(To paraphrase Mark Twain, I am sorry for the long post, but I had not time to write a short one. I trust you understand.)
Primitive cultures had no separate word for "art" - everything was "art." Even the utilitarian making of baskets or weapons was full of art and magic, as seen in the Indian cultures of pre-colonial America or as demonstrated by Tolkien's Elvish craftsmen and weapon-wrights.
We have found it necessary to use the word because our society has developed so many things that are quite obviously "non-art." So many, in fact, that it is more economical to use the term "art" to refer to the positive than it is to develop a term for "non-art" to describe the negative. (May I suggest "politics"?) Artistic things have - sadly - become the exception.
As Christians we subscribe to a particular worldview, a particular epistemology, and a particular artistic perspective. There are things the world celebrates through art that we deplore; there are things the world deplores through art that we celebrate. Perhaps we have missed, however, a third purpose of art: which is to question.
For honest serious-minded people, life is full of questions - indeed, almost characterized by them. From the problem of evil to the problem of existence, the story of any conscientious civilization is the story of a desperate smoke signal for help - like the squiggle rising from the dot in a question mark. [ ? ]
Questions are not un-Christian, but rather simply human. As Socrates said, the only beings who don't ask questions are beasts and gods - because they know too little and too much, respectively. Questions are peculiar to mortals, and constitute an essential part of life. The modern fundamentalist scorn for questions is largely unwarranted. Questions are the "mini-quests" of the larger journey - smoky late-night councils over ancient maps in this epic exploration that is existence.
It is true that Christianity - and more specifically Christ - is the world's greatest answer, or at least the world's greatest hope, if "answer" is too ambitious a word. And so St. Peter says, in essence, "Be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you." (1 Pet. 3:15) We must, however, notice the pattern of initiation in this verse: the Christian was asked. Too often we assume that we have an automatic podium, simply because, after all, we're right - aren't we?
It is precisely here where the bulk of western Christian thought has made a colossal mistake - a mistake so large that it fills your whole field of vision and so goes unnoticed - like when you put your face up close to the bars of a cage and see nothing but freedom. We have made our worldview the point of our art, instead of making art as such. Or, if you like, we have set our worldview above our art, instead of inside it.
Derek Webb articulated this point masterfully in a recent podcast:
I don't think a lot of the idea of promoting yourself or marketing yourself based on your worldview. It just doesn't make any sense. I mean like the longer I do it the less sense it makes to me, and the more it kind of seems to work against me. It's kind of illogical, because Christian music is the only genre that does that...
Thomas Merton said if you're going to be a follower of Jesus and a poet, first, be known as a good poet. Then when people discover your belief, it will lend credibility to your belief. But if you're first a Christian poet, and you're not a very good poet, then it's going to disparage your witness. I think that happens constantly in our market...
I think the idea, the worldview, of Christianity - the idea of following Jesus - is seen as not a very good idea based on the bad art that people make under the heading of Christian art. I think people see bad Christian art, and it makes them less likely to want to even take a look at the person of Jesus, or what it might mean to follow Him.
In a sense, our art should not be so much about giving people the answers as it should be about helping them to ask the right questions. Too often our art - like our evangelism - is full of "strings." We can't seem to give anyone a cup of cold water anymore without slipping a tract inside. And it is precisely this mentality that must be challenged, because the world is very keen about motives. If we can get back to making art for art's sake and loving for love's sake and being good for goodness' sake, we will be closer to the unpretentious simplicity of the gospel.
We don't need more art that moralizes, or sermonizes, or demonizes. We Christians do altogether too much explaining these days. Real art - the art that reaches deep down inside and rekindles the smouldering coals of stifled spirituality - does not explain. It lives.
So much for not being controversial.
Image courtesy of windgrove.com