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Just a thought on a tired subject

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 16, 2004

I don’t really listen to contemporary Christian music.  Nevertheless, I found myself reading an interview with some guy named Derek Webb, who apparently recently left a group called Caedmon’s Call in order to stretch his wings and fly.  I believe what he says in indicative of many who believe Christian art needs to get better and be more relevant.  In the interview, he was asked "How would you suggest Christian artists should impact the culture?"  This is the dude’s response, intersperse with my comments:

First of all, we’ve got to learn as a church to
support artists who are respectfully engaging culture with good art.

I agree…sounds good so far.

I
think one of the reasons the church in this country is irrelevant in a
lot of circles is because our art is bad-and it’s always been a primary
way of how the church has engaged with culture.

Hmmm….I know that this is a cool argument.  It is the one Christians use all the time.  But, think about the times in which art was REALLY the way in which the Church engaged culture…oh yeah, that was when the CHURCH WAS THE CULTURE.  You see, art is an expression of a culture.  Also, as much as I like the arts, the times when we were the most culturally relevant weren’t the best and brightest times in the history of Christianity.  In fact, the bright spots were when we were the most counter-cultural (the early Church, St. Francis, Jan Huss, the Radical Reformation, etc.).  I’m not advocating that we take a fundamentalistic separatist tone; however, it seems that people toss around the word "relevance" an aweful lot without realizing how precarious and dangerous relevance really is. 

Great artists can
engage culture, not by getting up on a box and reading off all sorts of
laws, but by making tremendous art, doing that work with excellence
where the world would be intrigued and engaged with that.

I agree.  Great artists can engage culture.  And engaging culture is very important.  But I don’t believe art should be the primary way in which we engage culture (as Mr. Webb aluded to before).  I’ve experienced truly great art that draws me into a sense of awe (numinous) before God.  Art that challenged me to the core.  Such art is a gift.  But the current CCM system doesn’t foster that.  Nor does most of the regular market-driven stuff.  Artists shouldn’t aim for the whole of culture.  They should engage the small pockets of culture that they can–and express all the artistry God has given them.  To me, the CCM approach is the same as the Mega-church approach…bigger and more professional is better.  I prefer a more grassroots and obscure approach to both church and music.  My favorite musicians never were very popular in the mainstream (Rich Mullins, for example).  But I would take one Rich over one-hundred Jars of Clays anyday.

Nowadays, we’re not building bridges to culture.
We’re building escalators up and down the floors of our own little
world. We’re all just trying to get popular and secure our own little
living for ourselves, and that’s not kingdom thinking. You have to get
beyond all that and think, As an artist, what is my role in culture? How do the decisions I make as an artist really effect eternity?

I like the escalator imagery.  But Mr. Webbs language borders upon the idea that the Church should be the soul of the Culture.  Our role in culture should be to challenge and offer an alternative.  I hate to say it, but I think the impact of most Christian artists that make it to the mainstream is pretty low.  It is because they don’t challenge.  It is because they sacrifice distinctiveness in order to be artists.

Just a few thoughts. 

for further reading . . .

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