James Cary: The Problem with Protestantism and the Arts

As you may have noticed from last week’s ‘Where is The Line?’ post, I’ve just finished Ally Gordon’s ‘Beyond Air Guitar’ and would thoroughly recommend it. The main body of the book is spent examining some key questions about the creative arts and how art is presented in the Bible.

This was helpful on its own, but it was the last section that really grabbed me, as Ally interviews a series of artists. The Norman Stone interview was excellent, as noted last week, but perhaps even better was the interview with BBC sitcom writer James Cary, who goes after Christian creative communities, Protestants and even our emphasis on evangelism. There’s some great stuff about work too and as for the last paragraph (let’s just say, get your fists ready for some pumping!)

Anyway, I asked Ally and he said it would be okay to reproduce parts of the interview, so here it is and I’d love to take part in some conversations on the back of this.

On the main issues affecting Christians in the arts and media today…

The basic problem is often that people don’t connect their Christian life with their work life. The two seem so distant that they never meet or interact, and this can lead to a number of dysfunctions. One is disenchantment with the church. Creatives often feel isolated anyway, especially as they are types who see themselves as commentators on society, but if one keeps one’s work separate, and one doesn’t allow the fellowship of the church and the preaching of God’s word to bear on that work, soon one will feel like one is living in 2 worlds, and not in a good way. Sometimes people drift away from good Bible teaching churches into loose federations of Christian creatives and much spiritual discontent ensues, or worse- contentment with false teaching. This is partly a failure of church, and of pastoring and preaching. But it is often a self inflicted wound and might be one that sometimes never heals.

Another side effect of keeping work and church separate is that work becomes more frustrating because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It seems pointless or, worse, vain. Again this is often a failure of church which views media, arts and culture with suspicion (sometimes rightly so), but if you don’t know why you’re working, you’ll soon find the going tough. Lots of Christians have spiritual crises because they don’t have the right biblical expectations for their work, and what it is for and how they fit into God’s plan for the redemption of the world. What Blueprint (James’ Christian arts group) is seeking to do- along with a number of initiatives by other groups- is get ourselves familiar with the Bible, and work out how God sees work, how he sees our creative art, and how we can do it better for his glory and purposes. It’s great to pray, network and encourage each other- and plenty of networks are strong on all of those- but there is no substitute for working out a biblical vocation. Protestants used to be big on this, but, like many things, it seems to have fallen away….

On the problem with Protestantism and the arts…

I think the answer to that question (‘what are evangelicals frightened of?’) could be ‘frivolity’. Artists, writers, designers and film makers are frequently deemed to be at best surplus to requirements, and at worst an unholy distraction. But a distraction from what? Evangelism. As Christendom has crumbled and active Christian faith declined in the West, the greatest need is deemed to be evangelism. This is something the Catholics have traditionally been less bothered about since their ecclesiology is brimming with self confidence. Protestants however like to talk about the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. This commission is often preached as the Great Commandment, often to the exclusion of all others. The Christian life ceases to be about life, family, work, relationship and community, but winning arguments, gaining converts and expanding the church. The Great Commission is, of course, to be obeyed with joy and relish. To proclaim Christ and his gospel is a joy and an honour. But when evangelism becomes not just ‘the thing to do’ but ‘the only thing to do’, we are in danger of making an emphasis that the Bible does not make. The Great Commission does not and should not trump all cultural activity. But the moment it does, everything the Christian does is weighed and evaluated for its evangelistic usefulness. And therefore any art or media that is not evangelistically explicit can be construed as a waste of time and/or resources, or considered to be a missed opportunity. We functionally become gnostic, suspicious of the physical and sensual.

How can this misplaced emphasis work out in real life? It means that when considering what job to take, one considers whether the workplace in question is a good one to evangelise. Will I be able to have Christian conversations? Will I be able to start a Bible study or a Christian Union? Will this job pay well so I can give lots of money to the evangelistic work my church is doing? Will it pay well so I can provide for my family? Is this workplace near my church so I can invite my colleagues along to events and services? These are all useful questions to ask, but they omit some serious key ones. Consider this: you’re going to spend 40 hours a week (at least) working in this place doing a job. Have you considered whether the job is useful? Does it benefit other (beyond your own salary)? Is it an honest profession? Do you have the skills for it? Do you feel called to this line of work? Will it satisfy you, given that you have been made by God to work? Given the new earth will be a renewed old earth, how will your work under God contribute to that?

These questions are universal and don’t just apply to creative Christians. But doctors and teachers do jobs that seem immediately useful and therefore in no need of justification. Actors, journalists and cameramen have a harder time. What this latter group need to remember is that in the new earth, the doctors will need to retrain since there’ll be no more sickness, and the teachers too, since there’ll be no children. The full time evangelists will have no-one to evangelize. The artists, however, will continue to make culture in a real and physical way for an eternity. So we’re getting a head start on that.

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