A Disciplined Disciple Artist: My Nashville Talk

"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.


Rosie Perera said…
Ha! You should submit that church sign to Crummy Church Signs, a hilarous site that collects them. (Click the link "Submit Your Own Crummy Sign Here!" below any of his blog posts.)
duskangel said…
How ironic....I just posted a RANT about needing discipline in the arts and not being able to find it in the church and I feel like I'm completely 'winging' it and learning from trial and error. But how can you teach an artist unless you are also and artist, and so someone has to figure it all out first with careful observation and study of the scriptures and much prayer and putting it into practice, and seeing what works and doesn't work first in order to be able to teach others. (I also always thought that all Christians were supposed to be disciples already....I thought that was a given...I did not know there was a difference between a Christian and a disciple. I didn't know that Christian meant NOT a disciple of Christ. To me the word Christian means disciple and vice versa. A few friends to tell us when we are full of crap?)Christian = Disciple. If you are not a disciple, you are not a christian...that simple.
Dawn's right when she says that it takes an artist to teach an artist. I've lamented on my blog before how so many books directed at art and artists in the church were NOT written by visual artists. Yes, some were writers and some musicians, but what about us painters and sculptors?

There are some books and essays I've finally run across that do this, but they are something I wanted 10 years ago and wasn't able to find until the last two years or so.
Rosie, I've visited the site before and it's hilarious. Oh me.

Dawn, I'd agree that most of us as Christians generally view ourselves as disciples. That's not in question. What's in question is the content and method of our discipleship, and what I'm arguing specifically is that a) our discipleship should encompass our whole persons, hence the long grocery list with the intellect, the emotions, the physical body, etc, and b) we should think in terms of specific disciplines, not general activities. I think what I tend to find in churches are very generalized, haphazard presentations of discipleship that sometimes leave the person bifurcated: the spiritual here, the rest of your life over there and we'll not worry ourselves about it.

I think also it's all too easy for the believer artist community to care only about the art side of things or the spiritual side of things and say that the way I relate to people or treat my physical body or steward my finances or handle my emotions or my verbal habits, so on and so on, don't matter.

I say that's rubbish because of a): God is in the business of redeeming our whole persons. And I do believe we as pastors and leaders should take at least a basic interest in all domains of human formation/transformation. We don't have to be experts and we don't have to spend the same amount of time in every domain. We can refer our people to counselors or physical trainers or financial planners for more specific care. But we should be doing everything we can to help those under our care to understand what it means to be a whole human being and to have a sense of what a vision of hale and hearty humanity looks like.

Paul, is there a specific kind of help that you are looking for as a believer visual artist? I think it'd be helpful to hear what you sense you need.

I'd say, though, that civa.org has a pretty good list of books oriented to visual artists. See their CIVA Recommends page. IMAGE journal also features a regular section for visual artists. Both organizations have been around a while, slogging it out, often unnoticed, and we're very grateful for all their hard work.

Also, Paul, what books have been most helpful to you so far?
"Is there a specific kind of help that you are looking for as a believer visual artist?"

Yes. I need more TIME! The day is only half as long as I need it to be in order to properly develop my craft, create new work and market said work — WHILE retaining some kind of day job to pay the bills. Of course, this is all the more complicated when your day job is support-based mission work :p

Other than that, not really that I can think of.

Known of Image and CIVA for years; great resources. Formerly a member of CIVA, someday want to subscribe to ImageJournal. Books that have helped? Let's see; HEAVEN by Randy Alcorn: Not about artists or the arts, but all about affirming the palpable creation we live in. I'm in the middle of a number of others now, a few Square Halo publications, some overly thick reference called Theological Aesthetics, Christians and Kitsch by Betty Spackman . . . making my way slowly through all of them. I'm not a fast reader. Sometimes I wish I read more, but then the studio begins calling my name.

What proves most encouraging, more than books as I think about it here, is something you eluded to in your post, having a few people around to keep you in line spiritually and artistically. I'd love two or three other Christian artist mentor types in my life. Right now I have one, and we don't really touch on the spiritual in our relationship for some reason. Maybe because both of us work at Christian institutions and don't get enough serious art talk time outside of our time together???

I'd love to have a mentor like Fujimura, though I'm sure a lot of other Xian artists would too. He's humble, strong in his faith, excels at his craft AND he's successful. Honestly, I don't feel the need to find success at that level, but I would really like, some decade, to be able to make a living from my art. Again, as would so many other artists, Xian or non.

My own interest is as much in the intersection between faith and the tactile arts as it is in being an artist, although I love being an artist too. I think I said this more than a year ago when I first found your blog: I envy your (former) job as an arts pastor. Just out of college that was exactly what I thought I wanted to be, but at the point had never even heard of such a thing.

I've come to realize, though, that if I can struggle through the position I'm in — which so many other Christians also find themselves in — and attain moderate success I'll be able to help others as much as if I go the theological route. Francis Schaeffer was a great advocate for the arts, but he wasn't an artist. We don't need more Schaeffers and Rookmaakers as much as we need, it seems to me, more Fujimuras.

End ramble.
Angela Hart said…
Hi. I was just turned onto your blog by a friend who told me I should go listen to you speak when you come to Nashvegas. I really like this entry and feel kindred with you on many points. Also, it's weird, I recently pulled out Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy and even blogged about it in May. I'm mostly attracted to fiction and memoir-ish books these days, bored with theology books, so it was fun to get juiced up by a bona-fide theologian. And his holistic approach to people and reality appeals to me, in ways you articulated.

I hope I'm able to hear you speak. Thanks for your thoughtful blog. It reminds me of a stanza from a favorite poem of mine, by William Stafford: awake people must stay awake. The darkness around us is deep.

Angela Hart
Greg said…
Thank you so much for this post, David. As an artist and a pastor of an evangelical church I have long felt divided. I have had difficulty reconciling the two halves of me. Wholeness has been illusive. I am coming to recognize, however, that the task is not simply to incorporate aesthetics in my modernist, enlightenment version of Christianity, but to also to incorporate my emotions, my body, and my relationships with people and the physical world around me. As others have stated more adeptly than I ever could - current evangelicalism is like some strange version of Gnosticism. Even classic Gnosticism talked of spirit and mystery - we're all brain all the time. It makes sense that artists have such a difficult time in such an environment as ours. We have gone a long way down the wrong road away from wholeness and well being. And certainly, it's not just the artists who are suffering.
Paul, thanks for your response. I agree most heartily with your desire for a mentor. That seems to be the universal hunger these days--for surrogate dads and grandmas, aunts and uncles, mentors, spiritual friends, anything older and further along the road than ourselves.

Please don't lose heart in praying for a mentor like Mako. I'll say a prayer for you. And do look around and see if any young soul might benefit from your own mentoring. I'm sure you have plenty to offer after many years of working out your artistic faith with fear and trembling.

Angela, greetings. And happy 36th. 1972 was a good year to many of us. Love the Stafford quote. Thank you. If you make the conference in Nashville, please come up and say hello.

Greg, I owe you a phone call. Thank you for sharing your heart. I know you're not alone. And I love your observation about our poorer contemporary version of Gnosticism. Oy.

I pray three things for you, my friend: grace, grace, and more abounding grace as you navigate this season of life. Please don't give up. It's totally worth the struggle.
Sarah said…
Oh I wish that I could have come to this conference. I feel so lost in my church community. I am, as a sculptor, a novelty to most people. I am interesting to talk to. "Wow," they say, "a real artist" as if I am an animal at a zoo. The Christian community has a lot of work to do in this area. I am glad that people are at least talking about it.
Karen said…
That's some awesome stuff to reflect on and eventually live out. Willard's book is extremely deep. You help point of some good points of his.

Popular Posts