On August 30, 2011

Imagination Over Politics

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/pcunningham3 Philip Cunningham

    Fine post.  But I think you (and/or Hunter) define politics too narrowly.  What you’re referring to seems to be sectarian politics, or activist politics.  The types of people who wear a red or blue jersey. Who cheer on the champions of their particular cause — who move the football down the field for their beloved team.  And who hate the other side like Harvey Updyke hated Auburn winning the National Championship.

    But not all politics is this way.  Two of my favorite definitions for politics include the word art.  “The art of dealing w/ people.”  “The art of the possible.”  Politics gets a bad wrap from people who can’t get past the angry talking heads.  But there is more to it than that.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Hey Philip, thanks for weighing in. I recognize there are different definitions for politics, but I do think that Hunter is right in the prevailing view about how most American Christians approach politics…and I don’t think we could call that approach “art.”

    I am talking more about how Hunter unpacks this next week, see if you like it at all. By the way, you should totally read this book. 

    Thanks man!

  • Elysa Henegar

    As a writer prayerfully trying to write for Christ, considering markets, and asking the Holy Spirit to multiply my meager loaves and fish, I have found such encouragement reading your posts about God using Christ-following creatives to build new culture. Thank you for allowing God to use you to bless and spur others on. Spirit-changed culture will change politics.

  • Peter Mosley

    Over time, I’ve begun to slightly hesitate admitting that I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in American Literature, because a lot of people seem to automatically assume that such a degree is pompous and worthless.  I mean, what can you DO with that degree?  How does it actually make a difference in people’s lives?  I cannot count the number of times people have challenged me with that question.  Because I’ve been asked the question so many times, I’ve prepared an answer that (often grudgingly and skeptically) convinces most people that literature actually does have a lot to say about the “practical” political world.  But the truth is that I am an American Literature major and not a Political Science major because I strongly believe that the artists are even more fundamental to a culture than the lawmakers.  As Andrew Fletcher said, “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I don’t care who writes its laws.”  I strongly believe that our emotions and sense of beauty is much, much more important and basic to our existence than many realize.  It is demoralizing to be sidelined because of assumptions concerning what the worth of art is, especially since our bias against art is American, not Christian (as I learned from a Pulitzer-Winning book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life).  Thanks for reminding people of the importance of art.

  • Maynard

    I don’t know how I missed this one, but I like it.  You speak a my language!