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Excellence is Not Enough

Excellence Is Not Enough

Excellence is not enough for Christians in the mainstream art world and entertainment industry to glorify God in their art, film, music or video game. It is a starting point. Not a destination.

Too many Christians entering the mainstream art world or entertainment industry don’t want to really think through their faith when it comes to their art(film, music, video game, etc.). All too often they tout the simplistic phrase: Excellence is all that is important. Now, to be fair, none of us want art that is kitschy, preachy or lame. It doesn’t make an impact, it doesn’t glorify God, and it often doesn’t even hold our attention. If we could stop it all by fiat, we just might. But the standard, “Just be excellent,” is a cheap substitute for a robust integration of your faith with your art.

Why do people talk about pursuing excellence as their primary goal? Usually it is for one of two reasons: Either they are trying to distance themselves from some of the lame art produced in Christian circles in the past, or they are trying to be accepted and get work in the mainstream. They speak of excellence as if it is the silver bullet that settles the matter on art and faith integration. And so they don’t need to think about these issues anymore.

The Danger of Excellence Alone

When we begin talking about issues of integration and any perceived attack on excellence is rendered, all the folks hurt by legalism and the Christian rules police get up in arms. They often respond by saying “not caring about excellence is the Christian community’s problem” and that’s why we all have NO credibility in art, film or gaming. So hear me clearly. I am all for excellence. But I am not OK with any Christian stopping there. If excellence is your only metric, you will soon believe you can do anything you want – you’ll tell your mother, brother and friends you can do “anything you want except something extreme like pornography, as long as it is excellent”.

To be fair, like I mention above, some have experienced deep pain from a legalistic background. They realized the inherent problems of their fundamentalist upbringing. They saw people condemn actions like dancing and drinking wine as sins, and then they realized both drinking wine and dancing were depicted in the Bible as something good. The blinders came off, and they saw clearly the Pharisaical nature of legalism. As a result, they wanted to avoid any emphasis on do’s, don’ts and the guilt increasing “letter of the law”.

They are so relieved to be out from under the damage caused by the error of legalism they run head long into the opposite error – libertinism. They realized God didn’t come to just give us laws, but they haven’t yet realized he did not come to destroy the law.

Freedom and Boundaries

Just as Igor Stravinsky saw in the world of music there is no freedom without boundaries. We can see in the gospel our freedom is found obeying the heart of the law. If we love God and our neighbors, and we strive to let all of our life and art flow out of those boundaries we will find greater peace and joy. (If you want to learn more about this join us for our institute)

Striving after excellence does not somehow take us out past the gravitational field of the need to glorify God and to pursue that which is good.

Excellence and Scott Derrickson’s Quality Club

Some of you may remember a presentation by Scott Derrickson called A Filmmaker’s Progress (a play off of A Pilgrim’s Progress) in which he described the various types of Christians he encountered in his journey through Hollywood. In the end, he landed at a place called The Quality Club. This speech eventually became a chapter in the book Behind The Screen . If you haven’t read the chapter, it is an entertaining read. Some people might equate the sole pursuit of ‘excellence’ as the same thing as Scott’s Quality Club, but he didn’t stop with mere quality. It is a mistake to think that quality or excellence is everything. It is an entry point to making a difference, not the finish line. Excellence is as basic a necessity as being at work on time.

Once you have achieved the minimum requirement of excellence, you should be able to stand back and look at your body of work. There should be evidence of the hope of the gospel in your life and in your creative work. If not, you are failing to be salt and light. It may not be as overt as someone else, it may not be as powerful as someone else, but there should be evidence of your faith. There should be something in the content that moves people toward what is good, true, and beautiful. After all, God is the one in whom all good, all truth, and all beauty reside.

Excellence only solves the “bad art” problem

We agree that bad art is bad for everyone. We might also agree the reason people speak of the need for excellence is there is too much lame art made by people who over emphasize their faith, and under-emphasize the role of talent, skill, and hard work. No argument there. Spirituality never trumps skill, talent and discipline. (see the parable of the talents for Jesus’ perspective) Excellence in your craft is a good thing.

Excellence and Worship Arts

We need to pursue excellence. In fact, that is true whether we are offering it to God or offering to the mainstream culture. David would not offer to God that which cost him nothing (2 Sam. 24:24). God is not honored by poor craftsmanship or lame execution of an idea. Art made for the church should be excellent because you are offering it to the God of the universe.

Excellence and Mainstream Art

Art which is created for the mainstream culture needs to be excellent because the medium is the message. If our art is excellent, it says to our audience that God values creativity, and God inspires us to create great art, not just Sunday School stick figures.

When non-Christian artists discover we make profound, insightful, and excellent art then they become open to hearing about the God who inspires us. If our art is cliché, kitschy, or boring they will be repulsed by our lack of creativity and repulsed by a God who seems to only inspire sappy, copy-cat art.

There is no reason to be excited about bad art that has a good message, unless it is was created by your 8-year-old, or you are just starting to learn how to make art. If you are just starting out, then be patient, stick with the process, and work hard until your art is excellent. It will take years, but it is worth it.

Excellence is Amplification

An excellent thief does not honor God because they use the greatest technology and latest techniques to steal – like something out of Ocean’s 11. Nor can a Christian create art that glorifies evil or glamorizes sin and think excellence in their craft somehow magically redeems the unredeemable. This is where the motto, “just pursue excellence” fails.

Excellence Amplifies Content. It Does Not Redeem Content.

Excellence without a moral compass will promote immorality. Excellence must be in service to something greater than you and your art. We are called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. This means even our art should align with what God has called us to do. We should be asking ourselves how to honor God and portray life in a way that fits the narratives in Scripture. This means considering the consequences of evil, the benefits of righteousness, and the sovereignty of God. Evil should not have the last word, goodness and mercy should not be mocked in the end, and the world you create should not portray life without God as something desirable.

Excellence and Moral Culpability

If you create art which goes against such basic aspects of Scripture, it doesn’t matter how excellent it is, you will not create art which honors God, or give hope and life to your soul. Incidentally you will also fail to contribute to human flourishing that comes from loving your neighbor, because you will fail to point others to a life of joy, hope, and deep love. Your art may be subtle and nuanced, that is fine. It simply must not lead people away toward sin, or away from a healthy view of God.

Excellence is the Door

Excellence is the gateway, or the door through which your content can be heard, seen, and respected. It is the entry level minimum. Anyone who says that it is the ending point is misleading people. Excellence is a requirement to have a voice in the world and to be part of the creative conversation of our age. Period. We cannot skip this in any way shape or form.

Once you have committed to excellence, then the real challenge begins. Now you must get serious about the content. Now you must ask yourself what you should communicate through your excellent craftsmanship, storytelling and writing.

This is where the journey becomes exciting. Once you know your craft, you can explore the content of your art with greater joy and freedom. It will always be challenging, but the reward is worth it for those who persevere in their art and in their spiritual walk.

Excellence must Serve a Vision to Love Others

Excellence cannot bear the weight it has been given. If you try to satisfy your soul with excellence, you will become a performance addict, using any means to achieve perfection. You will be tempted to treat your art the way Lance Armstrong treated cycling– you will be driven to competition that belittles others and tears them down instead of loving your neighbor, and you will be driven to find your self-worth in your achievement instead of the love God has for you.

The Simple Truth

Like C.S. Lewis and other deep thinkers remind us, we need to come back to the simple truths: It is always about how we Love God through our life and work, and how we love our neighbor. It doesn’t matter if our neighbor is a Samaritan, or any race, or some beautiful combination of races. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about your patron, your audience, your producers, or your employees, actors, coffee delivery person or staff. Excellence cannot satisfy your soul because the engine of your soul requires love in order to run properly. Your art will never create in others what it was meant to create unless it comes from a heart of love. Love for God, and love for them.

Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

8 comments on “Excellence is Not Enough”

  1. Steven Cooper Reply

    This is powerful. Insightful and challenging. Thank you, Joel and Michele. I’ve been in environments where I’ve mostly tried to push for excellence, and this really helps round out the biggest picture and it helps protect against both extremes.

  2. David Meacham Reply

    Thanks for the great post.
    Can you share some examples of films that satisfy your stated criteria (excellence in craft + something in the content that moves people toward what is good, true, beautiful)? Films besides Les Mis…
    Thank you!

    • Joel Pelsue Reply

      David,
      We really stay away from movie reviews. There are classic examples like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Narnia.
      I couple movies that come to mind from different genres are The Woman in Gold in 2015, and Warrior in 2011.
      What you will probably notice is that I don’t really find most films made for Christian audiences to be high enough caliber in either category – the message often trumps the pacing and staging of the film, and orthodox theology is often sacrificed for an emotional appeal or faux positive thinking philosophy.

  3. toni Reply

    I am sharing these great insights with believers I know in the industry here in Hollywood. If it’s okay with you, I’d also like to share some of your thoughts, siteing Arts and Entertainments Ministries of course, in the acting and directing books I’m writing for the actors and directors I coach.

    • Joel Pelsue Reply

      Toni,

      Thank you. Naturally, you can reference our content in your books as long as you cite our name and website. Glad to hear this is helpful in your coaching actors and directors!

      Joel

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