One particular joy that comes with being a Christian and an artist is that you can believe your work has eternal impact. You can suggest ideas through your work that won’t just make people happy for a few hours, they may change people’s worldviews and point them toward God.
There’s a variety of research out there about how art can help people, from personal stories about people encouraged by art to studies on how storytelling impacts humans in special ways. Consequently, Christians can talk about art being a kind of ministry.
For a while, I thought this meant that I could use my artistic abilities in a highly strategic way. I could reverse-engineer how stories change people and use that knowledge to write stories that were guaranteed to push people toward growth.
I followed this throughout my time at college, particularly as I studied more and more about the “revival problem.” Mounds of research – statistics about rising secularism, data on young people leaving church, stories about Christianity losing its credibility in society — indicate things aren’t going well for Western Christianity. I thought art could be the thing that turned those trends around. After all, a good story or a powerful song can bypass all our rational defenses, enter areas that political and apologetic arguments never permeate.
Right as I was coming out of college, I realized there was a flaw in all of this. Yes, there’s plenty of evidence that art changes people. But the more I read scholars debating the themes of classic movies or novels, the more I realized people can have radically different takeaways from the same piece of art.
Some people read Lord of the Rings and are impressed by how the One Ring’s effect on people is a poetic way to talk about temptation. Others notice the hobbit’s love for nature contrasted with Saruman’s industrial view of the world where natural resources are things to exploit. Still others notice Gandalf’s sacrifice and return from the dead is reminiscent of Christ’s death, descent into health and then resurrection.
Are any of these takes on the story necessarily wrong? No. They each have some basis in Tolkien’s philosophical or religious views.
Can each of these ideas lead people toward God? Yes. Each connects to Judeo-Christian ideas and therefore can lead to an understanding of God. But they lead to that location in different ways.
In other words, art can change people and point to God. But the artist can only control so much about how the readers responds to the work. Even when the artist bends over backwards to use their tools to point the reader toward particular ideas, the reader may get something different from the piece.
Given that I grew up in a missionary family, I should have figured all this out much sooner. I knew from talking with my parents and other missionaries that you can try to strategize how you present Christianity to people, but it’s problematic. “Strategizing evangelism” to get the right result from people each time can sound attractive, but it turns missionary work into just pushing the right buttons. It makes presenting spiritual truths to people into a purely natural process.
In truth, missions work is a supernatural process. People take very interesting paths to find God, and often times what impressed one person won’t impress others. One missionary I spoke with even argued he’s never converted anyone in his life. He just presents the gospel to people and sees whether God uses that moment to touch people’s hearts. Sometimes he sees results then. Sometimes he sees results down the road. Sometimes he never fully sees what happened. The point is to be a vessel for God to use, not to try to be the primary agent.
I still believe art has the power to change people. I still believe it has a power to bring about change that other methods cannot achieve. But I’m realizing more and more that I can’t fully control how people react to my art. I can only study my craft, look for ways to bring spiritual ideas into my work in intelligent ways, and prayerfully ask God to do what he will with the work after I release it.