Last week I learned about a former Christian hard rock musician who became an atheist at the height of his career, but he kept making music for the Christian market since the money was good. Presumably Christian parents encouraged their children to buy this band’s albums because they were expecting a particular message that would be safe and positive. Perhaps Christian youth believed they were protecting their faith.
They didn’t suspect that this band’s message was simply a sham for making money. According to this band’s front man, the majority of Christian musicians he knows are quiet atheists, cashing in on the demand for Christian music. That matches what I’ve heard from other friends.
How did we end up with a huge community of “Christian” music “artists” who aren’t really Christian and who, according to most experts I know, don’t usually make good art?
The problem from my perspective is that artists face ostracizing if they don’t arrive at a set list of answers at the end of the creative process. The subtext is clear: don’t wrestle with big questions in your art unless you’re ready to follow the evangelical script.
This represents the problem when faith becomes a barrier to art. Faith determines the answers and the final product without allowing time and space to ask the questions. The final product is vapid, unhelpful, and can hardly distinguish itself from art by a sell out.
In our quest to create safe art without swear words, sex, or violence (unless you count Christians who bow down to Brave Heart and MMA), we’ve stunted out ability to create honest art that fully engages our faith. The answer HAS to be Jesus died on the cross for your sins. That’s why the cross is all over Christian art, so many of our songs mention the cross, and so many books proclaim they’re offering a fresh take on the cross/Gospel—provided the Gospel is defined as Jesus dying on the cross for your sins.
While musicians who have left the faith can mimic what a good Christian “should” say, Christian artists have to play games to make their work marketable. Writers have to clean up their novels, artists have to insert “Jesus saves” into their lyrics, and artists have to paint subtle (or not so subtle) salvation messages. Meanwhile, our world has big tough questions that our artists aren’t allowed to ask.
Christians should be the ones diving into the jaws of the beast, confronting the worst of this world’s demons, and making ourselves as “unsafe” as possible as we face the worst the world has to offer. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s just a clever fabrication of his followers who needs to be protected from our big bad world.
Are we doing anyone any favors when the most influential art made by Christians is coming from people who don’t have any faith that can guide them?
Rather than encouraging Christian artists to speak to today’s issues, we’ve created a sub-genre that isn’t compelling to anyone other than Christians who want to play it safe and fear the loss of their faith. This is catastrophic. When the artists within that subgenre start asking questions they aren’t prepared to answer, they just keep plugging in the answers that they know activates record sales while their faith quietly dies.
This is how we ended up with the religious broadcasting group ostracizing Waterbrook Multnomah publishing because it published a book in its progressive imprint by a Christian man who believes the Bible supports same sex relationships. The message is clear: feel free to wrestle with the Bible, provided you arrive at our conclusions.
Honest reflection on difficult topics always brings up anxiety among Christian artists because we know that we could lose friends, struggle to make a living, and experience alienation from family and friends. As I started working on my Christian Survival Guide project, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to settle for the answers I’d been given, even if I didn’t find them satisfying.
I had to force myself to look at scripture without the evangelical community looking over my shoulder with heresy stamps at the ready. I had to dig into my tough questions about the violence of God, the place of God in a world with evil, and the ways we interpret the Bible 2,000 years removed from the New Testament writers.
I didn’t always arrive at the answers I expected. I found that hell isn’t what I thought it was, the end times described in Revelation were actually good news to their original readers, and that the Bible can be easily abused. As I considered God’s place in a world that has evil, I arrived at a conclusion that I didn’t see coming.
I didn’t reinforce everything I beleived, but I also found that facing the tough and mysterious questions of today isn’t the end of my faith, especially if I arrived at a different conclusion than expected. I found that my faith is far more sturdy and capable than I expected.
Perhaps that is our problem in the Christian subculture. We’re so afraid of our faith cracking if we place too many burdens on it. On the contrary, I found that my faith can handle far more than I would have expected. If anything, I had been placing my faith in the wrong things.
When I started asking the questions I wasn’t supposed to ask and opened myself up to conclusions I wasn’t supposed to arrive at, I found that Jesus didn’t need me to protect him. Scripture is far more reliable than we realize. The Holy Spirit settles among us to give us wisdom.
Creating art as a Christian isn’t safe or simple. The way of Jesus requires taking up one’s cross. The presence of the Spirit brings tongues of fire. We may have to endure death and fire, but the art that comes out of the process has been pruned and refined. We will find that our best work comes out of the times we face what we’ve feared the most.