Book Review: Imagine
“The Christian artist will often be an irritant…” So began one of my favourite sentences in this book. Thankfully the sentence ended not with any of the reasons why we may perhaps find other Christian artists irritating, but rather with the reason why art infused with the Christianity of its maker should challenge the dominant secular narrative – because it will be “disturbing the anthropocentric view of the world that fallen nature naturally gravitates towards.” So claims Steve Turner, poet, biographer and music journalist, and the author of this book Imagine, which presents “a vision for Christians in the arts”, as its subtitle helpfully explains.
The book begins in the first chapter with Turner autobiographically explaining how he came to perceive and experience the tension felt by many Christians working in the arts: that as artists, they felt misunderstood by their churches, and that as Christians they felt misunderstood or even maligned by those in the artistic community of which they were a part. Their caring but fearful church leaders counselled them against the dangers of the arts, advising them rather to use their gifts only within the church, whilst their urbane but critical colleagues in the art world derided them for holding to beliefs and an institution (the church) that seemed constantly behind the times in terms of innovation in art, and which had yielded some of the most mundane and kitsch creations the world has ever seen. Thus the rest of the book is concerned with how to resolve this tension, and even more, to exhort and instruct Christians not merely in how to survive within their field of art, but how to thrive.
With further chapters on…
- the history of the church’s relationship with art,
- the all-too-common misinterpretation of what the Bible means by “worldliness”,
- the false dualism of the “sacred/secular divide” vs. the Lordship of Christ over all things including art (and the legitimacy that gives),
- how the Bible’s overarching doctrinal categories of creation, fall and redemption can and should inform the art we make,
- the different levels of “Christian-ness” that may be exhibited in artworks by Christians
- the need for artists to be aware of the times, i.e. the changes happening in society, so as to respond pertinently,
- some examples of artists (particularly U2) who have done so, and
- the need for personal faithfulness, obedience and church fellowship for any artist that wishes to remain not only a Christian, but a potent witness within their field,
…the book covers a lot of ground, and is not only theologically robust, but practically helpful.
A superb overview of the world inhabited by the Christian artist with all its conflicts and questions, I would recommend the book to any student studying music, of whatever sort – whether performance or academic - simply so that we would all have a better basic understanding of the field in which we are working.
Undoubtedly however, it is particularly relevant to composers, as much of the book is concerned with new artworks being produced, and so I would say that this is a book no Christian composition student should be without. Of course, performers can be collaborative partners in the creative process, and I would hope that the book might actually inspire certain performers to work with their Christian composer friends to produce something new and challenging and unavoidably gospel-underpinned. So if ever you’ve had the thought “I know I’m a Christian, but I just don’t see how the gospel is supposed to shape my music-making”, then this book is a must for you.
Imagine is also incredibly affirming, and in the best sense. If you’ve ever been told, or had implied to you, or thought, something along the lines of “making music is a bit of a waste of time, unless of course it’s somehow being used to evangelise people”, then this book exposes the sub-biblical thinking that yields such sentiments, and liberates us to enjoy music for what it is, and instructs us on how and when it may be used effectively in our witness to others. As Turner says: “Art may be used to persuade. But acknowledging this is not to conclude that art can only be justified if used in this way.”
One of the book’s strengths is its balance and common sense, and it is filled with useful caveats and warnings in case something that has been propounded is taken to an unhelpful (and unbiblical) extreme. For example, on the one hand it elevates art to a rather noble height (“one of the valuable functions of art is its ability to deal with [anticipated cultural] shifts and prepare the population to look at the world in a new way”), whilst on the other it is brutally honest about art’s limited evangelistic capabilities (“I don’t expect art to convert people”). Here the final chapter is worth a special mention, as for much of the book, the artist has been exhorted to a noble vision, and as such pride is sure to be crouching at the door of those of us who rather like the idea of being seen as having a special calling with a divinely prophetic gift! And therefore very apt is its cautionary warning about the absolute necessity of Christian artists being part of a regular church fellowship such that they are held accountable and can continue growing in maturity as the Word of God is preached, leading to faithfulness and obedience. As Turner says, “lack of fellowship with a recognised body of Christians is the most common cause of artists loosening the moorings of their faith.”
Whilst I had a few quibbles with the odd Bible verse taken out of context, the occasional caricature, and the slightly unstructured prose within each chapter, this book is, as I have already said, undoubtedly an excellent overview of many of the issues, both practical and theological, facing Christian artists. Yes, there are books that go deeper into, say, the supposed “sacred/secular divide”, or the church’s relationship with art, but as an introduction, you would be hard pushed to find something better.