“Redeeming the arts” badly isn’t good enough

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Before reading any further, you need to read Joel Stein’s short essay at the end of this week’s issue of Timemagazine:
“Christian Improv: What’s Funny At Warren’s Church”

Stein’s snarky commentary on his experience with the Saddleback improv comedy team brings into the light the underlying failure of the modern Evangelical “redeem the arts” movement:
If you build your reformation on a shaky foundation, you merely produce more fodder for scorn.

I try to write with charity toward my non-Reformed brethren. The Kingdom is big enough for all of us — the central tenets of the Gospel, around which we unite, are simple enough for a child to comprehend and require none of the rancor which usually accompanies fights within Evangelicalism. But this topic will reveal the Reformed anchors in my theology. You’ve been warned. 

Stein’s experience with the Saddleback group illustrates the classic problem Christians encounter when attempting to do anything more than retreat into a holy huddle of irrelevance. We must interact with culture and the people who produce it. How does a Christian do this while maintaining his faith?

Richard Niebuhr made the classic statement of the 5 possible options for Christians interacting with culture. Most Evangelicals find themselves at either position #4, Christ Against Culture, or #5, Christ Transforming Culture. To quote from an article written by professors at Calvin College, the 4th option centers on tension:

The tension option, advocated by Martin Luther, places the Christian in a tension between Christ and culture. We are in the world but not of it and must be careful not to estrange ourselves from the world, but at the same time not to embrace it either. In short, we are citizens of two worlds that are often at odds with each other. 

I was raised in View #4.
Most Reformed folks (myself among them) choose option #5 because of our understanding of God’s goodness in creation, the damage of sin and the Fall, and the spectacular redemptive power of the Gospel:

The final option [Christ transforming culture] fits within the Reformed tradition, as advocated by John Calvin (following some of the work of the early church father Augustine). Calvin believed the appropriate relationship between Christianity and culture was a transformational, or re-formational approach. The Christian must recognize three truths: first, that culture is a manifestation of God’s good creation, an outgrowth of human creativity and community; second, that sin deeply infects every part of the creation, including human culture; and third, that we can redeem culture in the name of Christ. This redemption is a transformation of culture byseeking, enhancing, and celebrating the original good we find in cultural artifacts while identifying the effects of sin (and working to reduce those effects). [emphasis mine for clarity]

The idea that we can somehow divide up this world into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ seems silly if you agree with the underlying presupposition that creation was entirely good before the Fall broke it. The structure of created things, as Al Wolters explains in Creation Regained, has not changed — sin cannot destroy what God created good. But thedirection of human endeavor and artifacts has changed. We humans can now use the things of this world to rebelagainst its Creator or glorify Him.

The battle against sin lies in the direction of things, not their structure. 

Stein says,

After we prayed about some burgers and then ate some burgers, a troupe member took me to the worship center to see the end of the sermon being given by Warren, who apparently was our warm-up act. He did not make me laugh once. Then as the full house of 160 took their seats in a small meeting room next to the church, we gathered to pray about our performance. Preshow praying, as most professional comedians will tell you, is not quite as confidence-building as shots of Cuervo.

(Aside from putting improv comedy after the sermon … I have to admit, that kinda ruffles my feathers) Does anyone else see the crying shame in all of this?  Prayer is no lucky rabbit’s foot, some sacerdotal blessing required for success, no “lucky potion” a la Harry Potter! My hamburger would be just as much a joyful gift from the Lord whether it had been “blessed” or not.  And the preshow shot of Cuervo would have been just as holy as the burger.

Sin is not in things; neither is holiness. Sin is an aspect of the doer. And on that score, Stein and his Christian partners for the night are equals, apart from saving Grace.

Christians open themselves up for ridicule and criticism NOT when they sit down at a table with unsaved friends and order a glass of wine.  There is no evil in alcohol; there is little righteousness in prohibiting it (except in those rare instances when you are knowingly avoiding putting a stumbling block in front of a friend’s conscience). To fight a “war of righteousness” against alcohol centers the battle in the wrong place.

Christians are not always criticized for our standards of sexual morality per se, for supporting pro-life positions or encouraging abstinence. Stein hints at a different root when he says Christians aren’t funny “because they’re sad about having had sex with only one person.” Don’t fixate on the sex part of the comment — realize instead that he’s talking about a lack of joy. The crying lack of biblical, frank teaching on sex for Christian (whether child or adult) underscores Christian adults’ fears of sex in general–our collective incapacity to deal with what God intended to be a remarkable gift and source of joy for a married couple.

Unbelievers are drunk on sex. Christians prudishly avoid talking about it, thus making sex all the more appealing to their kids (who wonder why no one will talk about enjoying it).  Neither position is correct. And I have come to understand that Law-hedging is actually far more dangerous than wallowing in sin. At least the “sinner” knows he’s living a debauched lifestyle. Self-righteous fence-builders can define the Law so outwardly and precisely that masturbation in front of the TV and blow-jobs in the parking lot are OK for a virgin, as long as “the sex act” was not committed.

Stein’s article hits us on the head with a true assessment — Christianity can’t handle the reality of sex or many other things, even to joke about them (after all, as the Moscow, Idaho folks say, “Laughter is War”).

And it’s because we’ve misdefined SIN.

More to the point of redeeming the arts, we Christians have a lot to learn.

The first, and most important, is to recognize that getting our foundational theology RIGHT at the outset is the most important.  You don’t redeem the arts because they’re nice, or because they used to be a Christian thing, or because we’re tired of being made fun of by the world. If those are your best reasons — not an integrated, holistic understanding of the imago Dei and a Reformational worldview — you’ll always be the butt of this guy’s well-aimed (and deserved) jokes.

If I create something (a song, a post, a painting, the plans for a new kind of business) and fail to recognize the imago Dei at work behind that creativity, I do not yet understand how to redeem the arts.

If I limit my artistic themes to what is considered “safe” by today’s “churchianity” culture (thanks, Sam, for that term), I am treating as taboo that which God does not.  If His themes in Scripture are any indication, artists have the freedom to conquer nearly anything in His name.

If I cannot recognize the difference between the artist and the object, and recognize that Truth, wherever I find it, is God’s Truth,  I am not yet ready to “redeem art.”

If your conscience won’t let you do improv comedy any better than this, find a better hill to claim for God.  Don’t stoop to the unbeliever’s viewpoint on any form or content — but don’t be prudish either.  Define sin and righteously correctly.

Redeeming art badly is NOT enough.
Semper reformandi.  

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