I know, I know… Christians are an easy target for just about every kind of criticism these days. Criticism doesn’t just come from outside perspectives anymore. In fact, I would suggest that Christians have gotten incredibly skilled at attacking their “one body,” like a form of aggressive cancer. Why? I can’t really answer that. But at the onset of 2015, I would love to see the attacks become less prevalent.
I recently stumbled upon an article describing the state of the union of so-called Christian music. It was bleak. That is, the article was bleak, maybe not the state of “Christian music.” The so-called “journalist,” felt like he and the rest of the Jesus loving community had been duped. Christian artists were now dropping like flies. The artist community was part of a mass exodus away from orthodoxy and well wrought Christian fundamentals. He described a landscape of seed thrown on rocky and thorn-marbled ground. Artists were being choked and uprooted left and right. Like I said, the article was bleak.
The examples the writer gave to prove his position included artists, Michael Gungor and Vicky Beeching along with a slight career spanning nod to Amy Grant. He might have just needed a Festivus-esque moment to vent his own frustration and disappointment. Whatever his motivation for writing the editorial masquerading in journalistic clothing, it got me thinking about why Christians are so often disappointed in the artists they once loved.
I guess it all really does start with a song. An unsuspecting artist writes something that gets picked up and broadcast to the masses. It resonates with people in a way that allows people to feel things they haven’t had permission to feel before. For some it is the first time their own emotions have been given words or utterances that pin point something they could not express. It is a powerful thing. It is also not the artist’s fault. Beyond being thoughtfully self-aware and eloquent, the songwriter must disavow any implication in the way a song actually connects with the masses. Songwriters write about what they know to be true in their own lives, community and birds eye view of the world. If they do a good job at that, if they do not lie, the truth spreads like a drop of dye in a bucket of water. But the artist has zero control over the way someone else interprets and responds to the song.
So many factors are responsible for a song's connection to a mass audience. Culture, history, war, economics, social landscape, political cycle, technological innovation, emotion, geography, and a thousand other things moving from broad 40,000 foot perspectives to the thing a person ate for breakfast can all contribute to the success or failure of a song to truly weave itself into the collective conscience and become the soundtrack for the masses. Sometimes even talent can play a role.
That said, we do give artists a great deal of credit. But the point of connection is not what matters most to me in this conversation. It is what happens next. Once an artist makes a connection to the masses everything changes. The honeymoon is immediately over. Whether it be spurred on by an overly curious media frenzy or fan mania, we require something completely unrealistic from our artists. We demand that artists have informed opinions. Not necessarily about their own music, but rather, we force them to know about societal issues and religious conundrums oft wrestled by theologians, philosopher and intellectuals for decades or even centuries without clarity or conclusion. There are few topics that escape our need for the artist’s perspective. Fashion, economics, religion, ethics, justice, sexuality, morality, politics…and the list goes on and on. We'd prefer all our artists be Tom Ashbrook with a guitar and a tattoo.
This is not entirely bad. Pressing in on an artist can serve as a way to provoke them to explore and observe the world with greater discipline and thoughtful responsibility. The pressure can help an artist form their space as a thought leader or develop an artist’s keen eye and voice used to describe our ever changing world back to us and thus give us a chance to see it more rightly and with greater hopes that we can make it better. In other words, our pressing in can help train up a prophet.
Eventually the artist is nurtured into a space where they often display a mixture of tendencies both narcissistic and prophetic in form… (we are human, after all.)
Occasionally, the artist looks carefully at the world and decides to speak out of their prophetic role. Even if “Jedi training” is not fully completed, they write a song or article asking a “forbidden” or provocative question. Or the artist makes a statement based on their own emotional state, conviction, or view from the stretch of road they currently can see, and the masses don’t like what they hear. Often an artist ends up with a pesky spotlight on their less than devout lifestyle. It happens all the time.
This is the part that matters. The damaging and often inhumane ways that individuals and masses respond to the artist should tell us something about the distorted ways we use music and artistic expression.
Obviously something must be awry when the masses respond with accusations of heresy and backsliding. Something is wrong when the proverbial pitchforks and lanterns come out and the artist is assumed to be a witch or even described as a, quote, “minion of Satan.” (yes, I was called this.) Something is askew when the CD's are pulled from shelves and the church denounces God's ability to work through the artist's expressions.
Boy, if only everyone's bosses and working establishments would do the same over the lies we tell and the ways we treat our spouses in private or the way we drink too much on occasion or the way... well, you get the idea. (I know, you have proclaimed the artist to be a "christian leader" and so they are judged differently...but who proclaimed them? Did they do it themselves? Did you? Did CCM magazine? Was it the Dove Award they won for "Christian Leader of the Year?")
Music listening is a hopeful engagement. We listen with the desire to feel connection, surprise, challenge, wonder, and comfort. Whether we know it or not, we have expectations that we hope are met when we place the needle down or switch on our music subscription services to hear a new song. Those hopes are affirmed and met or dashed and unachieved. Our engagement with music can be a potent drug depending on our listening habits and motives giving us the purest kind of high or the darkest crash.
What kind of person reacts to artists so negatively as to seek to destroy their career or platform or even personal reputation?
I would suggest that people who front load their engagement of musical expressions with the requirement that a song should affirm their own bias or their particular understanding of God and the world are the dangerous sorts of people that end up reacting with unbalanced anger, frustration and even violence against artists. Sadly, we probably all land on the spectrum at some point if the artists we listen to are strapped with the weight of our unrealistic expectations. The understanding that we have any ownership in the artists who create music we love to the end that we require that artist to fall in line with us is incredibly toxic and sorely misguided. This way of engaging the artist community needs to end.
So how do we know if we are on that spectrum? I think we can start by asking a question. When we resonate with a song or connect with an artistic expression, what do we require next from that artist? Do we require them to bend and mold themselves and their expressions subservient to our emotional or spiritual expectations?
My gut tells me that we are to various degrees, all implicated in this distorted way of approaching art and responding to artists. We can’t really help ourselves can we?
The hard truth is that we cannot control artistic expression. We cannot expect artists to believe what we believe the way we believe it. A healthy worldview and mature faith leave room for blind spots in our understanding of God and humanity. A dynamic faith allows God to look, sound, taste, and feel different in God’s revelation to one person than to another. These realities are what make art and music so vibrant and important to our lives. Art brings the color and the aroma and the beauty while not sacrificing the mystery. If you have slandered an artist or editorialized about their personal faith or heretical perspective a conversation needs to happen. We need to stop burning thoughtful artists at the stake.
How many times must it be spoken or written? How many stories about God using the broken, undiscerning, unwise, unloved people to carry out the message of grace and truth that leads to freedom do we need to read before it sets in and gives us reason to lighten up on the artists in our community?
I hope that 2015 marks the end of the silly and completely unfounded accusations of heresy or un-godliness toward artists that experience the living God in ways that are different from our own. I hope that we see the value in having songs and stories and prose that asks uncomfortable questions about the core elements of our faith and worldview. We need them.
We need to make a choice to welcome the hard questions instead of fearing that they will undermine God or tarnish the human soul. (hint: they won’t.)
Go hug an artist. Happy New Year!!!