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.