Monday, September 23, 2013

The Intersection of Art & Faith



***The podcast for the arts & faith panel I spoke at is now up here***

I've meant to write this post for a long time, but there are few things as effective for losing friends and alienating people as discussing religion or politics on the Internet. I'll leave politics alone. Promise.

A few weeks ago, my pastor asked if I'd be part of a panel discussion on faith and the arts. Because I'm such an extrovert (not) and am so good at speaking (not), I agreed and it seems like the perfect timing to share some of my journey to reconcile my faith with my art. Since I'm much better at writing than I am at speaking, I want to organize some of my thoughts here before the panel next week.

I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a Christian. My faith is a huge part of my identity. I (try to) read my bible daily and am part of a great church I attend (almost) every Sunday. My faith is not perfect and I don't always walkout my convictions (hooray for grace!). I've known enough hypocrisy, my own included, that I want my actions, my behavior and the way I treat others, to speak louder than my words. So I don't talk about my faith unless I'm asked.

I am a Christian and I do not write Christian books. Sometimes my characters swear or make bad decisions or do things that violate my own moral sensibilities. Because I feel that an honest reflection on life has more value than presenting perfect characters who never struggle. I have no problem with inspirational fiction, but I have no desire to write it. I feel no calling to that arena. But oh, did I feel guilty about that for a long time.

For some reason, the Christian church has placed this extra burden on artists, a higher calling to produce Christian art, as if the very act of creating doesn't bring glory to God. We don't expect Christian accountants to produce Christian spreadsheets. We expect them to be ethical, to do good work, to treat coworkers with kindness and employers with respect. But we don't assume their output must include a gospel message or they are betraying their faith.

Yet the minute a musician or film maker or artist professes faith, the expectation arises that they will include X number of references to God/Jesus/prayer in order to keep up appearances. Write a straight-forward love song and WHOA! Sellout! Never mind the entire book of the bible celebrating love. Never mind that God designed us to seek out romantic connections. Never mind that true faith colors everything it touches, even when it isn't explicitly stated.

There is absolutely a place for Christian music, for worship (here's looking at you, Aaron Gillespie), but there's also a place for art for the sake of art. One of my favorite examples is Mumford & Sons. Their first single includes a pretty prominent f-bomb right in the chorus. Yet that album is a more honest, meaningful explorations of a faith journey than anything I've heard from a strictly Christian artist.

I write about teenagers kissing. I write about identity and friendship and the struggle to make sense of life. I write well - or at least as well as I can. I work hard and diligently at my craft. Because I believe that telling honest stories in a beautiful way is pleasing to God. I believe that the quality of my work is of equal importance as the content. That how I live out my talents has value.

"In the beginning, God created..." and I believe that every time we create, we join with him in a divine work . Have you ever seen pictures of the creatures living in the deepest reaches of the ocean? They're beautiful. And why? No one sees them most of the time. Their beauty serves no purpose. How about snowflakes? They're impossibly small, yet so incredibly detailed. Or the range of sounds and colors humans will never experience. Creation is filled with senseless beauty because beauty alone is worthwhile.

By Edith Widder from http://anthonylukephotography.blogspot.com

What is beauty? Is a song with an f-bomb beautiful? Is a photograph of a hungry child beautiful? Is a book about teenagers falling in love beautiful? I think anything that reflects the human condition and helps someone understand some kind of truth is beautiful. Because sometimes we do eff things up. Sometimes a picture can deliver conviction words never could. Sometimes we need to hear our struggles - as frivolous as they sometimes are - are valid.

My faith is so ingrained in who I am, it informs every aspect of my life, even without conscious thought. As a Christian who creates art intended for more than just Christians, I've had to trust that this is enough. I believe that God is pleased when I use the gifts he gave me. That the extra burden placed on Christian artists is a human burden, not a divine one. That beauty is important because it's beautiful. Because for me, anything less is too narrow. It puts God in a box I don't believe he belongs inside.

I don't have all the answers. I don't even have a lot. I only have my own thoughts and experiences, gained from a life-long pursuit of truth. I'd love to open this discussion to anyone who would like to join in. I only ask that we all keep this respectful and encouraging. (And if you're around LA on Sept. 29, I'll be speaking around 11am in Santa Monica. Gulp.)

19 comments:

  1. I really, really loved this, and agree with you 100%. People who know I'm a believer have gaped at me when I mentioned my characters drop the f-word more than a few times. It's their choice not to read. It's my choice to present a realistic product (and when you're writing YA Contemp, a swear or two is bound to happen).

    I think writing is a God-given talent, and our talents are meant to be used for something beautiful and real.

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    1. Talents are meant to be used! I'm so glad I could encourage you :)

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  2. Oh thank you so much for this. I've struggled with that same guilt so much. It's so nice to know the decision I made to write YA fiction with real people isn't one I made alone.

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    1. I'm the same as H.e. Griffin, who pointed me in the direction of this post. Such a beautiful and honest and freeing post!

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    2. This was exactly my hope for this post! I want other artists to feel the freedom I believe we're meant to have :)

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  3. Beautiful post, Jenny, and so true. My non-writer life is pretty defined by my religion, and I think the scariest thing about actually getting published is picturing the two intersecting. The biggest reason I started writing was to kind of "live" the lives I didn't get to as an observant Orthodox Jew, so I *always* pile in all the things that weren't a part of my adolescent experience, from non-kosher food to public school to sex to Friday night parties and Saturdays spent anywhere but at home. I love writing all of those things, but I do often wonder what my friends and family who grew up like I did will think about the fact that I write about as far from my own religious life as humanly possible within the boundaries of contemp!

    I will say that I personally don't feel guilty about it; I think the outlet of writing is actually a lot of what's allowed me personally to maintain my observance even on days I'm not feeling particularly spiritual. (Which is most days, honestly. I'm not really a spiritual person.) But I know I'll feel guilty if it somehow ends up reflecting poorly on my family, or embarrasses them or whatever. Not sure what the odds of that are, but it's probably the aspect of the combination of faith and my writing that I think about the most.

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    1. That's a great perspective, Dahl. The outlet is good and in the end, our friends and families should know us enough to understand that our characters are not us!

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  4. I really appreciate this post. I've been struggling with this a bit lately. I usually write MG, but my current story is YA. And while my main character is probably not going to be doing anything I wouldn't (well, not much), it seems unrealistic that other characters in the story wouldn't be swearing, etc. It's often hard to reconcile the ideal that I'd like to see in life with how it actually is, and I know my story won't be authentic if I stick with the ideal. In any case, thanks for writing this. It might inspire me to post something along these lines myself.

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  5. Awesome post, Jenny. I've wondered these same things many times. At first I didn't want to have any sex or swearing in my books at all because I was afraid of what members of my church would think. But it just wasn't realistic. As I looked around, there were a ton of Christian, Mormon, and other-faith writers I saw putting those things into their writing, and they didn't seem to get any backlash for it, at least not in the public eye.

    I guess what I'm saying is I came to the same conclusion as you. I think creating is about reality. We try to give as REAL an experience as we can within the bounds of our artistic medium, because that's what people can connect with. And if they don't connect with our art, why do we create at all?

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    1. The human connection is so important! That's where the best stuff happens - when two people connect on a real, honest level. I hope my stories lead to those connections.

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  6. Wow! Great post. I have been struggling with be a Christian and writing Christian. But I can't. My stories involve supernatural, fantasy, kissing and sex. But it's from my imagination that was a gift from God. I don't think he woukd be mad puttting our work out there. I love everyone no matter what. I try to do good everyday. I don't hold to ignoring people not of my faith. I love talking religion. Sometimes I feel guilt on my writing but it's good to know I am not alone! All these comments are great and eye opening! Thank you for speaking the truth!

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    1. I'm so glad it was helpful! It's amazing how many people struggle with this. You're definitely not alone!

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  7. I applaud you for composing your thoughts prior to speaking -- always a good idea. However, as a man of faith and an artist, I disagree with your basic premise. You have not stated the core purpose of your writing, other than to emphasize the value you place on creation itself. I suspect that there are some things which, although they require creation, you would likely not support (such as child porn, nuclear mushroom clouds, profaned religious symbols, etc.) Though such things are all part of someone's 'reality', they need not be proliferated just for the sake of the creative process.

    For me, writing is no different. I do not validate the existence of all written works solely because they are the product of someone's creative process. Likewise, when composing a sentence which may or may not include questionable content, I do not determine what to include based on some nebulous idea of 'reality'. Individual and cumulative reality is based on perception -- and is different for every person and every group. And so, for me the question is not, "How can I best engage my reader by reflecting their reality in a recognizable manner?," but rather, "How can I convey to my audience ideas, or beauty, or experiences in a manner that will improve their personal reality."

    When I am faced with decisions about what language to employ, or what details to include (or omit), or even what story-lines to consider, being reminded of my core objective in writing helps ensure that I do not unnecessarily deviate from my core standards and beliefs.

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    1. I think that's where the idea of absolute truth comes in for me. I believe that honest, open search for truth always leads to the ultimate truth. I trust the journey. There are things I won't include in my writing, as there are things I won't consume. But that is based on that truth. There are also things I include that others may find offensive. For me, it often comes down to how they're presented more than what is presented. Sin can be glorified with a G rating, while the consequences of sin can be illustrated in very dark places.

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  8. You've just challenged me, Jenny. I am writing my first novel, and while faith and God plays a major role - I mean, c'mon, it's a story of faith lost, shattered, broken and restored - it revolves around a military couple. You've reminded me that I need to be real... and while I don't need to include every minor detail and raunchy element of a soldier's deployment experience, I cannot shy away from the fact that soldiers swear and joke and say things they wouldn't say in church on Sunday, just because this is a Christian novel. Christianity is for sinners, and we write to show truth and shed light on reality... and that reality is messy and rarely has a happy ending...

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  9. It is encouraging to find authors who value being true to life, and who do not sacrifice craft for the sake of heavy-handed message. We do a disservice to readers, I think, if our writing doesn't ring true to life but rather espouses what we THINK Christian writing must look like. Authors are real, complex individuals; readers are real, complex individuals. Our writing should be just as real, complex, and individual. I aspire to that.

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