The Redeemed Imagination and the Problem of "Safe" Art: A Conversation with Brian Brown
Brian Brown is the executive director of the Anselm Society, a Colorado-based group founded in 2013 for the purpose of cultivating a renaissance of the Christian imagination. In addition to hosting conversations with towering figures like Michael Ward, Anthony Esolen, and Peter Leithart, the Anselm Society also runs an Arts Guild to provide community and spiritual formation for artists. The Anselm Society’s name is inspired by the eleventh-century archbishop of Canterbury, who defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” This is the work Brown hopes to accomplish. He believes that a revival of common and sacred art in the church is necessary to complement the truth coming from the pulpit. FORMA’s own Emily Andrews spoke with him about his vision for the integration of the Church and the arts.
This conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Why is imagination so crucial from your perspective, and why does it need to be redeemed? What should we be looking to be formed or redeemed into?
Short answer: the world needs Christians, and we are woefully ill-equipped to form them with consistency. My oldest child is nearly three. My wife and I have been tasked with raising a man of God in a secularized environment. Like nearly all modern American parents, we are so alone in this task that it is terrifying.
Whatever the flaws of the pre-modern Church, they knew through experience what modern social science has validated about how human beings are formed. People can’t live nearly every moment of their lives on this inexorable conveyor belt toward the world’s goals—school, job, security, affirmation, sex, entertainment—and remain Christians in any meaningful sense through sheer force of will. Parents can’t put their kids onto that conveyor belt and run alongside it, yelling out Bible verses at dinnertime. Pastors can’t simply position themselves at weekly intervals and hand out sermons. The conveyor belt always wins, if you stay on it.
If the word “Christian” is to mean someone so wholly redeemed, so thoroughly sanctified, that he plays a role in the Body of Christ in making all things new, we need to start doing some things very differently. Such people need stories and songs and images; they need celebrations and remembrances that bring meaning rather than just chronology to the passage of time; they need communal habits and rituals and memory and shared priorities that work together with everything else to constantly tell them who they are, Whose story they are in. They need to eat, sleep, and breathe the Beauty and Truth and Goodness of the Kingdom of God, so that the ugliness around them is their mission field rather than their home.
If there are a lot of churches providing all that, I haven’t seen them. Most churches, even apparently thriving ones, are at best defending the last gate in the castle—secularism has taken the outer walls. (Secularism literally built the outer walls.) And if my children are to be raised in a church, institution and organism, that can make real Christians out of them, those heroic churches need the help of the lost makers of meaning—the artists.
Why is art so necessary to help human beings get off of that conveyor belt? What is it about stories and songs that can change us in a way that simple injunctions or “yelling out Bible verses at dinnertime” can’t?
We orient our entire lives according to what we love most, and unlike facts and aphorisms, our story doesn’t just tell us what to love, it shapes what we love. We are either living out our own story, in which our guiding love is some desire for fame or wealth or validation, or we are discovering our place in the Great Story, the one all the best stories point to and are a part of. We interpret every individual experience we have in light of the story we think we’re in.
Every great society—every society—has believed that in order to find not just the truth but the meaning in everything, you need to be embedded in the tapestry of stories that cumulatively tell you who you are, what matters most—what must be fought at all costs, and what must be loved at all costs. And so they created songs, and poems, and statues, and paintings, and oral stories, and written stories . . . tragedies to make you weep even though they weren’t really happening, triumphs to make your heart leap. They oriented their entire community lives around rehearsing and remembering these things.
The Christian liturgy and the liturgical year were a way to not just tell you a story, but to invite you into it—not simply because people were illiterate, but because the faith wasn’t just a matter of belief or choice; it was a matter of learning to love Him who is most worth loving.
Would you mind explaining the difference between sacred and common art? What various roles can these two art forms play in forming the kind of Christian memory and meaning you’re talking about?
A preface: to paraphrase Mr. Beaver, Christian art shouldn’t be safe; it should be good. Historically, everywhere, people have made a distinction between sacred art and common art (my terms). Sacred art (I love the way the Roman Catholic catechism describes it) facilitates communal worship of God; it reminds the Church of who God is and its core identity in relation to Him. Art like Bible stories, architecture that teaches about Christ, and music that sounds like it was written for the throne room of God (which is precisely what we’re practicing for!) are sacred. Common art, then, walks out the church doors with the members. It helps them navigate the much tougher question: how do I live out that identity in a world that assaults or subtly undermines it at every turn? In both cases, the goal isn’t simply a message, or to communicate truth, but rather to help people experience it.
They need each other. Sacred art represents an ideal, but the world is broken, so we need art that helps us right where we are. On the other hand, common art can’t do justice to reality from a Christian standpoint unless, as Flannery O’Connor said, its creators have been so deeply formed by the Church (i.e. by the sacred art, among other things) that they don’t have to consciously think about being Christian artists.
But somehow, the recent American church decided to largely abandon sacred art. Some were enthusiastic and some grumbled, but the result has been fairly universal. Now our churches look like office buildings and our songs sound like everything else on the radio. Overall we’ve said, “You know what, world, you win—we’ll play entirely as the visiting team in your ballpark; in fact we’ll even let you decide what game we’re playing—but can we mention Jesus at halftime?”
This has profound implications for the church’s ability to create the kind of Christians I described earlier. The best artists don’t even get involved with the Church as artists because the whole situation undermines the integrity of their craft (and because the Church only knows what to do with them if they can play in the praise band). Sacred artists go extinct. Common artists find themselves with a constant pressure for their art to provide something like the kind of comfort sacred art is supposed to provide—to be safe. The very people who are supposed to help us grapple with the darkness in the world are told by their fellow Christians, even by pastors, to take the darkness out; to sanitize; to add a conversion experience so it will be a “Christian” story.
Thankfully, the tale is not over. Most of the artists I know in church rebel against the term “Christian artist,” because it has come to mean “artist who has sold out his craft in order to be safe and deliver appropriate messages.” They tend to prefer “artists who are Christian.” But there’s a final step coming; the reversal of the noun and the adjective; the identity and the modifier: “artist Christian,” identifying a generation of artists who have regained the integrity of their craft within the Kingdom context, and been so powerfully formed by the Church that like every other member of the Church, they reflect the Creator God in whatever way is most beautiful in their craft and calling.
How can those who see the need for the “artist Christian” continue to encourage that reversal? I think many people experience the kind of isolation of which you spoke. How can we participate in this renewal if our own communities haven’t yet caught the vision?
The best advice I can give without context is: stop waiting and plant a flag. You’re not as alone as you think. Share what you love and offer hospitality to others like you. It doesn’t have to be fancy; people are pining for this. The Anselm Society started because we organized one little event to talk about C.S. Lewis, and were ready with an answer when people asked, “What next?”
If your church is supportive, get them to do one thing to support artists—lead it yourself if you have to. Not a big thing, just a gesture that shows artists you love them for who they are and gives them a chance to raise their hand. Let them begin to see the church as a place of welcome. A breakfast with a speaker. An adult ed class on some favorite books. An invitation to create.
If you can’t get your church excited about anything in this vein yet (or rather even if you can), start by looking for artists in your orbit and loving them. Start with one, and commit. When they tell you they’re an oil painter or a novelist, instead of saying how nice that is and letting the conversation die, ask, “So what have you been struggling with lately in that?” (Even if they’re too shy to answer well, they will never forget you asked.) Invite them over for dinner. Go to their gallery opening or their night playing at the coffee shop. Don’t stop after two weeks. Don’t give up.
You don’t have to do any of this alone. Connect with groups like the Anselm Society and the Rabbit Room that are committed to providing resources like stories, music, podcasts, and online connections with like-minded people. Email me.
Thus far we’ve been talking about art that grows out of faith. But I wonder if you have any thoughts on how Christians ought to interact with art produced by an unbelieving culture? What should be our attitude toward art whose philosophical and theological premises we disagree with?
God designed the universe according to His nature, so we should be shocked not to find things that point to truths about it all over the place. Anyone with some intellectual honesty can see glimpses of Truth and Beauty and share them—some of our best Christmas carols were written by atheists!
I think in a world where only safe art is valued, there is the temptation to look for ideological purity in it—or to look for everything to provide the whole answer to a question. But the truth, to quote a brilliant atheist, is rarely plain and never simple. Our perspective is always finite, always limited. With sacred art, with church, we’re justified in entering the experience with some expectation of being surrounded by the whole truth (even if that truth is uncomfortable because we ourselves are flawed). But common art is contextual; it should never have that pressure put on it. A non-Christian film director can ask a deeply penetrating question that helps us see a sliver of reality more clearly, even if he can’t always answer it. Sometimes, in limited doses, we can even get value from omission, like the darkness you see in Breaking Bad or even Seinfeld—by pulling all the light out of a story, you can be reminded what life would be like without it.
With art (by which I mean everything, including writing and music), our goal shouldn’t be to have a nice, tidily packaged truth nugget delivered by means of an artistic vehicle. It should be to understand, to experience reality more deeply. Someone who knows the ending of the Story can, potentially, provide a richer, fuller experience than someone who doesn’t. But if we’re operating out of the context of that whole Story, and we’re not confused about who we are within it, even a small addition to our understanding (repeated many times with many pieces of art) is significant. That’s why, beginning with Paul in Athens, the early church found pagan traditions or legends that had glimmerings of Truth to them and usually said, “It’s awesome you have found that path already—we can show you where it leads!”
I love that. And it seems like you’re doing excellent work over at the Anselm Society inspiring people to engage in their faith and culture with that kind of thoughtfulness. Would you mind telling us a bit about what you do over there? And is there any way someone like me (who sadly doesn’t live near your home base in Colorado anymore) can get involved?
The answer to that last question is YES, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Our mission is a renaissance of the Christian imagination. We want to see a Church drenched in the splendor of great art to the glory of God, and artists profoundly formed by the Church who can make that happen. So we work with both parties individually, and bring them together with patrons and scholars and laypeople through public resources and gatherings like our Imagination Redeemed conference in April, community events that let people make art part of their lives, and podcasts and publications designed to help individuals and churches re-learn how to integrate art and faith.
We’ve grown from just an idea in 2013 to a rapidly expanding community that includes a highly talented staff, dozens of member artists, hundreds of volunteers and patrons, and an incredible roster of Anselm Fellows like Andrew Peterson, Anthony Esolen, and Michael Ward. We are even helping sister organizations get off the ground in other cities. Remarkable people have come from everywhere to make the Anselm Society what it is.
Joining the Society as a patron member gets you all kinds of perks, including connection with those people. We also have non-local volunteer opportunities for writers, editors, and all kinds of digital content creators and marketers from graphics, to photography, to sound and video. And for people who are just interested in learning, our social media accounts and email list keep you pretty well abreast of things like lecture audio and livestreams.
To all your readers: we’d love to see you at Imagination Redeemed 2019! People typically find it a deeply moving opportunity to be refreshed and encouraged, and spend a weekend with people from all over the country who care about a renaissance of the Christian imagination.
Emily Andrews is a contributing editor to FORMA. She and her husband, Ian, live in Washington state where they work for the Center for Lit.