If a church - and perhaps this happens at mosques, temples, synagogues, shrines and at gatherings for atheists and agnostics too - if a church talks about doing something important in its community you can be sure one thing that will never come up will be art.
Soup kitchens? Food banks? Study groups? Special speakers from out of town? Seminars on marriage? Grief counseling? Helping friends through a divorce? Raising teenagers? Prayer, meditation, critical thinking? Programs for youth? Programs for seniors? Programs for college students? Understanding the Bible or the Koran or the Torah or the Bhagavad Gita or the Book of Mormon or Das Kapital or Betrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian?
But outside of a gathering of university faculty or students or a group of artists, no one says, "Hey, how can we get better art out into the community, stories that entertain but that also make people think, paintings that mean something, better music, better dance, better film? How can we support those that write, draw, sculpt, do ballet or modern dance, act on stage, make films?"
Yet all of us are affected powerfully by what we read in print or online, the movies or DVDs or television stories we watch, beautiful paintings or photographs, powerful theatre.
So what's the deal?
All my life I've been used to churches asking, "Okay, how are we going to reach this community? How are we going to bless it? How are we going to make a difference?" There are plans for free car washes, friendship evangelism, Christian block parties or rock concerts or Christian films. Never do they talk about writers or photographers or painters or sculptors or actors.
I guess making a difference in a community almost never involves the artists that shape culture in the real world on a daily basis.
I've always loved to write short stories. But most Christians, apparently, don't read short stories, so the Christian publishers will not publish them. Yet in the world outside the church, at places like Borders and Amazon and Chapters and Barnes & Noble, short story collections abound. It's one of the voices of the people of the earth. Except in the evangelical Christian subculture.
I've always liked to write stories in a longer format, i.e., novels. But again, most Christians, apparently, won't read them so Christian publishers won't publish them. Oh, they'll publish Christian versions of Harlequin romances, prairie romances, Amish romances. But not novels as good as The Chosen or Cider House Rules or War and Peace or Message in a Bottle or All Quiet on the Western Front - which I can find outside the Christian bookstore in the same places I find the collections of short stories.
I've always loved poetry, but guess what? Books of serious poetry - like the kind created by John Donne or Robert Frost or Walt Whitman or W.B. Yeats or Dylan Thomas or T.S. Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins or Emily Dickinson - well, they aren't published by Christian publishers either and they aren't sold in Christian bookstores either, apparently because Christians can't get past the cutesy rhyming greeting card verses that pass for poetry in churches - but which don't pass for poetry in the world outside the church doors where books of deep and thoughtful and meaningful poems are a staple of existence in colleges and universities and at Amazon, Chapters and Barnes & Noble. People who aren't locked up in churches read deep poetry and wonder about life and death and faith.
So who needs me? Especially when a car wash really makes a difference in the world and a good book or story doesn't?
Well, first of all, for me, as a theist and Christwalker, God gave us a book of stories, of poetry, of drama, and that shows me he has a place for writers, not to mention poets, not to mention the sculptors and painters and makers of art he rates favourably in his own book, a book of art which they sell plenty of in Christian book stores.
Secondly, all my life God has kept opening doors for writing and publishing, regardless of the fact that to really bring life into a community, according to churches, what you need are food banks and sports programs. God has told me otherwise for half a century and I doubt this Person, who is an Artist of Artists, is ever going to tell me writing is a second rate way of serving God or the human race.
Thirdly, guess what? Not all Christians are squeezed into the anti-art jelly mould. Millions of Christians, who are not defined as evangelicals but who believe in God and in Jesus in a big way, care about novels and short stories and poetry and painting and music that is other than pop or rock. I found that out in Toronto last March when the Orthodox Ukrainian Christian community gathered to honour writers and poets and I was blessed to be there. I had more affirmation as an artist and writer in one night in that Orthodox setting than I've had in a lifetime in churches and Christian schools, with a few notable exceptions.
Fourthly, as I've just alluded, some evangelicals do care about creating and they do care about art and artists and they do think art matters as much to a person as food or drink or a youth group or a well-scrubbed Ford pickup. Because if you're going to eat and drink to live, what are you going to live for? And if you need a clean car, where are you going to drive to with it? And if art doesn't matter and neither do the people who make it, then why do you have a Bible, why do you go to movies and buy DVDs, why do you listen to music, why do you go to pop concerts (where all the songs are nothing more than poetry put to guitars and drums)?
Fifthly, if the evangelical Christians or Muslims or Hindus or atheists don't want to read, there are plenty of other spiritual people who do. In fact, there are plenty of other non-spiritual people who do. So I can write for them.
Finally, just a caution, even a warning, especially for Christians who, in a culture surrounded by various forms of art, don't think it matters. In the past, it was not so. Christians in Europe did amazing things in the sciences AND the arts. Look at the paintings of the great masters. Look at the sculptures. Look at the novels and poetry. Look at the classical music. Even in the 20th century, look at what Tolkien gave God and the world or C.S. Lewis or Tolstoy or T.S. Eliot or Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess or . . .
A people that do not have a poetry or a literature do not have a voice.
A people that do not express themselves in art and spirit do not have a presence.
A people that do not embrace depth will grow increasingly shallow and irrelevant.
A people that do not create in the colours and mysteries and complexities and deep simplicities God creates in will cease to exist.
Support your local artist. If you are a Christian, begin to bring these women and men seriously and intentionally into your prayers and plans along with missionaries and pastors and youth leaders and evangelists and food banks, youth programs and Christian rock concerts and movie nights.
If you are spiritual but not a Christian, do art within your own spaces and gatherings and beliefs.
If you are an atheist or agnostic, steer away from art as propaganda that you have scorned in many religious settings. Instead, let it be what it should always be, an exploration of the human experience and a quest to find the truth and understand it.
Christians, non-Christians, those of you who embrace theism and those who do not, those who run with the supernatural and those who are indifferent to it - make room for the artist, the writer, the dancer, the painter, the photographer - make room for the deep creations of the deep creators and their ever-deepening journey to discover, finally, the deepest truth.
The world you save may be your own.