Bono, lead singer for U2, and Eugene Peterson, author of The Message contemporary Bible translation, recently spent some time together at Peterson’s Montana home to discuss the Psalms—along with some cameras courtesy the Fuller Seminary. It’s a fascinating talk. Take a look:
“They’re not pretty,” Peterson says about the Psalms. “They’re not nice.” Bono loves the Psalms because of their “brutal honesty.”
“That’s what God wants from you,” he says. “The truth. The way, the truth. And that truthfulness—know the truth the truth will set you free—will blow things apart.”
And he wonders why Christian music, and Christian art, doesn’t take the hint.
“I find in Christian art a lot of dishonesty, and I think it’s a shame,” Bono says.
It’s an interesting statement, and I think it’s at least partly true. I don’t think that Christian artists are dishonest in the sense of, “here, let me tell you a great, big whopper of a lie,” but maybe because we Christians sometimes don’t understand how to best be honest. We’re telling the truth, but in the way in which we tell it can feel false.
So, let’s think of this issue in terms of art—like, real art. Most artists have always been about looking at the world and giving us a picture of that world as honestly as the artist can do it. And back in the Middle Ages, that honesty tended to look like this:
That’s a section of the Bayeux Tapestry. It illustrates the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conquerer came in and took over England. The battle was a pretty pivotal moment in Western Civilization, and the tapestry, taken as a whole, tells us what went on there. It’s honest, as far as it goes. We see men with chain mail. We see horses. We see some dead bodies. We recognize them all for what they are. And the tapestry effectively tells us a story.
But it doesn’t look very real to us. And that’s because the artist was using the same logic that most of us use as kids when we’re drawing a picture in kindergarten. We know what a horse looks like—the head, the legs, the tail. So we draw what we know. We don’t necessarily draw what we actually see.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that artists truly rediscovered how to deal with perspective and shadow and color—techniques that technically distort or obscure the images but, paradoxically, better reflect what our eyes behold. Here’s what that new sense of realism looked like in the Netherlands around 1620.
This is visual honesty—a realistic depiction of what we see, rather than a picture of what we know. But after another couple hundred years or so, some artists felt that this wasn’t honest enough. So they created what became known as Impressionism—the image your eye might catch in a blink.
Now Christian artists—the folks who work with pastels and paint—have long understood the lessons of perspective. But I wonder whether other forms of Christian art—its movies, its music, etc.—may not fully understand the importance of perspective and shadow–the grit, the realism, the complexity that art and entertainment can be so good at grappling. In our stories and songs, we show what we know, not what we see or feel. We know that God loves us. We know that Jesus died for us. We know what that should look like. But often, what we know is not exactly what we see. We’re afraid to make things too real. We’re afraid to show the shadow for fear that people might miss the light.
And yet, because we refuse to acknowledge the shadow or deal with our Christian image from a different perspective, we lose the audience. Our art can feel, like the Bayeux Tapestry. Flat.
Bono says he’s often suspicious of Christians because of their “lack of realism.” We fail to acknowledge that in the midst of our faith, there’s sorrow and anger and doubt.
We Christians believe that our faith is true. That it’s real and powerful. All the better reason, I think, for us to be honest in our art and in the way we engage in our culture. We have nothing to hide, nothing to fear. It’d be nice if our art could better reflect that confidence.