The Intersection of Art and Honesty

My favourite forms of art tell stories. Whether it is writing or dance, painting, poetry or songwriting; the medium helps those on the receiving end of the art engage, think, be moved.

Tell stories that leave people changed, or more deeply connected to each other, or moved to action. Often good art exposes the questions and the brokenness of the world. It has a way of binding us together in our common humanity.

It is because of this storytelling element to art that I have often appreciated gritty songs, sad films, folk songs that tell stories about people, and visual art that is provocative and makes you think.

As a low-grade songwriter, very few of the songs I have written have not been borne out of pain or sorrow, either my own or observing another’s grief.

It is out of this backdrop of appreciating what is real and honest that my wrestling the last couple of months has come into play. New questions have become more prominent in my thinking about producing good art. I don’t feel satisfied with answers yet.

There have been points where life has been so difficult, so painful and so sorrowful that it has been impossible to produce art of any kind.

I have never experienced that before.

Usually a good amount of pain is prime for creative power. Unexpected life lesson: sometimes pain can strip you of everything, even the ability to create.

This was quite foreign to me, the melodramatic artist of sorts. Why can certain pain help you create and other kinds of pain stop you from creating? How does an artist produce with honesty when sometimes discretion is best? What does it look like to be real and produce honest art when the only subject matter that comes to mind could hurt your relationships? Are all questions you are asking, questions the world is ready to face? Are some questions best left between you and God and a small close few to work through?

There is a tendency these days amongst the blogger world to try to create “community” and relationships. Whilst I appreciate the many of you who read and engage with my writing here, I have to confess that becoming your best friend has never been my intention. I cannot do that. Who has the capacity for depth with that many people? I want a small world with more in depth relationships. I write on here because I like to write and enough of you are kind enough to be humoured to read what I write.

Writers have a message to share. I want people to live lives fully awake with meaning and purpose. I write about real things in lieu of that. As a writer, how do you write to challenge and push people to be real and honest whilst leaving your life to have privacy and mystery? There are levels of authenticity that I share to challenge the world to be honest but there are levels of intimacy I don’t want to share because I think those are for special people who actually know me well in real life.

What is the best intersection between art and honesty? Artists can be cultures’ prophets who challenge and push people to feel awkward and a bit uncomfortable so they think and rethink. But artists also need to know when discretion, privacy, personal close relationships and intimacy are better than the medium to the masses. I don’t know what that balance looks like yet. Do you?

Religion Causes Evil : reflections on 12 Years a Slave and a letter with my friend

I wrote the letter below to a friend after I posted my feelings about the film “12 Years a Slave.” Join in thinking about it with us.

Fury. Absolute rage is how I am watching every minute of 12 Years A SlaveI have never been so angry watching a film before in my life.” I wrote on Facebook.

“Yeah its not an easy film to watch. I was very angry and upset too. It does show the dark history of the United States which only went on to ban slavery much much later than the europeans but the reality is that europeans were involved in the slave trade much more than the U.S. also the way that colonialists justified slavery with scripture is very relevant. Religion was an essential tool of the missionaries and colonialists of that time. i think this kind of historical reality must and should be shown to raise awareness and understanding so to that length its a worthy film.” – my friend

My friend’s comments had me thinking all weekend. I think they are worth engaging with because he is my friend but also because I can see the trend as of late for many to draw the same conclusions. He has points I agree with and points I think are missing hence I am writing to bring out some important factors. I wrote this letter mostly to think through the difference between religion and the gospel. I could have written a whole book. I stopped at a letter.

What do you think? 

My dear friend,

It is good you shared my rage and anger. It is good to everyone who saw the film and felt rage and anger. It is also good to criticize the religious people who tried to use God to back their racism, inhumane treatment, degradation, rape, separation of families, abuse, torture and murder of people who should have been fellow Americans but instead were treated as animals.

As I have described the film to friends this weekend and tried to fight for words to how it left me feeling, “rage” and “wrath” were actually the only I could come up with. They were stronger even than “sad.” Our anger though is not pointing us to an inner secularism that is true. Darwin’s laws say ‘survival of the fittest.’ But we don’t feel that way when we watch this film because that doesn’t satisfy and give us truth. Our anger is actually showing off one of God’s characteristics. What many whites missed for hundreds of years in my country is that people are made in the image of God. They are equal and have human worth and dignity because they are his image bearers no matter what race or ethnicity, disability, or gender. As God’s image bearers, we experience some, to a smaller degree, of his characteristics, though imperfectly and sometimes marred by sin. Wrath is a quality that God has towards sin, evil, and injustice. Whether someone knows God, or denies him, if they are feeling anger towards what happened in that film, they are showing a reflection of being his creature because it is just a taste of God’s anger towards the sin of slavery. God is righteous and hates wickedness.

I have to disagree with you in throwing missionaries in with colonialists and slavery supporters. It is an argument from ignorance and ad hominem to throw all of those together into one pot. It doesn’t work because of several reasons. Not all colonialists were the same. Having a very thorough history of missions under my belt, (And ahem, knowing many current missionaries today!) missionaries do not agree with what those slave owners were saying. Your criticism of religion is correct. Religion causes a lot of evils. But it is too broad a term to paint every faith with the same brushstrokes. There are three things in the world: religion, irreligion, and the gospel. Even that is too simple. I am a reformed evangelical Christian and I was angry at every reading of the Bible in that film because it was blasphemy and manipulation and a mockery of my Lord. Your ability to distinguish the gospel of Jesus from religion is not great. You just don’t know. Not everyone who calls himself a Christian is one. Jesus said there will be people who at judgment would call him Lord and he will say “depart from me I never knew you.”

Unfortunately as is usual Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s character was not quoting the bible when he came in with his very accurate understanding of slavery. In the film he came in as the irreligious liberal hero. Yet in actuality a majority of the abolitionists were born again Christians who knew Jesus and preached a message very different from the corruption that the slave owners taught. What Pitt was saying falls on the foundations of Biblical Christianity. Black men and white men were both equal and human beings. That is Biblical truth. It is also truth I don’t see outside of the Bible unless people are subconsciously borrowing from it. Pol Pot and Stalin should have taught us that taking away “religion” (though I don’t like to call Biblical Christianity that, I will for the sake of analogy) doesn’t take away humanity’s capacity for wickedness and torture of other human beings.

What the slave owners were saying was a gross misquoting and sewing together mis-interpreted parts of the Bible for their own means. It is in insult to the slaves, many of whom held a Christian hope in deliverance and the resurrection to call all faith the same. The wickedness of people in my country continued for another 100 years in the battle to give black people equal rights. I am passionate about good bible teaching and obeying what is in scripture. This is a great film to illustrate what happens when someone manipulates the Bible, for his or her own means, out of context.

I will admit there were Christians who turned a blind eye to what Jesus says and did not stick up for truth. But there were many Christians who did. There are many Christians still today repenting of former racism as they get to know Jesus. There is still a need amongst the nations to repent of our racism and prejudice towards one another. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a devout Christian, pretty much wrote a sermon and founded his letter in the Bible as he wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail about the wickedness of racism in our country.

In the UK it was converted former slave ship owner John Newton who became a Christian and spent the rest of his life teaching the Bible, horrified of his former life of slave selling, rape and drunkenness. He became a huge supporter of another Christian, William Wilberforce who lobbied Parliament for 15 years, nearly killing himself in the process, sick over slavery. John Newton wrote the song Amazing Grace in a very personal reflection on his own wickedness and need for the grace coming from Christ. Man can manipulate religion for his own means and it can make an arrogant man more proud. It is only in the gospel that a man can be humbled at the foot of the cross to have his heart transformed like Newton’s was to bleed for his fellow man.

Look up Robert Woodbury’s the Religious Roots of Liberal Democracy which is the most thorough research today looking at the impact of Protestant missionaries in the 19th century around the world and their affects on freedom, literacy rates, equality amongst peoples, and standing up with native peoples of many countries against the colonialists of Europe. This was all done because of their Biblical belief in the dignity and worth of all human life because people are made in God’s image. I can give you a list of hundreds of missionaries from past centuries who do not have the image you have just cast on an entire profession because of the wickedness of people who claimed to have the same faith as them.

Jesus challenged religious people in his day and in various places in scripture and called them the sons of Satan. In Matthew 7 Jesus challenged that it would be by someone’s “fruit” that we would know of someone’s genuine faith and belonging to God or false teaching. Whilst true biblical Christianity will have a lot of awful sinners in it’s following because it is about God’s grace and not our works we are saved. In my grief, I am sure there were some slave owners who were saved Christians, as we are sinners saved by grace alone and are not automatically perfect on turning to Christ for salvation. This makes the gospel difficult to hear. Sinners will be in heaven because of Jesus. The mark of a true Christian can be found by asking this: “Are they becoming more like Jesus?” It is a good measuring mark. There were many more freedom fighters, abolitionists, and missionaries around the world fighting for the rights of the poor, outcast, the slave because grace and knowing the “gospel” the good news of Jesus changed everything.

I have never thought of the US as a Christian country. It was coined once “moralistic therapeutic deism” is more the American faith. This is unbiblical and not Christian. This, even with a sprinkling of the Bible, is not a true faith, it is not a relationship with God, and it is not saving faith. My country will be judged for the wickedness it has done to black slaves, Native Americans, and anyone else created in God’s image. It would be fairer to ask “does your faith make your kinder, more humble, more forgiving, more likely to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and die sacrificially for someone else?” That kind of faith is worth examining for its truthfulness. That is the faith we see of people who have encountered Jesus.

Portraying Solomon and Anne Northup in 12 Years a Slave
William Wilburforce, St John’s Chapel, Cambridge England