Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts

    -- by Steve Turner, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001, 131 pages. 

It was 1970. Turner was living at Schaeffer’s L’Abri community. Examining music by the Beatles, members of the community came up with the conclusion (revolutionary in some circles at the time) that “a lot of art created by Christians was bad and a lot of art created by non-Christians was good… Because the [artistic] work that bore the name Christian was often poor in quality and naïve in understanding, Christianity by implication seemed insipid and uninspiring.”

In this book Turner calls us to consider the foundational question: what makes art “Christian” – the subject matter, or the worldview of the artist? Is it marked by a narrow focus on Bible stories, saints, martyrs and the individual’s relationship with God? Or is it distinguished by a regenerated outlook on the whole of life? (p. 22)

Turner, a poet and rock music journalist, sets forth his vision in Chapter 1, excerpted here:

“I don’t believe every artist who is a Christian should produce art that is a paraphrased sermon…. Because art is a record and reflects the questions and anxieties of the time, I would like to see contributions that reflect a Christian understanding of that time. I would also like to see them in the mainstream arts rather than in the religious subculture…. Debates are taking place in cinema, painting, dance, fiction, poetry and theater on issues where Christians have something to give, and yet they are not even being heard.” Because art tends to “show” rather than “tell,” Turner does not expect art to convert people, but sees Christians working in the arts as “part of our mandate to look after and care for the world.”

The history of the Church demonstrates varying attitudes towards the arts. This is the fascinating subject of Chapter 2. Touching on key points, the chapter goes from the church as patron of the arts to the church afraid of the arts, from ancient icons to filmmaker Martin Scorcese, from Dante and Michelangelo (considered “inspired by God”) to Paganini and blues guitarist Robert Johnson (both of whom were rumored to have acquired their talent through making a pact with the devil). The artistic ramifications of the Protestant Reformation were huge, and are contrasted with attitudes and interests of Catholics who have worked in the arts.

How are we to be “in the world but not of it” and to demonstrate that dilemma in our art? Chapter 3 wrestles with these questions. One section that was helpful to me is his interpretation of Phil. 4:8, the things we are to think about. If this means we can only look at, listen to, and read things that are noble, pure, right, etc., it seems we would need an abridged Bible – Job, Ecclesiastes, and many Old Testament stories might be severely edited. But since God’s Word has plenty in it that doesn’t seem to “qualify” under the standards of Phil. 4:8 applied that way, perhaps there is a different way that God intends for us to use those verses. Turner suggests that we use these standards to judge all that we see, think and do. When we read of David’s adultery, he is judged by God’s standard of purity. When we read of Judas’ betrayal, he is judged by God’s standard of nobility and rightness. When we encounter the lives and ideas of people ancient and contemporary (and fictional) through the arts, we compare them to God’s values which should be uppermost in our minds. Then we can hold on to what “measures up,” whether made by an artist who publicly wears a ‘Christian label’ or not. “Any honest reflection on life will deal with imperfection. The difference in a Christian artist’s work should be that the depraved will seem depraved, the ugly will seem ugly. Christians should be distinguished from those who suggest that depravity is normal, or that evil is good.”

Intertwined themes of media, propaganda, persuasion, playfulness, Platonic dualism, art and evangelism are woven into Chapter 4, which has a great deal to say about the CCM scene. All you songwriters, poets, and authors, read this bit!

In Chapter 5, Turner proposes that the biblical themes of creation, fall, and redemption are to be paramount in “Christian art,” though all three probably won’t be in every work of art. This chapter also deals with specific types of Bible writings which often inspire artists. Communication and the life of a Christian artist are topics of other chapters.

Turner introduces his unique model of five concentric circles, representing “what the Christian could do in art,” in Chapter 6. In Chapter 8, a twenty-year corpus of songs by U2 is brilliantly analyzed with this descriptive model (Turner previously wrote an entire book about U2, Rattle and Hum). A full explication of the model is beyond the scope of this review, but I will briefly say that the outer ring contains art that doesn’t suggest any particular worldview, and the rings move inwards towards art that increasingly demonstrates a Christian worldview, with art that represents the cross in the center ring. I found this model to be a very lucid tool for analysis of all sorts of artistic expressions by Christians and believe it can be applied in other cultures as well. It is important to note that Christians can and should be making art in all five areas, according to Turner.

This book is of paramount importance to any Christian involved in any form of art, and it uses examples from a multitude of artistic expressions.. When writing this review I kept wanting to say “this section alone is worth the price of the book” – but when I had that scribbled in the margin of almost every chapter I gave up. The writing style is very engaging and the material flows quickly, yet it is deep enough to warrant several re-readings and continuous underlinings. It includes a challenging call for artists to leave the ‘Christian ghetto’ and bring light, beauty, hope and salt – and creativity, authenticity, relevancy and truth – into a world that is not particularly welcoming.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.2 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony