“Daddy, tell me a story” is one of those requests each of my children uttered (and one still does) all through their childhood. Children love stories because they are created in the image of the story-telling God. Stories come in varying degrees of complexity depending upon their intended audience. The reason some stories don’t resonate is often because the medium in which they are told does not resonate with their degree of complexity. When my children were each little I could tell them a story using a picture book which had no words. As they got older I could use storybooks with pictures to tell a slightly more complex story. And when it came to reading the fantasy works of C.S. Lewis, there was only the occasional sketched picture. As our imaginations develop we increase our capacity for conceptualising complex stories which can be in words, text, pictures, dance, installations, music, poetry, drama, video, and fashion. I want to invite Christ-following artists to refocus their gifts and talents toward the One who gave them, because when we ask what’s it going to take to repair our society, artisans are a part of the solution!
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea. Psalm 106:7 (Notice how Psalms 105 and 106 tell a story)
TIERS OF STORY-TELLING
Ideas are the kernels of stories. Often times we don’t realise that the ideas told in stories have a powerful effect in shaping the way people see the world. If ideas are like water, the way they seep into a culture’s thinking often begins like a little trickle of water down a mountain which eventually grows into a mighty river. Ideas often originate in the halls of universities when lecturers promote their ideas to their influenceable students who will themselves become influential. These ideas, no matter how demonstrably false, such as a person’s feelings define their reality, find their way into the corridors of government. Because they originated in some professor’s “research”, politicians are often swayed by these ideas (without considering closely the actual evidence) – nearly always by hearing a supporting story from someone who is convinced that their imagined reality is actualreality. (History tells us that exceptional cases always make for bad legislation.) And while some people claim that you can’t legislate morality, the truth is, you can only legislate morality (it just depends on whose morality we are legislating!). Legislation is always education. It informs the thinking of a culture about what is right and what is wrong. This then finds its way into the arts of a culture. It pops up in TV shows. It’s normalised by Hollywood. It gets embedded into the novels we read. Poets lyric about it. Singers sing about it. Photographers capture it. Painters paint it. And voila! There you have it. Society unquestionably accepts that the Emperor is clothed with a beautiful suit of the finest golden thread!
These ideas are then discussed over kitchen tables. Thus, ideas trickle down through the various mediums of art (Textbooks > Legislation > Artistry > Dinner-table discussion) –
You will notice in my previous editions in this series I have already argued my case for the need for Christ-followers to enter into the upper tiers of ideation by the political and legal arenas, and the Academy. Many people have noted though, that it is at the level of the arts that ideas truly become accepted. It is claimed that the Scottish poet, Andrew Fletcher, wrote – “Give me the songs of a nation and I care not who writes its laws!” Whether this can rightly be attributed to the Scot or not, there does seem to be a lot of evidence that this statement rings true (note my article “Something’s Missing“). In fact, many social commentators are now claiming that politics is now “downstream” from the arts. And they maybe right, especially when you consider the history of Christian art and its influence for good upon culture.
And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the LORD had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. Exodus 36:2
THE HISTORY OF CHRIST-INSPIRED ART
From the first century, Christians employed visual art to communicate their faith in Christ as the Saviour of the world. Art is the communication of concepts (ideas). This involves the use of symbolism. God Himself has ordained to use symbolism to convey His Word: text. Early Christian art initially consisted of simple symbols, particularly the fish symbol. The fish was a commonly used symbol in Roman times, so when Christians began using it there were no suspicions raised. Like any symbolism, its power lies in the meaning invested in it. For the early Christians fearing martyrdom, it became a discreet means of associating without fear of publicising their meeting location. The Greek word for fish also formed an acrostic meaning: Jesus / Christ / God’s / Son / Saviour (ἰχθύςIchthys). The Gospel story of Christ taking 2 fish and 5 loaves was apparently something the first Christians re-enacted in their church service when, as part of their worship service, they ate a “Love Meal” together. This practice continued for the first few hundred years of church history. Second Century theologian, Tertullian, linked the symbolism of the fish to the early church’s practice of water baptism by full immersion to mark the new birth of a convert to Christ, “We, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water.“
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Mark 14:26
Music became integral to Christian worship very early. Some of the creedal statements in the New Testament are believed to be the basis of early hymns. These include – 1 Cor.8:6; 15:3-7; Gal.1:23; Rom. 1:3-4; 10:9-10; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Phil.2:5-6; Col.1:12-20; 2:9-15; 1 Pet.3:18-21; Luke 24:34; John 1:1-5, 10-14,16-18. The use of musical instruments in Christian worship also has a long tradition and its use in hymn singing served to help the spread of Christianity by helping the largely illiterate converts to memorise the truth of Scripture. By the 1800s Christian leaders such William Booth (who helped to found the Salvation Army) were using Christian music as a means of outreach to those on the streets of London. Music, lyrically and melodically, has the power to move people to the core of their soul like few other art forms can do. Even hundreds of years later, people are still moved by Handel’s Messiah, and touched by Franz Grüber’s classic, Silent Night.
The art of novel writing began in the 18th century. Some Christians, such as Jane Austen, wrote novels with a Christian worldview in a way that formed the background and air of her stories. Over in France, Victor Hugo wrote stories that were thematically Christian without being preachy. Les Misérables is considered by many to be one of the most powerful sermons on forgiveness and redemption ever preached. Incredibly, this story has been made into a movie at least 52 times (which includes international language versions).
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Isaiah 52:7
HOW NETFLIX HAS CHANGED THE GAME
Time was when Hollywood ruled the world. But no longer. Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have changed the way movies are watched and made. Added to this, traditional television stations are now offering some programs from their websites and mobile apps that they do not broadcast free to air. The digital revolution now means that aspiring film-makers have an opportunity previously unavailable to any other generation [Watch my movie]. I doubt that ten years ago anyone thought that someone could be a professional YouTuber. But now, there are thousands of video producers around the globe who have given up their day job to concentrate full-time on producing weekly YouTube videos. Amazingly, some of them are making tens of thousands of dollars a month in revenue! (By the way, thank you to both of my YouTube followers!)
Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of Me: Psalm 40:7
LEARN YOUR STORY-TELLING CRAFT
If you are an aspiring film-maker, a platform like YouTube is a great place to test the waters and begin to learn or hone your craft. If you’re an aspiring writer, learn or hone your craft through a commitment to writing a weekly blog or serialised novel. While you’re at it, take a course in English from ICI College Australia (affordable distance education). If you’re an aspiring song-writer, find other song-writers to collaborate with. If you’re an aspiring photographer, start posting on Instagram and see what others think. If you’re an aspiring actor, make sure you join a school production first, or a community theatre group. If you’re an aspiring dancer, get lessons. Whatever your art, do all you can to learn how to do it well. Be teachable. Ask for advice.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. Proverbs 9:9
If God has called you to be an artisan, I’m urging you to give your art to God as an act of worship. This doesn’t mean that you have to be make cheesy/preachy art. You might be subtle like Jane Austen or Victor Hugo were. You can tell real stories from a Christian worldview without necessarily telling the Christian worldview story. If you’re called to sing, you don’t always have to sing worship or Gospel songs, but you can promote the virtues of the Biblical worldviewthrough clever story-telling which also involves stoking the viewers’ imagination covertly.
A WORD TO THE WISE
Artists, whether they be audio producers, musicians, videographers, actresses, essayists, poets, advertisers, are the interpreters of ideas. They often take powerful concepts and package them attractively for people to consume over the kitchen tables. The Kingdom needs artists to tell a new generation that there is hope to be found in Christ. The King needs artists to show the world what love really is. The Lord of Life needs His redeemed and creative ones to expose lies and declare truth in a winsome and subtle way that people want others to see as well. But I have a word of caution for you who are these creative redeemed ones. Your craft is like a powerful horse that needs to be saddled. Underneath this saddle called “a theological education” is a blanket called the Bible. Commit to being a Bible reader who acquires a theological education. Just as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were part of a small group known as The Inklings, you need to be in a church-community – the Sunday gathering, and a small group that prays, studies and shares, together. Too many talented artists have come undone because they neglected these three essential things – and I don’t want you to be numbered among them! I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. Perhaps leave them in the comments below.