Erasmus, Tyndale, & Contemporary Christian artists

My student Nathan Martin, at Patrol Magazine, launches off after an account of hearing John Piper contrast Tyndale and Erasmus, relating it to contemporary Christian music and other expressions:

The incredibly truncated quote:

…”I linger over this difference between Erasmus and Tyndale because of how amazing it sounds to me like today. Tyndale wrote his books and translated the New Testament and there was a thundering effect, Erasmus wrote his and there was an entertaining effect a, high brow, elitist, layered, nuanceing of church tradition. They satirized the monasteries so they had a ring of radical nature about them, clerical abuses they criticized, but the gospel wasn’t at the center. I’m not going to name any names but there are elitist cool avant-garde, marginally evangelical writers and scholars today who…(feel) as if to be robust and strong and full about what Christ has achieved feels rather distasteful…it is ironic and sad that today supposedly avant-garde writers strike a cool, evasive, imprecise, artistic superficially reformist pose of Erasmus and call it post-modern when in fact it is totally pre-modern, because it is totally permanent.”

Whether it’s in Relevant, Blue like Jazz, or in the Black Cat, it’s hard to find Christians who will explicitly admit that they are Christians, or what exactly being a Christian means. Now, I know why many of these artists and writers have trouble identifying themselves with the particularities of doctrine and teaching; too many of them have been burned by the church in the past and too many of them are still trying to figure out what being a Christian truly means. What I’ve struggled with is when any type of doctrinal or philosophical certainty is greeted with skepticism and condescension, when the gospel is reduced to little more than well-meaning, philosophically vague platitudes that carry no true implications for belief or non-belief.

It’s a difficult thing to get labeled as a Christian in the mainstream or independent art world today, and inspires no end of questions and incessant, sniping prattle. Ask Sufjan Stevens what it’s like to never make it through an interview without his faith being mentioned, ask Dan Layus of Augustana what it’s like to make music with the weight of the faith of his family, church and college hanging over his head. I’ve talked to, and hung out with a number of other artists who face that problem on a day to day basis; what does it mean to be a Christian artist? Or perhaps more precisely, “How much of my faith can I admit to, without being completely labeled as a conservative fundamentalist freak-out?”

I have no great all-encompassing solution to this problem, but I think there are some things you can’t get away from. I’d argue, along with Piper, that Christianity is comprised in the gospel and the gospel is a message that necessarily excludes many other philosophical standpoints from legitimacy. I’m trying so delicately to not make this be a discussion about all these specific points of theology, but at some point and time, Christians have to be willing to be dogmatic about their “theology” because the implications of that theology provides the entire basis for their faith.

The implications of that faith should extend outside of doctrine and into vocation, as another speaker said, the purest theology should produce the most beautiful and excellent art.

Notice how Nathan gets the connection between the gospel and vocation.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bror Erickson

    Nathan is on to something here, and he is absolutely right. This skepticism in the church that won’t let you have an honest argument is sufficating. I long for the good old days when Catholics, Baptists, Calvinists, and Lutherans knew that if someone wasn’t in your camp the person was a heritic, that is they were wrong. And then you could discuss it openly. These days, fat chance. Now the other person wants you to think him open minded because he isn’t sure of his position, but if you hold to any scrap of dogma you must be wrong. “My old pastor, who did…. he believed that, so that can’t be right.”

  • Bror Erickson

    Nathan is on to something here, and he is absolutely right. This skepticism in the church that won’t let you have an honest argument is sufficating. I long for the good old days when Catholics, Baptists, Calvinists, and Lutherans knew that if someone wasn’t in your camp the person was a heritic, that is they were wrong. And then you could discuss it openly. These days, fat chance. Now the other person wants you to think him open minded because he isn’t sure of his position, but if you hold to any scrap of dogma you must be wrong. “My old pastor, who did…. he believed that, so that can’t be right.”

  • Trey

    The prevalent belief in Christendom today is that our beliefs should NOT inform our practice or deeds not creeds. These are both fallacies of the postmodern day.

  • Trey

    The prevalent belief in Christendom today is that our beliefs should NOT inform our practice or deeds not creeds. These are both fallacies of the postmodern day.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Yes. We expect sermons be spot on, but are content that art remain ambiguous.
    Like celebrating any representation of a Christian work–say, a movie based on an overtly Christian book–whose Christian meaning is now so reduced, it can be extracted with an eyedropper. Or so spread or scattered, it can no longer distinguished.
    As for always having to justify one’s being identified as a Christian, and risk perhaps then mis-identified as to the nature of one’s Christianity, well, so what? Aren’t we set apart for a purpose? Are we afraid to be so identified, or of the opportunity to witness, even to those who won’t ever get it?
    How like us, to want to be ‘gotten’ more than we want to proclaim.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Yes. We expect sermons be spot on, but are content that art remain ambiguous.
    Like celebrating any representation of a Christian work–say, a movie based on an overtly Christian book–whose Christian meaning is now so reduced, it can be extracted with an eyedropper. Or so spread or scattered, it can no longer distinguished.
    As for always having to justify one’s being identified as a Christian, and risk perhaps then mis-identified as to the nature of one’s Christianity, well, so what? Aren’t we set apart for a purpose? Are we afraid to be so identified, or of the opportunity to witness, even to those who won’t ever get it?
    How like us, to want to be ‘gotten’ more than we want to proclaim.

  • http://www.timbaron.blogspot.com Tim Baron

    Wow, great post, and excellent comments.

  • http://www.timbaron.blogspot.com Tim Baron

    Wow, great post, and excellent comments.

  • Steve Rowe

    I am an Architect not a sociologist or Art Historian but for the last 20 years or so I have been apart of Toronto’s Christian Arts seen. I was marred to a painter for 13 years my best friend is a poet/photographer and my children’s godmother is also a painter. In all I would say I know about twenty self descried “christen artists” quite a few have some sort of connection to the “Institute for Christian Studies” (a Dutch reformed graduate school here in Toronto and home to the philosopher Calvin Seerveld). Based on my broad but unscientific sample of working Christian artist I would like to make a few observations:

    Artists are not theologens. They usually don’t think analytically. Most are very intuitive and usually can’t articulate exactly what is going on in there own work.

    Many Artists have very idiosyncratic personalities (trust me on this one I know!). Most find them self on the edges of the Church uncomfortable with what many of them perceive as it preoccupation with “middle class” values or its often utilitarian view of the arts exclusively as a vehicle for communicating the “gospel” to the un-churched. Almost all of the Artist I know have drifted away from conventional evangelical churches and now worship at “emergent” or mainline churches.

    Artist by their very nature are very tuned into their environments and no mater how devote some notion of the ambiguity and conflicts of our contemporary world all ways seems to seep in. I think that the reason that we can look back at the work of the great christen artists of the past and see a coherent christen vision is that they lived in societies that to a greater or lesser extent were Christian you can see a vision world even in the work of ovious pagens i.e. Caravaggio.

    Frankly in my limited experience I have found that the more innovate and creative the artists work the more likely your are going to find Heterodox Theology I am not sure why this is but it seems to be the case.

    Sadly I am afraid that if you are looking for a coherent representation of some type of systematic theology in any contemporary art of any quality I think you are going to be disappointed.

    Peace

    Steve in Toronto

  • Steve Rowe

    I am an Architect not a sociologist or Art Historian but for the last 20 years or so I have been apart of Toronto’s Christian Arts seen. I was marred to a painter for 13 years my best friend is a poet/photographer and my children’s godmother is also a painter. In all I would say I know about twenty self descried “christen artists” quite a few have some sort of connection to the “Institute for Christian Studies” (a Dutch reformed graduate school here in Toronto and home to the philosopher Calvin Seerveld). Based on my broad but unscientific sample of working Christian artist I would like to make a few observations:

    Artists are not theologens. They usually don’t think analytically. Most are very intuitive and usually can’t articulate exactly what is going on in there own work.

    Many Artists have very idiosyncratic personalities (trust me on this one I know!). Most find them self on the edges of the Church uncomfortable with what many of them perceive as it preoccupation with “middle class” values or its often utilitarian view of the arts exclusively as a vehicle for communicating the “gospel” to the un-churched. Almost all of the Artist I know have drifted away from conventional evangelical churches and now worship at “emergent” or mainline churches.

    Artist by their very nature are very tuned into their environments and no mater how devote some notion of the ambiguity and conflicts of our contemporary world all ways seems to seep in. I think that the reason that we can look back at the work of the great christen artists of the past and see a coherent christen vision is that they lived in societies that to a greater or lesser extent were Christian you can see a vision world even in the work of ovious pagens i.e. Caravaggio.

    Frankly in my limited experience I have found that the more innovate and creative the artists work the more likely your are going to find Heterodox Theology I am not sure why this is but it seems to be the case.

    Sadly I am afraid that if you are looking for a coherent representation of some type of systematic theology in any contemporary art of any quality I think you are going to be disappointed.

    Peace

    Steve in Toronto

  • saddler

    “How much of my faith can I admit to, without being completely labeled as a conservative fundamentalist freak-out?”
    Yes, at our core, we would like affirmation. And when we don’t get it, we retreat to our studios, shops, caves, and enclaves. But are we not called to struggle to develop a thick skin? Is this not part and parcel a sign of our postmodern times? Collectively, we are developing a thinner skin, afraid to take doctrinal stands because of the possibility of negative stigma.

    This is perhaps why I’ve evolved to the point of presenting myself as a confessional Lutheran rather than the generic “Christian”. “Christian” can mean almost anything nowadays. I fully expect some fallout from heading this direction.

    “The implications of that faith should extend outside of doctrine and into vocation, as another speaker said, the purest theology should produce the most beautiful and excellent art.”

    Yes Steve, the art world produces more than its share of risky characters and eccentrics, but I can’t help but think of Durer, Cranach, Bach when I consider the above killer quote.

  • saddler

    “How much of my faith can I admit to, without being completely labeled as a conservative fundamentalist freak-out?”
    Yes, at our core, we would like affirmation. And when we don’t get it, we retreat to our studios, shops, caves, and enclaves. But are we not called to struggle to develop a thick skin? Is this not part and parcel a sign of our postmodern times? Collectively, we are developing a thinner skin, afraid to take doctrinal stands because of the possibility of negative stigma.

    This is perhaps why I’ve evolved to the point of presenting myself as a confessional Lutheran rather than the generic “Christian”. “Christian” can mean almost anything nowadays. I fully expect some fallout from heading this direction.

    “The implications of that faith should extend outside of doctrine and into vocation, as another speaker said, the purest theology should produce the most beautiful and excellent art.”

    Yes Steve, the art world produces more than its share of risky characters and eccentrics, but I can’t help but think of Durer, Cranach, Bach when I consider the above killer quote.

  • Steve Rowe

    Re: Durer, Cranach, Bach

    I agree Durer, Cranach and Bach were fabulous creative artists but they were also products of culture that where at there very core informed by Christian values. Today’s Christian artist is producing work in a very different environment. As a result there work does not show the clarity of vision that one finds in the work of the Northern Renaissance or the High Middle Ages. I would love counter examples but the best living Christian artist I know of is John Updike who is hardly orthodox. Even Bono (probably the most “out” first rate popular christian artist) writes:

    I believe in the kingdom come
    Then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one
    Well yes, I’m still running
    You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains
    Carried the cross of my shame, of my shame
    You know I believed it

    But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

    Hardly a ringing endorsement of the conventional Christian faith

    Cans anyone add some top tear living artists to this list that would self identify as an orthodox Protestant? Perhaps, Sam Philips, T-Bone Burnet, Mary Robinson or Alison Krauss? it seems to me the more prominent the Artist the less I know about their theology.

  • Steve Rowe

    Re: Durer, Cranach, Bach

    I agree Durer, Cranach and Bach were fabulous creative artists but they were also products of culture that where at there very core informed by Christian values. Today’s Christian artist is producing work in a very different environment. As a result there work does not show the clarity of vision that one finds in the work of the Northern Renaissance or the High Middle Ages. I would love counter examples but the best living Christian artist I know of is John Updike who is hardly orthodox. Even Bono (probably the most “out” first rate popular christian artist) writes:

    I believe in the kingdom come
    Then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one
    Well yes, I’m still running
    You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains
    Carried the cross of my shame, of my shame
    You know I believed it

    But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

    Hardly a ringing endorsement of the conventional Christian faith

    Cans anyone add some top tear living artists to this list that would self identify as an orthodox Protestant? Perhaps, Sam Philips, T-Bone Burnet, Mary Robinson or Alison Krauss? it seems to me the more prominent the Artist the less I know about their theology.


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