Art Beyond Propaganda
Artists long to create something meaningful and to connect with their audience, and this inspires them to create art beyond propaganda. As W.H. Auden described it, “Propaganda is monologue that is not looking for an answer, but an echo.” We as Christians are called to be in conversation, not a monologue. How else can we love our neighbor unless we understand others and enter into a conversation with the art we create.
People may use art in the service of propaganda, but it weakens the true power art can express. Propaganda focuses on messaging and persuasion to convince people of a perspective. Great art may persuade you to think or feel differently, but it does more than preach, teach, or pontificate. It invites contemplation, appreciation and thoughtfulness.
Problem in Christian Circles
The problem in some Christian circles is the assumption that art must serve the goal of being propaganda for the faith. This is true whether it is a reminder to the faithful, or a call to conversion for the non-believer. This idea is a residue of fundamentalist theology as well as the reformation and the enlightenment. It says that art must be used to preach to the audience, and to persuade them of the gospel. This approach to art is a form of propaganda. It does not allow for a conversation but insists on promoting its own point of view. We must reject this approach and pursue art beyond propaganda.
There are film companies today, who insist that the ‘message’ always comes before the ‘craft’. They can be political or religious, but the problem is that it tends to become a form of propaganda. This is because it reduces the artistic elements to dogma or policy. Great art will rise above mere pedagogy. It will move us and draw us in.
Every now and then I think we have overcome this problem, and then I meet fine artists, filmmakers or other creatives who have been taught by their parents, pastor or other leader – that our primary goal as Christians involved in the arts, must be to teach the word, and the get people to convert to Christianity.
In the interest of being charitable I will say it often comes from a sincere desire to share the gospel. However, it also stems from a very poor understanding of the Bible, a poor understanding of art, and – actually. . . a limited understanding of God himself.
Correcting the Propaganda Problem
So how do we correct this misunderstanding and misguided approach to art? How do we insure we understand why we should create art beyond propaganda? Lets examine the model we find in Scripture. The first question is always- does this match the entire scope of Scripture and the does it fit with the very character of God. This idea of needing to do evangelism all the time, requiring art to become propaganda fails on both counts.
First, Scripture is full of art that does not serve some utilitarian purpose. Did you read that correctly? Yes! The bible is not a propaganda piece. It is a grand narrative that draws you in, shows all sides of humanity and lifts up Christ as the most beautiful model of love, hope, and salvation.
The bible is full of psalms and poetry that don’t seek to immediately convert the non-believer. There were also pillars in Solomon’s Temple that served no utilitarian purpose (1 Kings 7:21). They were simply aesthetic elements to adorn the beauty of God’s house. Yet, the best example is God’s creation. God gave us beautiful animals, landscapes and environments to discover and enjoy.
Yet, God in his great wisdom, never wrote something like John 3:16 on the underside of tree leaves. He never wrote the word ‘Messiah’ on the stars and planets, and he never placed scripture references on animals. It is clear from examining the character of God that beautiful things need no justification. We can create beauty and be satisfied without feeling compelled to create a passion play, a gospel tract or placing explicit messages about God, the Bible, or Jesus. God himself created art that was beyond propaganda.
King David, the man ‘after God’s own heart’ shared his appreciation for creation in Psalm 19:1-4:
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
David describes creation, and the very beauty within it, as speaking to our hearts. It beckons our imagination to stand in wonder at the creativity, and overwhelming genius of the God who created it. It is not passive. The heavens are declaring the glory of God without becoming reduced to a utilitarian tool for evangelism.
The way in which creation and art speak generally about God is what theologians call general revelation. Sometimes God speaks through his prophets and it is very explicit, like John the Baptist calling us to “repent, and believe”. Yet, there are countless ways in which God communicates his love, his power, and his creativity to us without words and without intending any single explicit response. This is what David is saying, He sees the hand of God, and the character of God in all the little things we encounter throughout life.
When God is speaking explicitly, theologians call it special revelation. This kind of revelation is not a vague sense of a Creator, or supreme being. It is not even the idea which God planted in our hearts (Romans 1). In these instances, God reveals himself to us, and illuminate the gospel within our hearts and minds. As John the Baptist stated, “we must repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.” It is not enough to believe in a force or a vague deity. God has revealed his nature in Scripture, and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. These are the examples of Special Revelation – because God is making his nature and presence known in a particular and specific way.
Here’s the point: If God is free to use both special and general revelation, then we should feel free to speak both explicitly and implicitly about God through our art. We are free to make an evangelistic movie about Jesus. But we are also free to make artwork that explores the struggles of life, and the joys of relationships.
God intended for us to enjoy life. He gave us so much that is not transactional or utilitarian. He has given us sunsets to end each day, as well as lilies in springtime. We can enjoy delicious food, and inspiring music. We were meant to savor life, and to enjoy all of our days under the sun (Eccl. 8:15).
There is no need to put a verse under a painting of a sunset, or think we have to ‘justify’ a work of art by connecting it directly to the gospel. Art is simply a form of communication – and we should enjoy the freedom to communicate a variety of ideas in a variety of ways. We can feel free to create art more nuanced, which invites the audience to laugh, cry, or simply ponder. In truth, we can and should make art beyond propaganda because God does.
Rediscovering God’s Creative Communication
For those people who have assumed all art needed to be evangelistic or some kind of propaganda for the kingdom of God, I encourage you to go back and read the bible. Discover all the ways God speaks to his people, and all the ways he has provided us with beauty and grace without preaching at us all the time. Consider how many times he inspires us through stories, poetry and psalms.
For the artists who have been under teaching that says all art must preach, I hope you also take time to read the bible and ask God to open your eyes to all the incredible ways God communicates to us that are not explicit.
Rediscovering Jesus’ Creative Communication
God does not address us all in the same way. We are all unique, and God addresses us in unique ways. Jesus himself, when he was here on earth addressed each person differently. From the woman at the well, to roman leaders who oversaw his crucifixion – sometimes he was direct, many times he simply told stories and parables, while other times he answered questions with another question.
Jesus modeled the freedom we have to communicate with parables, stories and questions. He did not teach all the time, even though everyone he met would do well to learn from him. He utilized unique ways to communicate to people. This is a model for you as an artist. Based on this model, we have tremendous freedom to create art beyond propaganda, and create without restricting our options to didactic tools.
Rejoice in Your Creative Freedom
So, embrace the freedom God has always intended for you to have. He has inspired you through other artists, your parents, your mentors and colleagues. He has designed you to savor all of life and to help others to be thankful and to savor life.
When to “Preach”
There is a time to share the gospel and lead other people into a relationship with Christ. However, especially in the western world, it often requires us building a relationship with those people first. Then we can introduce them to Jesus. We ought to consider our patrons and audiences in this light. Thus, the question needs to be, “How can you build relationships and community through your art before preaching?” Some food for thought. If we are going to build relationships through our creativity it is essential that we create art beyond propaganda.
This article is based on content from our Arts & Entertainment Institute. It is just a small sample of what we teach in our Arts and Entertainment Institute, and in our new online courses. If you want to learn more, please click HERE.
One Last Thing
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Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.