One of the catch-phrases that Christians often use is, “be in the world, but not of it.” This expression alludes to the words of Jesus as he prayed on our behalf on the eve of his crucifixion (John 17:14-19). Unfortunately, we sometimes misconstrue the intended meaning and use this phrase as a warning: ‘Unfortunately, we have to live in this world, but we should try really hard to not be of it.’ But this is not at all what Jesus meant. In the context of Jesus’ prayer, He is actually stating, ‘Though they are of me and not of the world, I am purposefully sending them into the world.’ In His prayer, Jesus is actually encouraging us to go out into the world to make a difference.
So what does that mean for artists of faith? What does it look like to engage into our culture, to be in the world?
Andy Crouch, who I’ve quoted a number of times in this blog, notes in his book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, that engaging into our culture, i.e., being in the world, has various forms. One form is to Critique Culture, which is, in an academic sense, to think deeply and critically about our culture, and in a more pedestrian sense, to simply complain about it. You find this a lot in sermons and Christian books and even Facebook posts and bumper stickers. A second is to Copy Culture, to take what culture creates and manufacture Christianized versions of it. This can be evidenced in everything from the various derivative styles of Contemporary Christian Music to the Christian kitsch found in Christian book stores. The third is to Consume Culture, to watch secular movies and purchase secular art and download secular songs—or at least certain PG-rated acceptable versions of movies and art and songs—as a regular part of living “in the world.”
But for all the critiquing and copying and consuming that is going on, how much of it is making a Kingdom difference?
Crouch contends—and I agree—that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it.” In other words, it is not enough to critique or copy or consume. To change culture, to make a difference in the world, we must also Create.
Of course, that may mean different things for different people. A choreographer friend continues to create inspiring dance pieces with redemptive themes at her high-profile, pre-professional studio. A number of my painter friends are making significant inroads in the local mid-town area, a highly artsy crowd in the city. Another guy I know has made it his mission to book as many quality Christian bands in as many secular venues in town as he can. A small group of like-minded filmmakers have a pipeline of full-length, faith-based feature movies they are quietly producing and releasing. Another friend is currently producing a summer stock theater, no small task for a guy with a day job.
When the Christian artist strives toward great art, his or her Christian worldview will inescapably shine from it. Because art should reflect the artist in some way—what he believes, what he has experienced, what he has placed his faith in, how he uniquely sees the world. In other words, the Christian artist should not strive to create “Christian art,” but rather, strive toward honest art. And in that honesty, their art will somehow reflect the creativity of the Abba Father, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I believe that this holds true whether you are a playwright, songwriter, choreographer, moviemaker, or poet.
The overall effect of this conglomeration of artistic expression is both encouraging and subversive. Each of these artists are engaging in the culture, not through a sense of imitation or critique, nor through preaching and proselytizing, but through a more covert and subtle contrast of light and darkness. We express who we are and how we see the world through our creations (as well as through the living of our lives), and who we are and how we see the world reflects God’s good grace.
As I’ve stated, it is encouraging to see artists of faith changing our local landscape, creating small little tremors in the tectonic plates of our culture. And in this way, we are truly being in the world. Of course, it takes a whole lot of little tremors to move a mountain. But that is what earthquakes are made of.