My sophomore year of high school I became a dedicated Christian. Becoming increasingly involved in my local church youth group, I was an advocate for personal holiness, prayer meetings, and regular fasting. My faith was one of utter separation from the world and this meant a strictly “Christian” consumption of media. But there were a few hang-ups in my Christian life and one of them was specifically burdensome; Punk rock and hardcore music.
I was fascinated with a sub-culture of rebellion, anarchy, tough-guy attitudes, and anger. I wrote, played, and performed within this culture and lived to go to hardcore shows. If you don’t know anything about this world, watch this. Or this. I attempted to stick to the “Christian” alternatives but didn’t find the same raw, honest vibe that the original “secular” artists provided. The result was massive personal frustration. Hardcore music was worldly and against God’s will, so why did it resonate with me so much? Was I just being fleshly? I had enough exposure to anti-rock-and-roll documentaries, Pentecostal sermons, and parental lectures to keep my mind made up. Secular rock music in any capacity was sinful.
As a result of attending a private college and getting engaged, I became less involved in the music scene but my desire for authentic Christianity continued. Down the road, I began to see my love for punk rock differently.
A few years into college my life took some massive turns. My wife and I attempted to be missionaries, moved six times in one year, had two children, and my father died. The pain that all of this caused brought me to a place of depression and inner chaos. More than ever, I demanded real answers to life’s questions and authentic expressions of life in God’s world. Christian media was stocked full of canned answers and religious cliche’s that were an insult to my emotional state. Thus I gave up on “Christian” music, movies, and books in order to find something that rang true to my experience. It was then that I began to notice that the “secular” arts were not the antithesis of Christian truth, but rather, in many cases, were a conduit for it. Here are a few things I’ve come to realize about the arts, their rejection in Christian culture, and their place in the Christian life:
1. We put expectations on television, literature, and music that we exempt the Bible from.
Some folks refuse to watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a song because of violence, strong language, or sexual content. Some even go so far as to include the use of drugs or alcohol in the list. But the scriptures are full of all of these things. Here are a few scenes that don’t match our bible-belt standards for an appropriate story-line:
- Noah gets drunk and curses his son for looking at him naked (Genesis 9).
- David slaughters 200 Philistines, cuts off their foreskins, and brings them to King Saul (1 Samuel 18).
- Amnon pretends he is sick and when his sister comes to take care of him he rapes her (2 Samuel 13).
- God says that pregnant women shall be “ripped open” because of Samaria’s rebellion (Hosea 13).
- Vivid, erotic language is used to describe youthful passion between two lovers (Song of Solomon).
- Stout language is utilized by the prophet in his indictment against the harlotry of God’s people, “you spread your legs to every passer-by” (Ezekiel 16).
- The Apostle Paul counts all things as “Skubala” (or the Greek equivalent of sh*t) in comparison to knowing Christ (Philippians 3).
The Scriptures do not shy away from themes that are unpleasant, hard, or inappropriate, because such themes reflect reality. When we see such a theme in the arts, we shouldn’t run away as though we are being immediately tainted by it’s influence. Instead we should embrace it as contributing to the story line and offering a glimpse into the difficulty of human experience. Such themes should resonate with us, especially as Christians who are fully aware of the sinfulness and depravity of mankind. (Disclaimer: I am not referring to the vulgar bits of media that objectify women or herald evil as praiseworthy. There is a difference between art and the trash that is sometimes called art.)
2. “Christian” art tends to be inauthentic and low-quality.
Modern “Christianized” art is actually bad art, because rather than pursuing to create something unique that gives God glory through it’s beauty, it manufactures something generic and attempts to glorify God through contrived B-quality rhetoric. It fails to recognize the inherent beauty of the art itself. It does not hear God in the melody of a song, in the depression of a hopeless character, or in the flow of a good poem. It demands that “JESUS” be screamed in right in the middle of the picture, no matter how inauthentic, unnatural, or inappropriate it may be.
This approach to the world causes a dichotomy in human work. We tend to see art as a work particular to evangelism and ecclesiastical worship. If you are a dentist, plumber, secretary, firemen, or lawyer, it is your duty to work hard and do your job well to the glory of God. But if you are a songwriter, painter, or film-maker, it is your duty to evangelize the masses and include the salvation message in all of your content. This is an unnecessary separation and it communicates the old sacred vs. secular division as though the plumber has a secular duty and the songwriter has a sacred duty. But in reality, God has intended that both people do their work as sacred expressions of worship. The virtuous plumber is excellent at his work. He is an incredible repair-man, gives attention to detail, and practices his trade fairly. The virtuous songwriter is excellent at his work and writes creative music that is both pleasing to the hearer and conveys his story authentically. If we insist that the artist must plaster “Jesus” all over his work, even when it is unnatural, then we must insist that the plumber quotes a Bible verse every time he turns a wrench.
3. Art is an expression of the image of God.
When we read a story, hear a song, or watch a movie that touches our emotions deeply, we should pay attention to that feeling. I’ve come to realize some of the reasons that I was (and still am) so drawn to punk rock is due to it’s “prophetic” nature aimed at injustices in society and corrupted authority figures. Many songs were about fighting the power that profits from keeping people needy, hungry, and uneducated. Other songs were simply about the struggles of daily life and broken relationships. At hardcore shows there was an overwhelming sense of community and brotherhood. These things, marred though they may be, are expressions of the image of God within us, pointing us toward the worship of the God who created us. Themes of hope, hopelessness, struggle, triumph, justice, injustice and many others that can be observed, belong to the Christian story. Personal expression is the end of the arts for those outside of the Church. Worship of the triune God through personal expression is the end of the arts for the people of God. Given these three things, I want to nudge the Christian community toward the following ideas:
Christians should identify well with the darkness and depravity in art, as they understand that creation is currently under the power of the evil one, and the human condition is darkened. God has not given up on mankind in their depravity but pursues them through it, sits with them in it, and plans to redeem them from it completely. This idea may make us uneasy, as we are used to the standardized “happy” content of contemporary Christianized art. But to share something authentic sometimes means to share something dark, painful, sinful, or disturbing. To express loss or pain is to express the brokenness of God’s world, and to point to it’s need for God’s restoration.
Christians should be incredibly creative and original because their God is the Creator of all things. Christians should be expected to make high-quality art that is authentic in it’s content. God’s nature is to create and he has mirrored His image in us, making His people creative beings as well. When we use the arts simply as a platform for evangelistic efforts, we implicitly tell the world and ourselves that God is only interested saving “souls” and nothing else. This is simply not true. God’s mission is to reconcile all of creation to Himself, the arts included. Thus, art made by disciples of Jesus should give the world a foretaste of the beauty of God’s coming Kingdom, as well as a deep awareness of the world’s current depraved and broken state. It should be authentic work. To the degree that an artists performs his skill well and shares something that is true or authentic, he is making good art.
Christians should resonate with and call out the image of God in modern media and art. As Christians, we should use modern art and media as a tool for common worship. This is done by seeing the broken beauty in what we behold, simultaneously rejoicing and lamenting over it. Seeing the truth of God in all areas of life is the internal work of Christianity. When we allow a painting, song, or story to turn us toward God in worship, we begin to validate the goodness of God in His creation and embrace God’s intention for man to create. If you look at the world in relationship to God’s plan for it’s renewal, everything gives Him glory and mirrors His image somehow. It’s our responsibility to call out that image, whether it’s in a tragic film or a song of celebration.
I now listen to punk rock differently. Through dark and often explicit lyrics, I hear someone’s pain from being misunderstood. I resonate with the energetic, raw vibe of the music, and enjoy honest artistic expression. And I do the one thing I missed back in my youth group, punk rock dilemma; I worship the Creator God for giving mankind the ability to create and express His image, even when that expression is marred and broken.