Basically just a shout-out from me today: I commend to you Jason Lief’s article in the new issue of Perspectives, “Leave Metallica Alone!” Jason rightly worries about certain trends in Christian cultural engagement which, in the name of “common grace” and a desire to be “relevant,” seek to affirm the goodness of pop culture by, say, “taking Metallica to church”–or Coldplay, or Glee, or Downton Abbey, or what have you. Jason’s caution is instructive:
I have to admit, I wonder about the notion of God speaking through Metallica—or any other genre of popular music, for that matter. The power—and, I would argue, the beauty—of Metallica’s music, and of heavy metal music in general, is that it represents a human response to a specific historical experience. Study the history of metal and you find that it developed in the economically depressed industrial areas of England during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Look at any group of metal heads and you’ll find young people pushing back against what they perceive to be a lack of control, a lack of freedom in the way they want to live their lives. What heavy metal does through the music and theatrics is rupture the cultural space, poking a finger in the panoptic eye, carving out a tiny spot these kids can call their own. I’m not sure this is God speaking through Metallica so much as it is Ulrich and Hetfield (Metallica’s cofounders) speaking to the human condition. The last thing the church needs to do is try to take them to church.
Indeed. A truly Reformed engagement with culture–and the arts–is not synonymous with evangelical strategies that, trying to overcome their past fundamentalism, eagerly baptize popular culture by “finding God” in every album and sitcom. Elsewhere, in an essay on the poetry of Charles Wright, I echoed Jason’s critique of such co-option and “theological instrumentalism.” Since it chimes in with Jason’s argument, let me cite the beginning of it here:
Of late, a stream of Christian cultural criticism has encouraged conservative evangelicals to “look for God” in contemporary culture. Exhorting us to overcome a rather Manichean dissection of the world into holy and profane, this mode of cultural engagement encourages us to “find God” in contemporary music, Hollywood movies, and various forms of popular culture.
I’m not convinced this is the best hermeneutic frame for appreciating the arts. It still tends to instrumentalize the arts as a conduit for a Gospel “message” or “theistic” propositions. The result is too often a fixation on God-language in cultural artifacts or—worse—belaboured allegorical readings which see “Christ figures” everywhere.
We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters is not always and only to hymn the Creator but to also and often be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. With that rich creational mandate, a Christian affirmation of the arts refuses the instrumentalist justification that we “find God” in our plays and poetry. In a way that is provocatively close to the aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, such a creational framing of the arts grants license for art to be quite “useless” —to (almost) be art for its own sake, for the sake of delight and play, for the sheer wonder and mystery of creating. Some of our best artists show us corners of creation we wouldn’t have seen otherwise—and often because they’ve just given birth to a possibility hitherto only latent in the womb of creation.
Unhooking the arts from a “theological” instrumentalism also grants space for the arts to reveal the brokenness of creation without being supervised by a banal moralism. A painting or a poem reveals the world with a harrowing attention that will sometimes bring us face-to-face with what we’ve managed to willfully ignore up to that point.
In sum, the arts can be a means of what we might call “horizontal” revelation without necessarily being connected to “vertical” revelation. Like the book of Esther, God might never show up. Nonetheless, the Creator might best be honoured when we face up to the puzzling, mysterious nuances of his creation.
Jason’s article brings this point home in a missional way. Be sure to read it.