The thin line between art that communicates a scandalous truth and art that is sheer shock-sensationalism is something that takes time to explore and courage to proclaim.
When does art begin to confront the culture in the same way that the parables of Jesus perplexed and challenged and offended the culture of His day?
When does art stop pandering to our basest desires and begin to challenge us to shrug off our complacency?
Shouldn’t real art have the power to disturb and unsettle us?
The truth is, we don’t know the answers because examples of this type of art are so rare in this day and age. But isn’t this the sort of thing that our society desperately craves – art that communicates to the soul?
Look at how Jesus painted the Gospel when approached by Nicodemus. His response was “You must be born twice.”
Now, for you and I, thousands of years removed from this moment and informed by countless biblical commentaries, we understand plainly what Jesus meant. But, for Nicodemus, standing there in front of Jesus, the only response was bewilderment.
He tried to get a grip on what Jesus was talking about. “You mean, I need to re-enter my mother’s womb?”
He was grappling with this statement. He tried desperately to make sense of it and felt frustrated, challenged and annoyed.
And that’s exactly what Jesus wanted.
Jesus did not give him theology. Instead, He gave him something to chew on. Something to exasperate and confound him. Jesus did something that very few of us ever do when attempting to evangelize – he engaged the person on a level that invited dialogue and further questioning. He allowed the person to take a concept and think about it for himself.
When Jesus was approached by Nicodemus, He took a creative mode of communication that challenged the listener to actually engage his own brain.
More importantly, He did not give Nicodemus the punch line.
The Gospels are full of these sorts of examples of Jesus’ style of communication. What are the parables if not simple stories that cause you to ponder the deeper meaning beneath the surface?
I think if more of us took Jesus’ approach, we’d be more effective—especially when it comes to creating art that transcends the norm.
Recently I came across a great quote from Steve Turner about artists as prophets in Image: Journal of the Arts and Religion:
“One role of the artist is to provoke and even disturb us so that we can see in new ways. As the ancient prophets did, art frequently condemns the values and concerns of its surrounding culture-often in a loud, harsh voice. In consequence, the artist is often outcast, rejected, or unpopular.”
Maybe the problem is that most of those we call artists today are in reality only entertainers.
But a true artist, as defined above, is one who challenges the lifestyle, thought-pattern and behavior of a society, regardless of what anyone thinks—even if it means being unpopular.
Why don’t more artists take the role of prophet? Perhaps because it’s just a lot more difficult. Perhaps because we’re making some wrong assumptions, one being that to be evangelistic, we must somehow spell out the Gospel in plain English in a song or a painting.
But the world doesn’t want things spelled out. They’ve already heard the punch line (in regards to what the Christian faith is all about) numerous times.
What they want to know is, does any of this relate to my life? What value are the teachings of Jesus to my life today?
Art has the power to ask these questions and to provide clues regarding the answers. But, the more important elements of the equation are the question and the clues, not the punch line or the easy answer.
Sure, it’s easier to just look through an art magazine and take cues from what the rest of the world is doing. Maybe slap a cross here or a few nails there and, presto, you’ve got something that other Christians might call “Christian art.” But, if your hope is to communicate something more potent and effective to the culture we live in, then it’s going to require you to think different, and to come at things in a fresh, unique and challenging way that upsets the status quo and maybe even knocks over a few tables.
The finished product might not look like what others expect it to, but as you continue to seek God’s face in your work, and to ask hard questions, you’ll begin to find more and more success at creating art that challenges and inspires and invites questions rather than provides answers.
Keith Giles is a former pastor who left the pulpit 11 years ago to start a church that gives away 100% of the offering to the poor in their community.
His new book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.
He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb”.
Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. He and his wife live in Orange, CA with their two sons.
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