Claudia Osmond ~ Reader, Writer, and Ruminator

Let it Ride in the Trunk

In ruminating, writing on March 31, 2012 at 9:08 am

Here I am making dinner, but I haven’t been able to get this idea for a blog post out of my head for the last few days so I’ve got the laptop open on the counter and I’m jotting things down as I chop cilantro, mash avocados, and shred cheese. (can you guess what we’re having for dinner?)

I got caught up in a facebook conversation the other day that, when my husband noticed my involvement said, “Uh oh. I see you’re raging again.” Well, I wasn’t raging (really) and I practiced considerable restraint by limiting myself to only two comments when I coulda said a whole lot more. (Which, evidently, I’m going to do here, instead)

The topic that fueled my raging that wasn’t raging? The idea of a “Christian genre” in the arts. Let me just say that I’m not opposed to specifically Christian expressions for the purpose of worship; I totally believe in and respect that. Absolutely. But I am opposed to a label slapped on art forms for the purpose of separating them from “non-Christian” ones. So, since that facebook status forced me to revisit my views on this topic and I couldn’t shake it out of my head, I started thinking about how this issue relates to my own writing, especially being a writer who is a Christian. And also how this issue relates to the arts in general.

So, how did I (not) rage about “Christian genre” the other night? Well, I’ve got a few opinions regarding that topic, but I decided to focus on just one. (See? Restraint) Here’s an excerpt from one of my comments to give it to you in a nutshell:

One of the problems with the ‘Christian genre’ is that because its main goal has been to be ‘set apart’ in the creative arena, it has often sacrificed authentic human expression on the altar of message. When message trumps authentic expression, the art form will appear contrived, (because, essentially, it is) without exception.

Yeah, I’ve seen this in movies, read it in books, experienced it in paintings, heard it in songs: Maybe you have, too. In a desire to share with the world what is most important to them, some artists who are Christians have chosen to make the message they want to share the main focus of their art. And that makes it feel contrived, ultimately resulting in people turning away.

Now, before you go all “Yeah, those *%!@# Christians!” reread and replace the crossed out parts (below) with other things; things that different people are passionate about and want to share with the world. Maybe something that’s important to you.

One of the problems with the ‘Christian genre’ is that because its main goal has been to be ‘set apart’ in the creative arena, it has often sacrificed authentic human expression on the altar of message. When message trumps authentic expression, the art form will appear contrived, (because, essentially, it is) without exception.

Yeah, I’ve seen this in movies, read it in books, experienced it in paintings, heard it in songs: Maybe you have, too. In a desire to share with the world what is most important to them, some artists who are _________________ have chosen to make the message they want to share the main focus of their art. And that makes it feel contrived, ultimately resulting in people turning away.

See what I’m saying? This is a universal pitfall and no one is completely immune to it. We all have things we strongly believe in, things we wish other people would believe, too. Message is a part of who we are and we can’t get rid of it. Nor should we try to. But as artists, part of our responsibility in creating meaningful art with integrity and honoring our craft is by knowing when we are being tripped up by message. And this is why:

When a message (any message) or point (any point) is the main focus in art, authentic expression takes a back seat; the raw beauty of humanness that is crucial to creating vital, meaningful art is weakened. It’s limited. Overshadowed. Sometimes it’s lost completely. When we become absorbed with making sure we always include this, this, and this into our art from our repertoire of personal belief, our art is going to suffer. Why? Because we are more concerned about telling the things we believe to be true than we are about showing the things in our heart.

Human minds tend not to see eye-to-eye on very many things. But human hearts relate on numerous things. Tons of things. Things like love, loneliness, sorrow, joy, pain, anger, relief, frustration, confusion, fear, hope, shame, disappointment, desire, longing for peace. The best art identifies with those most basic instincts of our human hearts and puts them in the driver’s seat. The best art honors humanity as a whole and identifies with more than just a select group of people. The best art serves to expand and enhance viewpoints; to add beauty and value to the world, to our lives; to entertain and increase joy; to create a sense of solidarity among the human race.

Art deserves more respect than to be taken hostage, beaten into submission, and forced to deliver a message.

No question that I struggle with resisting the urge to take my writing hostage from time to time, myself, in my desire to share what’s important to me and what I value and believe with the world. I think it’s safe to say we all want to be true through our art; to have it express who we are as individuals, as creative beings, as intelligent thinking people. The good news is I think art most definitely lends itself to that, without being told how to do it. Since creativity is born in the soul and given wings in the mind, whatever lives within the artist will be evident in their art by default. No contriving required.

So, for the sake of your art; for the sake of all that is valuable, authentic, and meaningful; for the sake of your readers, watchers, and listeners: don’t let message take the driver’s seat. Confine it to the back. Better yet: take it hostage and let it ride in the trunk. That way it won’t be jostling up against anyone or up in anyone’s face. Some people, however, may choose to investigate what that quiet thump, thumping is that’s going on in the background. And once they dig around and discover what it is, they’ll decide what to do with it for themselves.

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  1. Wonderful post.

    I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a published author about his (at the time) most recent book. It had seemed to me that there were some messages embedded deep within the story, as if the story was hinting at something, and I asked him if he believed those things and had been trying to say those things.

    His answer was that he actually disagreed with some of what was there – but that those questions and answers and ideas were clearly where the story needed to go. That more important than communicating any “message” was the telling of a good story.

    Everything must serve the art. Everything must serve the story.

    Thank you for reminding me of this.

    • That’s a great example, Ishta. Art mirrors life; it’s not life itself. I don’t think the purpose of art is to offer answers to life, but to identify with it and bring to light some of the struggles and questions, hopes and dreams we all have. Because, really, we’re all part of one big cosmic story, aren’t we? Our situations are all different but the basic emotions we have are the same – again, expressed differently. But knowing you’re not alone in whatever you’re feeling offers hope. And offering hope is different than offering answers.

  2. Not sure if you want to hear from me, but I came across this and found it interesting. It’s from “Days of Praise”
    The Poetry of God
    March 18, 2010

    “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

    The word “poem” is derived from the Greek poiema. Used only twice in the New Testament, it refers to two great works of God Himself. Thus, God is the divine poet who has created two great masterpieces–artistic creations of marvelous intricacy and surpassing beauty.

    The first is the entire physical universe: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). In this key verse, poiema is translated “things that are made.” Everything in the universe, animate and inanimate, constitutes a marvelous product of God’s creative forethought and inventive skill. If a beautiful poem requires a poet to create it, so much the more does the complex cosmic poem of the universe demand a great poet of consummate wisdom and infinite power. The rejection of the poet and the message of the poem not only leaves one “without excuse” (v. 20), but facing “the wrath of God” (v. 18).

    Yet an even more amazing poem is the work of transforming redemption accomplished in a lost soul saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). For then it is we, ourselves, who become His poem! This also is a great creative masterpiece, for “we are his workmanship |same word, Greek poiema|, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” A life once dead in sin, now born again and walking in good works–this is God’s greatest poetic masterpiece of all!

    Both the mighty universe and the soul made new in Christ are special creations of God, and both manifest His greatness and His love. “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15) of grace. HMM

    Print this article | More Days of Praise articles

  3. Your article definitely has got me thinking about the purpose of art!

  4. Claudia!

    How I love when people post a blog that leaves no room in my head but thoughts of it and my own deep soul searching! Thanks to you, this is what I thought about all day – and because it’s what I thought about all day I’m afraid I may have a long and winded response, which I hope you will humor me with.

    First off, let me say that I ‘think’ I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Haha. I say ‘think’ because I am desperately wanting your blog post to be a conversation over coffee where I can ask for clarification on a few things and dig deeper. Alas, I will start with my long response and we can hopefully go from there!

    Here we go: I am in total agreement that “ideally art should be an authentic expression otherwise it will seem contrived”. Yes, absolutely.

    The very definition of art is: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Unfortunately, art is also subjective. I can list a few things that I would see as “pure art” based on the beauty I see or the emotions it evokes in me, but another person would disagree with me and think it’s contrived.

    You stated: “When we become absorbed with making sure we always include this, this, and this into our art from our repertoire of personal belief, our art is going to suffer. Why? Because we are more concerned about telling the things we believe to be true than we are about showing the things in our heart.”

    I get this! Art should flow out of the genuine expression of the heart. And, for me, the things in my heart are also the things I believe to be true. If I am unable to express that through my art then I am not being authentic in my art (my writing). Therefore, for a lot of the stories I write, the message and my heart are the same and therefore my authentic expression.

    Okay, I am finding it hard to agree completely with the following statement and I think, perhaps, it is the way I am reading it:

    “The best art honors humanity as a whole and identifies with more than just a select group of people. The best art serves to expand and enhance viewpoints; to add beauty and value to the world, to our lives; to entertain and increase joy; to create a sense of solidarity among the human race.”

    I agree that there is great art that does this (create a sense of solidarity) but if we were only to create art that could be agreed on would that not be boring? Where is the honoring of diversity, the respecting of another opinion, how can we grow as humans without challenging each other in areas of thought and creativity? Again, perhaps this was what you were trying to say and I am just not reading it that way.

    I do not think the statement “[Chirstian art’s] main goal has been to be ‘set apart’ in the creative arena” is necessarily true (it may be for some). For me, my main goal as a Christian writer or writer who is Christian is to use art so as NOT to be SET APART or cloistered in modern monastic communities. I want to be included in all of the conversations going on. Because the Christian voice is also part of humanity and has a right to be heard if it is said in an authentic, genuine, respectful, effective and gracious way and that is my goal.

    One of my favorite authors is C.S. Lewis who used the arts creatively to communicate so clearly!!!

    I think the problem is when Christians who are artists try to write like/sound like/be like someone that is popular among the non-Christian streams and then tack on Jesus as an afterthought just to prove a point.

    One more and I’m done
    …”So, for the sake of your art; for the sake of all that is valuable, authentic, and meaningful; for the sake of your readers, watchers, and listeners: don’t let message take the driver’s seat. Confine it to the back. Better yet: take it hostage and let it ride in the trunk.”

    If art doesn’t have a message that the artist is trying to express then what is it? Art just for the sake of art? Is a message not what drives art to begin with? Even if the message is a question they are trying to answer for themselves – ‘Who am I?’ or, a statement of self-expression – “This is who I am”, the person on the receiving end is still being given a message which they can then interpret for themselves. I would say Jesus was an authentic and effective artist using stories, parables, spoken word, etc. to communicate very clear messages. And people responded in a variety of ways…some accepting, some turning away. And that is what art does. It lets us walk away with the message the artist is expressing and then we decide what to do with it: embrace what the artist wants to say, interpret it our own way, or ignore it. What we can’t do is blame the message or the artist for our own response to the art. I would therefore argue that if you conceal the message that drives your art in the first place then that would not be authentic, valuable or meaningful.

    Great post and thanks for the brain fatigue. I’m going to bed now. 🙂

    Jordan

    • Wow, Jordan. Yeah, we should go for a drink to discuss 

      There is such a fine, fine line between message and authentic expression since message is such a deep part of who we are. So let me try my best to touch on a couple of the points you made above:

      When I speak of solidarity among the human race I’m not saying we should all create art that should be agreed on, because that deals primarily with our minds and we all know that’s a futile exercise – to ever try to have everyone in agreement. What I’m referring to is the solidarity of our most basic instincts: that we realize we can all related together when it comes to matters of the heart. For example: I can read a book written by an atheist and have it speak to my depression; I can be comforted knowing I’m not alone and it can give me hope that I will be able to deal. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with the author’s atheism, even though they have written the book from that viewpoint. Or I can listen to a song by someone who denounces the Christian faith and that song brings me to tears because it is so powerful in its presentation of the need for justice and peace in the world. Doesn’t mean I’m denouncing Jesus just because I love that song. Does that make sense? The best art defies the ways humans separate themselves by penetrating those barriers to find a commonality.

      I’ve had many times where I’m writing and I’ll switch from heart to head and just write what I think. Great chunks of it sometimes. And I even think it’s pretty good! But knowing I switched to brain mode at that point is my cue to revise and change it, and start focusing on the characters; their responses, their feelings, their reactions. After all, the book isn’t about me – it’s about them. Maybe I even have to cut out some of the blatant wordage that I think is so great because my character would never say something like that. I’m not saying to conceal message, I’m saying that it will come out naturally and not to be overly concerned that it won’t come out exactly the way YOU would say it. I’ve had characters say and do things that are contradictory to my own personal beliefs. But that’s them, not me. It’s my job to reflect real life, not just what I think. If it’s just what I think then that’s where it starts to feel contrived. This is where something like “Christian genre” can become problematic and exclusive, because it implies one viewpoint.

      It’s easy for us to say Jesus preached it straight up since we, on this side of history, have studied and know what the message of his stories was. But when he told them, half the time even his closest friends didn’t understand them! He presented the message inside of him in a way that focused on the human heart/the human condition – the woman who was devastated about losing her coin; the fearful worker who buried his treasure for fear of losing it. He used fig trees and seeds and oil lamps – things the people of that day could relate to. They couldn’t have related to him standing there, telling them straight up what he wanted them to know. But they could relate to the implications of losing a coin or the consequences of scattering seed on hard ground. His message came through to those who took the time to think about what he’d said. I think the closest he ever came to telling a crowd straight was when he’d say “And such is the kingdom of heaven” at the end of a parable. But it was still up to them to figure out what he meant.

      And, yes, C.S. Lewis was a master!

      Ack! Too long … and I could go on. But instead, let’s go for a drink … 

  5. Back in the early 90’s when we went on missions to Russia we were told not to take home any Icons because they were idols. Later, I was speaking to my Aunt who studied Iconography and she told me the purpose and style of the painting was to have people look through them and to God. That is why they use flat, simple images and not realism.

    I am trying to understand when something becomes an idol. Art and our response to it can arouse God’s passion. Consider the Golden Calf. I always think of that when I see the Oscars. It aroused God’s passion when people turned to their own creations. There are so many references to idolatry in the Bible…worshipping what our own hands create. Prophets were ruthless in destroying idols and pulling them down to restore God’s favour. Seeing the destruction in Jerusalem and realizing it was because of idolatry makes me tremble. Oh, but that little fertility god offers hope to a person who is childless. If it comforts them, what is the harm?

    Back to the icons….idols?

    But “art for arts’s sake” isn’t idolatry? Sounds like your eye or ear stops at the work of art and your attention turns to man and his abilities or inward to your own response. What about God’s passion?

    Yes, idolatry resides in the heart of man, but perhaps all the technique that Christian artists are so impressed with in the world is drawing attention to man, his abilities, his brilliance. Do you think it all impresses God? I go back to David and his simple strumming on a harp and the spiritual implications.

    I am so sad that Christians would throw mud on other Christians expression even if it is simple if their aim is to share the Good News (the message). Back to the original article. Was it kind ?

    What I see is Christians creating genres and sub genres 1) technical art by Christians that honour the art form first 2) art by Christians that is concerned with message first and 3) art by non christians….Art for art sake, art for God’s sake ….ahhhhhh my head is exploding!

    So what is the purpose of Art? Co creation? Sharing in His joy when he created and said “It is good”(I would be careful with that one since, even Jesus questioned a person calling Him good). Because we are made in his image? Frankly I don’t know anymore.

    All I know is I did not grow up in the church or knowing the Bible. I did not grow up with youth groups and “Christian music.” I can trace back bad decisions in my life when my spirit would resonate with this this song or that movie as I sought to find truth in them when they didn’t even present Truth. When I got saved I found artists who were standing for God and had a purpose for their expression bigger than themselves and resonating with them was not dangerous.

    On a lighter note….was the meat dress art?

  6. “In the beginning GOD created…and GOD saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good.” The Creator approved of his creation. He created for his own pleasure and purpose and he, himself measured the result with…”it was very good.” There were no critics, there was no, “Hey, Adam, do you like what I’m doing? What do you think, Adam, has GOD been good to you?

    GOD, The Creator wasn’t seeking approval and we are admonished to worship the Creator and not his creation. I believe that, (we) having been made in the image of GOD share the wonderful, intrinsic gift, that (we) also can be creative, and create.

    What (we) do not share with the Creator, which is within the heart, mind, soul and hands of an Artist is this: INSECURITY. Whether a writer, a singer, dancer, a painter, a sculptor or whatever kind of artistic expression one holds to there is an inner struggle between a spontaneous, unbridled expression of our craft and the inner critic that wants to deny that very expression as being “not worthy” or simply not good enough, creative enough to warrant expression. Apart from the inner critic are the countless voices of self-appointed critics who scrutinize and measure and weigh and categorize the artist and the art and to take it even one drastic step forward those that feel self entitled to judge a “Christian Artist.”

    Excuse me? Are you judging my “Christianity” which is my relationship with GOD, based on my art? Or, perchance you are judging my “Art” which is a personal expression of creativity, based on my relationship with GOD? My next statement is not the typical, “how dare you!” or “who do you think you are?” I know that the critic is not daring, in fact the critic risks nothing by criticizing the work of another. My next statement is, that perhaps, dear critic, as well-intentioned and self-important as you deem your critique to be, maybe just maybe it is based on your insecurities, your fears and your prejudices. The artist has already wrestled with their own insecurities, their own personal angst and have triumphed in their creative expression by producing something tangible.

    Claudia, I appreciate your discourse, reasoning beyond status quo and palatability. Something, definitely got twisted within parts of the Christian community who I perceive misunderstood the scripture from the days of Noah which described “men whose every thought and imagination was evil” and escalated the notion that imagination, and fantasy,
    in and of itself was evil. As an Artist and dare I say, as a Commercial Artist who worked in Advertising and Marketing, there were certain lines I would not cross, certain products I would not promote and certain clients I chose not to continue a business relationship with.

    My conscience being alive unto GOD, I didn’t require any outside “voices” advising me what to do or what not to do. We all stand before GOD, not just “one day” but every day in which the Father calls us to judge ourselves, so that we would not be judged. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading you book, I just received pleasure from seeing Jon’s expression while holding it. Congratulations on that accomplishment. You have managed to do what many artists fail to do, begin, yes, but also complete a work of art.

    Samuel T

    • Hi Sam,

      Passion and creativity are heart-born and intangible. Message is mind-born and tangible. Sometimes in our desire to translate the intangible into something tangible, we revert to using our mind more than our heart, because what’s in our mind is more familiar and easily accessible. The main point of my post is that I don’t think it’s the job of the artist to look for ways to deliberately nail down a message by way of their chosen medium so everyone understands exactly what they believe and what they want to say. What an artist believes to be true will emerge naturally if the focus is on passionate creativity and authentic expression. And that has nothing to do with worshipping the (method of) creation over the Creator. On the contrary – passion is the stuff of The Creator. It is the vehicle he’s given us that allows us to be co-creators with him. When art is birthed out of passion it naturally points towards the Creator, not away from him. Even the darkest art reveals the absence of light.

      Since passion is heart-born it should lead to authentic expression, which is very rarely perfectly defined and packaged. And if we create by way of authentic expression our narrow and incomplete ideologies of what should and shouldn’t be; what is and isn’t right, will naturally be restricted to the trunk.

      Am I judgmental? I sure can be. Do I appear self-important? Probably more times than I’d like to think I do. Do I have fears, insecurities, and prejudices? Absolutely. And those are the very things that cause me to be judgmental and self-important. But they’re also heart-born factors that contribute to my authentic expression as an artist. And, like you pointed out, it’s usually during times when I battle with these things and yield to authentic expression that my best art is created.

      Thank you for your passionate response.

  7. Many of my stories are about a simple idea. A message I want to express. The stories develop around that idea. ie. “sharing is better than greed” (Liz & Pip) “Perseverance is better than giving up” (Way to Go, Kid!) And “true love conquers all” (Paris Ballad). They were all inspired by my own life, my own experiences and real emotions – but they coalesced into something succinct. A message. A learning. An understanding. I agree with what Jordan wrote. The fact is there is good writing and bad writing in all genres. I don’t think I can separate my core values and beliefs from what I write and the overall takeaway from my stories. I hope to do it well enough so that it is both enjoyable and enlightening to all. I hope that through what I have understood and experienced, I can share. I haven’t read any Christian ‘genre’ fiction. But I have read a few books that have Christian messages in them. Most were great. As Jordan mentioned, CS Lewis is one. Madelaine L’Engle is another popular one. My very favorite author is William Blake who was highly religious – but a very free thinker – so he definitely made me see things in a new way. Messages to me just mean wisdom. Something to pass along worth looking at from a different perspective. Something you feel so strongly about – it must come out – it needs to come out. Sometimes it is in the guise of fiction. Some have more social messages – like Animal Farm, like The Hunger Games. They are both message driven. Otherwise it is just art for art’s sake. Which sometimes can work…but I find I am more interested and moved by work that has social value to it. For me, as Jordan said – it is the message, the meaning, the summation, the essence, that is the source of creation. Art serves the expression of the message. Not message serving the art.

    • Awesome, Jo! I really like what you said and I agree with it, too. Like I said in my post, message is a part of who we are and we can’t get rid of it, nor should we try to. And message will most definitely be a part of all we create. What makes all those books you mentioned so memorable was that they were first and foremost fantastic, highly enjoyable stories with relatable characters. I could still fully enjoy each of those books without having a clue as to what the intended message is. The story does not rely on the message. (although I suppose you could argue the message IS the story :)) I do love your point about message being wisdom. And it is also a wise writer who knows how to make it work. 🙂

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