A Call to Evangelical Engagement in the Arts

February 6, 2014

America is in need of cultural transformation. In practically every area of life, our country is in freefall culturally. Abortion is rampant. Same-sex marriage is increasingly becoming the norm. Pornography is everywhere on the Internet and in millions of homes. Families, and especially children, are paying the price, and society is reeling.

For some time now, evangelicals have turned to political solutions to attempt to stop this cultural decline. There is a definite place for evangelical engagement in politics. Government is a divinely ordained institution. In Romans 13:4, the Apostle Paul called the governing authority a “minister of God.” It serves an irreplaceable role in human relations. Evangelicals, then, should help government fulfill its purpose. To some degree this engagement also helps shape the culture. Government certainly restrains through law and policy, but there is also a didactic element in these. They help teach people what is acceptable activity and what is not and inform the conscience in the process.

Evangelicals must engage culture upstream from politics

But reversing our nation’s cultural decline will require more. Changing the culture requires an additional evangelical engagement, upstream from politics. If evangelicals are going to help change our nation’s culture, they must engage the minds and hearts of the people, not only their politics. We must be more intentional in our efforts to influence people’s values. It isn’t enough to pass laws that restrain people from doing what they want to do. In a democratic system like ours, it is only a matter of time before the people elect enough representatives who share their values and change the laws to suit their interests. On the other hand, if we are able to change people’s values, politics will largely take care of itself.

In his thought-provoking volume Culture Making, Andy Crouch speaks of creating culture. He calls on Christians to be culture makers. For Crouch, the key to changing culture is for committed Christians working in small groups to create new cultural goods. These cultural goods “taken up into the wider culture” can “reshape the horizons of possibility” (CM, 244). As Christians create a cultural good, they can “participate” in God’s work of transforming human culture. (CM, 182-3).

Crouch rightly understands that culture can be changed. Culture not only helps shape those who live in it; it is itself shaped by those who live in it. In other words, culture is a complex feedback loop. Because it is so elastic, culture can be impacted by deliberate action.

The arts influence culture

I believe the arts provide evangelicals an ideal place for participatory engagement in cultural change. The mind and heart come together in the arts. The arts are a principal, if not the primary, place where a society’s worldview is worked out. Through the arts, a society’s foundational assumptions about the world are presented, challenged, shaped and reshaped. If you can influence a group of people to think differently about their foundational assumptions about the world, you will help transform the way they live, i.e. their culture. If you can do this with enough people, or with people who will pass that new thinking on, you can help change a national culture.

Without doubt, our nation’s dilemma is principally spiritual in nature. Our culture is decaying because too many of us are living without God in our lives. The church must take this seriously and do all it can to call men, women and children to faith in God through Jesus Christ. The surest way to cultural change is for people to be transformed spiritually by God. The work of evangelism and disciple-making is, and will always be, the church’s most important work.

The work of evangelism is only part of what evangelicals must be involved in, however, if we want to help change the culture. We also must reintroduce our society to the Biblical worldview. To date, many of the most successful efforts at worldview engagement have been directed to evangelicals. The highly successful films produced by the wonderfully talented and bold people of Sherwood Baptist Church are a perfect example. Their films, like Fireproof and Courageous, are superb examples of the church seeking to use film to impart facets of the Biblical worldview. I have no doubt that many Christians, as well as non-Christians, have avoided serious personal and interpersonal failings because they were impacted by these films. I applaud the makers for their success and urge them to continue.

We cannot stop there. Regrettably, most of the rest of the culture isn’t paying attention to these efforts. To stop there is to remain on the defensive, constantly trying to shore up our own lines as the decaying culture and its champions constantly break them down. Evangelicals must go boldly into the world and speak to the culture on its own terms.

Engagement through story

The arts offer evangelicals the ideal format for this. Consider what evangelicals could do, for example, in the realm of literature. Literature has been, and continues to be, a powerful medium for transforming human thinking. In fiction, a writer is able to immerse the reader in a world that feels familiar to him. In that world, the effective writer can show his reader how different people with different values handle the kinds of moral and personal challenges he himself is grappling with. A storyteller can challenge the seams of people’s worldviews, where nagging inconsistency and uncertainty clamor for resolution.

Storytelling is a very effective medium for influencing people. Consider the formation of the church itself. The book of Genesis, for example, introduces the reader to many of the Bible’s great truths, and yet does so through a compelling story. The Gospels, as well, introduce Jesus by telling the story of His life, not by laying out a set of facts to be memorized. The narrative is the medium that carries the propositions into the mind and heart. In his work Popologetics, Ted Turnau argues, “Narrative is key for both worldview and popular culture. We humans live through stories. That is how we make sense of the world.”

God began with storytelling. The details and holes got filled in later, by the Apostle Paul, for example, but they find their place in the mind when the mind says it wants to know more about the story it just heard. Perhaps one can say people don’t ask why until they know what. Herein is a lesson for the church’s evangelistic efforts. We Christians are grateful for the propositional nature of much of the Bible because it fills in the details of the story for us. However, the propositional aspects of our faith seem more and more foreign to our culture because those outside the church no longer have the narrative that goes with it.

Storytelling is not only a medium for communicating ideas. It also has the power to subvert ideas and beliefs that are already held. A gifted storyteller can influence how the receiver responds to the characters, situations and values presented in the story. These reactions have the power to influence the receiver’s response to similar real world situations.

Storytellers have been doing such subversive work for centuries. In England, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was a commentary on European politics and social theories of his day. Even the widely retold story of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol had a subversive goal. This was not merely a story Dickens was telling about Christmas spirit. He was engaging in social commentary, creating villains he wanted the reader to despise and victims with whom he wanted his readers to sympathize. And he was highly successful. Today, few people want to be thought of as the heartless, greedy Scrooge.

Here in the United States, subversive storytelling has a rich history as well. Consider the impact Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street had on perceptions of life in America or the effect Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had on the country’s understanding of the plight of the poor. These works met with severe criticism from some circles—some of it deserved, some not—but the stories had a significant impact on the nation. Of course, there have been much more controversial storytellers, as well, whose fiction helped shape the culture in which we now live.

The written word is only one medium. Film can accomplish the same effect, perhaps in an even more rapid and captivating way. In film, the spectator is introduced to a much more rich and layered world. It feels even more familiar. The emotions are more thoroughly engaged, as well as the mind, in this rich visual tapestry. With the scene vividly set, audiences are exposed to characters with whom they develop some level of emotional response dealing with situations they can relate to. Within that world, with the right storytelling skills, a writer can make practically anyone and any idea seem reasonable, desirable, or offensive. In our video-saturated culture, film and other forms of video are indispensable media formats for the engagement of our culture.

Engagement through visual arts

Another area of culture crying out for evangelical engagement is the visual arts. The modern world is fragmented. There is no sense of unity. The artists praised by art critics are those who best manage to represent that fractured state. This is the world as a people spiritually bereft see it. It is a world of chaos and uncertainty. It is a world with no discernible unifying center because much of our culture has abandoned the concept of universal truth. Yet universal truth still exists. Evangelicals must begin again to represent that universal truth in the visual arts. Painting, sculpting, digital art and other media must all be engaged by evangelicals determined to reveal to the culture its chaotic state and present a different vision for humanity, one where truth, cohesion and beauty do exist. We must show the world that the Biblical worldview offers a compelling and fulfilling vision of the world and life.

Currently, it is difficult to find truly compelling storytelling and visual arts that embody a Biblical worldview that has the power to change the way secular, non-Christian people think about life and reality. Evangelicals shouldn’t be surprised that the Biblical worldview is not presented in much of what the secularized populace consumes in the arts. The writers and artists do not share our worldview and are not interested in promoting it. If evangelicals want their story told, if they want people to reconsider their worldview, they must engage the storytelling and artistic process. They must introduce audiences and readers to real world situations that feel familiar to them and to characters that navigate their way through those worlds with their worldviews intact. They must present a vision of an alternative world to an unbelieving populace and redefine morality and beauty for them.

The challenges to evangelical engagement in the arts

Evangelicals must use these various arts to present the Biblical worldview in ways that are compelling to the secular mind, using characters or other forms in such a way that the receiver’s own worldview is challenged and shown wanting. I believe there are some evangelicals presently engaged mostly in telling God’s story and truths to God’s people who should consider that they have the gifts and the strength of their character and convictions to begin speaking to the non-Christian world. Personally, I am grateful for so-called crossover artists who take their skills and their values with them to engage the rest of culture for God. A number of evangelical musicians are active in this very endeavor right now. Such artists present the fallen world with a vision of life filled with hope and beauty, something those without God struggle often even to conceive much less live. I pray other evangelicals just now embarking on their careers, wondering where they can best utilize their unique gifts for God, will give serious thought and prayer to engagement in the arts.

There are some challenges, however. For one thing, we must not be overtly Christian in this task. Those who take this path must not be preachy or moralizing. They must let the medium they are using tell the story or present the idea. If we can present our worldview in these ways, we create the opportunity of gaining a hearing before we are written off in the receiver’s mind.

Of course, there are clear limits to this kind of engagement. One cannot achieve good through evil means. But surely, there is a lot of workable space between overtly Christian on the one hand and dishonoring to God on the other. We have a story to tell and truth to present. Given a fair, open-minded hearing, these will win out. Having done so, a change in the receiver’s values may not be far behind.

In addition, those who embark on this task must recognize that they cannot expect most of the evangelical world to support their efforts financially. There is a business model for explicitly Christian-themed movies, books and art. Christians will pay to be entertained, encouraged or challenged by them. They will not pay to sit through media that oftentimes is not overtly Christian or deals with less than model circumstances or settings. What will likely be required is the rise of Christian patrons of the arts who will help underwrite the costs of supporting emerging Christian writers and artists and their projects aimed at an unbelieving audience.

There also will be outright resistance. It is likely that some Christians will label as sellouts those pursuing this model of cultural engagement through the arts. They simply will not understand how a committed Christian can actually live in the secular, pagan, often offensive culture and work with that culture’s very media to influence an unbelieving people. Resistance also will come from the other end of the spectrum. Some current culture makers will resist any effort that challenges secularizing forces. Those who take this path should not expect worldly accolades. They will be vilified and denounced by many. It will be a lonely, hard path for some time for the most successful.

The resources for evangelical engagement in the arts

While there are numerous challenges involved in this effort, there are also considerable resources. For one, those who perform this service can know that God is available to help them. Jesus called His disciples the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16). By that He meant that we are to expose falsehood and point to truth. The word translated “world” is the Greek word kosmos. I. Howard Marshall (Gospel and Culture, 39) has said the Greek word “kosmos” is “the nearest thing that the New Testament has for a word for ‘culture’…which expresses the organized life of mankind in the created world.” Jesus intends for His followers to impact human culture. We are to bring God’s truths into human affairs. In doing this, we are working with God to accomplish His goal of transforming human culture.

We also have each other. This is where Crouch’s concept of “the three” comes in. Crouch recognizes that those who seek to create culture will need to be part of a small group of people—three is the norm—who share their commitment to introduce their cultural good. Crouch says, “Culture making is hard. It simply doesn’t happen without the deep investment of absolutely and relatively small groups of people” (CM, 243). The evangelical storyteller, the musician, the sculptor, the painter, and every person using the arts to introduce the Biblical worldview in a resistant culture each need a small circle of fellow believers committed to their success. A core of encouragers and supporters will be crucial for anyone who answers God’s call to this task.

The rewards for evangelical engagement in the arts

The course that I have laid out is not an easy one. The task of convincing fallen humans to choose a way of life that is contrary to the desires of the sinful nature will be difficult. We should not consider it impossible, however. It is possible for people without Christ to choose a life more in line with God’s moral law. If that were not so, our world would have collapsed long ago. Paul tells us people can do “instinctively the things of the Law” (Rom. 2:14). Evangelicals must help men and women reconnect with that “Law written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15). I’m not talking about a life of moral perfection. No one can fully achieve that, but humans can make better choices. Evangelicals can help point out what those choices are by shattering secular myths and holding up God’s design. The arts offer a way into the heart and mind like no other medium can.

The easy course is to withdraw and build our own counter-culture and watch as the culture around us dies. But such a response is wrong for a whole host of reasons. For one, we cannot inoculate all of our fellow believers from the lure of the secularizing culture. We are certainly not even accomplishing that much now. If we retreat, the culture will continue to decay and many more fellow believers will be caught up in it. If we engage, we can help our fellow Christians who embrace the culture to their detriment understand better the value of the Biblical worldview for their own decision-making.

But it isn’t only Christians who will suffer if we choose to withdraw. Millions of others will likely be affected as well. While we continue to seek to win people to faith in Jesus, we also can help make the lives they live better and less painful. Any life lived in conformity with God’s moral law will be a fuller, happier life if that person chooses it.

In fact, the course I am proposing can actually be thought of as pre-evangelism. As people are sensitized to the existence of universal absolutes and of God’s moral law, they will come face to face with the knowledge of their own sin. Conviction of sin is a prerequisite for faith, potentially making the task of evangelism easier as the Spirit of God continues His work.

Evangelicals have it in their power to choose this course. For the sake of the church, the culture, the nation, I pray we will.

Barrett Duke

Barrett Duke is the former Vice President for Public Policy and Research, at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is now the executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. Read More by this Author