This is the fourth of five articles:
My Vision- The Motivation
The Power of Ideas
What does it mean to be a responsible artist and musician for the Church in today’s world? There are so many different voices, strategies, paradigms, whims, and desires. Which direction is the right one, if there is a right one?
The Church is facing either its finest hour, or its darkest, depending on how we respond in our hearts to the call of God for this generation. The decisions we make right now could either marginalize us for years to come, or thrust us into the next ‘Great Awakening’. There is so much at stake, and it has all to do with Why we’re doing what we’re doing. Our heart attitude is what is central to this. What is our core motivation, not just the surface clichés we like to throw around, but what really are our core values, or what should they be?
The arts in a community both define the community and are shaped by that community. In other words, a culture and community that has high artistic achievement will also have depth of moral strength and character. Conversely, a community that has weak moral structure and loose living will produce music and art reflective of those attitudes. The arts also have prophetic powers of creating culture, bringing forth a new environment into the culture, all stemming from the realm of the imagination. Take, for example, the old Buck Rogers comic strip that opened up a generation’s imagination to space travel. Only a few years later, what seemed to be an impossibility turned to reality. How about the Star Trek cell phone, for another more recent example? What the arts put in front of our eyes and ears, sparking our imagination, soon becomes reality.
So the role of music and the arts in the Church carries a much greater weight than what we have been led to believe. There is a lot more at stake, as stewards of the mysteries of the ages, the carriers of Truth. Our first priority should be to maintain the purity of the foundational doctrines, the ideas, the teachings that we have been given.
Just a few ideas can change the course of nations- for good or bad. Take communism, for example. The idea that everything belongs to everyone, stripping away an individual’s potential and responsibility, produced lack and famine to millions. However, the concept of individual freedom and personal responsibility, unhindered by government’s control, unleashed the wealthiest nation ever to have existed on the face of the earth. Simple ideas, wide-spread consequences.
Many people shy away from being “too dogmatic” about religion. Today’s secular media focuses on the negativity of being a “fundamentalist” or “extremist”. The word “doctrine” even seems to carry a negative connotation in the tone of today’s conversation. Yet all of this is dealing with the simple subject of ideas. Good ideas should be embraced, and even a stronger word, “married”. Bad ideas should be completely abandoned, “divorced”. So wars, both internal and external, are fueled by who gets to decide which ideas are good or bad. Ideas are spiritual. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) Ideas fight against one another, just unfortunately they do so through people. As Christians, our fight is in the realm of the spirit. Just before Jesus’ death, He told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (Jn. 18:36) Some world religions, and unfortunately even some Christians, are doing their best to dominate the natural world with human force. They’re missing the point, though. Everything in the natural world is influenced by the ideas which exist above the natural world. Ideas motivate physical change. (All people like to change, they just don’t like to be changed!) If you win in the realm of ideas, however, people embrace those ideas and produce the fruit of those ideas.
The ideas (or doctrines) of Christianity are truly simple. The carnality and humanity of generations, even centuries of generations, of unfortunately misguided and ignorant “Christians” has done a wonderful job of clouding the waters of these simple truths. Religion’s layers upon layers of ritualism, culture’s intermingling of various ideologies and idolatries, together with political and militaristic desires of domination have all had their fair share of soiling the reputation of these simple, yet profound spiritual truths found in the basic doctrines of Christianity. It is truly unfortunate that the student of Christianity may become more entangled in the flaws of humanity seen through the ages rather than catching the life-transforming realities foundational to the Christian faith.
Here they are: 1) Forgiveness. Jesus came from Heaven to earth as God’s mouth-piece to say: “I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, or what you ever will do. I love you and forgive you. I will always love you and forgive you, even if you reject Me, despise me and fight against Me.” 2) If we receive His forgiveness, then our natural response will be to give it. It works like a pebble that’s dropped in the pond. This love resonates outward, first to us, then through us to others. 3) Every good work that happens to the benefit of those around us emanates first from His love and forgiveness to us, then through us to others, evidenced by how we treat not only believers around us, but the whole world, even to the point of laying our life down for others.
Where are the wars in those ideas? It takes a rejection of these things to think that in order to be successful we must dominate one another. Here is Jesus’ admonition to those who are leaders: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)
The Christian artist’s first responsibility is to keep the doctrine of the grace of God pure, not to allow human performance to obscure the beauty of God’s love, not to allow the “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (I Jn. 2:16) to cloud the relevance of this Good News.
The problem with the human condition is guilt. We intuitively know when we mess up. So we determine we will wield self-control, to live perfectly. And we still mess up. So we determine to abandon our idea that there are any morals, but we still gravitate back to a moral compass, even if we determine not to live by it, we still know it’s there. So we try to lower our standards of morality, saying “everyone does it”, or “well, nobody’s perfect”. We can’t seem to get away from the moral Law in our core. Some try to run so hard against it that they develop a hard and calloused soul. Anger, bitterness, un-forgiveness all make great barriers between us and this moral compass that we can’t seem to completely get away from.
Guilt creates a sense of unworthiness, so then I need something to make myself feel worthy: fame, money. Or maybe I’ll try to drown out the feeling with pleasures: sex, drugs, drinking. The moral compass (or Law of God) in our souls is still there. The inability to keep it still exists. The guilt never goes away (and the consequences of this kind of life-style never seem to go away either, doggedly hanging on, continually pulling us downward).
Wars come from guilt. Someone else has fame, fortune or pleasure more than me. They seem to be happy, so I’ll do whatever it takes to get what they have. That will help me feel better. Jealousy, envy, strife, wars.
Here really is the good news: God knows you’re not perfect. He says: “I release you from your guilt!” “I accept you the way you are!” When His love comes, and when the guilt is washed away, and the peace comes, then an amazing thing starts happening.
You don’t want fame, money, illicit sex, drugs, drinking. You don’t want to strive anymore. In your inner person, you’re just at peace: with yourself, with those around you, with God. And out of this peace, there comes a holy desire to live to love others, to serve others, even to sacrifice for others. It’s an inversion of the way it used to be. Instead of striving to get, now I desire to give. It’s not about things coming to me, it’s about the good that is flowing through me to others. And it all starts with forgiveness. It’s that simple.
Arts and culture that emanate from a person, a group of people, a community who love God, one another and the world, not from their own human power, but from the power of God’s grace, will resonate across all barriers. This supernatural environment can only produce worship, music and art that is supernatural. And what is supernatural will ultimately affect the natural. Artistic ideas, birthed in God’s love will resonate in the hearts of people universally. These ideas will ultimately produce results that will benefit others, drawing them to know God and love God. It’s the goodness of God that draws man to Him. (Rom. 2:4) This is the foundation which all worship, music and arts in the Church rests upon.
The Artist’s Responsibility
How is it, then, in the Christian artistic community that we have made the secular model of high-gloss marketing our example of excellence to follow after? Worship music has now become its own industry. People go to “worship concerts” for the music, not the message. Which, in my opinion, is fine. Hopefully, one day the message will be embraced. The real question is: why are the performers there? Are they there for the music or the message? Or the money?
Artistic excellence and integrity are not always the higher goals, but rather a wider audience: fame. “We’re trying to reach as many people for the Lord as possible” is the answer. Is it for the Lord’s Name or your own? And with what are you reaching them, His ideologies, or yours…maybe a mixture of both. Add a little of what the audience wants to hear, sexual innuendo or ego-centrism, just to sell the product. It seems to finally come down to a choice between excellence or relevance. (See my article “Excellence versus Relevance”)
Does God want the arts in ministry to be relevant? I believe that He does. Not at the expense of excellence, however. With the proper relationship being struck between excellence and relevance, there is a final outcome, which is to be revolutionary. There is a place of authenticity, in which both excellence and relevance can co-exist, in which culture is reached, but integrity is not compromised. God knows this place. His Spirit’s witness in us knows this place. Only He can judge the motives of our hearts. Only He can see to the depths of our inner man. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4: 12) When we, as artists, stand before God Himself, each of us must answer to Him regarding the decisions we have made, and why we made them.
The Pop Christian music world may not see the greatness of Christian artistry that is happening right now, hidden from view, only to be revealed at a later time. When it is finally revealed, however, it will be with lasting value, due to the integrity in which it was birthed, while much (if not all) of what is considered great right now will fall into obscurity. If you don’t believe me, look at history’s plentiful examples of this (i.e. J.S. Bach).
As artists, we should be less caught up in what is popular and more caught up in what is healthier, spiritually healthier, asking ourselves the question, “What is our message (which should be God’s love, forgiveness and grace) and are we conveying it with artistic excellence?”
Once the question of motivation has been affirmatively answered, then we can ask the question of what it means to be artistically excellent. That answer will be slightly different in each situation. (For more on this, see “What Is Classical Music?”)
Excellence must ultimately be defined by our foundation of faith. We must ask the question, "Is what I am producing commensurate with 'laying down my life for others', serving them and giving to them what is ultimately beneficial to them, or am I doing this to benefit myself?”
Excellence in our craft must be directly tied to our life of faith. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23) Everything we do as a Christian artist should flow from the foundation of God’s love for us. “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to Whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (I Pet. 4:10-11)
With the right motivation, and its expression through that which flows from our life of faith, we will ultimately bring forth excellence, relevance and a revolution of God’s grace and love into the world in which we live.
The Growing Artist
Once we have entered into authentic productivity as a Christian artist, flowing in God’s grace, with our creative imaginations empowered by His Spirit’s direction, we should not be afraid to step out into new territories, places we have no examples to look to, to verify their safety.
We have an idea, and we immediately look around on Google to see if anyone else is doing it. When we see that no one is, or that the idea has marginal popularity or seemingly low relevance, then we abandon the idea, thinking that maybe it’s not worth pursuing. We miss God’s best when this happens. Why do we think we must have man’s validation on God’s inspiration?
It’s this very thing that is causing the worship, music and art of the Christian Church to lack a forefront voice in the world today. Why do we keep looking to contemporary culture to give us validation for our ideas? What if God Himself gave you that idea to start something new, to establish His voice in the earth in a fresh new way. The problem is that Christian artists become unsure of themselves and their new ideas because they don’t have a depth of relationship with God through prayer that supplies the confidence they need to stay the course, when ‘no one else is doing it’.
Another reason so many Christian artists ‘wimp out’ is that they have no solid historical artistic foundation of knowledge to stand upon. Greatness begets greatness, and when a person either knowingly or unknowingly unplugs themselves from authentic God-inspired creativity from past generations, they inadvertently cut off a huge flow of inspiration that would help them stay the course in their own generational excellence.
Why the contemporary Church would walk away from a concretely established standard of excellence in the Classical music tradition just because “it’s not ‘cool’ anymore” is beyond me. It seems that this younger generation says that they want things that are ‘authentic’, ‘raw’, and ‘real’. I don’t know how much more ‘raw’ and ‘real’ you can get than standing before an audience of people, making music by scraping a horse's tail over cat gut on fourteen pieces of wood glued together. That's raw! (I'm talking about a violin for those of you that might be wondering.)
Nevertheless, the Christian artistic heritage runs deep in Classical music, much deeper than music schools tell you these days. So why not draw upon the historical wealth of resources that are there for today’s creativity? I’m not saying we need to go back in time. What I am saying is that we need to take the inspiration, the models of excellence, the high standards and let them inspire us in new creativity for today. At the very least, it should give us courage to move into new areas, uncharted waters, without fear, knowing that God can bring us safely through just like He did them.
It’s a fearless attitude that we need, an attitude of faith to do things that require us to walk by our heart, and not by what we see everybody else doing. This is walking prophetically, in true artistry. The world will eventually catch up to you, but it may be a while. Be willing to stand alone. Be willing to endure the mis-understanding. This is what ‘laying down your life for others’ is all about. It takes ‘guts’ to do it, but it’s the only way.
Another contemporary ‘sacred cow’ is the idea that to be creative and successful, you have to separate yourself from community, or take yourself out from under spiritual authority. What I’m talking about is the idea that to be successful, you can’t do it in the ‘confines’ of the local church. The popular model of Christian (and secular) music is the small Rock combo of about four members going out on the road to tour the world, put their material all over the internet, selling product (T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc.). They’re seemingly free from any social or community restraints and can create and perform ‘til their heart’s content. For the young artist, it’s the equivalent of the little girl who wants to become a ballerina. She sees the grace and beauty, but never realizes the sheer hard work and decadent back-stage life-style that ballerinas have to endure for a short career in the lime-light. The ‘Rock Band’ is a fantasy that works well for a video game, but not for the lives of most creative artists who desire to serve the Christian faith with integrity and sincerity (or with longevity, I might also add).
Serving in the local church is actually one of the best places to hone your skills, find new ones, and excel at who God has made you to be. As you serve (in the love of God) those who are themselves also servants of God, an amazing thing begins to happen. You realize that you don’t have all the answers by yourself. You begin to realize that other people are strong where you’re not, and vice versa. Everyone has something unique to offer. “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17) Without community, especially godly community, one becomes vulnerable to various failed paths, without knowing it. The worst path of deception is self-deception, thinking you’re something that you’re not, trying to be someone God never intended you to be. The local church has many aspects to it that are helpful for our lives, but one of the best is that it throws us into the reality of who we really are. If you’re going in the wrong direction, it won’t be long before you get slapped against the iron-sharpening experience of another believer who ‘speaks the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15). It hurts sometimes. Many people don’t want that kind of pain, the pain of a wounded ego. But when it’s done by people who love you, who can see the blind spot in your life that you can’t see (and all of us have them), it all works out for your good. It makes you better, if you can take it.
Artists are sensitive people, and it can hurt deeply to be confronted with our weaknesses, but it’s a necessary part of our spiritual growth, as well as our artistic growth.
A great example of an artist that lived in the constraints of the local church was J.S. Bach (see my blogs on “10 Lessons I've Learned from J.S. Bach”) He understood his role in the context of community. It wasn’t always easy for him, but his willingness to endure the community’s buffeting produced for the world a volume still unsurpassed of musical excellence.
The role of community in the local church will be the subject of the final of three articles relating to my vision of what successful artistic achievement can look like, but let me conclude with this one thought: follow God’s plan, as laid out in Christian Biblical teaching, and the ultimate result will be a life full of creativity and artistic excellence, maybe not seen by the contemporary world, but certainly seen by the One Who matters most. The satisfaction will be way beyond anything the world has to offer. I guarantee it!