Monday, February 1, 2010
The Calling & Responsibility of the Christian Artist
By Zena Dell Lowe
2010 FCWC Faculty
For the last fifteen years, I’ve been blessed to work in the entertainment industry. I’ve had a variety of jobs, from being an administrative assistant, executive, actress, production assistant, script supervisor, sound girl, and grip to being the writer, director, producer, and project creator on a variety of projects.
I’ve also had the unique opportunity to work as the former associate director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, a training program for Christian writers pursuing mainstream entertainment industry careers.
And God has allowed me to teach in other venues as well, as an adjunct professor of writing at Covenant College in Georgia, and also at Christian writers conferences around the country. But whatever role I’ve played in Hollywood, my goal has always been the same – to work in the mainstream. I am not interested in producing art for the Christian subculture. I want to impact the culture at large.
This inevitably leads Christians to ask, “Why mainstream Hollywood? Why not write Christian films or novels?” “What does it mean to write mainstream, anyway?” “And how is it even possible if a person is truly a Christian? Wouldn’t it inevitably mean compromise?”
There is a lot of confusion in the Church about what it means to be a Christian writer. My goal is to provide a better understanding of what I believe it means to be a Christian artist, and give standards by which we should and can measure our work.
PART 1: WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN ARTIST?
Perhaps we can best understand the answer to this question by exploring a different one. What is a Christian baseball player? Most of us would have no difficulty here. Since there is no separate Christian baseball league, we would be able to say with confidence that a Christian baseball player is simply someone who plays baseball for a living who happens to be a Christian. But as such, there are some things that should set him apart.
Why does a man grow up to be a professional baseball player? Sure, there's lots of money in it once he gets to the "big show," but most baseball players never make it that far. And yet they still pursue the dream, playing for pennies in the minor leagues. So why does he do it?
If you say it's because he loves it, you're half right. But loving it isn't enough. You have to love it, but you also have to be good at it. I love Broadway musicals, but I'm not a great singer. So I can enjoy them from afar and I know not to waste my time trying to get cast in a Broadway show for which I just don't have the talent. To become a professional baseball player, you have to love it, but you also have to be good at it. So, the only reason to pursue a career as a writer or artist is because you are good at it.
A Christian baseball player does not play baseball in order to save people. When he plays baseball, his goal is to play baseball in a way that honors God. But it is NOT TO EVANGELIZE. That happens off the field. If anyone gets saved, it will NOT be because of the home runs he hits or the triple plays he completes or the MVP awards he receives. Rather, it will be because of the personal relationships he has established along the way that have given him the opportunity to talk to people about his own relationship with Christ.
People who create art in order to save people are practicing lazy evangelism. They let themselves off the hook. Scripture clearly paints a picture of evangelism through the establishment of personal relationships. It is lazy to confer the task of evangelism to our work. If we want to witness to people, we must spend time with them. We must invest in them and intimately get to know them. This is the biblical picture of evangelism. Thus, the goal of a Christian writer is not evangelical, but pre-evangelical. Like John the Baptist, our goal is to prepare the way of the Lord.
Art has the ability to touch people in ways that straight-forward teaching cannot. It transcends typical human defensive barriers. It has the power to transform us from the inside out. When make-believe characters grapple with real-life hurts and follies, we are more willing and able to admit similar faults within ourselves. By exposing the truth of the human condition, a good story forces people to search for answers outside of themselves.
A Christian baseball player doesn’t play baseball in order to save people. That is not his goal. It would be absurd if it were. Rather, his goal is to play the game to the best of his ability and to glorify God in the process. We must go and do likewise, trusting that by committing ourselves to excellence and truthfulness, we inevitably direct people to God.
A Christian baseball player behaves differently both on and off the field. In his regular life, a truly committed Christ-follower always endeavors to become more Christ-like. Integrity, honesty, humility, respect, authenticity – these are a few of his traits. In all things and at all times he models Christ-like character. In devoting himself to personal holiness and sanctification, his life inevitably manifests the Spirit’s fruit. It is the transformation of his moral character that proves his relationship to Christ.
On the field, his behavior also differs. It’s not what he does, but how he does it that makes the difference. For example, he doesn’t curse other players, or pick fights, or do the victory strut when he nails a home run. He also doesn’t object to the rules on moral grounds. It would be absurd if we heard a Christian baseball player say, “I don’t think it’s right to send a player to the bench after he strikes out, so I’m not going to do it.” No. He follows the rules. He plays the game. But he plays the game differently.
The same is true for the Christian writer. In our daily lives, we endeavor to seek Christ and put Him first. We don't lie, cheat, or steal to get in to see that publisher. Nor do we object to the rules on moral grounds and say, “I don't like the way the publishing world works so I'm not going to play that way.” No. You work within the established set of rules to pursue your career.
But there are other rules we need to follow as well – the ones that say you have to be excellent at your craft. Unfortunately, too many Christians suffer from the entitlement mentality. They think that because they have a message, they are exempt from doing the work.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I understand that all of us need faith to fulfill God’s call on our lives. We are all ill-equipped and inadequate, and therefore must rely on God’s abilities and not our own. But this is not the kind of “faith” to which I’m referring. I’m speaking of lazy faith – the kind that postures itself as spiritual, but is in reality an excuse to bypass the work that excellence requires. Christians, we must honor the God of all Creation by becoming craftsmen worthy of our calling. This is our "off the field" behavior.
But what about “on the field?” What does it look like for the Christian writer to honor God with our work? Or perhaps more to the point: What kind of art are we at liberty to create?
Unfortunately, when asked to define a "Christian movie," many people think in terms of no sex, no language and no violence. Indeed, these three ingredients become the sole criteria for evaluating art. As long as these three things are absent or very, very minimal, then we somehow feel the work has merit. But the absence of sex, language and violence only describes a void. A story isn't good because of what it lacks. It's good because of what it offers.
Act One founder and former executive director Barbara Nicolosi used to say, “I'd rather see an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie.” Sometimes it's a lie NOT to have our characters engage in sex, language, or violence. Even those of us who are most adamantly opposed to such things would make the occasional exception for the right project. For example, very few of us would reject “Schindler’s List” because it included sex, language and violence. In fact, the absence of these would illicit outrage because the story would be a lie.
The father of lies has one great goal: to turn us from the truth. Thus, the Christian’s greatest responsibility always is to know and see and proclaim Truth. If we were to “soften” Schindler’s List in order to uphold this false ideal of art, we would be doing an even greater violence to the world. We must tell the truth about the human condition.
All Truth points to God, the author of Truth Himself. To attempt to be nonoffensive by sugarcoating or softening our character’s situation is to be in league with the father of lies. Truth must be our guide, always and forever. The key is HOW we tell the truth.