11 September 2012

Theme 2: Sunday is not the rest of the week

If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the second theme would be: 

Sunday Morning is not the rest of the week 

I think that R. C. Sproul has not done quite enough (in his series of lectures) to distinguish between the use of arts in the worship service and the use of arts in the daily life of Christians. This is, I think, a great source of confusion and debate. For instance, in his third talk Sproul made some really derogatory, reductive comments about John Cage. These showed that he does not understand Cage's music, but they also served to bolster the all-too-common Christian attitude that writes off any artistic products that are radical, difficult, unusual, or even just new. In fact, Cage's ideas about music and the created order are beautifully consistent with Christian theology—whatever Cage himself might have believed.

So I think a lot of this sort of silly talk could be avoided if we clarified what we mean by Christian engagement with the arts. I am the last person to suggest that we should play a piece by John Cage in a worship service. Even if the piece itself could be conducive to a worshipful atmosphere, the cultural baggage that his work has accrued over the years means that his compositions are more epicenters of debate than “just” music. In other words, there's so much stuff stuck to his pieces that they would most likely distract from worship rather than contribute to it. We do have to be really careful what works of art we use in the Sunday morning service.

On the other hand, I believe that there are few few works of art, music, literature, etc. that individual Christians and Christian families should NOT be engaging with in their daily lives. They should be reading everything, watching everything, listening to everything. There are exceptions, of course, when a work crosses the line into the pornographic or the gratuitously violent, and so forth. And there are individuals who will have to be more careful than others in their artistic consumption because they are particularly prone to temptation in certain areas. And children need to be gradually exposed to works when they are mature enough to process them.

Yet I think that Christians of the sort I know best—the kind of “Reformed,” “Evangelical” Protestant brands—are far more likely to err on the side of REJECTING works they should be experiencing, rather than affirming works they should be rejecting.

I think everyone in my church needs to do some good, hard listening to John Cage, and some reading in what he was expressing in his work.

That's just one example. I think Christians should be reading the great classics of “Western” literature and the pop novels on the best-seller charts (within reason). I think we should be listening to Mozart and Terry Riley and Buddhist chants and folk songs from all around the world. I think we should be watching blockbuster films and indie award-winners. I think we should be educating ourselves about posthumanism and the multiverse theory and the human genome and Derrida and the Arab Spring.

Basically, I think we need to be the most well-informed people in any context in which we find ourselves, including the arts scene. We should be the makers and the evaluators of culture, not either passive consumers nor frightened ghetto-dwellers. 

So, Question for you: What cutting-edge contemporary works of art (any genre) or current ideas do you think Christians need to be engaged with? Why?

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