"Although the goodness of God, and His rich mercies in Christ Jesus, are a sufficient assurance to us, that He will be merciful to our unavoidable weaknesses and infirmities, that is, to such failings as are the effects of ignorance or surprise; yet we have no reason to expect the same mercy towards those sins which we have lived in, through a want of intention to avoid them." --William Law, The Power of the Spirit (1761)
"I am so sorry to have wearied you with so long a letter but I did not have time to write you a short one." --Blaise Pascal to a friend
“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” --Mark Twain
A couple weeks from today Phaedra and I will be in Nashville, TN. I'll be giving one of the talks for ACT's arts conference. They asked me to send a description of my talk in advance and this is what I sent them:
“Christian Artist or Disciple Artist?: A Case for a Disciplined Disciple Artist”
Too often the term “Christian Artist” becomes entangled in culturally bound notions that leave us in narrow, perhaps even un-biblical places. It can cloud rather than clarify the relationship between our Christian and artistic identities. There is something to be said though for the fact that Jesus called us to make disciples, not Christians. What would it mean for us to envision ourselves as disciple artists? What kind of change would that produce in the church’s work of nurturing and releasing artists into their various callings?
In this talk I want to advance the idea that a disciple artist is fundamentally a disciplined artist, and such an artist is integrated and fully alive. Such an artist adopts new disciplines to retrain inordinate appetites so that they will conform to Christ’s good order. These disciplines re-habituate our minds, hearts and hands so that we will become the kind of artists who make truly great work—“good for food and pleasing to the eyes.” The two fundamental disciplines I will explore in greater depth are 1) the discipline to live a confessional life, and 2) the discipline to read outside your tradition.
The result of all this? We become disciplined artists who are healed and unafraid, on the one hand, and produce art that is deep and powerful, on the other.
And that's that. The topic comes out of my near fanatical reading of everything Dallas Willard. It's also a pastoral itch. I've been fascinated by the question: What makes for a successful artist? If I take my cue from the biblical narrative, then the answer looks something like: a successful artist is one who is integrated and flourishing.
So what does it take to produce this kind of artist in our communities? A long time, a lot of hard focused work, 3 friends who will walk with you everywhere and love you no matter what and tell you straight up when you're full of crap, and finally, what Willard calls a theologically and psychologically sound method for transformation.
And that's precisely what many churches don't have in place. My contention of late is this: that we're treating persons as parts, not as wholes. We feed our sheep with lots of head knowledge, which on its own is very important, but neglect their emotional selves and so leave them atrophied and relationally dysfunctional. And by emotional I do not mean emotional rushes--which we have plentifully in some cases and which can actually do more harm than good--I mean basic emotional health. This would include handling conflict well; keeping good boundaries with others, i.e. saying good yes's and no's; identifying angers and griefs that left untreated will turn cancerous; living daily, securely in God's love; and so on.
Or we nourish emotional health in our people but ask nothing of them in terms of social action or evangelism. We teach our congregants to worship and pray, but neglect to instruct them in the disciplines of feasting and confession. We get our folks to serve, but then leave them no time to practice solitude.
My point is, it's Olympics time. (Hallelujah! We're fired up in the younger Taylor household.) These athletes "succeed" because they've trained their whole selves: body, mind, emotions, etc. Whether they win the gold or not is another matter. And while we shouldn't regard our Christian life as a competition, I think there's plenty we can learn from these athletes.
For them there's a dailyness. There is a rhythm to keep them from burning out. There's a plan. There's a vision that compels them to press through the pain. We need something comparable. We need to help our people, in my case artists, to identify and then learn how to practice a range of disciplines that would help them become the kind of disciples that Jesus is in the business of making. It's not about talent or personality, it's about disciplines. Willard puts it this way:
"No one ever says, 'If you want to be a great athlete, go vault eighteen feet, run the mile under four minutes', or 'If you want to be a great musician, play the Beethoven violin concerto'. Instead we advise the young artist or athlete to enter a certain kind of overall life, one involving deep associations with qualified people as well as rigorously scheduled time, diet, and activity for the mind and body."
The disciplines--spiritual, artistic, intellectual, emotional, physical, relational, imaginative, sexual, practical, financial, and so on--will together re-habituate every part of our whole self towards Christ's good order so that we can become persons who are integrated and able to flourish and for each of us uniquely, to radiate the glory that God has bestowed in us.
That's easier said than done, I realize. But I agree with Chesterton: "Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried." What I'm beginning to envision is a demanding model for discipleship. It will certainly force us to slow down and to think long term, and I don't think that's the easiest think for us Americans. It's not for me.
But what's the alternative? Artists who succeed immensely but are a wreck at home? Artists who lead worship excellently and are therefore looooved by the whole congregation, but who are unteachable, insecure and defensive? Artists who produce great work but feel ruled by depression or even, ironically, sloth? Artists who responsibly practice their craft, but whose careless management of their money sabotages great progress? I've seen it happen plenty. And I've found myself saying often, What does it profit an artist to gain the whole world (however they measure that) and yet forfeit their soul? I've had to question how I do my pastoring. Am I really pastoring artists well? I can create activities for artists--art festivals, film festivals, art exhibits, performing art laboratories. But is this primarily what they need?
Maybe they need to figure out how to love God with all their heart, mind, body and soul, and then do whatever they please. Too often our life's intention is a mile away from our way of life. Again Willard:
"Some people would genuinely like to pay their bills and be financially responsible, but they are unwilling to lead the total life that would make that possible. Others would like to have friends and an interesting social life, but they will not adapt themselves so that they become the kind of people for whom such things 'come naturally'."
I don't yet know how to do this "whole life" discipleship. I'm not sure what it will require to help artists develop a wholistic range of disciplines so that they can become the kind of persons who produce fruit that is "good for food and pleasing to the eyes," useful and beautiful, nourishing to body and soul.
The more interesting question is, What would inspire an artist to embrace such a multi-disciplined life? What would make him or her want to do this? That's the 64,000-dollar question.
I hope to make a good go of it at the art conference in Nashville.
In the meantime, here is a church marquee that only God knows what it means. What in heaven's name are they trying to say? And this one is in my neighborhood. Cracks me up.