The Fall of Christian Creativity

I think Tyler Shuster must have been channelling the author of Lamentations when he wrote The Fall of Christian Creativity.

The cause for the decline of the quality of Christian art is essentially this: Christian art has become the subject of Christian art … An example from a popular worship song illustrates this point. “We lift our holy hands up, we want to touch you.” These lyrics are not focused on the glory of God, but on worship itself. This song worships worship.

I wonder if much of our missional conversations are guilty of the same thing.

11 Comments

  1. I think there is a connection, but both in worship and in mission I think we confuse talking about doing the thing with doing the thing.
    That is – we confuse singing about worshipping as worshipping. And similarly those of us talking about missionality can easily assume that we are going on mission because we’ve spoken of going on mission.
    It seems to be a psychological thing where we confuse talking about doing something with actually doing it. In our church we’ve chosen to outline practices as a means of undercutting our confusion of talking and doing. So we have certain practices of mission that we affirm and assume will be done as an expression of going beyond thinking mission is speaking of mission.

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  2. B.D. I like your emphasis on mutually affirmed practices. I was thinking along much the same lines myself this morning, that where it is within my power I should be encouraging and equipping people in the basic disciplines. Would you be willing to share more about what your church does?

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  3. Yes, it’s spiritual masturbation.
    45 years ago I was at an ecumenical student camp where the evangelicals sang a chorus:
    If you want joy, real joy wonderful joy
    Let Jesus come into your life.
    And they were rather shocked when we rejected it and called it spiritual masturbation. We said it was reducing Jesus to a mere means to an end. And much Western hymnody has this theme of introspection running through it, concentrating on OUR feelings, OUR desires, OUR emotions.

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  4. Oh, the problem goes deeper than Shuster declares. I’d say the Psalms are the worst offender when it comes to singing about oneself and one’s worship. Almost every line in Psalm 63 has ‘I’ as the subject.
    * “I will sing, sing a new song.” (Psalm 42)
    * “In your name I will lift up my hands.” (Psalm 63)
    I anyone else sensing a disconnection here? To my mind worship should be one of God’s main blessings in life; an experience to thankfully and exuberantly sing about.

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  5. Yeah, B.D., like Matt, I’m interested to hear what your community practises. Are you in Australia?
    Meanwhile, it’s interesting that singing and music usually monopolise any conversation about Christian creative arts. There are other ways to worship creatively.

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  6. What made the rock n roll sub-culture great during the 1960’s – 1970’s was its immense ability to profoundly challenge, provoke and question the existing status quos.
    It prophetically reimagined and reshaped a society for a whole generation of Baby Boomers.
    Just think for instance its enormous impact on Western involvement in and attitudes to a Vietnam War.
    In terms of the Church, Christian rock artists such as Larry Norman not only challenged prevailing and entrenched attitudes to faith in God, but had a major impact on how it viewed culture, did worship, and how it undertook mission.
    New theology through grassroots movements such as the Jesus People stuff, prophetically challenged through emboldened and “in-your-face” preachers (e.g John Smith of God’s Squad MC, Jack Sparks), musicians (e.g Barry McGuire), poets, writers (eg. Os Guiness, Athol Gill) grassroots activists, both from within the Church and outside it. They were highly provocative toward a more “back-to-basics” faith and theology – a theology which was far less accommodating of the existing religious status than with it. Theology through these prophets was not frightened to challenge sacred cows of faith, worship, theology and religion, and consistently challenged the Church to be far more intelligently critical of its missiological role within society.
    But gone are those days of a far more critical and questioning, and I think a more prophetically-imaginative form of Christianity.
    The artists of the Church have become subdued, seduced and now conformative with the existing status quos of the “successful” corporate business model, church-growth enterprises of today. They pay their way, often handsomely, to “go with the flow of things” instead of being those cultural-religious-prophetic challengers their predecssors of the Jesus People Movement days once were. They are no longer activists for change, but reinforcers of “more of the same”.
    Christian artists today are there because of their crowd building and sustaining capacities. They are not there to challenge the status quo but to reinforce it.
    This effects the way they write worship lyrics. If it can be more emotionally titillating and individually “personally moving”, people will feel good and come back again – creating a stable flow of ongoing revenue to perpetuate the religious institution they are supporting and which is keeping them in a job.
    If we really want the lyrics to change, we must either become the artists or be prepared to theologically and to prophetically challenge those who are artists to be far more theologically critical, and accountable about what they are actually doing with their artistic gifts and crafts.
    We survive in an profoundly antitheological and deeply theologically ignorant world Church situation, despite being described as living within “the most educated generation of recorded human history”. If anything, while the rest of the world has become more educated about what they are doing vocationally the church has, for a variety of reasons deliberately dumbed down its membership theologically. If we want the worship lyrics of Church to change for the better, we must become provocatuers for deep theological re-engagement – for a truly thinking Christianity which is re-engaged with its God, its prophetic mission, is more critically thinking and prophetically re-energised about its worship, and how it serves its Lord in genuinely reinterpreting God’s inbreaking kingdom into this world.
    Yes. I believe that God…Christ must become central – not ourselves – in our worship. But if we want the lyrics to change, we need to be prepared to challenge, provoke, and theologically re-engage the artists who are busy writing them toward much more theologically and biblically enlightened stuff.

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  7. @Kalessin. LOL. Yes, you’re right, we run the risk of overstating the problem. But the Psalms themselves offer a counterpoint here. Where are the lamentations in contemporary music? Where’s the emotional range of the Psalms? Where are the cries for justice? Where is the confession? There is a place for “happy, happy, joy, joy, God I love you so much.” But there’s also a place for “sorrow, sorrow, why God is life so messed up?”
    And as Lucy reminds us, the article wasn’t talking just about music. The Kincade Jesus is also under the spotlight here.

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  8. @Andrew. “Prophetically-imaginative” Christian art. Absolutely. Art has the potential to reveal the present apocalyptically (ref: David Dark) and expand our horizons. Worship should also challenge our idolatries.

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  9. Been thinking about this a lot more overnight, esp about the Lamentations comment.
    In commenting about OT lament in his book, “The Word That Describes The World”, Walter Brueggemann says:
    “I cite these psalms [e.g. Ps 137:5-6; 74:4-7. He also cites Lam 1:2, 9, 17, 21; 5:19-22] because I believe church and sybagogue must practise the liturgy of loss, grief, and rage, in order to relinquish a city that has failed. Israel knew that loss unacknowleged is paralyzing. Conversely, loss voiced emancipates from ancient anger, liberates from chereished rage, and permits new waves of God-given constructive energy. The city [Church, congregation, worship, whatever `cities’ we create for ourselves as citadels of religion] cannot afford a loss ungrieved, because loss ungrieved produces fatigue and brutality” … Suffering produces hope (Rom 5:3-5), but not just any suffering. Suffering that is recognized, admitted, voiced, and enacted produces hope. We do not know why, but it is so. Suffering denied and unarticulated produces numbness and irrational rage. Israel knew that. And so, I produce a second response to the failed city of Jerusalem, second not first. It is a rich, exuberant, imaginative hope for a restored, new Jerusalem. BUT the new one requires the complete relinquishment of the one that is gone” (p.85-86.
    And here then is my point.
    As demonstrated in the line of worship, “We lift our holy hands up, we want to touch you”, there is an element of denial involved.
    Worship, or the idea of worship, of doing “worship” to invoke God’s presence “for us” to feel `spiritually” good in ourselves seesm to be what is being expressed in those lyrics.
    Worship of Worship has become a type of failed city in today’s Church. In its becoming an idolatry, it has in fact defeated its own purpose, that is to genuinely `connect us to God’ because that so-called connection overture by the human element comes with “catches” involved. The catch is that the humans apply conditions to God, want to control the boundaries of God’s involvement on their own terms.
    They also don’t recognise – they deny – their estrangement from and loss of God. The liturgies they are practising now don’t allow for acknowledgement of that disconnection from God, but rather demand what is really a subservient God to bow to beck and call if they sing the “right” word formulus to God. “Buttering up God” with empty flattery is not the way back to God. It estranges us even more from God.
    This false narrative of a God who has to respond on our beck and call, make us feel good, do our bidding, make us rich, is under our control because of our words and manipulative recitation back to God of the biblical text as “legal promises” to force Him to obey us – this sort of narrative must be confronted and challenged for the lie that it is.
    Often, without realising it, it is through our efforts at doing `contemporary’ feel good congregational worship that this sort of “cause and effect” thinking about God and how God relates to us is being highly successfully reinforced in us over and over again.
    It is actually being done by the artists, most often because they are just going with the fashionable flow of things, rather than theologically questioning what they are actually doing.
    Their artistry has become a tool used to reinforce the existing status quo of things, not as something which prophetically challenge people to face the real truths in life and about themselves which God wishes to speak to them.
    In modern day, typical church services, art has become something to reinforce the Sunday gathering event as a
    spiritual “comfort zone” for the people attending it.
    The unsettling, truth-telling, prophetical God has been banished from the premises, its liturgy and worship music.

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  10. For anyone interested, there is a Redeeming the Arts Project which came out of of the 2003 Laussane Conference. Unable to include the link for some unknown reason to do with my computer. Search under the project name and you will find the link with a guy named Colin Harbinson (he wrote Toymaker and Son) from Belhaven College who is coordinating it. Lots of good theological articles in their journal “Mosaic” about reforming the arts.

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  11. http://www.colinharbinson.com/teaching/redeemingarts.html
    I think I got the link to work now…
    I’m wondering how many people in the general church-scape out there are aware of the issues Andrew raises. He thinks “estrangement” is a key issue. I would add the issues of “maturity” in the faith and “authenticity” and “integrity”. All these impact and inform the “art” that is produced and experienced. There is a better outcome if “the process” and “the result” are congruent in these. This is true for those who make art and those who interact with it.
    I know Colin Harbinson personally and appreciate his humility as well as his ability to communicate important issues in the realm of contemporary Christian arts – their creation and impact on the church and wider society – in a very understandable and accessible way. He artfully interweaves stories of his journey with humour, humility and candour throughout his teaching. Very importantly, they also ring true…

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