I have often struggled with my duty as an artist and as a Christian and the ways in which they were and were not related to one another. The Contemporary Christian Music scene pushes it’s musicians to use their public platform for evangelism. However, many prominent artists from that scene rebelled against this notion. They knew full well that they were not qualified to be preachers. I generally championed the latter half and dismissed the first half as bad artistically and theologically.
This was only partially correct.
As a musician and more importantly as a writer, I fought to find a way to communicate this large part of my life, this thing that I wanted so badly to be the center of my existence, without sounding trite or sentimental. And yet, this seemed to be the terminal issue of virtually all Christian media that I encountered. The conclusion I reached was more or less one of giving up. I figured that if I put Christ at the center of my life that the Christian message would flow out of me naturally. Of course, I had no idea how to do this.
I was advised to pray more, but I couldn’t pray as I wanted to pray. I was advised to read the Bible more, but I couldn’t read the Scripture as well as I wished. The result of my labors was almost always disappointment. “Why do I bother?” I thought. Still, one born with the desire to create cannot simply cease. I make art because I have no other choice. It’s the deepest desire I have and there is no doubt that it is God given.
Aside from the glaring fact I now realize, that I was mostly concerned with my own glory, I also realize that the CCM crowd was right.
“Really?” you might ask.
And I find that much to my chagrin I must answer, “Yes.” However, it’s important to note that there is an issue in their approach.
Recently, in the Orthodox Church we commemorated St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Christian faith. He has a quote that I found particularly damning because of my laziness in finding a place for my faith in my vocation:
“I do not believe in the salvation of one who does not try to save others.”
Still, musicians and writers are not called to be preachers necessarily. So, how do I as an artist communicate about my faith, and more importantly about the God at the center of it, in an effective manner?
The answers at which I have recently arrived may sound medieval at first, but bear with me.
For starters, I do accept that Christians should seek to make art that is beautiful. That much I realize is definitely “old fashioned.”
Second, Christian artists should seek to tell the truth, even hard truth and communicate it as effectively as possible. Both the ups and downs are important. We must tell the whole Christian story. If we settle for talking about happiness and salvation all the time we miss the point. Also, as a wise woman pointed out to me, we run the risk of making Christ simply utilitarian. He is only important because he died for us and not because He is God. We can very easily ignore exploring his fullness, the entire range of his attributes.
In other words, the Christian should not shy away from the brokenness of the world, but should also seek to reveal the beauty and transcendence in all things, even the mundane. To quote the Roman Catholic mystic Brother Lawrence, “God is among the pots and pans.”
How does one communicate effectively though?
We can spend a tremendous amount of time trying to study beauty in art. We can imitate art that we find beautiful. We can talk about God’s beauty abstractly and put Him under the microscope theologically.
But all this falls short.
The primary task for the Christian artist is no different than the task of any other Christian in any other field: learning to pray.
Above the diligent dedication to creation itself, the Christian artist must learn to pray.
What was wrong with my approach to prayer before? What hindered my ability to pray diligently and pray well? Quite honestly, I believe it was an attempt to summon the words on my own.
I found the beginning of a solution to this problem in beautiful prayers handed down to us by the great Christian saints and most recently in the writings of a nameless Russian peasant.
Having completed “The Way of a Pilgrim” and “The Pilgrim Continues on His Way,” I stood face to face with a challenge that I had dismissed as hyperbole at earlier time in my life: pray without ceasing.
But this came with an acknowledgement that we cannot learn to pray on our own. Our faith, our works and our prayer lives are all gifts from God. We are too weak on our own to obtain any of these things. So what does God ask? What is within our power?
The anonymous writer’s answer?
Diligence is all we have. God meets us in our weakness. We can only continue to pray and not allow discouragement. Using the words given to us by the Fathers and Mothers of the Church and in the Scriptures is vital. Praying others’ words is how we learn. God granting words is how we learn. We have to immerse ourselves in God’s presence.
I am blessed to have found a home in Orthodoxy, where prayer is at the center of our lives. Prayer and worship are one in the same. The Divine Liturgy is one long prayer that we offer corporately. There is no distinction between music, prayer, theological teaching or the use of our physical selves in prayer. All is intimately intertwined in this one event. We sing and chant nearly all of the words of the liturgy. All the words are loaded with theological depth. We make the Sign of the Cross, venerate icons, offer incense and receive the Eucharist.
It is all prayer. It is all thanksgiving.
We immerse ourselves in God’s presence as often as possible because this constant prayer is absolutely necessary for controlling our passions (making emotions a tool and not our ruler), for sanctifying our reasoning (learning to contemplate God and His Creation rightly), and for illumining our five senses (learning to see God everywhere, seeing that all of life can be sacrament). Prayer is the means by which all of life is eluci
dated and it gives deeper meaning to all pursuits: art, science, philosophy and even math. God reveals himself in these.
God is Love. God is Beauty. God is Truth. God is Order. God is Reality. God is Life.
God is not Hate. God is not Ugliness. God is not Despair or Confusion. God is not Suffering. God is not Death.
Find a mantra. Learn to pray “contemplatively.” The great monastic Desert Fathers recommend frequent repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” which takes the following form:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The Desert Fathers teach us to say this quiet and slowly, breathing steadily. In time, many practitioners of the Jesus Prayer have learned to pray it, not just in solitude, but while going about all their daily tasks. For more information on this old and wonderful prayer go here.
Western writers, like Thomas Merton, have recommended finding a meaningful passage of Scripture to meditate on frequently.
Whatever you do, commit to it. Don’t give up if results aren’t instant. Avoid believing any impulse to think that you are hopeless or, conversely, that you are holier than you are in actuality. Each of us must say with St. Paul, “I am the chief of sinners,” but we should not succumb to despair.
If we are to communicate God effectively to others with our art and every fiber of our being, we must begin with self-discipline by committing ourselves to the long process of learning to pray without ceasing—learning to dwell in His presence at all times and in all places.
So what does good Christian music sound like? Here’s my favorite Christian artist, Arvo Pärt :