Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Christian Artist: Does the Spirit = the thought police?

To hear some tell it, the answer to this question is an unequivocal "yes." To many secular writers in the US and other nations with similar legal precedents, and to some Christian writers in these nations as well, any restraint in one's speech or art is an abridgment of one's natural and inalienable rights. Conceding to the demands of conscience, or others pointing out that you have done something immoral or unethical is in effect an act of social cowardice and the question of how one's actions affect others is beside the point. To a Christian writer in particular, writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (obviously we should not expect to do so as the authors of Scripture did, but if we write in the name of our faith, then the Spirit should be with us in some fashion), this raises a rather frightening question: is the Holy Spirit the thought police?

Obviously in this world we have seen the terrible consequences of governments or non-governmental groups restraining the freedom of speech. One can even point to the Crucifixion as the ultimate affront to free speech--the authorities in power didn't like what Jesus was saying, and acted thinking they could shut Him up forever. But if you look at the words Jesus chose to speak, you'll see that He did not speak with thoughtless abandon.

Some would apply to this the term "self-censorship." Let's look at the connotations of that...in our society, the word "censorship" is a highly charged word, and not in a good light. Applying the word "censorship" is thus an instant ticket to shutting down a debate and in some cases can even border upon an
ad hominem attack. Anyone who engages in "censorship," whether by coercion of others or in the restraint of one's own speech becomes the Thought Police.

We are rightly revolted by Orwellian images. And I would also say that we are rightly revolted by the other main form of coercion in our society--that is, political correctness, which is enforced by character assassination. For fellow sci-fi buffs out there, I would hold up for you two images of such repression: on one side, Orwell's iconic
1984, and Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed specifically her portrayal of the collectivist "utopia" of Anares, which in fact has all the makings of a dystopia if you don't simply ride along with the "consensus"-determined status quo.

Free speech as defined in the First Amendment refers
strictly to the government's imposition upon a person's ability to speak, except when such speech is truly injurious (the classic "fire in a crowded theater" example, or other examples like putting out a contract on someone's life, or otherwise inciting to violence, or even committing fraud or libel). The government has no right to deny people to speak of their belief or unbelief or to require people to practice or not to practice, for instance, nor can it restrain political speech, including dissent as long as no violence is advocated.

So that's the first misconception. The First Amendment does
not cover the actions of a private individual or other non-governmental entity, or the administrators of an Internet forum. I imagine many of my readers participate in forums and other private websites, and just like if you mouth off at work, the admin of a site has every right to censure, delete, or ban...you are in their "house," on their property, and if they want to control what goes on on their property, that is their absolute right and you can either obey the rules or leave. The First Amendment does not force them to amend their ways to suit yours. I use comment moderation. And since this is my blog, if I see spam or attacking remarks, I won't permit it. I am under absolutely no legal OR moral obligation to allow a free-for-all.

The First Amendment also does not protect a private individual from
private blowback from their remarks. If I am rude to someone, or if I lie or otherwise speak falsehood, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from being rude in return, or otherwise being called on it. Unless something crosses that very hard, defined line of illegality as described earlier, the government cannot touch it. And should never be called on to do so.

Remember this. Legality and morality are two entirely separate constructs. Since government can only be trusted with an absolute minimum of power in order for society to function, given the corrupting influence of such power on our fallen natures (remember God's warnings against the establishment of a king in Israel, anybody?), by necessity what is acceptable under the law is going to be much greater in breadth than what is acceptable morally. The government cannot capably enforce anything else but this bare minimum, and should not. Overstepping in this manner is what creates the 1984 scenario...the thought police.

Now that we have covered what is
legal, let's cover what is right, and the ways in which that can be abused--the Dispossessed scenario.

The society in
The Dispossessed was one in which any speech the group did not agree on was punished by shunning or by demonization. This is what we know as political correctness, and most Christians will have had a run-in with it on at least one occasion. To speak too strongly on certain topics results in social censure, usually by attaching a label with "-ist" on the end of it (ex.: "elitist," "racist," "sexist," "ableist" and on and on ad nauseum). Now, if someone is speaking in hatred, to injure others or to abuse power against those individuals, such as refusing a person service because of their bigotry, then the label is deserved. But what about the individual who simply makes the mistake of disagreeing with the wrong person, however politely, and then has their character assassinated, or who speaks an unpopular opinion and the majority then paints them as a deviant?

This is in effect social blackmail, and is often used against Christians who speak too strongly--both by those who do not wish to hear any religious speech outside the confines of a church or a private home, AND by Christians who cannot tolerate a lovingly dissenting viewpoint by someone in the faith. To destroy someone because you disagree with them is wrong...to put so much fear into that person that they will not speak on a perfectly legitimate subject is wrong, too. Even the terms "censor" and "thought police" have come to be used as bludgeons in this manner--say them and the person they are said to is just as dead in the water as the person accused falsely of racism.

Which brings us to Christian speech, and by extension, a Christian's art.

James makes it very clear in his epistle just how destructive an "unbridled tongue" is--and as soon as you evoke the image of a bridle, you have brought
restraint into the picture.

In essence,
the Christian surrenders free speech.

He or she
legally retains that right, and should, because the government is incapable of doing anything else properly (and barely manages what it has) and social groups should not be trusted with that power, either. Even congregations can fall under that rule and get out of hand, without much constant, prayerful self-examinations, and history is riddled with examples of that getting horribly out of hand. Ignoring that would be revisionist history.

But to forgo the right to speak something because it is unconscionable, because it is a crime against the Holy Spirit, is an entirely different matter from being frightened by one's peers from speaking, or by one's government. It is nothing less than a matter of love for God, for our neighbors, and even for ourselves. A true relationship with God is not about being battered into submission until we are too frightened to do anything else. It is about recognizing that without Him, we are deathly prone to abusing our freedoms. And to truly take Him into us, it must be done utterly uncoerced, for such is inherently against the nature of love. So if I choose not to speak words that I know will be hurtful to others, if I respect their feelings as I would want to be respected myself, then
I am not a coward. I am not surrendering to bullying or force. I am expressing love.

And no matter how much mockery or mischaracterization as "thought police" or "PC Nazis" we might endure for speaking this view, and more importantly, for
living it...know that before our God, there is no shame in letting the Holy Spirit be the one true and capable arbiter of our expression as no human can be.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Christian Artist: Innovation

One of the strangest things for a Christian artist in today's culture is the apparent conflict between the popular conception of what constitutes innovation in art, and what it means to respond to the Spirit in the works one creates.

I think that in some circles, "creative" and "innovative" has been conflated with "transgressive." The more shocking a thing is to society, the more it defies the norms, the more innovative it must be, and the more of a work of art it must be. In this school of thought, the last thing you would want would be to come across as seeming tradition-bound, or adhering to more ancient schools of art or being informed by a set of morals that affects what you are willing or unwilling to produce. And if that is really what it takes to produce something of artistic merit...well, the devout Christian artist, musician, or writer is in a lot of trouble.

Fortunately, whether all recognize it or not, I don't believe creativity and innovation have anything to do with transgressiveness. That may be found in some creative works (whether we like those works or not), but transgressiveness has absolutely no bearing on one's technical merits, and if its intention is simply destructive, rather than done in a spirit of love...then I think it does little to nourish the spirit of those who interact with it in any way except perhaps in the sense of seeming to validate one's anger.

There is a time for transgressiveness--and that is when an injustice is being done to others. We as Christians are to be responsive to that, not to stand for it when others are being belittled or otherwise trodden upon. In our compassion the time may come to defy the norms of the society we live in, as it did for William Wilberforce and others who eventually extinguished slavery in the West. Where the social norm is one of cruelty and coldness, this is a case where a "transgression" is very much appropriate, if done with restraint and love. (My previous blog post has more to say on distinguishing the difference between true righteous anger and a worldly anger.) This is something the Christian artist can and should play a part in.

But if rule violation for its own sake, or for the sake of belittling Christianity, its principles, or cruelty to anyone is the kind of transgressiveness in question...I do not believe this is the way a Christian artist should comport him- or herself. And if there are any who might see a Christian's work as being of lesser worth for lack of these characteristics, then that is an acceptable price.

With that said...what is creativity for the Christian artist? I think that in the Bible we see many examples of it, both from the writers who were given truths and had to find a way to convey them so that we could understand them and connect with them, and from Jesus Himself, who used fictional stories--parables--to illustrate His own points. We can put language or colors or notes together in innovative ways exercise our abilities on time-tested, traditional ways, as Orthodox iconographers do. We may not all use the same sorts of disciplines as an iconographer does, but we can take from them a reminder to keep God first in all our creative ways. For in our creative spirit we are very much revealing how we are made in our Father's image, and our work should reflect this truth.

Innovation is possible for a Christian. Artists like Dostoyevsky and Bach certainly broke new ground in their fields, and exercised tremendous creativity...but they did it for the glory of God. If you have been given the gift to do something that really is new, I believe this should be encouraged. There are few forms of art that are in and of themselves un-Christian. In music, for instance, there used to be the idea that certain tones were the "devil's chord." Why the occurrence of two notes that happen to have two particular frequencies together would be inherently evil I do not understand. Nor do I find genres of music inherently evil...heavy metal has been done and done well by Christians like Becoming the Archetype or Stryper (how could I NOT mention Stryper?). Rap, too. The only thing I would see as inherently degrading would be the sort of "art" that requires one to debase oneself as an absolute condition of performing that art.

Pardon a moment of crassness here, but this is why "Christian pole dancing" had better never, ever happen.

There is another facet of this I would like to mention. To some artists, the only art worthy of consideration is that done with no boundaries. Yet it is my experience that to write within certain constraints can itself be an exercise in creativity, just of a different kind. This is why if someone does want to adhere to very traditional forms or archetypes, I will never, ever look down on that sort of art--one only has to look harder, and then the soul and Spirit of the artist becomes evident. Other Christian artists may go down paths less trod, but if still guided by the Spirit, I believe we should be very careful not to be dismissive just because they may have chosen a form that we are not as comfortable using, if that form is not inherently degrading.

So to my fellow Christian writers and artists, I would say that you have no reason to fear that your faith means your creativity is any less than that of anyone else. What matters is if, in your work, you are providing a little window to God's kingdom for us here on Earth. And that is enough.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The strange experience of righteous indignation

One of the things I believe that we as Christians must be very careful of is not to confuse our own anger and temper with the true experience of righteous indignation. I think this very confusion is one of the things that makes it most difficult for us as humans to relate to God, because for us, anger is an out-of-control thing, an indiscriminate thing that operates on vengeance and not justice. We are, by and large, terrible at controlling the little anger we have, and imagining controlling something of godly intensity--what a frightening prospect!

And how often have we as Christians confused our own anger with that which is of God? How often have we become angry about some thing or another that we disliked, and tricked ourselves into believing this was God's will? How many times have we spoken words or committed acts to punish someone--as though it is ours not just to speak truth but make sure the other party really hurts and breaks down at our feet?

Recently I had a very startling experience that laid the difference out in no uncertain terms. I'd had a theoretical idea what it might be, but when I actually experienced it...it was startling indeed.

Now let me head this up by stating that I assume a normal psychological profile when I describe this...I do not think the telltales I lay out would apply to a sociopath, so if one has never had the experience of normal anger, and of the shame and guilt that rightly comes from letting that anger go out of control and realizing that you have hurt someone, hurt your own spirit, and gone against God by doing so, then this distinction would not apply. This also does NOT apply to cases where we started out with a grudge and inured ourselves to such a degree that we no longer feel anything. This is something we can know only of ourselves, furthermore...others' claims should be evaluated rationally just as we must evaluate all that we are exposed to.

Anyway, I recently came into a position where I had to directly confront a person about some comments they were making in an unkind spirit. The strange thing about the feeling I experienced then was how absolutely controlled it was, and I honestly do not feel that I was the one making any kind of deliberate effort to control it. I understood what I needed to say, and was able to stop at that point with no more. Later on, after I was out of the situation and it started to occur to me what sorts of sarcastic remarks I could have made, just how different it felt as I thought of those things. My mind was racing, my body was reacting, and everything threatened to run out of control like a nuclear meltdown...or perhaps more aptly, like a chemical reaction with the wrong balance of reactants. And that feeling is what I get when I am about to lash out at someone unprovoked, or take a legitimate objection to something too far.

For just that moment, though, while I was responding to what I needed to respond to, I felt a taste of what real righteous indignation is like: it does not burn out of control. It does not speak simply to be cruel or to show off one's wordplay. It speaks to make its point and no more. It is a state of alertness where the mind is exceedingly clear, but not the hyperaroused responses of an unassisted human anger. And above all, it is obedient to something greater: it occurs at the direction of the Holy Spirit. And that is truly what I believe moved within me that day. Admittedly I am not always comfortable speaking about the Holy Spirit moving within me, since I am not a demonstrative type. But that is truly what I believe happened.

Bearing in mind the caveats I first mentioned above, I think this is a very important thing to bear in mind that may help us to know...are we speaking from God's righteous indignation, or from the anger of our own sinful hearts? I think if we remembered this, we would be far less likely to do damage to each other in our uncontrolled anger.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is rush hour for the birds?

Earlier this year, I was driving home after work. I sat at an intersection in busy traffic waiting for the light to change so I could get on the highway and finally head home after a long, physically and emotionally exhausting day at work. While waiting, I looked up, and against the backdrop of a sherbet-orange sky, I saw a flock of birds that must have numbered in the hundreds, wheeling and gyrating over the road as one, looking for a place to lay their heads for the night.

This sight filled me with awestruck wonder, this display of such life, and the realization amazed me, that God designed, shaped, and knew every single bird in that multitude, that he cared for them and loved them each.

Then I looked at the ribbon of traffic stretching into the distance, and I felt this very pointed reminder: these weren't simply cars in my way as I headed home. These were not obstacles set out there for the sole purpose of annoying and delaying me. Inside each vehicle was one or more people that God knew, that God designed and shaped, and cared for just as He does for those birds, and for me. They all wanted the same thing as the birds did, and I did...to just go home and rest.

I found myself deeply humbled by this--and I dare not look at a traffic jam the same way again.

Brain burn-out, but for a worthwhile reason

Sorry for the delay in posting! I've had a little brain burn-out lately, but that was because of the time I spent getting my story submission ready. And a couple of nights ago, "Call Me Unto Heaven" was officially submitted to consideration in an anthology!

I certainly hope for the best--whatever the outcome, I am most grateful for the opportunity to write and submit. If I hear more about it, I will definitely update you guys on the results! And if it does get published, I will be sure to provide all the details. It's my hope to hear something at some point in August of this year.

Right now, the only thing to do is pray and be patient. These things do take time, after all! :-)