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Art and Ideology

April 2, 2008

So the other day I got to thinkin’ – always a dangerous proposition!

Anyway, what is the relationship between art and ideology?  Specifically, if art is intentionally rendered in the service of ideology, is it truly art?  If art has a particular ideology that it intends to communicate (or “push”) at what point does it become propaganda?

Idealist that I am, I believe that the purest, truest art is an expression of one’s inner soul.  Art should reflect the artist’s deepest passions, fears, hopes, dreams, desires.   Anything short of that is disingenuous to a degree.

Furthermore, it’s cheezy.  I say that as a songwriter who has experienced reflecting upon his own work and found that anything borne of something other than my deepest emotion comes across as cheezy or corny.

Remember the scene in Walk the Line where Johnny Cash auditions for Sam Phillips at Sun Records?  Cash works his way through a well-rehearsed gospel song and Phillips says, “I don’t believe you.”  When Cash sings “Folsom Prison Blues,” a song written after a visceral reaction to a film of the prisoners’ living conditions at Folsom, the absolute soulfulness comes through and Phillips believes him even though his performance lacks confidence and polish.

I have drawn parallels between protest songs and Christian music before, and here I go again.  Protest songs that are borne of simple political ideology seem cheezy to me, whereas some seem to have more soul, more grit, and more heart to them.  Same goes for Christian music.  Too often Christian music sounds to my ears like the composer sat down to write a Christian song (Christian first, song second).  Other times it feels like the composer sat down to write a song and his/her passion for Christ came through (song first, Christian second).  Yet as a casual listener, I can’t really read the hearts and minds of the composers – perhaps one writer simply has a better grasp of metaphor, imagery and wordplay than the other.   At the same time, too many Christian songs sound like the product of what one of my professors calls the “traditional piety perpetuation machine.”

So that brings me to a series of questions that I ask myself as a preacher:

  1. Is the sermon an art form?
  2. If so, is the art best served by being in tune with my own deepest passions, desires, fears, hopes, dreams?
  3. Is the art well served by being in tune with the congregation’s deepest passions, etc.?
  4. Am I guilty of preparing art in the service of ideology rather than passion?

And finally, am I overthinking this, or is it just part of my academic nature?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. TL Steinwert permalink
    April 2, 2008 3:29 pm

    Your academic nature might enjoy reading Juan Luis Segundo’s text The Liberation of Theology. He tackles this very question looking at the relationship between theology and ideology.

    Basically theology is ideology…or at least has an ideology(ies) functioning at its core. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just is. For Segundo what we are called to do is identify and name the ideologies at work and go from there.

    I think good, authentic powerful preaching is always a combination of the passions of the preachers and the needs of the congregation.

  2. April 2, 2008 4:28 pm

    some great thought will. pondering and will come back to you. but has me thinking. wanted you to know.

  3. jmeunier permalink
    April 3, 2008 2:02 pm

    What is art?

    It sounds like you are working from a Romantic definition of art.

    I worry about the focus on the personal losing connection with the fact that preaching is a proclamation to others and it is a proclamation of something outside ourselves.

  4. April 3, 2008 3:14 pm

    John, I agree. My definition of art is unabashedly Romantic, and I don’t fully buy that sermons are necessarily art in the Romantic sense of the word. Placing such a restriction on the sermon puts way too much pressure on the preacher IMHO.

    I like your observation that preaching is “a proclamation of something outside ourselves.” Excellent point.

    However, I do think that there is a romantic artistic dimension to the sermon, and the preacher’s passion for the good news should come through loud and clear.

  5. jmeunier permalink
    April 6, 2008 5:47 am

    I agree that passion is a part of the preacher that God can use to get the words out there and into the ears and hearts of those listening.

    I’ve read too much bad poetry, though, to be too comfortable with an aggressively romantic view of the art of preaching.

    I agree it is art. It is also craft.

    My basic preaching text in licesne to preach school had a line that said something like, “The good news is that God can use mediocre preachers who earnestly preach the good news.”

    I think your concern with passion for the good news is in there. But, there is some acknowledgement that God can use us, even if our art is pedestrian.

  6. Seamus permalink
    April 12, 2008 9:06 am

    The problem with too many “Christian” artists is that the concept they’re selling is unattainable. It’s unattainable because it’s too neatly and conveniently packaged for the casual follower and doesn’t require the listener to dig past all the ugly truths from within to find the good spot.

    That’s why truthful musicians like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Joe Strummer can hit harder because they play on your emotions, your own guilts, your own understandings, and your own acceptance. They play on the premise of “God forgives me even if I can’t forgive myself” rather than “God is great and loves you.” While that may be true, the sinner finds that unattainable because at the core many of us want to believe we need to face the demons.

    Those musicians face demons. They aren’t slicked up “feel good” tunes but music that says that while there may be ugliness all around, you can MAKE (not find which is a more passive approach) goodness.

    Thus they put the onus on the listener to be a difference maker. And if there are enough difference makers, then (and only then) will you be able to FIND goodness.

    Old gospel had its roots in this thought. Consider the Johnny Cash song “The Old Account” which tells

    “Well it was a time on earth when in the books of heaven
    An old account was standing for sins yet unforgiven
    My name was at the top and many things below
    But I went unto the keeper and settled it long ago”

    It has a darker tone. It still speaks of a loving, forgiving God, but the song is more attainable because it does play on our senses of guilt and repentence.

    Relating to the scene in the movie to which you make reference, that is the very idea Sam Phillips was telling Johnny Cash. That the old song about “inner peace” that’s been done over and over doesn’t do it. As he says, “or are you going to sing something real? One song that tells God how you felt about your time on earth. Because that’s the kind of song that saves lives.”

  7. December 28, 2016 7:51 am

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