circled our wagons when we ought to have gone walkabout. The world is there, each stone eager to declare the glory of God. The furrows of the world are deep, anticipating the clear water of Christ to irrigate and bring forth fresh fruit. But it is only as Christians reject utility and commit to educating ourselves in the true, the beautiful, and the good that we will succeed in elevating the level of our discourse, and thus bring the full weight of our creative potential into the greater service of the Kingdom of God.