The Content Question: When critics attack

Here are a few tips on how faith-focused creatives can deal with controversy over their artistic choices

If you’ve created anything outside of the four walls of a church, you’ve probably heard this question.

“How can you (play, create, write) that kind of (music, art, story) if you say you believe in God?”

Or, even more pointedly, “How can you work or collaborate with artists who  _______(fill in the offending act or belief system here)?”

This question always brings out the most critical and confrontational conversations between artists and audiences, creators and congregations, performers and pastors.  There are invisible battle lines drawn as soon as the topic arises.

On one side, you have the standard-bearers, those who want faith-focused artists to have no contact or connection with anything they deem secular or ungodly.

On the other side, you have the artists, musicians and creatives who become marginalized into making art that keeps the first category happy. They champion their creative freedoms and point out the idea that their creativity cannot be contained inside temples and in front of church pews.

To each musician, creative, and artist who has dealt with this question, I want to offer three different questions to ask yourself when critics question the content of your creativity, or the quality of the people with whom you collaborate.

 

  1. Who am I working for?
  2. What is my audience looking for?
  3. Who am I trying to impact?

Question 1: Who are you working for? 

If you are a musician, artist, or other creative who works outside of the faith community, you probably have faced moments where you weren’t on the same page with your employer or creative client. You may have had to swallow your pride and accept a project or create a song that you would never choose on your own.

Here’s the thing. Every other professional person has had to do the same. But you’ll rarely find the lawyer who has to represent a guilty person chastised for taking the case. We all understand that someone has to do the job. Why is it, then, that when faith-centered creatives take on risky, unpopular, or unusually difficult creative assignments,  critical Christians accuse us of making a moral mistake?

Cultural critics often ascribe all of the negatives they see in a particular person to all of their associates. This is especially true in the artist space. But is it fair?

Is every employee responsible for every action of his or her employer? Of course not.

In the same way, if you have in good conscience decided to work with someone creatively, you and you alone can determine if that relationship and the content of your creations remains in the bounds of what you believe. Most critics will never repay you for the funds you lose should you walk away from a position or project on moral grounds. Of course, artists must remain aware of the influence we wield and associations we make. But we must ever allow outside voices to overwhelm our spiritual compass when it comes to the content we create or what we’re asked to perform.

Question 2: What is my audience looking for?

I’m always amused when I play in a worship setting and someone comes up to me to thank me for playing their favorite song. Usually it’s in the middle of announcements as I accompany the speaker with incidental background music. Inevitably the one greeting me will almost swear that I played the melody of something very meaningful.

The catch? I didn’t play it. They heard what they were looking to hear. The music fit the pattern that they were already listening for.

When determining the quality of your content, never forget that your message and your motivations don’t matter as much as your audience’s motivations. You could attempt to provide the cleanest, most upstanding and pure content imaginable, but if someone is looking for some dirt on the spotless floor of your creative project, they will find it.

It’s amazing that we continue to ascribe more power to the expression of art than to the conditions that shape the consumer’s perception of art. We believe a 4 minute song about sadness can have a deeper effect than the 4 years a listener may have dealt with depression. That a painting depicting an abusive scene can hurt more than the years of a viewer witnessing abuse or enduring poverty. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the beholder can also choose to see the bad. But we can’t control that.

True, there are exceptions to this principle. There are times when your content directly influences your audience. Faith-focused artists should know the power of their voice and of the art they create. However,  thinking that we alone control our influence is foolish and naive. Much of the way we’re viewed by our audiences is out of our control. So, instead of becoming hypersensitive and fearful, we should continue to create what motivates and inspires us, and let the audiences decide for themselves what to consume and what to reject.

3. Who am I trying to impact? 

In my book, God and Gigs, I point out several Biblical leaders who worked closely with those who worked in opposition to their faith. Examples include Moses, Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah, Paul and many others. These leaders were God-ordained, but secularly trained.  They were chosen to impact a culture that represented the exact opposite of what they believed. None of them ran away from the cultures to which they were called. They didn’t slide into a bubble that would protect them from criticism. They knew what they believed, but they could work with those who didn’t believe.

Often, critics of faith-centered creatives in the public space will accuse you of trying to assimilate to the culture, “trying to be like the world”, and so on. The point you should remember is that the one man who was most reviled for connecting with the world was Jesus himself. Like many creatives of today, he was unappreciated when surrounded by those who claimed to be the most faithful, and he was most welcomed by those who authentically were seeking change and growth.

Many times, the artists and creatives you work with will not share your faith, but they will share your desire to become better. They will share your creative passion. They will share your heart for excellence. Again, let’s discount the extreme – there are creatives in full-time ministry who have the same qualities. The problem is when we allow critics to sever connections we have with the very same artists that need us the most.

I don’t have to point out the variety of tragic suicides, life-changing falls from grace, and episodes of emotional and spiritual turmoil that creatives have endured to make the point that we need more, not less, Godly artists in the mainstream culture. The content of these connections will always have a look, sound and feel that is not as easy to decipher, and certainly can’t be labeled as “religious”. But if you are within the space of the culture where things are happening, the last thing you need to do is run away from the place that God has placed you in. Your creativity is not a crutch to make you more like those around you, it is a tool to help others understand you better – and therefore, more likely to understand the One you are following.

It all comes back to ownership

When questions about content arise, you need someone qualified to make the final decision. The best choice available is the one who owns the work. At first glance, we’d all agree that we are the original owners of the art. However,  Abraham Kuyper, theologian and philosopher, answered the question of ownership this way;

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!

If all of the artists belong to God, no matter what they create, than all of the art, music, and books belong to him as well. The one that makes the final determination on what is acceptable and not acceptable is not in any editor’s chair, pulpit, or judges’ chamber. He sits on a throne.

Therefore, the best course of action for any artist is to constantly check in with the Master Creator.  Let the critics say what they wish.

 

Share your thoughts: Who should decide what’s acceptable for you to create? Your audience, your faith leaders, or yourself? Why do you think so? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

 

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I’m Allen, author of God and Gigs. I’m passionate about helping everyday artists excel in everyday life, by helping them strengthen their faith, improve their careers and deepen their relationships. You’re invited to join this community of faith-focused creatives, musicians and artists by signing up for my newsletter at godandgigs.com/signup.

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