Monday, July 17, 2006

Evangelicals and the Arts--in the year 2056


I got an email last Thursday from Christianity Today. They wanted to interview me for a project they're working on. This year's the 50th anniversary for the magazine and they seem to want to peer into the future and see what lies ahead--fifty years hence. I'll be 84 when that day arrives, AD 2056. Still swimming, still eating burritos as big as my face, I hope.

I feel so behind on so many projects, church projects, personal improvement projects (sleeping more, eating anti-oxidant vegetables, dying to sin), it's like I can't quite catch up to myself, and I know where the fault lies: everything but me.

Ok, just kidding. It's all me.

I keep choosing things that distract me or drag my soul down into stupid, stupid, retarded sin, little sins, big sins, chronic sins. I need help. I really don't want God to strike me down with a tragic case of mononucleosis and force me to sleep my eight hours a night. I don't want to provoke the severe mercy of the Almighty. It's a great thing to read about in books, but not in real life.

I'd rather say yes now, with the little things, each day, making the most of the grace he gives me than presume upon it and think I can get away with mildly irresponsible behavior that my brain quickly rationalizes in highly nuanced theological ways.

Anyhoo, CT wants to know what I think is going to happen to evangelicals and the arts in the year 2056.

My first impulse is to think, heck if I know. That's a big number, honestly, fifty years, the age of rocket-ship cars and female presidents. My parents will be cruising the gold streets at that point, enjoying the benefits of amoeba-less intestines and house concerts with Bach and jolly Irish jigs courtesy of ancient Celtic monks. My mother will be very, very happy.

It's such a strange effect on your spirit to think of your life fifty years from now when you'll be "old," like the old guy who used to live across from the street me, Mac, and then he suddenly got a heartattack and now no longer lives there. He was probably in his eighties. And now I never see him any more. At all. Only his blue suburban, sitting under the carport, silent, waiting.

Well I got to thinking about our farflung future as evangelicals and the first thing I bumped into was the term, "evangelical." It's not a term that describes a denominational reality but a theological reality. It's more a movement of kindred minds than an ecclesial manifesto. You can't exactly put Catholics and Orthodox alongside Evangelicals and say equal-equal-equal. You'd have to put Protestants in that spot. The thing is, you have evangelical Catholics and probably, though I've not seen it articalized, evangelical Orthodox (Frederica Mathewes-Green?). You have evangelical Episcopelians and evangelical Church of Christ-ers. But "evangelical" is more a mammoth adjective than a proper noun--denominationally speaking.

In practice it makes it really hard to predict where we'll end up. For whom exactly are we predicting an artistic future? High church, traditionalist, Orthodox Presbyterians or super low church, anti-traditionalist, emergent house church movements? Or what about charismaniac fundamentalist outfits? Or Quaker get-ups? Or post-liberals?

The quick answer to our future is: everything and nothing and everything in between. Short and sweet. And true. But not helpful.

Then as I thought about it longer as I was driving down on my way to visit Adam Stewart at the Lutheran mission, Austin City Church, a few things crystallized and I scribbled them down in my magic art notebook.

First thought: Very excited.

In actual fact, I feel very excited. I feel very confident about our future as artists of evangelical faith. There will only be more of us, making more mature art and that can only be a good thing. There'll also be a lot of bad art. Of course. But that's as blindingly obvious as saying that there's a lot of junk food alongside Wholefoods and upper-end bistros. It comes with the territory. It also goes without saying that with a lot of good will come a lot of messiness, and probably a decent amount of evil too.

Second thought: There are four contexts in which evangelicals will experience a work of maturation:

1) Seminaries and graduate institutions: Today we have one Anglican Jeremy Begbie, one CRC Nick Wolterstorff, one Presbyterian Bill Dyrness. In fifty years we'll have ten of each, just like we have ten-to-the-nth-power Christian faculty in the hard sciences.

2) Churches: There are so many churches developing art programs it's ridiculous; it's ridiculously great. They'd make for a bang-up dissertation topic. Whereas five years ago I could count the number of churches with substantial art ventures, now I've stopped counting. They're proliferating like bees. (This past Spring I had approximately 40,000 bees holed up in a pecan tree in my backyard. They hated my lawn-mowing. I hated their attacks upon my person. They now live at a new postal address.) We can only imagine what effect this will produce on its members, especially its children who will grow up with a mentality that says: art is normal. Art and faith together are normal and therefore normative for Christian living. And what a day that will be.

3) Para-church organizations: They're everywhere. You have Fujimura's International Arts Movement. You have Operation Mobilization's ArtsLink. You have the raucous Cornerstone Music Festival.

4) Professional societies: These include explicitly Christian groups like Pacific Theater Company in Vancouver, BC, and Christians in the Visual Arts, but also more subtly Christian groups like SevenDance Company. Then you have the swarms of evangelicals who will be working in your standard secular art company, a ballerina with the American Ballet Theater or a filmmaker in the studio system of Hollywood.

The result practically? Respectively speaking, greater theological maturity, greater pastoral maturity, greater strategic maturity, greater aesthetic maturity. Maturity, the Bible tells us, is a very good thing. Maturity like Henri Nouwen. Maturity like Marilynne Robinson.

The result artistically? More seminaries, churches, para-churches, professional societies means more resources, means more patrons, means more infrastructure, means more artists acquiring more skills, experience and knowledge at younger ages and thus creating the possibility for a greater number of outstanding artists emerging from our diverse communities.

Then I thought of the cross-pollination effect across culture, denomination, and time.

Christendom in the global South is growing. That's a manifestly obvious fact. What's not always obvious to your average American is the potential rearrangement that will take place of our self-understanding as Christians. For a good hundred years North American and British Christians have regarded of themselves, sub-consciously perhaps, as benevolent governors of the "Third World." We've supplied massive amounts of missionaries, publication resources, medical and aviational technology, theological and pastoral and spiritual pioneering work. Lots of good, of course. Not always good.

But the traffic will change. The forces will bend northwards, not southwards. It will be hard for us to adjust. Our pride will rear its ugly head and we'll have to confront our subtle feelings of racism and colonialism. Americans don't like not being in charge. But it will be good for our souls.

Artistically speaking I have no idea what will happen. All I know is that the global south will pour all its wonderful and equally fallen cultural riches into the global north and things will be different.

In addition, the kind of cross-denominational pollination that young people experience today is unheard of historically speaking. Save perhaps during the first six weeks of the early church, when they shared all in common--until the Hebraic Jewish widows started getting more than the Grecian Jewish widows and Christians became ugly and turned into 1st Corinthians and Galatians and the seven churches of Revelation--at no point have Christians felt so comfortable and un-persecuted in their decisions to attend a Baptist church at the outset of college, a charismatic church at the end, an Anglican church the first year of graduate school, a Quaker friends church during their visits home and for the time being a Christian and Missionary Alliance during the day and an Antiochian Orthodox Vespers at night.

My point being, as with art in general, such cross-pollination, here of the ecclesial type, exposes us to new ideas and methods and presents the possibility of a richer, more mature art. Certainly my grandparents in the 1920s and 30s felt no such freedom to fratenize with the "Romanists." With more evangelical young people reading Flannery O'Conner, studying the music of Arvo Pärt or the iconography of Russian Orthodoxy, learning at the feet of Polynesian craftsmen, the artists in our communities will begin to reflect a larger, truer perspective on God's world.

Finally, there is the cross-pollination across time. To the extent, for example, that Vineyard rocknrollers have revisited ancient prayers, such as "Oh Gladsome Light," or Reformed Presbyterian college pastors have pulled dusty hymns out of old libraries, thus Indelible Grace, an entire generation of teenagers is beginning to experience a formation of mind and heart that was never part of my childhood. Not in this way. And it's whetting the appetite of our youth for substantial, soul-satisfying art. These youth will become adults and they will run our colleges and 501c3s.

Affecting all of us, our liturgies will reflect, in both transient and permanent ways, a greater number of art forms. Music for centuries has ruled in the Protestant church as the queen of the arts. But if a culture is created for dance, if tastes are cultivated for sculpture or video technology, then there’s a good chance that our experience of corporate worship, whether through the preaching of the Word or the administration of the sacraments, will be radically different than anything our Protestant forebearers ever imagined.

And finally, we can’t discount the possibility that after all the hoopla and artistic hoorah there will be a counter-reaction. Where aesthetic activity is perceived to be in excess, a countermove towards simplicity, or asceticism, will be launched. Iconoclasm will reappear, for better and for worse.

What's really going to happen in fifty years? I don't rightly know. I'm not really old enough to say. I can only see what I see. But there's a good chance that my generation will give birth through its sons and daughters to a Billy Graham of the Arts. There'll be a Carl F. Henry writing plays in a loft in New York City. There'll be an Amy Carmichael breaking new ground in the field of modern dance.

There'll be a Packer poet laureate and an Aimee Semple McPherson working the penthouse of Virgin Records.

Globally speaking there’ll be 7 Ralph Winters, 30 Sufjan Stevens, 100 Tim Hawkinsons. Arts centers will explode to meet the artistic and spiritual needs of a given community. Publishing houses will proliferate in niche markets. People will get mad. They'll get dizzy with possibilities. They'll forget that it wasn't always this easy to be an "evangelical" artist. And they'll stop using scare quotes.

Hopefully they'll also be more richly human.

A lot will depend on the future of technology. A lot will depend on our ability to articulate and sustain a robust theology of creation, a theology of culture, and a theology of the church. A lot will depend on our humility before God.

For now, I end with my favorite quote from Calvin Seerveld. I am off to swim my ablutionary laps.

"For the evangelical Christian community to develop a living artistic tradition, a mulching ground that generates deeper-going artistry which in turn will not be defensive but have staying power, will take a long time. It will probably take more than one generation of artists, art critics, art public, art patrons, art theorists, art publicists, working together in a communal perspective, to develop the normal body for supporting the numerous second-rated artists that are needed to get the few first-rate ones. . . .

Perhaps some Christian body, with resources and authority, can enlarge its long-term vision to give priority to such a ministry in the arts, giving support to a gifted artistic community with a united direction and a holy spirited vision of compassion for those caught in sin and by evil. . . ."

(PHOTO: members of our Turkey arts mission looking at art with the Director of the Istanbul Museum of Graphic Arts, Suleyman Saim Tekcan.)

2 comments:

kevin beck said...

Thanks for the post--from an art lover and husband of an artist.

Iambic Admonit said...

Wow, this is a powerful post full of great energy and hope and enthusism for all that will come. I admire your spirit and hope to imbibe some of the rich, warm, full, living joy of all arts, all subcreation in the honor of the Creator. I also fear the changes, but what generation has not? There's something in me that gets hard and small and says, "But what about truth? What about theology? We can't let art replace correctg doctrine!" And, no, we can't; but the Lord will look after truth. I can communicate truth while making good art, in any medium. Thanks for these thoughts.

~ Admonit