The Loss of Imagination

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Ever drive by one of the new breed of churches and think, It’s just a big, ugly box ?

Ever wonder why what passes for Christian art in most Christian bookstores is only a step or two removed from velvet paintings of Elvis?

Ever wonder where the great contemporary Christian literature vanished to?

I think about that last one a lot. As a writer, I struggle with the dearth of avenues for Christian fiction that veers outside the mainstream. I recently wrote a story called “Killing Lilith” that deals with the crushing load of sexual guilt that many men carry. Not only does that story suffer from being brutally frank, but it’s a short story, a form of fiction that lies in a coma in secular realms, and has been dead, buried, and its grave trampled in Christian ones.

If you struggle with fasting, write short fiction for the Christian market. Just be wary of the tendency to starve to death. 😉

I hate to see loss of imagination triumph in the Church. I meet too many Christians who long ago relegated creativity to the devil. It saddens me to no end to encounter dull, lifeless children from Christian homes who have had the imagination beaten out of them, who if asked, “Tell me a story,” can’t dream up one. Somehow we’ve gone overboard in rooting out “vain imaginings” and removing any and all things that stem from our “deceitful hearts,” never questioning whether we have to throw our minds out altogether or if our imaginings and hearts can be redeemed.

So in our purges, I wonder if we’ve left Christianity a shell of what it’s supposed to be.

What should we think when God demands the finest craftsmen for His OT tabernacle and temples? That He asks that the lampstands around His altar be crafted in the likeness of almond branches and their blossoms? Or that He chooses men to write down His inspired words of Truth in a wealth of styles?

I can think of few things more appalling than ugly churches. I mean, if we’re going to spend millions on building a church building (and there’s an ethical question for you), what could be worse than spending all those millions on something that’s ugly as sin, an edifice glorifying mediocrity? Whatever happened to building that building to the glory of God and making it look like something honoring a supreme and majestic Lord?

And why so much bad art in Christian circles? It’s okay if Thelma Lou Posey makes a cross-stitch of the ubiquitous “Footprints” poem and sells it as a church auction, Fridtjof Schroder - 'The Pieta' - 1961but God forbid if some trained Christian artist creates a challenging oil painting and asks for support.

I wrote a couple weeks ago in my “100 Truths in 30 Years with Christ” post that we need to honor our artists and intellectuals as highly as we do our pastors and preachers. Are we? If we were, what then explains the stifled creativity that inhabits the Christian circle of influence? Why such lowest common denominator art and expression? Shouldn’t we be the ones who foster imagination and the creative spirit?

One of the most underappreciated aspects of us being made in the image of God is that God is a creator at heart. Therefore, so are we.

If we can’t evangelize that truth as much as some of the others we so readily support, we’ll wind up impoverished people. I can’t help but think that if the world saw that Christians led the arts again, they’d be more open to the Gospel.

Yet what would do they think when they encounter a huge multi-million dollar building of cinder block and corrugated metal passing itself off as a church? I know that I don’t immediately think, That’s where life, redemption, and joy happens.

It’s tough to be in the arts and know that few of your tribe value your work enough to pay you to do it. I’m struggling now to know what to do with the short story form, one that I enjoy writing but pays nothing. When I think of God demanding only the finest artisans for His works, I wonder how we got off base.

I wonder.

 

Update

Additional links from previous Cerulean Sanctum posts on this issue:

32 thoughts on “The Loss of Imagination

  1. Your frustration is valid. My daughter is an art major and wants to get into photography and film and my son is training to be an architect. I encourage them to use their art to glorify God and build his kingdom, but there are so few good models out their for them to look at and I fear the Christian community will not be very accepting of art that doesn’t follow the formula that seems to drive “Christian” art.

    • Fred,

      I think there is some movement in art, though. Realism is gaining some traction again and that may spur more Christian artists to do work in that style, which is the style most readily accepted. Modernism was a blight on art in general and set back Christian artists for decades, so we’ll see.

  2. Most so-called Christians want everything reduced to “5 Easy Steps,” or whatever. Many don’t want to think or be challenged–“Just tell us what to believe.” No wonder creativity is in short supply and not appreciated.

    A number of years ago, my wife and I went to the home of an elderly couple for dinner. One of them brought out this gaudy “picture” of Jesus that when looked at from one angle would have Jesus in one place, but from another angle Jesus would be somewhere else. (I hope that you “get the picture” of what I mean, as it’s hard to describe. Today, we have rotating ads on trucks like this.) They both told us that they planned to give this picture to their grandson for his 17th birthday. We could hardly contain our laughter.

    You see so much “junk” in so-called Christian bookstores that is supposed to pass for art. At times, I feel creepy even being in such places.

    • Pastor M,

      The interesting thing is that “kitsch” art in general contains a lot of Christian art. We have a hard time separating kitsch from better works. I’m not saying there’s no place for kitsch, since many people are affected by it, but let’s please make room for better works so that not all Christian art comes from kitsch.

  3. The longer I pastor the more I hate buildings – we have to spend so much time, effort and resources on building concerns and I just don’t think that is healthy. And my guess is that is the ethical issue you were raising.

    But that’s not really why I am commenting – what I really want to know is if you are making that story you wrote available, or any other stories you have written.

    • David,

      Yeah, the building issue is enormous. Enormous buildings with enormous costs to heat them and keep them up. I firmly believe that many large churches will be spending much of their budgets to handle energy costs this winter. And that issue’s only going to get worse.

      As for my stories, one from several years ago, “The Memory of the Flesh,” is online at the link. I’m doing much better work today, though, and I’m sending my stories out to the literary magazines. Right now, I’m shopping a story called “The Good Insurance Man,” a Southern Gothic work that includes all the great characteristics of that genre: idiot savants, grotesques, and apocalyptic visions. Don’t let the darkness of that genre scare you off; the story itself is life-affirming and tender.

      My struggle in the marketplace comes from writing longer stories (8,000+ words) and from writing too Christian for the secular market, while being too secular for the Christian market. Factor in the sorry state of short fiction…it’s wearing. Those few periodicals that accept short fiction are asking for shorter and shorter works. I just completed a sci-fi horror story called “House of the Damned” that my writers’ group all felt was too condensed, but I did so trying to squeeze in under the diminishing word limits. Most periodicals won’t accept works over 6,000 words now. I guess you can blame short attention spans for some of that.

      I’m shopping my shorts now, but will consider other possibilities if I get no bites. One, “The Love Song of the Iron Man,” may work as an illustrated Young Adult title in a smaller format. I need to re-edit it and try running it past an agent in that marketspace.

      I have a novel in the final stage of editing, plus I’m starting another soon. Even in the last year my fiction writing’s grown tremendously, so the original novel may need a complete overhaul by the time it gets through its reading period. It’s good for when I started it a few years back, but I’m writing far better today.

      Such is the state of fiction and the life of the hopeful fiction writer.

      Thank you so much for asking, David.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        8000 words is too long?

        Try working in Novella length in a world of one-page flashfics and 600+ page Trilogy Components. You’re lucky to get $10 from some small-press zine, and even then you’ll get static from the Napsterites about “Why doncha just upload it to your website so I can download it for FREE — Information Yearns To Be FREEEEEEEE!”

        I’ve finally settled on a “braided novel”, a series of tightly-linked novellas and long shorts that together make the 100,000+ word minimum for a novel today.

        Dude, you really need to link up with a professional organization like the Lost Genre Guild. Or a publisher that’s trying to end run the CBA monopoly like Marcher Lord Press or The Writer’s Cafe Press. If you’re not a *CELEBRITY*, the best you can hope for is to be the breakthrough for some indie small-press.

        Me? I’m an SF litfan from way back. I never wanted to write the next Left Behind, I want to write the next Polesotechnic League. The stuff I devoured in those back issues of Analong.

        • Headless,

          Did hang out at Lost Genre Guild at one time. Even reviewed their self-published book. All in all, not very good. Sorry.

          Communicated with Jeff.

          Not sure I want to be considered part of CBA.

  4. You are not alone, Dan. A great many Christian fiction authors are in the same boat. After a recent Christian book convention, some of the authors there said far more room and interest was dedicated to “Christian” teapots and key fobs than to the authors.. And it certainly doesn’t help novices trying to break into writing that Christian bookstores only seem to want a tried and true seller. I’ve purused the fiction bookstacks for new material myself and I know I see the same authors’ names over and over again. Personally I often have better luck finding a Christian-authored book I want at Barnes and Noble and Border’s than I do at Family Christian.

    Dan, the only thing I can suggest is that you pray hard and prepare yourself to do a lot of legwork if you really want to get published. If a crack in the door presents itself, however unpromising it seems, shove your foot in it and see where it leads. And when you do get a contract, don’t presume it’s going to be an automatic ride on the gravy train. First time authors often get paid very little for their work, but getting your name out there is priceless.

    Blessings to you and yours!

    • M.E.,

      I’m confident that I can sell novel-length work. I don’t know about novella, novelette, and shorts, though. All the attention is on novels, and that’s a shame. As far as I can tell, no Christian publisher in any format is paying decent prices for short works. I can’t write a 10,000 word piece and subsist on the $20 I might receive for it from a Christian short fiction e-zine or similar.

      I’m also blessed that some award-winning Christian novelists read Cerulean Sanctum. Knowing people in the biz helps.

      • Hello again, Dan.

        Not for a moment would I ever expect you to try to live on $20 you might get from a Christian fanzine. It is an unfortunate truth that most writers have to keep their day job in order to support themselves and their families or depend on their spouse’s income to do so. One author, with whom I am acquainted, got into writing after being disabled and then became bored to death from inactivity. Her books have been nominated for prestigious awards, yet she resides in the basement of her daughter’s house. From the way she’s described it, it’s a very nice basement, Dan, but it’s definitely not an apartment across from Central Park, NYC.

        Heavenly Father,

        In Jesus’ name, I ask that you would bless Dan and help him find a publisher for his work. Share with him the things that are on Your heart that he might write for the sake of Your glory and reach those whom are hurting and need healing.

        Amen

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  6. Janice Nikkel

    I just stumbled on your blog in my search for anything to do with Christians and the arts.

    My husband and I want to create an artist’s retreat center so writers, painters, musicians can get scholarships to focus on their craft for a few months at a time. We live on a farm with our four kids and this is a dream that is slowly becoming a reality. However, in the meantime, I’m working on my Masters in Leadership (at Trinity Western University), hoping to do my major project on how Christians are showing leadership in the arts.My thoughts so far:
    “Artists †“ specifically in this case will refer to writers (books and music) are notoriously independent. In addition, artists are notoriously poor. Christian culture has often failed to understand and support Christian artists. In Canada, there are relatively few organizations dedicated to supporting the Christian arts. How can Christians who are sympathetic to the arts provide servant leadership to connect those creative individuals with those gifted at generating wealth? Specifically, the purpose of this research will be to understand servant leadership in the art community seeking to fill the gap between those creating the art and those who can finance the projects.”

    If you have thoughts on this topic, I’d be thrilled to hear them!

    • Janice,

      Thanks for stopping by. I hope you stick around.

      I updated the post with links to reflect some previous posts I’ve made on this issue. I don’t know if they will help you answer your question, but you’re free to look around.

      Blessings.

  7. David Riggins

    One of my favorite movie songs is from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory :

    “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it, anything you want to, do it, want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.
    There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination: Living there you’ll be free if you truly wish to be.”

    Compare that with the words of Jesus in John 14:

    12 I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. <em>He will do even greater things than these</em>, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

    I think a major impediment to carrying out the will of the Father is the lack of imagination needed to picture it. We do not have because we do not exercise the imagination to ask.

  8. Joshua Hoeft

    Dan,

    I am a long time reader of your posts, but this is the first time I’m venturing into the family conversation. Greetings to you, and you are often in my prayers.

    Your web posts are a testament that good Christian art is not dead. Although we’re not reading a book from a bookstore, your blog site is way better organized and written than many that I’ve frequented, and is a good representation of the blog art form. I greatly appreciate it. In fact, I have shared your material with my friends, and your blogs often come up in our conversations.

    Also, when it comes to the world of music and art — outside of performing well in the symantecs and mechanics of musical and artistic compositions, isn’t the appreciation of it all, largely subjective?

    I personally find Thomas Kincaid’s work to be refreshing, and many times, I feel that nostalgic yearning that C.S. Lewis writes about so well — the Shadowlands. But others don’t. Some people can relax and thoroughly enjoy heavy metal Christian-themed songs, but I can’t. And, some people can listen to K-Love all day long and get so much out of all the redundant-sounding P&W that’s out there, but I yearn for far more and better quality (in my opinion) music. But I guess the draw of the secular is rather strong in today’s church culture as well.

    I guess my question in regard to today’s blog: “Don’t you think it’s all related?” You’ve written excellent commentary on getting back to acting and living in Love in our faith – that this is the entire aim of God and Christianity – Love the Lord your God with all your heart…and your neighbor as yourself. That being the case, and in this North American, United States world of vapid Christianity, I believe too much is done to “bridge the gap” and appeal between the secular and Christian world at large. The major Christian distributors are more concerned with generating revenue streams, than building solidarity and unity within the body, and building up the body of Christ in love. That’s why they’re more interested in trinkets, keychain fobs, and tea cups. They sell. The velvet paintings, sell.

    Also, it seems that our focus has gotten away from “doing everything for God’s glory” and “doing everything with all our might, as to the Lord.” We’re doing our work to please the masses without much of a thought of the real Love for whom we should be relishing in the creation of it all. So, I’m all one for not caring about the marketing of the mainstream, but I want to see those that do something well to continue to do it well and to do it even better. And I long to rejoice in the product that is produced through their hands by the power and glory of God. Oh, and also, get our minds and sights off all the heavy oppressional marketing-driven hoopla that surrounds us every day.

    And I’d like to honor not only the artists and pastors, but those that do all things well within the body, and show the light and attractive energy of His love in all they say and do. I think too much honor and idol-worship is given to the figure-heads already anyway.

    So, keep doing well what you are doing. God is working within you to reach many of those of us that are out here quietly being effected to grow in Christ and to be joyful as an active member in God’s family. I will be praying that you do get published, and I will rejoice when I see your name in the bookstores. But even if that doesn’t happen, I can rejoice in the everlasting “good” that has come through your art and other artists. One thing is for sure, we’re all hungry to see way better things than are currently out there, and we can encourage our children and our brothers and sisters in that pursuit.

    Your short story sounds like it would hit at the heart of 99.999% of the men, at least in the United States. Seems like it should generate money for some publishing company.

    All to the glory of God.

    • Joshua,

      Thank you for commenting and for the encouraging words!

      Your comments about Kincaid and K-Love are pet topics for me. On their own, they may be okay, but there’s a calculatedness to them that realy bothers me. Kincaid’s earliest works are excellent, but then he started truning his art into a commodity.

      The same goes for K-Love and all its ilk. They purposefully shut out certain artists (Webb comes to mind) because they’re playing games with record companies and with demographic models. The problem is, they’re going to eventually reach a point where they can’t play the game anymore. The large, independent Christian radio station in town that has been around forever only raised half the money it needed during its last pledge drive, this after dumping almost all their teaching and going to a “Casting Crowns, Mercy Me, et al.” programming format. They run ads just like every other radio station, but still need to raise support. Why? Because Christian radio today is filled with junk like the payola scandals that shook rock early on. They have to pay to play and the cost to play that bland music is killing them.

      In both cases, and in so many cases in the Christian subculture, it’s market-driven hoopla, as you say.

      • Joshua Hoeft

        Dan,

        I couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for your reply to my response. I used those 2 references as mere metaphorical examples, but I also completely share your angst against those examples as well. I’m fed up with the mainstream and the choices that are imposed on me as a listener, reader, and artist.

  9. Brother Dan,

    The lack of great artists (in their many forms) today in the Christian circle is one that I too have been struggling with. I recently heard Ravi Zacharias talk about how over the past 100 years or so we have become so dependent on the visual arts (photography, TV, movies) that the written word has become so complacent, dull, unnecessary and void of any real substance. It saddens me to know that so many in our body of believers feel the same as you and I. If you or any of your other readers have the time, I’d suggest listening to Ravi’s message entitled, “Mind Games in a World of Images” You can find it at: http://rzim.org/radio/archives.php?p=LMPT

    May God bless you abundantly.

    • Aaron,

      Your comment is ironic because I nearly made a statement in the original post that Christians have become movie and TV addicts (though I don’t know about photography). This comes at the expense of reading. You hear all this clamoring for MORE CHRISTIAN MOVIES, but no one’s clamoring for more (or better) Christian books. This reflects in the title of Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

      I’ll try to listen to the Ravi message, but my ISP has too many bandwidth restrictions now and I can’t access broadband-intensive material without them throttling my account! 🙁

      • I have to admit that in the last 10 years I’ve probably gone to a movie theater less than I had in the two prior to that. Maybe it’s because I am finding that reading is far better, and challenging to the mind; or maybe I just don’t find the time for that (what with having four kids, full time job, youth and children’s ministries and all). Or, I find that the material pumped out by Hollywood is so dreadful in it’s content (not just the visual images, but the messages it portrays) and I have no reason to put my hard earned money into such a waste. Of all the tv shows out there currently I doubt I’ll even watch one full season of any one show. And with such movies as The Golden Compass (based on Philip Pullman’s book) what Christian parent would want to go and take their child(ren) to that? Radio is just as awful as the visual film/tv arts. Even country music has gotten so far removed from what it originally was (Gospel related songs) and the record companies seem to endlessly pour out the lastest excuse for music.

        Sorry to rant, but this issue has resurfaced again and again over the past few years for me. It is tough as a Youth Director to try to make any sense of it for the kids I deal with on a regular basis. This is what they’ve grown up on, “isn’t it normal?” I had to explain it to one girl last year that wanted to show her grandmother a few things on youtube (images of people running others over, hitting violently, killing babies, etc.) I keep refering them back to scripture. Some, a selected few, are starting to realize that some things are inherently bad or evil.

        At any rate, sorry for the lengthy reply on this, but it is a tough issue and not enough people are willing to take it on. Oh, I’m not too far from you, stop by if need be to use my ISP – wireless compatible and Mac friendly!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy

          You know there are Christian Schools who have Golden Compass on their library shelves while they pulled and burned the Harry Potter books for Witchcraft (TM)? (Phil Pullman has thanked J.K.Rowling for taking all the fire from the Church Ladies and giving him a free path.) That’s the reality out there.

          And why I’m so vocal about Going Mainstream. I don’t want to be the next Jerry “Buck” Jenkins or (ugh) Salem Kirban, up there next to the Bonnet Romances and Christian knockoffs of last year’s fad. I want to be the next Poul Anderson or H Beam Piper, with my stuff in the running for the Hugos or Nebulas.

    • David Riggins

      Impressionism was created from photography. Many of the early impressionists were also avid photographers, but their art, rather than being an attempt at emulating their hobby, expanded on the art of the photograph. When you had a photograph, what was the point of creating a realistic painting? Instead, a part of that photo was expanded upon; light upon lilies, patterns of clouds, a field of poppies. Impressionism was a reaction to the photograph. Today, rather than expanding art, we are wallowing in it, seeking the part that appeals to the baser desires and selling it.

      Too many ‘artists’ today are mere commercial hacks, seeking to get the most money from their creations. So rather than an extension of their self-awareness, artists today are mostly focused upon pushing the buttons that will get attention and therefore wealth. It is a job, a vocation, not a passion. They have glommed on to the concept of visual art because it is simple and sells. The public, focused on material wealth, rapid satiation of desire, and tendency to shy away from thought, finds solace in the visual. It’s quick, simple, and constantly changing, catering to an increasingly short attention span. (Watch movie trailers from 5, ten, and twenty years ago to see how our attention span has changed.)

      For many Christians, life is the same thing. There is no concept of a world outside and apart from this one we live in, and so living this life, for a Christian, is no different than for a non-Christian. Churches have learned those things that appeal to the largest number of people, and sell themselves with that. That is tragic.

  10. Artists need support. If we’re serious about wanting to nurture and honor and uplift Christian artists–including those who take risks–then we gotta put money where our whining is.

    I’ve spent hundreds–more than a thousand, actually–supporting Christian poets and short story writers (by sponsoring contests with cash) and painters (by buying original art and prints) and by volunteering (as an editor at three Christian magazines).

    I know it’s hard. But those who value it have to support it, just as we value and support humanitarian endeavors and missions. 🙂

    So, go and support an artist today, people. Go buy a print. Go commission an original as a Christmas present if your budget has a couple hundred and more (some artists are struggling and are surprisingly affordable). Donate to Christian short fiction venues. If you write Christian speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy/horror), consider donating to MINDFLIGHTS (www.mindflights.com) or FEAR AND TREMBLING (www.fearandtremblingmag.com). DKA and TSR will be closed as of December (merging into MINDFLIGHTS), so we want to make that magazine a place for the best CSF short fiction and poetry. Still, need donors/sponsors/patrons.

    And if you see a new writer who seems promising, go buy their stuff, whether in magazine or novel form.

    And that’s my soapbox moment for the day. 🙂

    BTW, where does “Killing Lilith” fall in the genre/classification of fiction spectrum?

    Mir

    • Mirtika,

      I do try to support Christian businesspeople, artists, and writers. I’ve invested quite a few dollars in them. I wish that I got back what I put in, but that’s another story…

  11. I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I was wondering why the short story hasn’t blossomed on the internet. It seems perfect. Little nuggets of fictiony goodness that fit into RSS readers, and browsers to fill little pieces of the day spent karooming around cyberspace.

    Perhaps its a matter of too many poorly written short stories to sift through.

    • Tim,

      How to charge for the service would be the biggest issue. You can’t really charge by the story on an RSS feed. Perhaps you could offer a general site subscription price and then the stories could be fed. readers would not get a choice of which stories they read, though.

  12. Eric Hinkle

    I won’t argue about the lack of imagination in Christians — but truthfully, I’ve seen the same thing in non-Christians. I don’t want to remember how many kids I’ve seen who act like Beavis & Butt-head are role models, who seemingly have no capacity for imagination or invention or even speech beyond making twisting motions with their hands and going “Boobies! Heh-heh-heh!” Add in some dimwitted profanity and you’ve got 90% of their ‘personality’ right there.

    I guess I’m saying that this seems to be a problem experienced by the entire American culture, not just Christianity. Though we certainly don’t have any excuse for playing “Follow the leader” in this circumstance.

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