I remember the first time I met a Democrat. I mean a real live, bonafide Democrat, not just one of the scarecrows we had set up in the backyard. I had met a friend at Harding, and everything seemed to be going fine, we had similar interests, had served in similar programs and after a few months of knowing him he dropped the D-bomb. But he wasn’t at all what I had grown up expecting, I couldn’t find the horns anywhere.
In his book, To Change the World, Robert Hunter makes a thousand profound observations, but his first one, the place he really starts his book from is that we have over politicized every aspect of our culture. Today when we meet someone, we almost always, in the back of our mind our trying to figure out where they fit on a political spectrum. And whether or not the relationship can progress depends, in large part, on whether we are in tune with one another political ideology.
And it’s not just which way a person votes. Almost every aspect of who we are and the choices we make have been politicized. Hunter points out, “Categories of identity that are not in themselves political have been suffused with political meaning. This is precisely what has happened to the categories of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.” In other words, you are what you vote, and you vote what you are.
It gets worse.
Politics haven’t just tarnished our relationships. They have infected every part of society. Today values like Justice or Dignity are just banner words for the Democratic and Republican parties (just to give a couple of examples) and now these words hold little to no meaning outside of their political standings.
We have eaten, drank and breathed the political climate so much that now our imaginations have been held hostage to the story lines that have been fed us. That is, we can no longer think about any kind of real cultural change except that which Washington can bring.
And that’s a shame.
Especially for the artists.
Probably my favorite part of Hunters’ book is where he turns from talking about how almost all American Christianity has been seduced into political thinking, and where he starts describing what it would look like if we weren’t. Because the lack of social creating and imagination that had characterized our movement for a couple of thousand years seems to have dried up in the past few decades. Look at how Hunter talks about this:
“What is even more striking than the negative character of this political culture is the absence of robust and constructive affirmation. Vibrant cultures make space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, and artistic and literary expression, among other things. Within the larger Christian community in America, one can find such vitality in pockets here and there. Yet when they do exist, they are eclipsed by the greater prominence and vast resources of the political activist and their organizations. What is more, there are few if any places in the pronouncements and actions of Christian Right and Christian Left where these gifts are acknowledged, affirmed and celebrated. What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside worldly its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.”
In other words, we have unintentionally chosen politics over imagination.
Last month I was on a plane flying back from California, it was where I was reading Hunter’s excellent book (which the subtitle is” The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”) I was right in the middle of this very chapter, when the guy sitting next to me asked, “What’s your book about?”
After we talked a bit, I learned that Jarrett was actually a part-time worship minister at a local church, and a part time music artist who was passionate about both things that he did. I asked him to tell me more about the kind of music that he created, and that’s when he hung his head and said, “You probably wouldn’t like it…it’s secular.”
Now this was extremely ironic for Jarrett to say considering what chapter of the book I was on. Here he was an artist who was trying to have one foot in the creative culture of the broader world, and one foot in the gospel story, but when he met a preacher on a plane, he assumed that I would be against that. That I would consider that somehow selling out. Instead I was honored to get to tell him how glad I was that he was out there creating.
Artist haven’t been created in our churches because politics don’t mix well with imagination. And when the political narrative becomes the main one in our blood stream watch the artists start to die off, or go away.
I work at a church that has a vibrant community of artists. It’s one of my favorite parts of Highland. And the other day I was having lunch with a couple of well known artists who belong to our community, and they said that most artist feel on the margins of the church world. Which is a ridiculous truth. Because the first five words of the Bible are “In the Beginning, God Created…” Before we know anything else about God, whether he’s holy or faithful, or even if he’s good we find out that He is an artist. He creates.
That’s not a political statement or some kind of science to be parsed. It is ultimate reality, and it should be reflected in our church communities.
We have to get back our imagination.
One of the artist at my church gave me this quote from Jeff Berryman recently:
“If you want changes in Hollywood, in the mass culture, and in the lives of your children and grandchildren, do this simple but hard thing…Go to the artist in your churches, the poets, the actors, the musicians, the designers, the painters, the potters, and the screenwriters. Go to them, wherever their lives are at, and hold them. Tell them to pray, and work. Tell them to write. Tell them to unfold their poetry to God, and to ask the Holy Spirit to be present in the work. Tel the to dream films, and to envision plays, and to dance with the gift that God gave them. Tell them that you will pray for them and then do it. Accept their oddities, forgive them when they sin, and extend to them the safety and freedom to do their work.
Want to change the world? You can start by helping the artists to re-imagine it.