Many of her favourite authors aren't Christians, and here's what she says about that:
Most of the time Christian fiction is shallow, unrealistic, uninformed, and uninspiring. My two favourite novels of 2014's first six months are Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting (superb prose, excellent plot - if a "Christian" writer were to touch it, it would taste like fifteen cubes of sugar in a three ounce cup of tea) and Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades, which sports a deliciously cold-blooded revenge plot. So yes, I tend to read secular fiction. When the Christian authors can gird up their loins adequately (and talk of loins without colouring up and lowering their voices) I'll probably be perfectly happy to read them too.
|Martha is unimpressed.|
I think not.
There's no doubt that most of the world's greatest literature was written by Christians. I wrote a whole book about that, after all. But today, by and large, Christians are no longer writing great books. Where they once led the way, they now lag far behind. On the one hand, you have the problem of Christian art that just imitates worldly art--romance novels just like the world's romance novels, except not as exciting. On the other hand, you have Christian artists trying to break out of the world's mould--and they've broken all the way back to the 1800s, and written an Elsie Dinsmore pastiche that would make Martha Finley wince. Either way, the level of technical ability on display is anything but inspiring.
Let's talk about technical excellence in the arts.
My Dad was a teenager when he discovered the studio pottery movement. He was nineteen when his pastor’s wife asked him, “What are you going to do with your life?”
“I’m going to make pottery.”
“Oh yes, and how are you going to serve God through that?”
“I’m going to do it really well.”
|You can see more of my Dad's work at his Pinterest page.|
One pitfall that dogs Christian artists is the drive to insert a big, flashy, can't-miss-it message into an otherwise adequate and God-glorifying piece of art (or just as commonly, an otherwise shoddy and miserable piece of art). A month or two back I heard from a dear friend and beginning author who had a question about the art of fiction. She began her first novel with humble intentions: to tell a good yarn, to give it authentic roots in its historical period, and to populate it with believable characters.
Now she was beginning to worry that it needed more. More message. More moral. A bigger ambition to change the world.
“No, no,” I told her. “The point is not that you need to give your book a message. The point is that your book will have a message whether you mean it to or not.”
Doesn't art need a really clear message?
|How not to do it.|
Yes, because if you are already living deliberately to the glory of God, and if you are any good at all as an artist, you're going to pay attention to what it is that your artwork is communicating. Failure to do this is a mark of bad artistry.
|Same subject. No overt message. And a thousand times the technical skill.|
And again, No. No, because a book which has no higher aim than simply to tell a good yarn, people it with believable characters, and bring alive a specific historical time period, is already giving glory to God and sending a very specific message.
An artwork that simply contains a high degree of technical excellence in its composition and execution, is good in itself. Technical excellence is good in itself and glorifying to God.
This can no doubt be proven in any branch of the arts, but let me stick with fiction for now. Say we're talking about a historical novel trying to faithfully depict a certain time period. Technical excellence in this respect will mean faithfully reproducing the attitudes, thoughts, customs, manners, and culture of the times. Is that, in itself, pleasing to God?
Are you kidding?
This is our Father's world. If the Lord has put a certain character, time period, or worldview into His Story, then He meant something by it. He designed it, and the works of his hands are studied by all those who delight in Him (Psalm 111:2). God created caterpillars, Ancient Romans, World War I, and Ian Fleming, by the word of His power. Everything in the world was planned by Him in ages past. We call this "general revelation", and the fact that it needs the guide of specific revelation to interpret it should not tempt us towards contempt for it. The Lord speaks through anthills and pagan Greek myths (though of course He means something a bit different to what the pagan Greeks thought they meant) in much the same way He speaks through the starry skies.
The Lord is already speaking through all these things. You don't need to add a message. Just communicate the Lord's meaning through your art by being faithful to what He actually said through the time period. As John Piper points out in this message from the CS Lewis conference, everything is sanctified if we simply receive it humbly, with gratitude. We don't particularly need to shoehorn in a world-changing message. First, listen and learn and be humble. Only then can we discover, explore, and learn from the message that's already there.
|Like whatever it was that the Lord meant when he made hares.|
Message is innate to all forms of communication, which is also to say all artforms. Think about that for a moment. Now think about what message your art sends if it lacks technical excellence.
The message of such art is that technical excellence is not worth anyone's time.
This is made more glaring when you have taken pains to ensure that the more overt message within your artwork is morally irreproachable. You tell your audience that an edifying message is good in itself and glorifying to God. Good craftsmanship, though? Optional. The Lord doesn't care about details like that.
Do you want to say that? Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. Don't tell me you didn't memorise some form of that verse when you were a kid. Do you see a man diligent in his work? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men. You want to stand before the King of Kings for eternity? Or is your work going to condemn you to the dustheap of heaven?
I Corinthians 3:11-13 refers to art as well as to every other work of man:Christian artists have a splendid foundation on which to build: The Lord Christ. Don't build hay and stubble on that, artists, don't turn out hack work, lest you appear to hold your salvation cheap.
For no man can lay another foundation than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man’s work shall be made manifest; for the Day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall test every man’s work of what sort it is.
The more I reflect on Scripture, the more I become convinced that there is a direct relationship between the indwelling of God's Spirit and artistic merit. Let's ignore for a moment the fact that traditionally, Christian artists (Tasso, for example) have invoked the Holy Spirit as the heavenly Muse inspiring their work, and skip straight to the greatest of all craftsmen in Scripture: Bezaleel the son of Uri, in Exodus 31:1-5.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.This master artist, this master craftsman, was the first man in all of Scripture who was ever said to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I'm sure that had more effect than just praise songs queued up on his ipod, folks, particularly since the purpose of this inspiration involved technical details like cutting and setting stones. Bezaleel's inspiration wasn't just for concept and design work, it was for technical work too. Obviously God feels more glorified when the artist does his job well.
|JS is not impressed.|
So you wrote some music. Would Bach be impressed? You painted a picture. Does it show as much skill in composition, colour selection, and lighting as--say--something by Vermeer? If not, does it show an honest attempt to learn and apply those skills?
Writers: you know, don't you, that the Authorised Version of the Bible is one of the greatest works of prose literature in the English language? Have you read it? Memorised it? Studied it? Maybe you can sense its unusual beauty, but could you put your finger on the specific techniques employed by its translators to produce that effect? Have you attempted to use those techniques in your own writing? Have you gone on to identify, marinate in, and analyse the works of such other stylists as Jane Austen, CS Lewis, and PG Wodehouse?
If we haven't truly apprenticed ourselves to the masters of our craft, how can we call ourselves diligent workmen?
So you've got a vision for technical excellence to the glory of God. Well done, young artist. Your next step is to yield gracefully to two hard truths: first, that you most likely have no idea what technical excellence actually looks like in your field, and second, that there's an excellent chance that you've only turned out rubbish so far and have a huge amount of homework to do.
I cannot emphasise enough my near certainty that most young artists have no idea what technical excellence looks like, especially if they've had the kind of careful Christian upbringing that never let them near the good stuff.
Nothing, and I do mean nothing, makes me as nervous for the future of Christian art, as much as the early successes of young homeschooled Christian artists. We have a unique problem in that we can outperform most of our peers without even waking up in the morning. We don't have to worry about competing with da Vinci or Balenciaga or Alfred Hitchcock because we get a gold star just for having the guts to dream big, and another gold star for leaving out all the things of which our public's spinster aunt might disapprove.
|Like this Balenciaga ball gown.|
|Also, your culottes are super dorky.|
The other thing reducing your chances of having any idea what good art actually looks like is the fact that not even the world knows much about technical excellence anymore. Even JK Rowling's writing makes me wince. Sadly, we live on the rubbish dump of a once-great civilisation. The techniques of the past that informed Bach's music, Augustine's rhetoric, or Spenser's allegory are buried under a heap of Enlightenment and postmodern philosophy. Worse, even if we could rediscover and re-learn those sophisticated and elegant techniques, we are never going to be able to use them as freely. On a mass, culture-wide level, we've made ourselves too stupid to use or understand them.
|And even JKR is unimpressed with you, kids.|
That's the bad news.
The good news is that we can repent. The good news is that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
The good news is that Christians have built a civilisation before. We can do it again, and even better. The knowledge of the glory of the Lord is going to cover the earth like the waters cover the seas, and art is going to achieve un-thought-of glory.
We need to repent of our ignorance and our self-satisfaction and our artistic hamfistedness. And we need to start producing work worthy of its Foundation, work that will survive the Day of Judgement.