Artists are able to see beauty before it exists, and bring it into being, taking raw materials such as paint, canvas, clay, metal, fabric, notes, words or movement, and producing something of value. I believe this is what Christians are called to do in culture—take what God has created and produce something of value, which leads to human flourishing and the common good. As Ted Turnau puts it, “God commands us to develop his creation. It makes sense, then, that the Bible begins with a garden and ends with a city.” (Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, p. 54)
Defining the Artist
The Artist finds the middle ground between the Demolition Engineer and the Cheerleader. With the Demolition Engineer she agrees that The Fall has severely affected all aspects of our nature, and of all we produce.
But, unlike the Demolition Engineer this does not cause her to despair, reject, withdraw or devalue culture. She agrees with the Cheerleader that we cannot extract ourselves from culture; no matter how hard we try. Therefore we must engage it in healthy ways. Furthermore, she agrees that God’s creation is still good, and we, as the crown of His creation still retain the imago Dei, defaced as it is. This gives her hope that the good, true and beautiful can still shine through in culture.
This is the vision of the Artist: to have such a redemptive influence in culture, taking that which is intrinsically good but has been marred by The Fall and see it again express its full potential. This includes promoting aspects of our culture that are true, good and beautiful. Yet at the same time this includes identifying what is not true, good or beautiful and working to redeem it. The Artist ultimately seeks what God desired initially in His creation: a place where people can live well individually (“human flourishing”) and collectively (“the common good”).
As an analogy, think of a pond. Ponds are good things. They are places where life flourishes—fish, plants, and wildlife that come for a drink. However, if the pond becomes polluted, it is no longer a place of life and flourishing. It is a good thing that is no longer living up to its potential. The solution is not to abandon the pond, saying it can never be what it was and is of no value whatsoever (the Demolition Engineer). Nor is the solution to ignore the problem and say everything is fine—that there is really no pollution (the Cheerleader). The solution is to find the source of the pollution and stop its harmful effects, while at the same time nurturing the life that is currently in the pond so it flourishes and the pond is increasingly a place of health and life. This is the redemptive influence the Artist seeks to have in culture.
Therefore the Artist sees the level of conflict between Christianity and culture as less than the Demolition Expert, but more than the Cheerleader. In some cases this means joining together and working arm-in-arm with non-believers who, in virtue of the imago Dei, are also seeking to redeem something which is not fostering the good, true or beautiful. At other times this means standing against others who seek to promote and advance some aspect of this fallenness and further inculcate falsehood, ugliness or evil.
The churches that tend to promote the idea of the Christian as Artist in culture are those in the Reformed tradition, as well as many Evangelical Free churches, among others.
Examples of Artists
My ministry is within higher education, so I’ll illustrate this in the university context. The Artist in higher education understands her university as a place both of great value and great fallenness. It is of great value as it discovers and passes on that which is true, good and beautiful. This occurs as she researches and teaches in her field (whether that be biology, psychology, business, communication, law, etc.), developing new insights into God’s glorious creation from her discipline and passing this knowledge on to the next generation. The result is that she and her students promote what is true, beautiful and good in their spheres of influence, fostering life, health and well-being in every way possible (spiritually, physically, socially, etc.).
Yet, like all cultural institutions created by fallen human beings, universities fail to be all they can and should be. They often promote that which is false, ugly and even evil. Therefore the call of the Christian academic, as Artist, is to work to redeem her university and help it better foster human flourishing and the common good.
Take a business as another example. The Artist in business understands his company as a place both of great value and great fallenness. It can be of great value as a place of employment for people, allowing them to provide for themselves, their families, and others. It can produce products that are of value to others. And it can provide a corporate culture where people connect with one another around a shared commitment to the vision of the company.
However, in each of these aspects he sees the effects of The Fall as well. Employment, supervision or compensation practices may not be equitable. Its products may be defective or in other ways harmful to others. The companies’ corporate culture may be toxic.
Therefore the call of the Christian businessperson, as Artist, is to work to redeem that which is good, true and beautiful in the company, and reduce what is evil, false or ugly. (For a wonderful exposition of what this looks like in the business context see If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business by Tom Morris.)
There are many examples of individual Christians who have been Artists in the public sphere. As a result, they had great influence in their cultures. For example, Abraham Kuyper was a Dutch statesman of the later part of the 19th century. He founded a newspaper and the Free University of Amsterdam. Both endeavors did much to promote the good, true and beautiful in his society. He also served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and had a very positive influence in his culture as he worked tirelessly in that position to influence his country in ways that fostered human flourishing and the common good.
Another example is William Wilberforce, a long-time member of English Parliament. Due to his Christian conviction that slavery was contrary to all people being created in God’s image, he worked for many years, against great odds, to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire. He finally succeeded with the passage of The Slave Trade Act of 1807. (His story is now a major motion picture—Amazing Grace—a must see!)
More recently Martin Luther King was a Christian who sought to be an Artist in culture. He identified racial inequality as a clear effect of The Fall, and believed God called him to stop this “pollution” in the culture, so as to foster the flourishing of all people. These three are still remembered worldwide for the redeeming influence they had in their cultures (grounded in their Christian faith, though this is often forgotten).
What the Artist Gets Right
I believe the Artist gets just about everything right. She embraces what is good and right of the other two views, without going to either extreme. I will briefly summarize this here. For more see my earlier posts on the Demolition Engineer and Cheerleader.
With the Demotion Engineer the Artist recognizes the reality and all-encompassing effects of The Fall. He is not naïve or reactionary, but rather a realist concerning the corroding effects of sin in the world. Therefore he does not run from confrontation or the risk or persecution for standing up for what is right. Owing his ultimate allegiance to God, he is willing to stand against our culture and be a social reformer when needed, as Kuyper, Wilberforce and King were in generations past.
Yet with the Cheerleader he also affirms the goodness of God’s creation, and seeks to find, foster and promote all that is good, true and beautiful—everything of value in culture which already exists through God’s Common Grace. He embraces the good in culture produced by non-believers, and is eager to work side-by-side with them to cultivate these cultural goods to even better foster human flourishing and the common good. He is eager to fulfill his civic duties and seeks to bring Shalom (complete well-being) to those around him (Jer. 29:4-7), regardless of whether they share his biblical convictions. He rejects the “sacred/secular” divide, instead seeing all his work as sacred and of value to God. (For more on the sacred/secular divide see my post here, point #3.)
Cautions for the Artist
The Artist faces two significant challenges. The first challenge is maintaining her balance between the two extremes. Luther once said doing theology well is like a drunken man trying to ride a horse—it is so easy to fall off one side or the other. Since the Artist understands and values the positive aspects of the other two views, this is her struggle as well—there is a constant temptation to slowly adopt more and more of the posture of the Demolition Engineer or Cheerleader.
The second and opposite challenge for the Artist is to know when to adopt the position of the Demolition Engineer or Cheerleader in a given situation. The constant temptation is to be so rigid that he cannot see when a situation or issue calls for alignment with the Demolition Engineer or Cheerleader.
There seem to be two ways to guard against these challenges. First, God is always with us, providing wisdom, counsel and direction. As we spend time in His Word and in prayer we can learn to hear His voice and direction. (I suggest Dallas Willard’s Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God to think more about this.)
Second, we are created to be in community and therefore we need one another to live well. So we must find other Artists and journey down this path together. These “kindred spirits” will provide invaluable counsel to help us Artists choose wisely.
By seeking to relate to culture as an Artist, rather than a Demolition Engineer or Cheerleader, we both flourish personally and have the type of redemptive influence God desires we have. Much more can be said of this. If interested in reading more, I suggest first picking up Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling and giving it a good read. It will develop these ideas in much greater detail, and provide many more examples that I am sure you will find helpful in your journey toward become a master Artist.
Until next week, grace and peace.