My last post introduced some parameters for thinking about Christian artistic engagement. Before launching into some practical recommendations, it’s necessary to say a word about my intended audience: it is very specific. I would not give these sorts of recommendations to a general audience of Christ-followers (who may not currently have an interest in creating or appreciating art as a concrete pursuit) because this discipline is very context-specific. I take my cue here from Paul’s dealings with congregations who struggled with the question of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, which he discusses at length in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. This situation is analogous to our discussion of art for several reasons, which become clearer as the first-century situation is understood.
Sacrificing an animal meant cooking it over an altar dedicated to some god. This meat would then be sold in the marketplace at a low price, and some first-century Christians were sharply divided over whether it was appropriate to eat this meat or not. Some said that these gods were unreal idols and so held no power over the meat; others felt that it was a violation of their faith and, in fact, of the faith to eat meat that had been so dedicated.
Paul’s instructions on this matter cut against the grain of modern sensibilities in some ways. He tends to address those who seem fine with eating this meat – they are called the “strong” – and in so doing he holds two things in tension. First, theologically and spiritually, there is nothing wrong with eating this meat. We in the (post)modern West are very familiar with this position; it is summarized by the phrase “freedom in Christ.” Second, however, Paul makes very clear that there is something wrong with it if it directly damages the faith of the “weak” – if it causes them to “stumble.” He elevates the unity of the Church and the spiritual growth of individual believers to such a level that he suggests he would forego ever eating meat again if he knew it would cause someone to “stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13).
That is the part that grates against modern sensibilities. It is not fashionable, and even seems repressive, to imagine that someone else’s more cautious or conservative position may of necessity have an influence on my own practices at some point. But it is true. The unity of the church is just that important. What I have found, in myself and in other Christian artists I’ve known, is that this is something we don’t do very well. We tend to be visionary in a way that is at its best prophetic but at its worst a sort of pressure to change, or a mocking distancing of ourselves from others because we cannot understand how someone’s tastes can seem to draw so little from the deep well of freedom in Christ. This reveals that we don’t understand what it means to be born into the family of God and that we don’t appreciate fully what “freedom in Christ” actually means in the New Testament.
At this point, however, I must distance myself from the way the “weaker brother” motif operated within the conservative evangelicalism I grew up with. I do not think that this is a principle that is intended to apply at all times and all places in the sense of constantly constraining what an individual does even when there is no direct relation to the faith of another believer.
Paul’s argument about eating idol-meat has the force it does partially because he assumes that the “stronger” person is correct. When he announces that he would never eat meat again if he knew it would cause someone to stumble, I don’t think we’re justified in assuming that he became a vegetarian. I think we are justified in assuming that he committed to holding his own preferences with open hands, ready to live according to someone else’s as the situation called for it, all for the sake of the proclamation and living out of the Gospel. But I’m almost certain that in some contexts Paul still ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols.
What does this have to do with art? Well, when I talk about engagement and filtration, I am addressing Christians who feel called, as part of their vocation, to the discipline of artistic engagement in some way, or to Christians who feel that their spiritual and personal growth encompasses a participation in the arts. In other words, I am addressing the “strong” with respect to this particular set of practices. We ought to remember that we are a rather small group with respect to Christendom generally. Nevertheless we tend to be influencers; and so my recommendations next time will have a lot to do with the various audiences and contexts for that influence, as well as thoughts on the creative process.
But it is important that we situate ourselves as the “strong,” who are in the same family as some who are “weak.” (And this analogy could be carried further into a distinction between persons within the artistic community.) This brings a humility and a contextual awareness that is important to a healthy pursuit of art. Furthermore, my words in this area carry a different force (addressed as they are to a particular audience) than they would if I presumed to give recommendations to Christians generally. This will become more apparent in my next post as I give some practical recommendations, but I will say now that there are things I would suggest as possibilities to mature Christian artists that I would not suggest to a general, varied audience of whom I may know very little. (This holds for many areas of Christian practice, not just the arts.)
I do believe that artists and art-pursuers have a prophetic role to play in the body of Christ, but that can only be undertaken with an openhanded humility and a recognition of the multifaceted nature of the Church – multi-vocational, various states of spiritual growth, various innumerable contexts and developments. It is perhaps most important to remember that the Church’s mission is much bigger than our artistic pursuits, and that it is that mission from which our pursuits receive much of their lasting worth.