The most recent CD purchase I've made was, unsurprisingly for someone whose blog photo is a mandolin, Chris Thile's How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Quite a beautiful array of different flavors, all lending themselves to the "high and lonesome" sound of bluegrass and Appalachia, yet borderline rock 'n roll at times. Covers of songs by the Vines and the White Stripes firmly plant this group of musicians in the "postmodern children of rock" category, incidentally having some of the finest bluegrass chops in the world. The CD gets an "A" from me, but I'm not sure that's what I want to talk about.
I'm interested in the idea of playing music as an artist, a Christian, a performer, a professional. It would be too easy to make any of the following statements about someone that finds themself in these circles:
1. Christians should play music with explicitly Christian lyrics, or at least should not stray into lyrical content that might be considered unchristian.
2. Christians should not be performers. There is no place for performance in a life lived to God. It proves lack of humility to be concerned with performance.
3. Christian art should serve a specific, definable evangelical purpose. Namely, reaching out to the lost, or proclaiming the salvation of Christ.
4. Christian artists and musicians should not seek compensation for their art. Money is the root of all evil. Art belongs only to God.
Now to me, these all sound like facile statements caused by a limited vision of the kingdom of God. The reason I get this kind of vibe from the Christian music industry, worship musicians, and those part of what could generally be called Christian culture in America could be a lack of proper focus.
If the focus of the Christian/Church life is to win souls or proclaim the Word(which I have no doubt it is to some degree), of course anything not directly commited to that purpose is going to be looked at askance. Could this be the reason for the banal content of most Christian music? I digress...
But the Bible does not seem to indicate this typically evangelical position on "purpose." Every Christian is expected to know Jesus' final words on earth "go and make disciples...." But why is it held up as the all- important point of our lives? Rich Mullins once pointed out that in other cultures they highlight very different verses in their Bibles than we here in the West do. The Genesis account gives us a far different criteria for evaluating someone's work. God's creation was...good. Simply good, not "good for supporting the cause of a people," or "good for proclaiming a strictly defined message." God simply breathes, the cosmos springs into being and, as one, they visibly manifest the glory of the invisble Creator simply by being what it is.
An artist must ask himself questions when he is faced with the standard present to him by media and culture. If the evangelical mainstream has it right, it would seem that we are very limited in the possible scope of our work, the content that is permissible, the colors we can paint with. We then must turn to God's artwork and observe his "purpose." Philip Yancey poignantly asks:
Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God's creation - like the swallowtail butterfly - excels at abstract design?
In light of this, is God merely trying to save souls by his creation? Clearly that's a possible by-product. But would there have been no beauty to creation if there was no Fall? That's absurd.
Far from being a method of strongarming belief, God's art and music exist because they are, beautifully and carefully, tangible expressions of what is even more real, though invisible- the inner self of God. Carried over to the human realm, we see artists who, when at their best, are expressing the true inner self. For a Christian this means the redeemed self, which effortlessly gives authentic worship to God.
The unhindered voice of the redeemed in their work says not "I am a Christian," but more broadly "here I am," and believes that the beauty God has placed in them is enough to cause observers to give glory to God. The bully pulpit will not do. If it is not enough, the problem clearly doesn't lie with the artist.
I appreciate Chris Thile, and others, who are willing to be unashamedly Christian, and unashamedly artistic.