I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m getting older, or if there’s something specific to the way NYC has been shaping me, but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about being able to just be who I am. At this point, while I will always continue to change and grow, I am settling into the woman I am and the way I’ve been shaped. The process of questioning myself doesn’t end, but there are some things I know, and I want to have the ability to just be.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to art, and to being a Christian. I am much less worried about being a Christian than I have ever been before in my life, and that strikes me as encouraging and also kind of embarrassing. This is who I am, and yet for most of my life (and there are still many moments) I’ve been worried about how people will treat me, or what they’ll think, or how they might misperceive my beliefs. But I’m starting to believe deep in my core that it’s okay to just be. I am a Christian. It’s who I am. It’s okay.
And I am an artist. This post is about why I am starting to question the label “Christian artist.” This is not the first time I’ve questioned it, but it’s the first time I’m putting it into words. Questions about it have crossed my mind several times recently, most recently when I came across this article about Switchfoot and their contention of the label “Christian band.” (I know this is an old article. But hey, I’ve been busy.) When asked if they are a Christian band, their lead singer, Jon Foreman, says:
"To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed."
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling oneself a Christian artist. But I agree with Foreman that there are certain unfair expectations that arise with the label. Like erroneously expecting a pastor to be more pure than his congregation, expecting an artist who is a Christian to only ever create art specifically referencing Christ is severely limiting. Would you expect a bank teller to make a Jesus reference to every customer who comes up to his booth? Or a journalist to work a Biblical narrative into each byline? And yet Christians who are artists are often unfairly expected to reference Christ in every piece of work they create.
The genesis of this, I believe, is complicated. I would argue that it is partly cultural, and partly theological. Culturally speaking, it’s closely tied to the fact that in many parts of the West, and certainly in the United States, the cultural consciousness surrounding art is unhealthy. I’ve written about this before, but because art is considered a luxury, only as good as its entertainment value, and primarily an industry--not as a way to share stories and therefore an integral part of life--artists tend to feel the need to heavily justify their decisions to be artists, whether in a monetary sense or otherwise.
Theologically, the matter is complicated by the fact that most art in the West during the Middle Ages revolved around the church. In addition, during the Reformation Christians developed the idea that any kind of art during worship needed to be heavily justified, and as art became more important outside of the church, this trickled down into art outside of worship as well. Today, these cultural and theological pressures often take the shape of artists telling their Christian friends that they are pursuing art so that they can either “bear witness in a secular industry,” or use their art as a platform for proclaiming the name of Jesus. Neither of which is a bad thing. But, I would argue, neither of which should be the primary goal in being an artist.
As Christians, we are called to bear witness first and foremost in every aspect of our lives. That is certain. But that is true for every Christian, no matter what profession, and it does not always take the form of explicitly naming the name. In some fields, like my father’s field as a physicist, it never does. The great thing about art is that it can take that form. But it doesn’t have to.
There is no need to justify a career in the arts any more than to justify a career in plumbing. Art is inherent to humans, and storytelling begins as soon as speech does. As Christians, sometimes we speak in our daily life about how much we love Jesus, and sometimes we speak about how much we love coffee. Artists should be free to speak about either as well. And really, there is a lot of laziness that has come about because of the concept of “Christian artists.” There are many beautiful pieces of sacred art, or stories about Christian experiences that are heartfelt and important. The Biblical narrative is woven through all of us, as Christians, and it should come out of our pores. But there are also plenty of pieces of horribly lazy art and stories with the name of Jesus plastered on simply because there is a market for it.
Artists who are Christians cannot be lazy. They cannot rely on a market, as many have. It’s much more difficult to tell a diversity of stories, some of which specifically name Jesus, and some of which don’t, and it’s difficult to interact at all times with a world that holds different beliefs and values and find ways to create and converse with artists outside the Christian faith. But it’s important. It’s a command, to all believers.
In the same way, Christians who are not artists must refuse to be lazy as well. It’s much easier to rely on a Christian label or art industry to provide entertainment and enjoyment, for us and for our kids. But we are called to engage in the world, and to feel the pulse of its heart. Doing the work of evaluating art--by artists who are both Christian and not--is important. Some of it you’ll have to throw away. Some of it will touch you deeply. And that’s good.
The bottom line is that we are Christians first, and that changes the way we think, speak and breathe. But once it gets into our blood and marrow, we as artists don’t need to be constantly questioning our profession. We fix our eyes on Jesus, and trust in the process of sanctification. Sometimes that means we’ll create art that speaks intimately of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and sometimes it means we’ll write a comedy sketch about the bus stop. Whatever project we’re working on, let’s not be afraid to just be.
*My brother Daniel recommended a book called Art and the Bible by Francis Shaeffer to me recently, which apparently speaks directly to this. Worth checking out!
This summer has been a series of emotional ups and downs. From the beginning of June, when my internship ended, to, well, now, I have been in a continuous state of limbo as far as what my life this upcoming year will be like, and whether the dreams and plans I have for my life will, down the road, be possible. It’s been very uncomfortable, and stressful. But I’ve been learning.
At the end of my senior year of college, my acting teacher Mark Lewis gave me some great advice—to allow myself to slow down. To do something meaningful, of course. But to take the time to figure out where I was meant to be, and what I should be doing. In his words: “You should be able to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I think I’ll have a cup of tea today.’ And do it.” I started crying when he said those words. And that told me something very important about myself—that I needed to follow his advice and give myself some breathing room apart from the non-stop world of college.
I did a theater internship part time, and to make some money I worked as a nanny. I was blessed to have two great families and four incredible children to nanny. And as I worked at both these “filler” jobs—an internship that didn’t pay me and as a nanny with no benefits—I began to have my first doubts about the way we, as Christians, use the word “calling.” If you had asked me a year ago what my calling was, I probably would have said that it was to be an acting teacher. But as the year went on and I opened my heart to the children I spend time with every week, I started to question the use of that word.
By referring to our careers as our “callings,” I think we misinterpret the real meaning of God’s calling in our lives. As I spent time with Ruby and Miles and Zane and Andrew, the children I have gotten to know and love, I recognized that my career will not be as their nanny. But I am convinced that my “calling,” during the time that I watch them, is to be their nanny. I have come to believe that our calling is not our dream career, or even the career that best uses our talents and skills. Our calling is to be doing whatever it is we are doing right now, in this moment as we are breathing and thinking and loving. Our calling is to serve God through our actions, and to become more like him, whatever we are doing.
As I grew more and more sure of this, and as my internship ended and I was faced with the fact that I was still nannying, but was no longer working for a theater, my eyes began to open to the way I think about myself, and the things I have to do to get approval. My goal is to be an acting teacher. That will not change. God has given me the skills and the training to be an acting teacher, and I intend to pursue those opportunities. But while I waited, and waited, and waited for schools to respond to me, and things to happen, I got to see a pretty clear glimpse of what I think is important. What I really think, when it comes down to it—not what I say I think, or think I think. And it shocked me how many of my decisions are based on the way I think people think of me, or things that I think people think I should have or do. (See. It’s so messed up it’s even hard to understand grammatically.)
Things like living at home, or driving a beater car, or being on my parents’ health insurance. Or being a nanny. Feeling like I had to apologize every time I told someone what I did for a living, or add a long story about what I really want to do. And I had to ask myself when we as a culture began to decide which jobs you have to apologize for, and which ones you don’t. When did it stop being about the fact that I am a really good nanny, and the children I watch are being served by my efforts?
I don’t want to get on a soapbox. Trust me, I know what it’s like to get a college degree and be frustrated about not using it like I envisioned. But the point is, whatever we’re doing, if we’re doing it well, we are using that degree. We 20-somethings have been trained to look ahead and push forward, and we’ve also been told that we can do whatever we want. I don’t know whether we were also told that we can do it immediately, but we definitely act like we should. And I’m just not sure that—especially as Christians—we should be ashamed of the “filler” jobs most of us have to do while we chart our career paths.
I love nannying. I won’t be a nanny forever—for one thing, I wouldn’t have benefits, and for another, I have been given an opportunity to be trained as an actress, and I believe I should use that training. But if I was a nanny forever, my life would be just as worthwhile. I don’t know if we’ll ever truly believe that—if we as a culture can ever value something like nannying as highly as something like being a doctor (and I am certainly not downplaying the importance and skill of doctors.) But as Christians, we absolutely should. We are all given one calling—to worship God by becoming more like him. What career we choose is second to that. Because no matter what we do, we are called to give everything we have, whole-heartedly, to our occupation. And that is worth thinking about.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton