Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Portrait of the Artist, and the Musician

So I think I will post something on this blog related to music fairly regularly. Perhaps what I'm listening to, or what my current approach to playing is.

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.


flyawaynet said...

Ok I'm interested. And I've been challenged by what I've read of your posts before, and that is what has me stopping to think before I'll actually disagree with your first point. So I'm not disagreeing yet, but at the moment it's definitely got me stalled while I stare at the screen thinking.

My gut, natural instinct is to say Absolutely no way, if you claim to be a Christian, artist or not, should you do something unchristian. If you claim to be a Christian artist and then I buy your tape and hear you singing curse words OR your words advocate sin OR your videos show your dance moves are vulgar and my 9 yr old niece shouldn't see it... again, my gut automatically says No way should this be happening.
Can you give me an example of a circumstance where it would be appropriate for a Christian artist to "stray into lyrical content that might be consider unChristian"?

Nate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nate said...

Ok, ok, let's see if I can explain. First, what I'm NOT advocating is that Christian artists wantonly use vulgarity or lewd content. Most of what I know of MTV and popular movies fall into this category. There is no value in this content as a genuine expression of the inner self. It is simply meant to rake in cash, garner a reputation as "cutting edge" or some other vapid pursuit. I also don't think this kind of thing needs to be displayed in church on Sunday morning in front of children. Obviously there's a time and a place.

However, I think there is such a thing as the naked expression of inner self which strays into disturbing content. I think the Psalms do this. There are requests made of God in the Psalms that I would never want my children to see enacted on TV.

I think of the violent, angry content of modern hard rock, and I see a generation of people who have it half right- things are not what they should be, and they can't get around the evil it has created within them. This is the only route to salvation by grace. It is the first step.

The volatile painting that portrayed Christ in a jar of urine, while it was neither reverent nor an expression of the redeemed human self, it unabashedly exposed to us all where this particular artist was in relation to God. These examples are not from Christendom of course, but the principle is the same. Sin has its existence in our members. To deny that and sanitize our lives is to put on a righteousness that is "as filthy rags." I (accidentally?) ran across this quote from Martin Luther(perhaps not verbatim): "Sometimes the curse of a godless man is more pleasant to God's ears than the Hallelujah of the pious."

I guess the heart of my point is, I want people to be real. Suffering is a part of life, as is sexuality, cursing, etc. I don't support the use of these things to arouse or exalt sensations for their own sake. What I also don't want is people repressing them because they are afraid of what the spiritual people will think. It may not be Christian to curse. But it may be what is really going on inside us, and it may be dishonest at times to hold the tongue. It all depends on what lies behind the suppression of the curse. Authenticity is what I'm most interested in.

Incidentally, to all reading, I encourage dissent on my blog. I have a thick skin, and I'm certainly not always right.

Dan Edelen said...


If you seek to glorify God in every aspect of your craft, He will dwell in your artistic endeavors.

Nate said...


Thank you. And my prayer is that I would not be deluded as to what glorifies God.