A Christian musician writes and performs a new song and posts it on YouTube. A blogger uploads a short piece about the Christian perspective on raising a family. A writer self-publishes a children’s book about faith and prayer. How do these Christian creators get their work into the hands of people who can benefit from their efforts? Do-it-yourself publicity has never been easier with free platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
However, our present age of obnoxious selfies and kitschy self-promotion campaigns have made it difficult for Christian artists, musicians, and writers to promote their work without coming across as glory-seekers clamouring for the spotlight. As the Apostle Peter writes, Christians ought to clothe themselves “with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Artists who promote their work seems to fly in the face of a Christian’s call “to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Some might say that Christian creators shouldn’t promote their work at all.
What is the right course of action? Should Christian creators seek out public platforms for their work?
“All Art Is Made to Face the Audience”
C.S. Lewis observes that “all art is made to face the audience.” What Lewis is arguing is that all forms of art—whether visual art, poetry, music, drama, literature, etc.—are made ultimately for an audience to read, listen to, or view. Art is by nature public; it has left the private sphere of the mind and has entered the world of others. Artists, musicians, and writers create their work for people; they need an audience. Audiences don’t validate the artist or the art, but as the receiver of the art, they are the reason for creating. Similarly, students don’t validate the existence of a teacher, but he or she wouldn’t be a teacher without them! Bakers need eaters, sculptors need viewers, poets need readers, and musicians need listeners; in other words, givers need receivers.
This is especially true for Christian artists, who are seeking to honour God by stewarding the gifts he has given to them. One way to steward artistic gifts is to reach as many people as possible—not for their glory but for the benefit of the audience they mean to serve. Christian artists need to view their art as a way to love others by sharing the creative gifts endowed to them by their Creator. But can’t artists create art that is never shared? It is true that not all art is publically displayed or publically available.
A famous example of “private art” is the writings of American poet Emily Dickenson (1830-1886); Dickenson wrote over one thousand private poems and only published a small handful in her lifetime. Writing a devotional poem for your own edification, or making music for your ears only, or decorating a personal space no one else visits… are still forms of art because you are the audience. However, if Christians view art as a means to serve and love others, some of their work ought to be shared. Otherwise, the artist ends up being like the fearful servant who buried his master’s coin in the ground rather than investing it. Dickenson, who was astonishingly gifted as a poet, may be considered as selfish for hiding her talent! Thankfully, her work was discovered and published after her death, ultimately helping to transform the American (and modern) poetic landscape.
So what about motives?
So what about motives? What about vanity and seeking the praise of others? These are serious and weighty questions. There is a danger in seeking validation or self-worth based on the number of “likes” or “views” or “visitors,” but the same could be said about a pastor counting Sunday morning attendees, website hits, or sermon downloads. No one—whether an artist, a preacher, a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker—should seek self-worth from the praises of others or through the works he or she does. Works-based religion, people-pleasing, and pride are grievous sins (Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; Proverbs 29:25).
The “public nature” of the arts certainly makes artists more prone to these sorts of sins. Nevertheless, these are heart sins and sanctification issues (first and foremost) that need to be confessed and overcome by the Spirit working in us. If an artist is validated in Christ, seeks to glorify God by using the Lord’s bestowed gifts, and genuinely desires to love and serve others, then the artist should do the best work he or she can and seek to reach as many people as possible. Making or promoting one’s art isn’t the problem; doing so with wrong motives is the problem.
The English country parson and poet, George Herbert (1593–1633), is an excellent example of a godly artist who approached his creative work with God-honouring motives. On his deathbed, he gave to a friend a manuscript of poems that he had written over the years. Herbert left it up to his friend to either publish or not publish the book. But Herbert’s reason for making his book available for an audience was not for an earthly legacy or to increase his fame; instead, he hoped that his poems “may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” Such is the right attitude to one’s artwork! Herbert had no use for worldly ambitions. He understood that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Thankfully his friend had the poems published and made widely available. The book, known as The Temple, begins with a whimsical address to Herbert’s readers:
Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure:
A verse may find him who a sermon flies
And turn delight into a sacrifice.
This country parson and preacher humbly suggests that verses from his book may, through the “bait of pleasure,” reach hearts and minds where a sermon may not. The hope is not merely to delight the reader but to “rhyme thee to good.” Many saints who have read Herbert’s The Temple testify to the good that it has done them. C.S. Lewis read and re-read the poetry of George Herbert throughout his life and counted The Temple among the most influential books on his life.
It is true that we live in the “selfie generation.” There is a lot of social media silliness out there. The sins of validation, idolatry, pride, and people-pleasing are amplified. Christians are not immune, because Christians aren’t perfect (yet). Nevertheless, we shouldn’t discount artists for sharing their work online with friends or even the world. Artists not only need an audience, but also need feedback so that they can know whether what they are making is truly beautiful. They need to know whether their art resonates with the people they are serving. They also need to know how they can improve their craft.
Artists who want to serve and love people need to share and promote their work with humility and grace. Audiences need to serve and love artists by supporting them, promoting their work, and providing the feedback they need. If we do, both audiences and artists alike will be faithfully stewarding the opportunities, resources, and gifts given to us by God for his glory and for the building up of his church.
This article originally appeared in Barnabas (Fall 2020). Used with permission.