Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Morbid, Risque and Christian – What do you let art do to you? What do you hope your art will do to others?

Can you envision
Trinitarian Personhood?
My aim in this post is to encourage Christian art and artists. I believe that my criticism of critical Christians is a necessary means to that end. But Christian art critics, those who engage and exegete culture and the arts, both within and outside the boundaries of “Christian” art should, I hope, also find support and encouragement.

Randy Elrod
Randy Elrod[1] writes, “If you are an artist who also happens to be a Christian, expect to be judged and misunderstood.” In his experience, that misunderstanding and judgment is most likely to come from Christians who require any artistic expression to be “neatly wrapped up with a ‘happy ending,’” creating “art that is propaganda, and art that is shallow and without layers of meaning.”

Given the layers of meaning some assign to my art, even my preaching, I’m apparently doing something right. For example, I’m very fond of an image that intended to depict ecstatic abandon in worship. A friend of the model referred to it instead as “that one where you’re ‘possessed.’” It’s not just my photography, either. 

"Jesus, lift me up..."
After a sermon that had been clearly and repeatedly announced in advance, including the subject being “PG-13” in nature, the critique was initially that “we’re not used to hearing those words in church.” When I explained that I had very carefully selected accurate and inoffensive terminology, the clarification was that “we’re not used to that topic being discussed in church.” Being an expository preacher, covering whole books of the Bible section-by-section, I could not resist asking whether they saw any other topic being covered in the scheduled passage.

That conversation ended well. Others have not. And so, I still face the temptation to skip over or allegorize those passages where God chooses to deal with areas that “we” would prefer to ignore. Most usually, it is death and dying, or sexuality and marriage that provokes such a reaction. But in an independent, non-denominational community church that seeks to practice theology-in-community, and where our backgrounds and traditions vary widely, the landmines can be all but invisible until you step on them.

"It was right here a moment ago."
As a photographer, too, I find that there are times when an image just needs to be created or, when less premeditated, captured in the moment. Those images to be created often involve human persons, themselves created to bear the image and likeness of the one God eternally existing in three persons. In those instances, I feel compelled to negotiate carefully with my collaborators. I try to be clear about their sensibilities and boundaries, and ensure that their comfort levels are honored. Why? Imagine seeing an image of you being portrayed either as dead or as death itself. That experience could provoke an even stronger reaction than when the homecoming princess finally sees why her mother doesn’t agree with her fashion decisions. It’s best to be warned and prepared in advance.

"Sleeping Beauty in Black"
The results of our collaboration, though, occasionally inspire wrath from friends and family. How severely? According one model’s boyfriend, we were “gonna burn in hell cause he is a pastor and believes in taking risqué photos.” (I did withhold my response of “wait ‘til he sees the morbid ones!” but I did allow myself to visit his Facebook page. His own photographic artistry includes obscene gestures, misogynistic intimidation, drug use, and a particularly interesting nude of himself reclining on an American flag. But there I go, criticizing the critic. Back to the subject at hand.)

"See who He is; see who you are."
Most of my readers and hearers know that I prefer the question “What would Jesus have me do?” But it does have its foundation in emulating “What would Jesus do?” So, does the Artist who created the universe as an expression of His character and attributes understand these misunderstandings? Absolutely. The Apostle Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”[2]

So, dare we risk misunderstanding? The only alternative is to deny the creativity in us as part of God’s image and likeness. Instead, I believe, we should ask “is there place for art that provokes a reaction, while maintaining a boundary this side of impropriety or indecency?” (That is the definition of risqué.) For all the passages in which God includes explicit depictions of sex and death, those topics actually combine as the central theme of the books of Esther and Ruth in particular, and figure heavily in the narratives of Samuel and Kings. Where it is most difficult to focus attention away from the physical nature of romantic relationships is in the marital ode that is The Song of Songs.

Josh McFarland
Hardin, Montana
In his book on The Song of Songs, my colleague and former classmate Josh McFarland[3] lists the following as just some of the blessings of studying Biblical sexuality. “It is part of our revelation from God; it is a necessary component of a healthy worldview; it can release the energy of joy and praise in a new and vital direction; correct and transform our thinking about romance and sexuality; help protect us from lethargic or unworthy thoughts about God’s creation; exalt and enliven couples’ feelings about their relationship; embolden our corporate attitude; confront errors and falsehoods at loose in the world; it can ennoble our understanding of God.”[4]

Do some of my images make you think about sex and/or death? Yes, or at least I hope so. But more importantly, I hope they make you think about what you think about sex and/or death. Why? Because the damage our silence is doing to subsequent generations[5] especially by our silence on sexuality, but equally so regarding death and dying, continues to spread throughout the church and the communities we are called to serve. If we do not consider these subjects (sexuality and marriage, and/or death and dying) within the Church, then we have little standing from which to criticize the conclusions being reached about them in our surrounding communities and culture.

What happens when we decide to ignore these subjects?

Roger Ebert
More than just a movie critic.
The late film critic Roger Ebert is, in my opinion, underestimated as both an exegete of culture and a religious philosopher. I am often inspired by his reflections on the messages being preached by plot, dialogue, imagery, structure, and other elements of films throughout history. Here is his observation of the effects risqué and morbid art can and should have on us: “Of course the movie is rated NC-17. I believe more horror films should be made for adults, so that they are free to deal with true malevolence in the world, instead of retailing the pornography of violence without consequences. A generation is growing up that equates violence with action, instead of with harm. Not long ago The Exorcist was re-released and some young moviegoers laughed all the way through it. A society that laughs at evil eventually laughs at good, and then loses its way.”[6]

"Sincerely Skeptical"
For Christians to restrain their own artistic expression, or to refrain from addressing certain topics, is to tear down the clearest signposts pointing to The Way we hope that more in our society will find. The arts provide us with the most direct conduit into our hearts and thus our culture. If my art gives us a reason to discuss these indispensably important issues, then I’ll gladly weather the critiques, and the criticism. I hope you choose to do so, too.

[1] Randy Elrod is formerly Pastor of the Arts at a Southern Baptist megachurch in Franklin, Tennessee. His post is entitled “Three Reasons Why Christians Art Creating More ‘Edgy’ Art” and can be found here.
[2] Romans 1:20-21, New American Standard Bible, 1995 revision.
[3] Josh serves a Christian and Missionary Alliance congregation in Hardin, Montana and holds a Master’s of Divinity from A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary.
[4] Josh McFarland, Pieces of Eden: Reflections on Romance and the Love of God from the Song of Songs (Bloomington, Indiana: Westbow Press, 2015), xi.
[5] Josh McDowell and Dick Day, Why Wait? What you need to know about the Teen Sexuality Crisis (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994).
[6] Roger Ebert, “Santa Sangre,” The Great Movies III (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 346.


William Berkley said...

I would hate to think that I would be in the camp with those who criticized your sermon, but I do think that there are some (just a few) passages in the Bible that really do not belong being fully preached/taught in public. They certainly should be presented, but perhaps a public service is not the best place. I would say the same about normal, ordinary and proper activities of human life; the whole Bible should be taught, but some things need not be spoken of in detail in public. The same point could be made about a children’s Sunday school class. Not all topics should be gone through in detail. For example, it is wholly appropriate to tell kids about married couples who love each other and give good examples from the Scripture. It is entirely a different matter to describe to them all the details in the Song of Solomon. The time, the place and the audience is intrinsically tied to the content of the message.

Of course I don’t know what the passage was or what you said, and I am certainly inclined to trust your judgment on this over those of your critics (since I know you and do not know them).

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Will, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It raises the question for me about the counter-cultural nature of our ministries. With the 21st Century North American Church bearing the influence of Puritan, Victorian, Fundamentalist, and other behavioralist movements, it seems to me that we have adopted a code of propriety that often prevents us from speaking openly and effectively to many of the needs (indeed crises) being experienced in the culture that has reacted against what they perceive as the repressive effects of these influences.

Looking well beyond our recent Western European mindset, however, I'm wondering if part of the blessings and relational health experienced by God's people B.C. might have had something to do with the pattern of reading the Wisdom Literature of the Bible as part of their annual cycle of festivals in front of the entire community of all ages. (At Passover: Song of Solomon; Pentecost: Ruth; Temple Fast: Lamentations; Tabernacles: Ecclesiastes; and Purim: Esther.)

The other cultural distinction, though, would be the variance from congregation to congregation. Where there are multiple levels of communication in which the majority of a congregation participates, some passage are more suited to discussion than proclamation, of course. But most congregations, even in North America, are centered around a single gathering in which the congregation…well, congregates. Perhaps that ministry pattern in our remote rural area has influenced my decisions as well.

Again, thanks for the thoughtful and, as you can see, thought-provoking comment!

John McKendricks said...

I like this blog; it was not what I expected. You have really hit the nail on the head in regards to Art and the Church. For that matter, there is not a need for more room, there is a room period. Based on your posting, we are missing direction for the lack of our embrace of arts as a device for God's present message. Also, by denying the arts, we may be missing a point of connection with the world. In Reno, we have an event called "Reno Art Town," Many ministries in the area get involved which has been very effective and inspiring. I like what you wrote regarding art as a direct conduit we should employ this, often.

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