One of the foremost thinkers concerning the topic of Christians in the arts must be Steve Turner, author of the pivotal work Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. It was a work that moved me greatly and I’ve read it a few times to cement the truths found inside.
Steve has also written several other books, ranging in subjects from The Beatles to Jack Kerouac and some poetry in between. Still the topic was the arts and the Christian engagement within them that we discussed the most in our conversation a while back.
Matt Conner: To begin with, what would you say is the single greatest tension for the Christian artist today?
Steve Turner: The biggest problem is knowing how to integrate the Christian view of the world. Christians often develop a Christian view of, say, prayer and scripture but don`t think of having a Christian view of the normal stuff of everyday life. If they do not have a Christian worldview, they will inevitably just take the dominant view of the culture they live in. In the West, this tends to be some form of humanistic materialism. So the most important preparation is the development of a Biblical world view.
Matt: Would you say that not enough Christians involved in the arts have a Christian worldview? Why or why not?
Steve: Christians have been used to dealing in ‘messages’ because preaching has been their main model of communication. This has prepared them to understand propaganda more than art. Having a view of the world is more subtle and complex. However, if you look at the work of The Beatles, they rarely indulged in propaganda. Maybe they did on songs like “All You Need Is Love” but they largely communicated what they believed by touching on a whole range of human issues and adding a spin that came from their way of seeing things. So they wrote about sleep and love and sunshine and doctors and taxmen, but in doing so they built up a picture that defined their viewpoint.
Too often Christians know the Christian view on the Bible and prayer – in other words, on the overtly religious – but not on the things that take up our everyday lives. I think that has happened because Christians haven’t been encouraged to think Christianly. They think Christianly about worship on Sundays but switch to a normal, secular frequency during the rest of the week.
Matt: You recently wrote a book entitled The Gospel According to The Beatles. Why write this and what can we learn from them?
Steve: I spent my teenage years listening to the Beatles. The very first article I ever wrote was on the Beatles for their fan magazine The Beatles Monthly. I’ve always found them exciting and interesting so it’s a great pleasure to be able to investigate them in more depth.
As a Christian I’ve always been interested in the way they fused their changing beliefs with their music and how the music in turn affected a whole generation. So this is what the book investigates and hopefully people will learn about the Beatles, the Sixties and how they affected each other.
Matt: How did you go about writing the book? You mentioned investigating them in more depth…
Steve: First I try to read everything available, not just in books but in papers and magazines. I’m obviously especially keen to find all old interviews with The Beatles. Then I set about interviewing people who were part of their lives. Then there are archive searches where you might find previously unknown material. Writing a book like this you can’t afford to just repeat all the old stories. You have to check them out to test whether they are true and, hopefully, to build a fuller picture.
Matt: What exactly is the gospel according to The Beatles?
Steve: The book goes into their changing beliefs starting with their upbringing in different churches and ending with what they believed before they died (in the case of John and George) and what they seem to believe today (in the case of Paul and Ringo). I explain their gospel as one of expanded consciousness. They identified the problam in a song like “Nowhere Man” (“He’s as blind as he can be…“).
All the answers they came up with, whether it was drugs or eastern spirituial practices, had expanded consciousness as their goal. They believed that a child naturally has this consciousness and yet we lose it as we grow older. If we regain it, we see everything with a greater degree of clarity and are able to enjoy the present momenet rather than get hung up either on the past or the future.
Matt: What did you personally take from your research in the book? How does their gospel affect you?
Steve: It just gives me a deeper understanding of their view and how it did affect and continues to affect society. People who are now in important decision-making positions are people who grew up on The Beatles. I’ve just come back from India because I was able to do a travel story on The Beatles India. I went to Rishikesh where the Beatles studied meditation. I had previously read a lot about Hindu beliefs but nothing can quite match sitting and talking to many different people. I think it strengthens my Christian faith when I confront other belief systems. I’m not persuaded by The Beatles’ gospel but I hope that I understand it well enough to present it fairly.
Matt: You mention trying to understand their gospel well enough to present it fairly. Going back to what we were talking about before with Christians in the arts, who do you think is presenting the Christian gospel well enough to present it fairly?
Steve: I wasn’t meaning that The Beatles presented their gospel fairly but that I could understand it and then explain it to the public in a way that was fair to the beliefs of The Beatles. In other words, if Paul McCartney was to read the book, I would hope that he would think that I hadn’t twisted what they said to serve my own purposes but had presented a balanced and thorough picture.
As to the Christian gospel, the best example is what U2 has done. I think the gospel impinges on all that Bono writes. I think he presents us with a picture of the whole of life as he experiences it and because he is a believer we get to see life in the 21st century [in the] West as experienced by a believer.
Matt: But very few artists today are creating art that is truly holistic in nature. You mentioned before that it’s a worldview problem. Is that true of the lack of holistic art? And what do you even mean by that?
Steve: I’m not sure what you mean by holistic. Worldview literally means having a view of the world and everyone has a worldview. Very often, people’s worldview is conditioned by their environment and so they’re not even aware of where it comes from. I am suggesting that Christians tend to have a Biblically informed view of, for example, prayer but not of economics, leisure, fashion, health, etc. Therefore, their views on everyday matters – that area of life they probably view as “secular” – are just borrowed from the surrounding culture.
If you take an artist like Beyonce, she appears to have a Christian view of Bible reading, church and prayer (from what I’ve read) and yet her performance, rather than challenging the predominant culture, is a reflection of its current demands. There was a program about Britney Spears on TV and writer Chuck Klosterman was saying that when he interviewed her some years ago he asked her whether she thought her (then) defense of chastity before marriage was at odds with her stage shows and videos where she tended to dress in school girl uniforms and act the temptress. He said that it was one of the strangest moments he’d ever experienced in an interview because she was just dumbfounded. He said it was as if the thought had never occurred to her.
Matt: OK, then I would say that Christian art tends to only reflect a Biblical view of very few aspects of life. For example, the Christian tends to completely avoid writing, painting, commenting, or sculpting anything to do with sex. Yet, sex is definitely a dominant part of our culture, therefore our worldview. How do you speak to Christians regarding this disconnection from the whole of life?
Steve: I could only say to them what I have already said. Having said that, things are an awful lot better now than they were 30 or 60 years ago. There are now so many books that examine different areas of life from a Christian perspective. There is far more involvement in politics, both from the left and the right. In my book Imagine I trace this split back to Plato who thought that our aim was to connect to the spiritual world through our spirits and saw our bodies as an impediment to this. We often reflect this split by thinking that we’re most pleasing to God when we’re praying, witnessing or praising and least close to him when we’re doing something purely physical like running, eating, dancing or love making. We’ve tended to treat ‘the world’ as an interference, something that we have to put up with on our way to heaven.
Matt: While you said things are a lot better now, what are some of the directions that you still think we need to take? Are there some immediate, tangible steps that we are missing?
Steve: I think it has affected groups of thinking Christians, possibly mostly those in the major cities. I don’t think it has persolated down to the grassroots. It certainly hasn’t affected the fundamentalists. American “Christian” TV is a huge enemy of this worldview thinking, and possibly a huge enemy of Christianity. The CCM industry also stifles it by creating a genre of music where it’s possible for Christians to sing to Christians about Christian things in a Christian language. We have just developed a very narrow idea of what “Christian” is. I saw an entry in a directory for Christian artists where someone had advertised themselves as writing “poetry both Christian and non Christian.” I think he meant poetry that was specifically religious and poetry that was about everday life but he had unconsciously betrayed the fact that, when he wrote asbout ordinary events in his life, he thought of these things as somehow outside his experience as a Christian. As though God is not interested in us walking, eating, fishing, playing ball, shopping, etc.
Matt: Can you speak on this further? This idea of God being just as interested in those last things you mentioned. I think this idea might even be new or at least uncommon to some of our readers and I would love to have you expand on it rather than assume people believe or know certain things.
Steve: We have to remember that God made us as humans, not Christians. He created the human race and the environment of the world and was pleased with what he had created. He imagined us enjoying our lives in this space He had created. The actor playing the athlete Eric Lidell in the film Chariots of Fire is made to say, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” That is a good doctrine of creation. When we do human things in the world God made for us, God gets pleasure. The need to be Christian entered with the fall. We needed to be redeemed. But, far from wiping out God’s orininal intentions, it confirms them. To be Christian is to be on our way to being fully human.
Hank Rookmaaker the Dutch art historian used to say, “Christ didn’t die in order that we could go to more prayer meetings.” People would gasp at this. Then he would add, “Christ died to make us fully human.” That’s right. He didn’t die to make us religious, but to make us human. In our fallen state, we lack the completeness of our humanity. The monastic tradition makes the mistake of thinking that God is best pleased with us when we cut ourselves off from the world, deny ourselves pleasure, refrain from marriage and devote ourselves totally to religious activities. This almost assumes that God made a mistake in putting us in a world of pleasure, culture, art, nature, work, companionship, etc. Fundamentalists would hate to be compared with medieval monks but, in many ways, they suffer from the same split.
Matt: So what is the responsibility of the artist in light of this?
Steve: The main responsibility of an artist is to his/her own talent and to the art form they are working in. You can’t be responsible for how people interpret your art. First, you have to discover and then nurture your own talent. Don’t squander it. Learn all you can about what has gone before. Serve an apprenticeship. Secondly, you should try to make sure that your art form is kept healthy. Christians have so often ‘used’ an art form sinply to put over a ‘message,’ but have had no love for the art form. They haven’t wanted to leave film or the novel in a better state because they were there. But because these things are good and are pleasing to God, we should make sure that we tend and look after them. The arts help to preserve and invigorate language. They sharpen our vision. They make us notice things. They bring greater understanding between people. We have to respect them.
Matt: What are some tangible things that other artists who understand this responsibility can do to nurture this growth and understanding in other artists? In other words, you mention apprenticeship and my mind goes to mature artists helping to mentor younger ones or experienced artists helping those who need to explore their craft.
Steve: Those of us who have not only been thinking about these isues for years but have had opportunities to put them into pratice in the arts and media can pass on our expertise to the next generation. What often happens is the older people leave the big cities and find themselves overwhelmed with work and family so that they’re no longer at hand to share. I’ve had the privilege recently of being able to share with groups of artists not only in America and the UK but in Germany, Sweden and France. My book Imagine has been translated into many diferent languages including Chinese, Portugese and Spanish.
There is a lot happening around the world and people are hungry to know how to proceed. I’m glad to be both a theoretician and a practitioner because they feed each other. If I just had the theories but had never been involved in the arts I would lack confidence. If I had just worked in the arts but hadn’t developed any theories I would feel that I hadn’t been faithful in my calling.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.