From the upcoming book "The Transfiguration of Culture: Orthodox Christianity and the Arts" by Andrew Damick.
Why should the Devil have all the good music?
This question gets asked frequently in some circles. If we examine its underlying assumptions and why someone would ask it, we will have found a key to the place of Christianity in culture, the place of art in Christianity, and how Christians should create and receive art in our culture.
In order to understand this question, we must first understand the current place of Christian art in the culture. Today, Christian art in America is a consumer driven enterprise. It largely consists of a niche market of books, music and videos designed to meet the demand of people who already consider themselves Christian. Granted, many of these products are marketed as "evangelistic tools," as ways to "reach the unreached" and so forth. Yet even those products are filled with the jargon and assumptions of the American Christian sub-culture what many critics call "Christianese" and their main appeal really is to the Christian consumer. CD's, books, and films are primarily a product to be sold to a demographic called "Christian" and then marketed in stores filled with soft, sentimental imagery and appropriately "Christian" knick-knacks. There is therefore an isolation which occurs in the art produced in this milieu. Its relationship to the art produced for the non- Christian consumer is the basis for our question.
What is that relationship? Most popular Christian art in America shares the same essential assumptions as secular art, so it is largely trying to accomplish the same thing products are being created for a particular market, artists are engaging in self-expression, and art is being consumed as entertainment. If anyone doubts this symmetry, consider why it is that most Christian music sounds the same as secular music the lyrics have been changed, but they could easily be adapted back to the secular world which is their origin. How many times have we heard songs in which the object of affection could just as easily be Jesus or a boyfriend?
Sharing this mindset with its secular counterpart yet perpetuating a sub-cultural isolation, Christian art in America tends to lag behind in style and innovation. Christian artists find their stylistic inspiration in secular art, then "change the lyrics" to fit the tastes of a Christian sub-cultural market. After all, being in the world but not of the world means that a proper Christian shouldn't be interested in the Devil's music (i.e., art produced for the non-Christian market), right? Meanwhile, while secular art is being repainted with the face of Jesus on it for the Christian consumer, secular artists have moved on to the next big thing, leaving their Christian contemporaries to catch up in the next few years. Thus, "Christian" art will always be at least a little outdated, and the art which will be exciting and interesting to the consumer will always first be the secular art. The Christian, tempted by the latest secular book or CD release but wishing to remain "not of the world," asks himself, "Why should the Devil have all the good music?"
There are two different answers to this question. The first answer is abhorrent to traditional Christianity, but here it is: Having heard the attractiveness of the Devil's music, Christian art ought to be made more similar to it so that more people can be "reached" for Jesus, that they will feel comfortable in such a "seeker-sensitive" atmosphere and thus join the local church, buy the album, attend the seminar, purchase the self-help book, or tune in their televisions. Many Christian organizations are clearly pursuing this answer even now, and we've thus watched the lag time between Christian art and its secular older brother get shorter. The supposedly sacred, having been found so similar to the secular, is subsumed into it, submitting its styles, preferences and tastes to the spirit of the age.
The Orthodox Christian tradition proposes another answer, however. First, there ought to be no separation between the sacred and the secular. Rather, all must be made sacred. The secular should be subsumed into the sacred, baptizing it in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, cleansing it of what is impure and vivifying it with the uncreated life of the Holy Trinity. Or to consider the issue from another angle, Mother Raphaela in her book Growing in Christ says, "Rather than thinking in terms of putting Christ into our Christmas, we may rather think in terms of putting ourselves, including our Christmas, into Christ" (p. 35).
We must make Christ our cultural atmosphere. We must make our source of inspiration not the spirit of the age but rather the Holy Spirit. We must enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, a transcendent and eternal culture which is the life of becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4). This pursuit of the sacred is a denial of the very existence of secularity, which has no real existence, being ultimately nihilistic. In previous ages, when the idea of having a non-religious society did not even occur to most people, all art was what today might be identified as "religious" but to our forefathers was simply "art."
Does this mean even further cultural isolation for the Christian, that because he breathes the air of another world he must don a gas mask in this one? Certainly not! Instead, the question is where our artistic power finds its source. If we are in Christ, we can take into ourselves the whole world, just as He does. If we are in Christ, the baptismal waters of the Jordan flow through us throughout all creation, sanctifying it in a catholic embrace. Energized in this way, the Christian artist can therefore take up the artistic forms of this world as the Apostle Paul made use of the altar to the unknown god, sanctifying those forms and therefore identifying that altar to be dedicated to the God Who is both knowable and unknowable, the Holy Trinity, revealed to us in the God-man Jesus. In earthier terms, yes, there can be rock music that is Christian, but its pursuit will not be characterized by the kind of atmosphere that surrounds the latest Britney Spears album. It will rather bear the mark of eternity.
The difference here between these two competing answers to our question is really how one treats the Incarnation of the Word, the central event in human history which should not merely inform the Christian artist but be the source and subject of all his art (indeed, of the whole life of any Christian, "artist" or not). In chapter 1, we will focus intensely on this truth and its repercussions for Christian art. The Incarnation is really the subject of this whole book, for it is the fact that God became a man that is the reason that we human beings can be saved, that cultures can therefore be transfigured, that Christian art can exist. Art is a primary means by which human persons are transformed the question therefore will be whether that transformation will be one to ever-increasing darkness or to ever-increasing light transfiguration. The Orthodox Christian faith, with its emphasis on the Incarnation a theology and spirituality working out all the personal and communal implications of that reality is uniquely situated to answer the question of what place art has for the Christian in this culture. This book is about exploring that answer.
Before we begin the book proper, let's cover a few technical issues regarding how we will discuss its subject matter, particularly how certain terms will be used here. Though these definitions should not be considered absolute or dogmatic, here are some directions in which you can think so that you may embark most profitably on this voyage.
First, regarding the word "culture" many things are being said these days. "Multiculturalism" has become a buzzword in mass media, and quite a lot of ink is being spilled on the subject of "globalization" and what that means for the world economy, the "brotherhood of man" and other such things. None of this is what we mean here by the word "culture." Rather, "culture" here refers to those things which make us distinct from the animals. It is what might also be termed "civilization." Culture is the lifeblood of humanity as humanity, and it is therefore inherently communal. An individual cannot be said to have culture in this sense rather, culture is what is shared between persons. Culture is the ways in which persons exist and commune with each other.
Now, regarding "art" there is a bit more to say. The common belief these days is that "art" is just about anything. There is no manifest reason why an individual cannot spit on the sidewalk, declare his work to be art, and then go get a government sponsored grant to pursue a whole series of expectoration-based gallery displays. As you might imagine, this is certainly not what we mean here by "art." By contrast, the poet W. B. Yeats once said of art: "How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men's hearts that we call the progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men's heart-strings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?" Yeats clearly would not have thought much of our sidewalk soiler. He was also on to something with his notion of art as the "garment of religion." Now, not all art must be explicitly religious, but it is nevertheless true that art is a deeply spiritual vocation. Its domain is the human spirit, and because its authority reaches so deeply into what it means to be human, a great responsibility is laid upon those who would take up the making of art.
Now, it may be that the man who empties his salivary gland onto the sidewalk is creating something which could be called "art." Language is conventional, after all, and if some wish to use the word "art" in that way, there is no strictly logical reason that they shouldn't. Likewise, however, if we wish to use "art" in some other way, we may do so as well. Here is the way it will be used in this book: Because we are dealing with the stuff of human essence, artists have a responsibility to be uplifting in their creations. They must promote culture and civilization, not chaos and destruction. They must bring humanity to beauty and goodness, not ugliness and evil. Finally, they must offer up only work of the highest quality, honing their craft to be worthy of immortality, for after all, we are created in the image of God and are immortal ourselves, and everything we do should bring us closer to that eternal life. All this is simply to say that art is the pursuit of beauty.
These definitions are necessarily incomplete, but we're not suggesting that they exhaust what any of us might mean by "culture" and "art." They'll be further developed throughout this book, sometimes probably in seemingly contradictory ways. That's how language often works, though, and this is how we're going to approach this subject. We will look at things from many angles, sometimes in ways that will seem to counter things we've said earlier, sometimes in ways that seem redundant, and sometimes in ways that might make no sense at all initially.
With some luck and a great deal of grace, this book will not be utterly chaotic, but if it does seem to swirl a bit or to flow more like poetry than like a mathematics textbook, then perhaps it will have drawn you at least a little into the very human atmosphere of beauty and mystery that we would like to create. For, if culture and art are nothing else, they are human and they are mysterious. This book is therefore best understood as a meditation on what it means to be an Orthodox Christian in the arts (whether as an artist or as a receiver of art) rather than as any formal theory or theology of aesthetics.
Let's now conclude this introduction with a quote from St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who writes in his On the Incarnation this delightful aside: "You must not be surprised if we repeat ourselves in dealing with this subject. We are speaking of the good pleasure of God and of the things which He in His loving wisdom thought fit to do, and it is better to put the same thing in several ways than to run the risk of leaving something out."
Andrew Stephen Damick has a B.A. in English Language and Literature from North Carolina State University, and has recently published a book of poetry written to reflect the Orthodox Christian faith and the English poetic tradition. He begins study for the priesthood in Fall, 2004 at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary.
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