A few events have occurred over the past few weeks that have shown me that there is a need to address some of the issues surrounding what it means to be a Christian artist in contemporary society. As I turned my mind toward the issue, I thought a good place to begin covering the subject would be some short essays on what we can learn about the arts from the Bible.
In Genesis we see the entire human condition portrayed in story. If biblical scholarship has taught us anything, it is that these stories were passed down through generations, told around campfires, and recounted when tucking children in at night – in much the same way as they are today. Of course, one of the well-known features of the Hebrew Scriptures is the way that they unabashedly present their heroes’ faults while making a spiritual point. If we set aside theological controversies over how the Bible was written and consider the artistic and creative aspect, the boldness with which the stories are conveyed is striking. Is there a church today where a pastor or priest gets up for the sermon and says, “For you spiritual edification today, I’m going to tell you a little story about…
Murdering members of your family (Cain and Abel)
Incest (Noah – drunk with his son, Lot – drunk once with each daughter)
Xenophobia and threatened rape (Sodom)
Sex with what you thought was a prostitute but turned out to be your daughter-in-law (Judah and Tamar)
Lying about idols that you’ve stolen, hiding them under your saddle bags, and telling your father that you can’t get up because you’re having your period (Rachel)
A jealous wife buying a night of sex with her husband from her sister wife for the price of some magical mandrake roots (Leah)
The reason that this doesn’t happen in a sermon is that many of the more sordid details of these stories are not age appropriate for the children that are often present during worship services. That the stories exist suggests to me that there is a place where we can address the full human experience in an artistic fashion. When we tell children about Noah, we focus on the animals and the ark. We tend to skip that bit where the world is fresh and new, and Noah decides to imitate his father Adam by messing it up again. Noah is given a fresh start, and the first thing he does is get drunk and have some sort of sexual encounter with his son. The point is easy to grasp. We are messed up and in great need of God. Even when we get a fresh start, we mess up in horrifying ways. God still looks after us.
If the Bible is not afraid to portray the human condition in its deepest darkness, the Christian artist should be allowed a place to portray some of the same issues. I think that the distinction is whether or not you are portraying sin in a way that glorifies and encourages it. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that Genesis is not written like a TV sitcom. The stories are often presented without commentary. The moral point is not underlined for us. This suggests to me that we can make room for artistic endeavors that portray the human experience without being overly didactic.
In some ways, the Christian artist has an advantageous framework from which to work. We don’t pretend about the depth of human wickedness. Since even the parts of us that we like to think of as “good” are in desperate need of the redeeming work of Jesus, we can boldly portray the evil that is lurking in our own person without playing around like it’s not there. We trust that in the end, our sin will be redeemed by the work done for us on the cross. That sin includes not only our lust and murder, but also our religious intentions and charity. As the Psalmist says, “before you, no one living is righteous.” If Genesis is written with such bold artistic freedom, we need to make room for the same sort of artistic freedom in our own creative work.