Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Appreciation for the Art of a Pagan

Question: Is it OK for a Christian to appreciate or even enjoy the art of an unbeliever?

The question arises because on this day (May 11), thirty years ago (1981), Bob Marley died of cancer. Bob Marley openly used and encouraged the use of marijuana. He fathered multiple children with several women. He was a Rastafarian, and by that I mean that he was religiously committed to the Rastafarian worldview and belief system, not just that he had dreadlocks and smoked pot. (For more detailed info on the Rastafarian religion, click here). He was quoted in his biography as saying, "I would say to the people, Be still, and know that His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is the Almighty. Now, the Bible seh so, Babylon newspaper seh so, and I and I the children seh so. Yunno? So I don't see how much more reveal our people want. Wha' dem want? a white God, well God come black. True true." (quoted here). One might go so far as to say that he did more to popularize the Rastafari movement than any other person in the movement's history. 

For many Christians it would seem obvious that there is nothing particularly commendable about the artist, therefore, the art itself should be panned. For many years, I would have agreed. I was once of a mindset that Christians should only listen to "Christian" music. But I have changed my tune about that subject. And I am comfortable admitting that I enjoy the music of Bob Marley, and many others who would personally acknowledge that they are not followers of Jesus. 

It seems that many Christians like to pick and choose on the appreciation of art and artistry. For instance, I have known many well-intentioned Christians who scorn "secular rock music," but who enjoy "secular country music." It seems that their is not a religious conviction but a stylistic preference. Further, I found that I, like many other Christians, can enjoy going to a ballgame and appreciate the talents of an athlete who may be an atheist or a Buddhist, and who is hounded by unending moral scandals. That doesn't matter, we reason, for what we appreciate about the individual is their ability to perform on the field. We do the same thing when we enter an art museum. We are caught up in the enjoyment of a painting or a sculpture, while giving no thought to the religious commitments of the artist. We can even appreciate and enjoy the decisions made by unbelieving politicians, shop in stores owned by unbelievers, eat in restaurants that are owned and staffed by unbelievers, and watch movies that are not made by Christians, do not feature Christian actors, and do not proclaim a particularly Christian message. But when it comes to music, often Christians are quick to draw more narrow lines and build bigger walls. And this, I propose, is somewhat hypocritical. 

Perhaps this is because, for many decades, Christians have managed to develop a sterilized cottage industry of "our own music." However, as insiders to the Christian music business will often admit, not all of those who make "Christian" music actually practice what they "preach" in song. In fact, some songs which are billed as "Christian" have no biblical basis at all, and are no better in their message than the music of, say a Bob Marley. Additionally, as Christian musicians have come to be appreciated by a wider audience, we detect a growing trend of spiritual vagueness in popular Christian music. I call it the "God is my girlfriend" syndrome. What I mean by that is that if you did not know that the musician was Christian, or that the station you were listening to was a "Christian" station, you would not immediately be able to infer from the lyrics alone that the singer was singing about the Lord. He or she may well be singing about a lover. Of course, even Christian radio stations themselves have slouched toward this spiritual vagueness, billing themselves today more often as "family stations," or "positive and encouraging" stations, rather than "Christian stations." On the one hand, I can appreciate that they do not label everything they play as "Christian," but on the other hand, I can't help wondering if there is some sense of being "ashamed of the gospel" (Romans 1:16), or sleight of hand going on, as if they are trying to slip an unsuspecting audience a spiritual mickey. So, while one may say with good intentions that they prefer Christian music to secular music, it seems that it is growing more difficult to distinguish the two from each other. Christian music is becoming more vague, and "secular" music is often more blatantly spiritual in its themes. 

When we come to listen to Bob Marley, or any other "secular" musician, what we are presented with is the artwork of a human soul. And though humanity will ultimately be divided by the Creator and Judge into only two camps (the ones who believe in Jesus and the ones who reject Him), all humanity bears the image of its Maker, and that image is distorted and flawed in every human being. It is being perfected in those who follow Christ and who are indwelled by His Spirit, but it is present nonetheless in even the most pagan unregenerate artist. And the image of God breaks through in unmistakable ways as the artist grapples with the issues of real life. Every artist (indeed, every human) was made by God, in His image, and is trying to make sense of the world God made. Their artwork asks questions, and seeks answers in ways that are not so much Christian or pagan as it is human. 

Listening to the music of an unbeliever, beholding the visual arts of an unbeliever, watching the athletic prowess of an unbeliever, etc., reminds us of the universal human condition. We are all born asking the same questions of the world. And by God's grace, some of us find the answers to those questions in the Good News of a crucified Savior. Many have not yet found those answers. We who have do well to hear the questions they are asking, if for no other reason than to know how to better answer them. But moreover, we can appreciate their art when it is performed or portrayed well, and give thanks to the God who made the artist in His image. This same God blessed us with senses to behold beauty, and the beauty we find in the created order and in the art of His image bearers is like an appetizer that prepares us to find true beauty in Him alone. He is glorified by those who use the gifts and talents He has blessed them with, even when they do not intend to bring Him glory through their abilities. 

Of course, there are some artforms that Christians do well to avoid, especially those who lack discernment and who may be particularly vulnerable to the sensual appeal of those forms. Some art may well be "irredeemable" because it portrays a corrupted or perverted view of the Creator and His creation. Christians should be mindful to neither indulge or encourage others to indulge in that kind of art. Art that magnifies human sinfulness is not helpful. However, if one has ears to hear, one can hear even in the art of an unbelieving world a hunger to escape the depravity of a fallen world and to behold something greater than this world offers. 

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