Shaping Art To Shape Lives

In case you’d missed it, Sputnik’s tagline is ‘because thought shapes art and art shapes life’. We exist to encourage artists to create art that helps to shape the thinking of the people around us and even start to remould our culture into a more Jesus honouring sort of shape.

But how can we do this?

Shoehorning the gospel into every song, story, picture or performance can make work resemble propaganda or advertising rather than art and can lead to work that seems somewhat contrived. However, focusing on what doesn’t work is of limited value to us. Are there aspects of the Christian worldview that Christian artists should focus on (or even avoid) as they look to engage with the world around them? Are there certain postures we should take towards our audience that are likely to be particularly effective? Are others likely to be less successful?

Or alternatively, is this way of thinking about the question simply too prescriptive and a way of simply producing even more inauthentic utilitarian art?

I do think that the main priorities for the Christian artist are simply to love Jesus and make stuff- stuff that you’re passionate about, interested in or simply curious about. I’ve found that at times overthinking the purpose of work can be counterproductive and paralysing. However, as long as we keep that in mind, I think that it is worth, at least occasionally, hitting these sort of questions head on.

If you’re still with me then you’ll be interested to hear that over the next few weeks we’re going to post a number of articles fleshing out some ways in which different Sputnik artists would answer the types of questions I’ve raised above. What better way to kick things off though than a bit of Francis Schaeffer!

In his excellent little book, ‘Art and the Bible’, Schaeffer writes about how the Christian world-view can be divided into what he calls ‘a major and a minor theme’.

The ‘minor theme’ relates to ‘the abnormality of the revolting world’- the consequences of rebellion against God, lostness, meaninglessness and the basic sinfulness that still dogs us all (even those who follow Jesus). On the other hand, the ‘major theme’ relates to the hope of the gospel- ‘it is the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life’. The fact that all is not absurd. That people are significant. That redemption is possible.

With this established, he goes on to explain how Christian artists have a responsibility to let both of these themes come through their work:

‘Notice that the Christian and his art have a place for the minor theme because man is lost and abnormal and the Christian has his own defeatedness. There is not only victory and song in my life. But the Christian and his art don’t end there. He goes on to the major theme because there is an optimistic answer. This is important for the kind of art Christians are to produce. First of all, Christian art needs to recognize the minor theme, the defeated aspect to even the Christian life. If our Christian art only emphasizes the major theme, then it is not fully Christian but simply romantic art. And let us say with sorrow that for years our Sunday school literature has been romantic in its art and has had very little to do with genuine Christian art. Older Christians may wonder what is wrong with this art and wonder why their kids are turned off by it, but the answer is simple. It’s romantic. It’s based on the notion that Christianity has only an optimistic note.

On the other hand, it is possible for a Christian to so major on the minor theme, emphasizing the lostness of man and the abnormality of the universe, that he is equally unbiblical. There may be exceptions where a Christian artist feels it his calling only to picture the negative, but in general for the Christian the major theme is to be dominant — though it must exist in relationship to the minor.

Modern art that does not depend on the Christian consensus has tended to emphasize only the minor theme. We look at the paintings hanging in the modern art galleries, and we are impressed by the pessimistic analysis of contemporary man. There are, of course, some works of modern art which are optimistic. But the basis for that optimism is insufficient and, like Christian art which does not adequately emphasize the minor theme, it tends to be pure romanticism. The artist’s work appears dishonest in the face of contemporary facts.’ (Art and the Bible, pp 85-87)

In your work, which theme predominates? Is there a need to apply some balance? How can we train ourselves to do this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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