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CreativeArtsNetwork

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I remember two years ago when I was given the task of thinking through what a creative movement/collective/whatever would look like in our church. Me and Jemma (my wife) had spent years discussing how it would be nice to connect our creative leanings with our church involvement, but we’d never come up with any ideas that were particularly practical.

With little inspiration, I decided that plagiarism was probably the best way to go, so sought out others who were building church based artistic movements from whom I could pilfer ideas liberally. The only problem was I couldn’t find any. Anywhere.

Obviously there was loads of Christian art stuff around (most well intentioned but of very dubious quality), but I couldn’t find any churches who were seeking to form fledgling collectives and make credible art that would bless, challenge and provoke their commuinites. This may have had more to do with my lack of patience and misguided google searches than the actual absence of relevant creative Christian collectives, but for whatever reason, I was drawing a blank.

Now. Finally. After two years. I think I’m at last getting somewhere.

I’ve been blown away by the excpetional work that James Bowman and the team at St Pauls, Auckland are producing and the way that they are using their creative skills to impact their community. I have also enjoyed the glimpses I’ve seen of Eucharist Church, Hamilton and the wemakestuff guys from Vancouver. However, I think I’ve stumbled upon my favourite Christian art ‘thing’ yet.

Its called the creativeartsnetwork and operates out of New Community Church, Sidcup. Believe me, you’ll be hearing lots more about these guys and I’ve got a short interview with the editor of creativeartsnetwork.co.uk, Chris Smyth, to put up later in the week as well. For the moment though, check out the site and don’t be surprised if you see us magpie-ing a few of their ideas over the next couple of months.

 

A review of Rian Johnson’s film adaptation of Ecclesiastes (Looper)

looper review

Right, Looper; it’s a very good film. As a swift synoptic introduction, here’s a memory test from your Sunday or Primary School. Try to remember the story (and all its bad costume) of Saul, the King before David, who was very upset at not being God’s chosen leader for the nation. In his moment of despair of not receiving any prophetic dreams himself or guidance from the prophets, Saul goes to the Witch of Endor (in the Bible rather than in Lord of the Rings – 1 Samuel 28) and asks her to reawaken Samuel, the prophet who appointed him, so that he could have a word to get some supernatural guidance. Once you’ve imagined that scene, put a shotgun in Saul’s hand and get him to pull the trigger as soon as Samuel wakes up from his spiritual slumber, and you have a basic picture of what the film Looper is like. Sort of.

It’s set in 2057 in a fairly realistic, dystopian view of the future, with gangsters 30 years ahead beaming people they want killed back via illegal time travel to Loopers; assassins who then kill and dispose of the bodies. The film centres around two relationships. Firstly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as “Joe” and “Old Joe” (wonder how Rian Johnson thought that one up…) the same Looper after a 30-year gap, with hair lost and soul-mate gained. Secondly, a mother “Sara” and her eight-year-old son “Cid”, played by Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon.

The central idea that is considered in the film is: “How is it best for individuals to break out of the cycles of despair we face in the apparent meaninglessness of human action?” It has always been the case that endeavor, employment, family, companionship, education and monetary success don’t seem to lead onto anything of any objective substance. As the Bible often recognizes, these cycles of meaningless action are passed down family lines, with kings making kings, warriors making warriors, farmers making farmers – even with differing tribes famed for their skills. Within this system of “ethne” family lines, the successes or sins of fathers are passed on to their sons. In the Bible, there is a much higher valuation of family than in our individualist society, with traits, whether they’re good or sinful, acknowledged to be passed down through family lines. We see it today, but don’t make much of it. Bright, industrious parents produce bright, industrious kids while misbehaving parents tend to (surprise, surprise) produce naughty children.

In the film, Cid is the key to all things – abandoned as a newborn child, unaware of who his true mother is, he develops a gift that will allow him the possibility of taking dictatorial power, and (ultimately) of closing the loops by having Loopers head back in time to be killed by the earlier version of themselves. The closing of these Ecclesiastical cycles, releasing Joes old and young, Cid, Sara and the world (to see how, watch the film) from their supposedly meaningless futures, Justin Gordon-Levitt takes a leaf out of Christ’s book to solve the problem. It’s an unexpectedly beautiful ending.

It might be said that these ideas seem far removed from the conversations and thoughts that are prominent in our lives and society, but I think the cyclical, seemingly meaningless nature of life is something that many wrestle with. Just a few weeks ago I met a girl who was convinced by Jean Paul Sartre’s bleak notion of despair about the meaninglessness of life. She was stunned to be told that such notions were dealt with in the Bible, most famously in Ecclesiastes which begins: “Meaningless, Meaningless, everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

And this persuasion exists generally in a society which believes that religion doesn’t offer anything useful in dealing with real life, contemporary thought or problems. Ecclesiastes tackles this issue head on, especially the notion that “There is nothing new under the sun”. ‘Looper’ repackages this statement in its presentation of a world in which all problems are cyclical and constantly recurring. Cid feels locked into his mother Sara, as she abandoned him as a child. We know from the vision we are given by Old Joe that this goes on to shape Cid into a tyrannical, dictatorial leader as he attempts to use his (impressive, it must be seen) powers to escape the Ecclesiastical cycles of life. If it has always been the case that problems that fathers face will incur themselves on sons then it does not matter where in history you are, the problem remain unchanged.

Now the problem presented by Looper is one that we all face in our lives: how do we reconcile ourselves with the meaninglessness of our actions? Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus” compares our life’s torments to the constant rolling of a stone up a hill, always and only ever seeing it roll down the other side, resetting the problem. Our lives are full of decisions that don’t seem to make much difference to the whole picture and can often lead to us thinking that we don’t matter. How do we escape the cyclical notion of father-to-son-to-father-to-son?

Well, Looper offers what I would call the perfect response, as it is a response that exactly mirrors the message of Ecclesiastes and scripture. I won’t say explicitly what that message is, but it is the only way that steps outside of time to solve the problem. And it is this that is exactly like the gospel – Christ on the cross speaks such a measure of the love that God has for believers that it transforms not only our lives now and our children in the future, but also the lives and actions of the Biblical Patriarchs from Adam to Abraham, Solomon to Job.

In other words, only Christ can break the loop.

 

Rory Allen

Les Mis and The Power of Story

power of storyI applauded. I sat back in my seat, I had to catch my breath. I was mesmerised.

I just loved Les Miserables. But then I was always going to. I’ve seen the musical three times, my sister was in a school production, and my dad has long spent car journeys trying to reach the upper notes of “Bring Him Home”. It’s been part of family life for me for as long as I can remember. And the film did not let me down. I left, feeling overwhelmed at the life journey of Jean Valjean – the criminal won to a new life of love and sacrifice by the unmerited kindness of a Priest. It resonated. It spoke to me. And judging by Facebook on the opening night, I wasn’t the only one.

It is my experience that films speak to us. Shows us something. Tells us something.

This is because all films are, in their own multi-billion-dollar way, simply stories. The same applies to books and TV shows too – underneath it all, they are just stories. And human beings love stories. Whether that’s “boy in cupboard lacks meaning and hope ‘til bearded giant from West Country kicks door down and reveals he’s a wizard”, or “short creature with hairy feet joins faithful friend (again from West Country) for epic journey to destroy evil jewellery”, they capture our hearts. And across centuries, nations and age-groups, humans have agreed on this. We love stories.

Why?

The fact that stories resonate with us is no coincidence. Consider that we’re not just readers of stories, not just lovers of stories, but participants ourselves in a story. And not just in our own small “school, uni, job” story, but in a far more cosmic adventure, the narrative that has spanned eternity. The Great Story of God and his people.

Think briefly of the plot. It starts well, the perfect beginning, a peaceful and joyful soundtrack plays freely in the background. But soon, the story is marred by strife, struggle and strain, as sin enters the world, and the musical score of history turns from major to minor. But a promise is given. One day, redemption will come. Finally, when all hope seems lost, in comes the Hero. He defeats the enemies, saves the people, rights the wrongs and provides the true happy ending.  Creation. Fall. Redemption.  It’s the Ultimate Story. And we’re part of it.

Listen to how the Jesus Storybook Bible describes the Bible on its first page:

Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do…Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the ones he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!

God is a story-teller, and Christ is the true Hero of the “most wonderful of fairy tales”. Is it any wonder, then, that we so easily lose ourselves in a good book?! That the fanciful children’s tale of a pre-pubescent wizard kick started a global phenomenon that even adults now freely enjoy?  That Frodo’s epic journey through the enemy-ridden Middle Earth produces in us a genuine love for him, for Gandalf, for Sam? Far from silly child’s-play that Christian’s should grow out of, stories are godly, God-like – and engaging with them is a central part of what it is to be a human in God’s world. Christ, the True Man, knew this, and all through the gospels he freely side-steps dry, abstract debate by delving into a first-century story time.

So what?

So what does this mean? It means when we can’t help but applaud at the end of Les Miserables, we shouldn’t feel silly. When we are engrossed in the Hunger Games, get glued to Homeland, are thrilled by Prison Break, we should not be surprised. We should enjoy! Stories are wonderful. And God agrees!

But it doesn’t stop there…

Just as humans bear God’s image, human stories bear the image of God’s story. How many films start with a perfect start (girl meets boy), a fall (boy leaves girl) and a redemption (boy comes back to girl)? Or think of the peace of the Shire, to fall of the wars of Middle Earth, to the redemption in the glorious finale of the defeating of evil. Our stories – even the best – are simply shadows of the Great Story, We can not only enjoy them for themselves, but look beyond them.

Beyond Eponine’s desire for relationship to the Triune God who offers us a place in the love of the Godhead. Beyond the Priest’s astonishing grace to the God who saw our crime, our betrayal of his love and yet took the shame himself, didn’t treat us as our sins deserved, but gave us grace upon grace. Beyond the plight of the Paris poor and the despair of defeat, to the wonderful Saviour who came to rescue the oppressed and will raise us to new life. Beyond Valjean’s final transition from a life of running and chains to the God who truly says to us: “Come, where chains will never hold you.”

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)

 

  • What are your favourite stories? What do they say about the world? How do they point to the Great Story?
  • Though you no-doubt disagree on lots with your non-Christian pals, what are the stories that you share a love for?
  • Could you take your friends to the cinema and ask them “What was it about that film that you loved? What made you love it so much?”
  • Could you even run a film night with a 10-minute discussion after? A book group?  If stories are good enough for Jesus’ evangelism…

 

 

Reflection on SputnikExhibition 1.0- Remember the children!

reflection on exhibition

You know what- I wrote a great blog article on this topic. It was brilliant. I talked about Art (with a capital A), described children as the ‘lesser-birthdayed’ and came close to biting social commentary. However, having proudly read it to Jemma, she told me that basically I was a Luddite and didn’t know what I was talking about. So, here’s my second, slightly more tentative attempt!

This is what I know and still hold on to despite our spousal dispute. Working with the children and young people at our church enhanced our exhibition greatly. Jemma spent some good time in Sunday morning kids’ work and in our church youth group in the weeks preceding the exhibition. The young people were equipped with some torches, an overhead projector and some cameras. The primary school kids with some air drying clay and paints. At the exhibition, then, we managed to fill almost three boards with their work.

Holy SpiritSome of the work was excellent, especially the painting with light by the youth group. Again presentation was key to ensure that you could identify the nativity sheep from the baby Jesus-es. However, I think it set a tone to the exhibition that was welcoming and involving, not cold and exclusive. One of my favourite pieces of work at the exhibition was Ben Harris’ ‘40 Episodes’. However, I know that, for some, seeing forty virtually black photos arranged so that the negative space spells out the Tetragrammaton, may have left them feeling somewhat alienated. That is, if they hadn’t been able to turn just slightly to come face to face with the googly eyed mini clay Magi riding on three legged camels.

Now, here is where, upon the wisdom of my wife, I start to veer from the certainty of my original draft. Buoyed by my sense of fraternity with the lesser birthday-ed (I still had to get that one in), I came upon the idea that perhaps the best art should always have a universal appeal. That all galleries should cater for the young and artistically naïve as well as those with art degrees or a history of LSD use. My wife disagreed with this sentiment and now I propose these ideas as questions more than statements.

You see a lot of the art that I appreciate is not suitable for children. Some of the art I find most profound is complex and can be brutal. There is clearly a place for high brow eccentricity in art, and the geniuses of their day usually leave the majority of people cold, including and especially children.

However, there is something grounding about involving children in an artistic project. They make sure that you don’t float off into unreality and self conceit. They can miss nuance and subtlety, but they can also point out that the Emperor’s not wearing any clothes.

Thanks to all the children and young people who contributed to our God. With. Us exhibition. Your googly eyed Magi were greatly appreciated.

For the adults out there though, what do you reckon:

Does the best art have to have a universal appeal?

Reflection on SputnikExhibition 1.0- People love creating stuff!

reflection on exhibition

On a Sunday morning, Churchcentral gathers about 250-300 people. Over 40 of them had work exhibited at our exhibition. For the mathematicians amongst you, you will know that this is a pretty awesome percentage.

When my wife and I started investigating how to explore creativity and the arts in our church, we were keen not to add new items to people’s already busy to-do-lists. I didn’t want to be having conversations with people that played on their sense of duty, asking them to do something that, in heaven, may be amassing treasure but, on earth, is just another plate to spin. When we asked people to get involved in creative projects, we wanted it to be releasing for them rather than providing them with another obligation.

Therefore, it has been a delight to see that this is just how its worked out. People have put serious work into this exhibition. Hours. And hours. Not to mention resources. However, while I hope they know that I’m really grateful for their time and effort, they’ve probably been more thankful of me than I have of them!

Here’s the deal: people love creating stuff. We are made in the image of God. God loves to create stuff. However, on the whole I think that Christians feel guilty if they spend any time copying their Heavenly Father on this one as they feel that such time should be spent on much more spiritual things. Engaging artists (and anyone who thinks creatively) in meaningful art projects in your church is like giving them permission to do what they love doing. In our case, this meant: a) over 40 people in our church meditating on what it meant for God to be with them for weeks on end, b) the 120 guests at our carol services seeing the real 21st century impact of a story they’d thought was just a fairy tale and c) Christmas cheer all round.

Everyone’s a winner.

Schaeffer’s Staircase. Part 5

So. To create good art, you must become fluent in the artistic tradition you are involved in.

But. To become fluent, you need to immerse yourself in that tradition, appreciate it and understand it.

But. No artistic tradition is thoroughly good. In fact, most become pretty corrupt pretty quickly.

So what do we do?

I think the book of Daniel gives us great insight into this whole area. Daniel was exiled to Babylon and the chief of the court officials was ‘to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.’ (Dan 1:4) Babylon was not the homeland of virtue and goodness! It has not become the symbol of all that is ungodly for nothing! An intense course in Babylonian culture was going to be an immersion in blasphemy and perversion. But Daniel took the course. In fact, he seemed to throw himself into it with gusto. He still made a stand for righteousness, but he didn’t see his immersion in Babylonian culture as necessarily compromising that righteousness. As you read Daniel, his fluency in Babylonian (both its language and its culture) was a crucial factor (along with the occasional miraculous dream interpretation) in his gaining the king’s ear and becoming a significant voice in that nation.

The Bible gives us Daniel’s example and, through this, permission to get inside cultural traditions, even when they are not thoroughly upbuilding and pretty.

But we don’t get a practical guide detailing how to pick our way through the minefield that lies before us as we try to do this.

This is no bad thing either, as in this area more than any other, I’ve found myself having to rely on the Holy Spirit.

The truth is that we each have different struggles and weaknesses, meaning that a Christian blacklist of films, songs, books or pieces of artwork is almost impossible. I may be able to enjoy a film like the ‘Big Lebowski’, but if you struggle with the language you use (and I’m not talking about French this time), you may want to give it a miss. You may not have a problem watching movies which are built around extra marital affairs, I tend to steer clear of them. You may find that listening to ‘Rage against the Machine’ fuels in you a righteous anger against injustice, someone else may find it just makes them aggressive. This is why we need to rely on the Holy Spirit massively in this area and I think that practically the most important thing we need to do as we look to become fluent in different cultural traditions is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

In a sense, the list below is just an unpacking of some ways we can do that, but here are some things I have found helpful:

1)    Balance your diet

A balanced diet does not just require avoiding unhealthy food. It also involves eating food that is good for you. The same is true of our lives. It is important to pay attention that we are not consuming unhealthy substances and this is true in our engagement with art, but it is also vital to make sure that we are also feeding ourselves on what is pure and good.

I need to be careful to listen to the Holy Spirit to work out what He thinks is unhelpful but it is at least as important to be making sure that I am also being fed by what David calls ‘the faithful in the land’ (Ps 101): by godly people and most importantly by God himself.

Are you spending more time reading God’s word than you are watching movies? Do you instinctively put on your favourite music on the way to work, or do you sometimes use that time to listen to sermons? However edgy your musical tastes, do you ever press pause and put on something else that may not push the envelope creatively but may feed your soul?

2)    Hold on to your favourite art loosely

In my time I have smashed more records, cracked more CDs and binned more videos and DVDs than I can remember! Now perhaps I should have been a bit wiser when purchasing these items in the first place, however for me I don’t always hear God’s voice in the shop beforehand, He usually delays how he speaks to me. Sometimes, I’ll just feel a slight internal discomfort when listening to a certain album or watching a film. I’ve learnt that I should never ignore that and should do something about it. At the very least, I need to ask God if He’s talking to me and whether he wants me to stop listening to that song/watching that film.

At other times, I find it helpful to mentally place my favourite albums/films before God when I’m praying and ask Him if He wants me to get rid of them all regardless of their content, which leads nicely on to my third, final and most important point…

3)    Constantly assess where your heart is

I always thought that God was most interested in the details of what I listened to/watched- the language used, the sexual acts referenced, the body count, etc. However, now I don’t think this is the big issue at all. His main concern is whether I love Him more than the ‘thing’ I’m into.

I remember one time when God told me very clearly to get rid of a certain record. This puzzled me as the record in question featured nothing that seemed too bad. It certainly was no worse than other records that I owned. However, as I put forward my case for retaining that particular piece of plastic, God spoke to me. He told me that it was about my heart. He wanted to know whether I loved him or hip hop.

Our first calling is not to understand our culture, but to love God more than anything else. If we feel called to be an artist but we realise that we love our artform more than God, we need to take a break from our art, repent and sort this out.

There is a degree in which an artist must love his/her artform. This is important if we are going to create anything important within that tradition. However, if that love starts to compete with our love for God, we’ve got to get our priorities straight. It’s a very tricky path to navigate, but I believe that God wants to help lots of us to start such journeys and actually, on the way, as we learn to avoid hazards and reject wrong turns, we will get to know Him so much better.

And hopefully we’ll start to redeem the traditions that we become fluent in.

Schaeffer’s Staircase. Part 4.

So to finish this mini series, I want to reflect on some how-tos: How can we develop as artists? How can those who are already at work get better? How can artists, whose output presently serves Christians, start to broaden their appeal? How about those who are just starting out and want to produce high quality art to help shape our culture for God’s glory?

In ‘Culture Making’ Andy Crouch picks up on something that I think is vital:

‘The first responsibility of culture makers is not to make something new but to become fluent in the cultural tradition to which we are responsible. Before we can be culture makers, we must be culture keepers.’

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If I want to be an excellent film maker, I need to understand and appreciate the art of film making. Same goes with music, photography, writing, and any other art form you can think of. The image of ‘fluency’ is helpful here. To be fluent in a language, its not just a case of studying it from afar, you have to immerse yourself in the language and the culture that the language is part of. To be truly fluent in a language, you actually have to spend significant time in the place where that language is spoken with native speakers of that language.

But here is where we have a problem as Christians wanting to become fluent in artistic traditions. For some of us we don’t fully appreciate and understand the traditions we work within. This would often be the case with bands that are formed for purely evangelistic purposes. For example: you want to share Jesus with the young people you work with (a good idea!). You notice that the kids like hip hop. Therefore, you start writing raps to make the gospel relevant. In fact, you may even gather together others who know their way around some music sequencing software to create some backing tracks.

And this may work. To a degree. However, obviously you’re not going to create anything lasting or important. Why? Because, you have not become fluent in the tradition of hip hop. You do not understand it. You do not appreciate it. Therefore you will never make good hip hop music.

This is an extreme example, but the problem emerges in a slightly different way for more ‘serious’ Christian artists. Lets consider another musical example: you love playing the guitar and become very good at it. You meet some Christian friends who are also very good at their instruments and you decide to form a rock band. However, being good Christians, your points of reference for your music are primarily Christian bands. You love a bit of Jars of Clay, Third Day, even POD.

And here lies the problem. These bands have their merits. In many ways, they have done/are doing a great job, but they are not a breeding ground for fluency in the tradition of rock music. In fact, many Christian bands, to use one of Crouch’s categories, have ‘copied’ culture. They produce sanitised, safe versions of the original product. To continue the analogy, they are competent French speakers, who get the grammar and know the vocabulary. They may even have a level of fluency themselves. However, to become fluent, you need to go to France! You need to hang out, not with those who are fluent in French, but with those who are French!

If you didn’t want to hang out with French people, you would never become truly fluent in French. Similarly, if you don’t want to hang out with the architects and innovators in rock music, you will never become fluent in rock music, and therefore will never make good rock music.

To become fluent in the tradition of rock music, you need to spend significant time with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Metallica and Megadeth, Nirvana and Soundgarden, Tool, Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails. And not just as a cultural critic. You’ll need to appreciate their art.

However, lets face it, a lot of these bands are not going to serve as background music while you discuss the sermon at Life Group on a Wednesday night!

I can completely understand a Christian who would say ‘I don’t want to immerse myself in that stuff’. God may have even specifically told you not to do that. If that is the case, you need to obey him. However, at the same time, you are probably not then called to be a rock musician in any significant way.

So what do we do? Do we settle for enjoying the safe facsimiles and keep churning out more of the same.

If not, how can we become fluent in artistic traditions that are so corrupted, without becoming compromised?

 

In the next post, I want to see what the Bible says and give some practical advice that I’ve found helpful.

Schaeffer’s Staircase. Part 3


So, Schaeffer was the don! No question! However he hasn’t been around for about 30 years and wrote his major works almost half a century ago. What of his legacy?

Well, he has certainly left an indelible mark on evangelical Christian culture. Christian apologetics would certainly be a pretty different beast without him (a dead one probably). However, on the whole, very few have actually started descending the staircase.

The top of the stairs has become crowded, that’s for sure. And this is no bad thing. Gifted theologians and philosophers jostle with communicators par excellence to make sure that every angle of the Christian worldview is defended. Quirinius’ census, Joshua’s Canaanite excursions, original sin- any old google search will show you that we’ve got answers. Our paradigm holds together. This whole Jesus thing stands up. Ask Ravi. Bill. Professor Lennox.

But most of my friends still think that the Bible is a fairy tale on a level with Robin Hood (the Kevin Costner version).

But that was Schaeffer’s point. Good thinkers aren’t enough. We need those who will hand down the ideas to the masses. We need the artists.

But that is the bit that’s been missed. Its true that Schaeffer has changed the way that evangelicals relate to art, but it has largely led to a Christian culture that will respond to art but not participate in it.

Schaeffer (with the help of others) has helped Evangelical Christianity to grow out of its reactionary phase towards the arts. Evangelicals go to the cinema. We attend gigs with the heathen. We read novels that get on the Booker shortlist. And we can pull apart the themes and subtexts and identify all the pop culture references. We can spot the way post modernism has perniciously crept into our homes through Kylie Minogue as well as through Charlie Kaufman. Most of us could probably pass an exam in Media Studies. Even an A-Level.

We then shake our heads and bemoan the advance of secularism, individualism, New Age spirituality and general stupidity that is being propagated by these pagan but very talented artists. But at least we know what they’re up to.

This is how we engage with the arts. Or to put it another way, this is how we don’t engage with the arts.

Andy Crouch, in his brilliant book ‘Culture Making’, makes this point powerfully: ‘The only way to change culture is to create more of it’. On the way to this astute observation, he puts forward 4 other strategies of approaching culture that will have no transformative effect whatsoever. Unfortunately these have been the main methods generally employed by evangelicals in recent history:

1)      Condemning culture- the ‘if you play Phil Collins backwards, I think he tells your kids to worship Satan’ approach.

2)      Critiquing culture- the ‘how can we tell the gospel through Star Wars?’ approach

3)      Copying culture- the ‘whats popular now? Lets do an inferior version in the name of Jesus’ approach

4)      Consuming culture- the ‘I’m so glad us Christians can be cool nowadays. Anyone for ‘Hostel 2’ tonight?’ approach

Much more could be said on each of these, but I’m not going to bother- simply read Crouch’s book. You won’t regret it. All I will say is this: the problem with all of these is that they are all passive. They don’t really engage with culture at all and they certainly won’t change anything. As Crouch concludes: ‘creativity is the only viable source of change.’

If I want to reverse the drift towards pantheism, my primary task is not to publish a detailed critique of Avatar. Its to make another film that presents a worldview centred around an external, personal, conscious God. If I am appalled at the fact that most people get their view of our Heavenly Father from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984, just noticing this is not going to change anything. I’ve got to write a book that presents an omniscient God to whom we are utterly accountable who we fall in love with, not just reluctantly bow to.

Well, I don’t necessarily need to write it. Maybe you could though.

Now, just to be clear- we will be critiquing art on this website. I have a rather tidy review of the not so new Mumford and sons album up my sleeve actually. We may even be condemning, copying and consuming every now and then to boot. However, if that’s all we do, that really is a rather tentative descent down the staircase and I imagine it will not put us within spitting distance of most of those at the bottom of the stairs. (As an aside, spitting on people is also unlikely to help). For every review we write, meme we dissect or original animation we share, I hope that we can inspire 10 pieces of art that have the potential to flesh out our convictions in a way that is compelling and digestible.

I think that would be the kind of legacy Francis Schaeffer would be happy with.

 

Schaeffer’s Staircase. Part 2

So here’s how it works.

Brainy philosopher writes book. Hardly anyone understands it, but those who do think its great/profound/world-changing/etc.

At this point, 99.9% of people are none the wiser. Or foolisher.

Shortly after. Talented artist reads book (or synopsis on Wikipedia). Talented artist makes film, painting, novel, etc of the driving theme of brainy philosopher’s book.  Other artists follow suit with sculptures, plays, songs, etc.

At this point, 99.9% of people have subconsiously imbibed an entire philosophical system without even knowing it. If the art is good enough, most of them will probably follow the philosophy, even if they can’t fully articulate it.

Schaeffer didn’t exactly put it like this, but I think that’s the gist of Schaeffer’s staircase.

 

We can see this happen all around us. As a secondary school teacher until very recently I’ve witnessed a worrying tendency in teenagers to elevate animal life and degrade human life.

So. Classic RS lesson dilemma. You’re driving along a road. In the road on the right: old man. On the left: small dog. You can’t stop. Who do you run over? Usual response: It doesn’t matter. A life’s a life. The poor dog. Well, he’s already lived his life hasn’t he? Or something non-committal. Very rarely does anyone categorically kill the dog to save the old man.

I think this has changed significantly since I was at school (not long ago, by the way!) but what has led to this concerning devaluation of human life?

Well, to oversimplify things massively, at least two things:

Firstly. Ethical philosophers like Peter Singer have been steadily putting forward the case since about the middle of the 20th century that when we consider the consequences of our actions, we should consider animals just as highly as people (anything else is ‘speciesism’).

Immediate result. Nobody really cares. I go to school in the 80s and early 90s and note a strong conviction that old men are better than hounds.

Then. Artists get inspired. Watership Down leaves a whole generation clutching their poor little bunnies. Morrissey declares ‘Meat is Murder’. Jonny Mellor takes his 3 year old to the cinema to watch some cute cartoon called ‘Animals United’ and hears a turtle called Winfred delivering the film’s keynote speech: a wild anti-human rant.

Result: Dog? Old man? Which one’s the cutest?

Now, obviously this is not exactly how it happened but I think the general point holds and, for most of us, I think we could probably trace this drip down of ideas in many other areas. If we delve deep, we’ll see it at work in ourselves.

 

Scaheffer’s staircase is therefore a very helpful lens (its a glass staircase, if my mixing of metaphors causes you a problem) through which to understand how certain ideas gain ascendancy in our culture. More than that though, it also helps us to think very clearly about how to shape the fundamental thought patterns and values of our culture as well:

Yes, we clarify our worldview. We debate. We write books (some of them hardback, with italic bits in Latin and everything).

But we also need to make art. Not just critique it, but actually make it. Good art. Challenging art. Beautiful ugly funny angry righteous thought shaping art. And we put it out there.

 

In the 20th century, Christianity had a place on the staircase. CS Lewis. GK Chesterton. JRR Tolkein. All of them handed down the Christian worldview to normal people through their writings.

But who is doing this now? We’ve got lots of great people at the top of the stairs- Ravi Zacharias, John Piper, Tim Keller, Andrew Wilson, etc, etc. But where are the artists making their ideas presentable and attractive to the people who can’t really be bothered to read theology?

Richard Dawkins has his Philip Pullman. Who has NT Wright got?

 

Jonny Mellor (jonny@churchcentral.org.uk)

Schaeffer’s Staircase. Part 1

When I finished school, I decided, on a whim, to study philosophy. I had never studied it before, but I thought it sounded pleasantly exotic. Upon making this decision, I approached my dad to ask him if he knew anything about this mysterious subject that I was giving three years of my life to. He went to his bookcase, dusted off some tatty paperback and said ‘Read this!’ It was ‘The God who is there’ by Francis Schaeffer (nothing to do with pens!). I remember finding it fascinating, but I didn’t really get it. However, I have found myself coming back to Schaeffer over and over again ever since.

For Schaeffer, thought is powerful and thinkers shape the world. He was a man who did not critique secular culture for its superficial foibles, but instead he delved deep into its foundational ideas and philosophies. He understood that philosophers like Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger shook more than just the academic worlds they worked in, but that their systems of thought shape the lives of normal people even today.

What I find most interesting though is that Schaeffer describes the method by which these ideas trickle down from the ivory towers of academia to educate the presuppositions, assumptions and reasoning of normal people. It is not through widespread reading of their books. It is not through their influence on politicians or journalists. It is not even through education. It is through art. This is Schaeffer’s staircase: the philosophers, at the top of the stairs, hand their ideas down to the artists lower down. These artists then repackage these ideas in a way that can be easily passed down to us at the foot of the staircase. Or to put it another way: thought shapes art and art shapes life.

If you want to think through your faith more thoroughly- read Schaeffer. If you’d like to understand your culture better – read Schaeffer. If you’d like to know how to shape that culture- read Schaeffer. Or alternatively, wait for my next blog post where I’ll unpack this in a bit more detail.

The rest of this blog series can be found here: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and finally Part 5.

Jonny Mellor (jonny@churchcentral.org.uk)