I only know a handful of Christian artists. But I know them well enough to have seen them struggle to justify spending time creating.
On the one hand, they seem almost embarrassed about investing in such an apparently unnecessary luxury when people’s eternities are at stake. On the other hand, with no creative outlet — apart from producing the odd resource for kids ministry — they’re obviously tremendously frustrated. They can’t do what they love with clear consciences.
But it’s occurred to me that my artistic friends might be suffering from something of a double standard we maintain.Where we tend to be very cautious about undermining the value of work for Christians, we blithely do it when it comes to more ‘trivial’ pursuits such as art. (Of course, we have our ways of devaluing work too. Especially when we play it off against ‘gospel work’ as ‘labour that’s not in vain’. But that’s a topic for another time…)
For now, let’s compare the process of artistic composition — of whatever type — with the kind of work that goes into preparing a sermon (a classic case of ‘gospel work’). To begin with, preachers often think about what we’re doing primarily in terms of ‘faithfulness’ — to what the text is saying, what God wants us to do in response, how to communicate it most effectively, etc.
But, although we don’t usually pay attention to it, what we do in sermon preparation requires a good deal of creativity — imagination. We have to imagine our way into the text — and not only when it’s a narrative; we even have to use our imagination when reading one of Paul’s letters (that’s what we’re doing when we ask, ‘Why is Paul saying this here?’). And we also have to use our imaginations as we develop the sermon into an effective piece of communication. In fact, if you’re anything like me, the creative muscles you flex in preparing a sermon is all part of what makes it exciting, challenging and satisfying.
The artist’s work is starting to sound a little less exotic and trivial, isn’t it? (Before you object that this is like comparing apples and oranges — particularly in light of the overarching didactic aim that sermon preparation answers to — remember that there’s a strong and ancient tradition of thinking of art as aiming to both ‘instruct and delight’.)
But there’s more, as far as Oliver O’Donovan is concerned there is another broad similarity between artistic process and sermon preparation as ‘acts of high culture’ (Ways of Judgement, 250-251):
To communicate goods […] is to invest them with layers of social significance. They are enhanced as they are communicated. This may be by physical transformation, as when a craftsman shapes raw material to make an artifact; it may be by reinterpretation, as when a composer takes the familiar C-major triad and places it in a fascinating melodic and harmonic context; or it may simply be by redistribution, as when a merchant conveys a container-load of avocados from the place of their growth to the northern supermarkets. “Work” is the most general term for every human activity that enhances the material of communication, developing its social meaning, converting material goods into spiritual forces by the alchemy of communication.
What about this doesn’t apply equally to art and sermon preparation?