Thursday, October 4, 2007

It is Easier for a Camel to Go Through the Eye of a Needle than for a Cool Man to Enter the Kingdom of God

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
-- 1 Corinthians 1:25

My fellow Thinkling Bill has an intriguing post up today pondering the popular question "Why isn't there greater Christian art?" Bill writes:
it is common to hear artistically-minded Christians bemoan the low state of affairs in Christian art these days. I sympathize with that position, and I haven't given up hope that things will improve. But I sometimes wonder (I just wonder, I am not set on this) if we should be surprised that the state of Christian art is low. It occurs to me that I'm low. Jesus is for losers, of whom I am the chief.

God has not chosen the elite of this world. And yes, I know that there have been periods of amazing sacred creativity and artistry in the church. But I sometimes wonder how Christian the state-sponsored efforts of the past that generated the great sacred art of our heritage really were.

I'm just thinking here. I'm not set on this. But, generally speaking, if God has chosen the lowly of the earth, should we be surprised when the art the lowly produce is, well, "low"?

First, I reject the notion there aren't great artists who are Christians out there. I just think they aren't making their art for the Christian art industry.

But Bill's thesis is very appealing, primarily because of the biblical angle he's taking.
I've often wondered why the actors in our fold are typically C and D-list actors (Judge Reinhold, Gary Busey, Stephen Baldwin, et. al.). And I think it's the "harder for a rich man" thing. Those guys clearly hit the bottom of the barrel and found only Jesus satisfies. Those still powerful, good looking, and successful don't need no savior. :-)

And of course we know that God has chosen the weak to display His strength, that he makes foolish the wisdom of the world.

On the other hand, part of the great DNA of salvation in Christ is that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. And, perhaps, no longer elite or simpleton?

I don't know.

I do know, however, that Christian church culture today is obsessed with appealing to the culture using the culture's own measures of quality and greatness, the culture's own approval ratings system. We are obsessed with cool. It was like that when I was a teenager; we church kids were constantly determined to prove that being a Christian was cool, that we had fun too, etc etc.

But, what if being a Christian isn't cool?
I mean, I think it is. And the Church is full of people who are cool. I hope I'm cool. But coolness isn't the point. It's not anywhere close to the point.

I think some of the modern church movements interested in rethinking, attracting, and appealing are misusing cool in the same way. It's not cool to wear a Lord's Gym T-shirt (unless you're wearing it ironically, of course). But coolness is still a selling point for the younger generation, and we orient our ministries and messages around it. Witness some of those ridiculous "Christian vs. Christian" church videos patterned after the Mac/PC ads. Every one I've seen can be summed up this way: We are the cool Christians; they are not.

I believe Jesus is for the cool. I believe you can be cool and follow Jesus. I believe there are cool Christians. But what if -- honestly, what if -- Jesus asked you to give up all your coolness to follow him? Would you still want to? What if following Jesus meant dressing up in a suit and having an Alfalfa haircut and listening to CCM? I mean, it doesn't, obviously (and thank God). But what if it did? Would having Jesus still be worth it?

The truth is, a great many of us desperately need to nail cool to the cross.
Life in Christ is about dying to self.

Matt Jenson discusses what he calls the "heresy of cool". I'm reprinting the whole thing because it's that good, particularly the bit on how the pursuit of cool naturally creates an unChristlike competition (witness the aforementioned videos):

Coolness is heretical. Or at least the pursuit of it is. This is because an inverse relationship exists between our attempts at being cool and our faith in Jesus Christ. The one struts, confident in his ability to do and say all the right things. The other limps, just as confident in his ineptitude, his missed cues and bad timing.

The professionally cool know the short shelf life of their product and are thus characterized by an ability to be just ahead of the curve. They seem to just be leaving the places at which the rest of us are just arriving. It all looks as effortless as it is actually rigorous. That is to say, it’s hard work being cool. And a funny kind of hard work to boot, because it’s not allowed to look hard.

Now some of being cool is simply a function of liking the right things at the right times. So you have the strange phenomenon of someone’s dad being suddenly, surprisingly cool this summer in plaid shorts – last year’s joke at the 4th of July BBQ is this year’s hipster uniform. Plenty of times we happen to like an album, only to find that doing so puts us in with the in crowd. This is accidental coolness.

But there’s that other kind, too, the kind that – admit it – you really care about. And let’s cast the net wide. This is not just your kid’s problem. It’s yours, too. And, okay, mine. I say all this in self-incrimination.

In this second sense, ‘cool’ is shorthand for ‘liked’. Most of us work ourselves into exhaustion trying to be this kind of cool. It’s an ‘if only’ issue. ‘If only they like me, everything will be okay.’ And there’s the heresy. We continually face a choice: will we seek to establish ourselves by being cool, or we trust that God has established us in Christ? It really is that simple. In John 12, we learn that there are a group of synagogue leaders who were believing Jesus, but they stayed quiet, as they loved the approval of people rather than that of God. Again, not a question of degrees. It’s an either-or. In Christ, God has revealed his death-defying love for sinners. When I prefer to be cool, I nonchalantly let him know that I’d prefer the love of a fickle mass of opinion jockeys instead.

There’s an irony to cool. In a particularly pitiful season of wanting to be cool (not that long ago, I’ll admit), my friend Linus reminded me that, in its beginnings, cool was anything but. To be ‘cool’ was to be spurned, misunderstood, unpopular. That we can now mass produce and market cool – that is, that we can at once sell people the myth of their own edginess and nonconformity and at the same time succeed at selling everyone that message – is astounding.

Furthermore, what happens when I become cool? What then? I play a desperate game of king of the mountain, knowing that I’m always only one false step from tumbling to the bottom of the hill. Coolness is competitive, you see. Not everyone can be cool. And so for me to be so, I’ve got to make sure you’re not. Or at least not many of you.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a different game entirely. It brings stability, builds houses on rocks. And with the security of the love of God, we can concentrate on giving love rather than hording it. That’s what our obsession with being cool is really about, isn’t it? Hording love, all for ourselves, but always in the fear that it might be stolen. Well, when the love you’re given is secure, constant, unmatchable and unquenchable, you don’t worry. You give it away. And that’s, well, pretty cool.

(HT: Jim Skaggs)

Blessed are the uncool, for theirs is fulfillment and satisfaction in Christ alone.


Anonymous said...

The professional visual art world is a closed shop. Since membership in that world is no longer measured in ways people outside that shop can understand, only the insiders determine what constitutes "art", not to mention noteworthy "art". Having the trappings of an artist and moving in the same circles as artist insiders may lead to membership in the closed shop.
Christian artists I know just aren't interested in all of that.

Anonymous said...

I don't connect the art and the coolness issues. I think Christian art is lame due to modernism's impact on Christianity. It's not coincidental that those amazing periods of sacred creativity and artistry coincided with periods when Christian spirituality was much more immersed in the imagination, mystery, and reverence of God's glory.

In fact, I don't think this is completely unrelated to your observation about Piper below. Modern evangelicalism has been all about propositional truth and building air-tight systematic theology and having too many opinions and answers. Pre-Elightenment era, it was enough to say scripture was the inspired Word of God. Now, inerrancy and literalism have become litmus tests. That type of thinking, along with an overemphasis on my own personal buddy God, has shrunken the imagination and reverence for God. And it's not a stretch to think the creative arts have suffered as a result.

preacherman said...

I understand that the "cool" is those who love the world. It is so easy for us to do just that. We can't serve two masters. Jesus tells don't be shocked if the world hates us. I believe today we want Christianity to be a cool thing. Something hip that fits in with our culture instead of us being counter culture. As Christians we are to make a difference in the world in which we live. Was Jesus cool? Did he associate with the cool crowd? Did he say, "Bless are the cool for their's is the kingdom of heaven." Or "Unless you become cool, you shall not inherit the Kingdom of God." So our challenge is to be in the world but not of it. Changing the world by the function of the 1st Century Christians: showing love, grace, mercy, kindness, peace, gentleness, to the world that is missing it. We are to live a discipled life. Changing one life at a time. Jarad, this is a great post. Thanks for sharing it with us. God bless you brother.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, great Christian art is a wrestling with the awe and mystery of God in Christ. As the mystery and awe go, for whatever reason (not cool, propositions have explained it, awe for a "pal"?, etc), so goes the reason for the art and the passionate need to create.

Vitamin Z said...

Great Post Jared. Thanks! Reminds me of the Switchfoot song "The Beautiful Letdown"

David Regier said...

Study the history of "cool" and you will find the history of heroin (Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Keith Richards, Kurt Cobain, Eric Clapton, Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground, and so on). About everything that was described as cool in 20th-century art, music, and pop culture initially began in the heroin sub-culture. Everything that followed it wasn't quite as cool. Those who tried were called poseurs.

Interesting thing about heroin: it releases about every endorphin your body can produce at the same time, producing a state of ecstasy and extreme creative sensitivity. That holds a lot of promise for an artist, especially one who does not possess a huge amount of technical skill.

If you look at the art of previous ages, especially Christian art (Bach, Michaelangelo, etc.) you will find people who possessed incredible technical skill and an informed, disciplined creativity. Their art was in the service of God and His church, and did not exist for its own sake.

When Christians as artists begin to reject the ideal that art exists for its own sake, and that they can take shortcuts to get it, then they will begin to once again create art for the ages.

In the mean time, we must not let the world dictate to us what good art is. We must submit ourselves to God. When we write songs, we must write them for the church to sing to the glory of God. When we practice our instruments, when we paint, when we sculpt, we must aim for the beauty of God's creation and redemption, glorifying Him for what He has done.

Anonymous said...

Before even talking about the quality of Christian art, one has to ask, "What is Christian art?" Further, whether a Christian artist necessarily produces something called 'Christian art' can be debated. As far as Sacred art goes, was Michelangelo a Christian and did he produce Christian art?

Art has often been produced by the lowly, but I don't see a correlation there with art quality. Overall, I disagree with Bill.

Appealing to the culture is a separate issue. A Christian shouldn't do art to be relevant, they should do it because that's who they are, and because being creative is an extension of their faith. The bigger problem is how the church has devalued art and artistic expression and for the most part, only accepts sanitized art as Christian. Yet, the Bible itself is full of art, and it is anything but safe.

There seems to be this obsession with novelty in our culture. New is good, anything else is bad. Whether in the Christian or non-Christian world, it's a false paradigm.

Jared said...

Man, this post wasn't really even about art!


But I know "Christian art" is a hot button issue for a lot of people.
It is for me too.