Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
A few listens in to Mercury & Lightning, I felt confident in my interpretation of John Mark McMillan’s 2017 album as a cultural and spiritual reflection on a politically-fractured nation. An alt-rock Christian artist known for penning the now-classic worship hit “How He Loves,” McMillan takes a grittier approach in this newer work, all at once deconstructing and rebuilding faith, with a dash of cultural commentary thrown in. Surely, his words were a pièce de résistance exploring the 2016 election. Clearly, his track “No Country” reflected the aftermath of a deeply divided America.
Never thought I’d wake up
With no place to call my country
I’ve got no place to call my country
I know every one of us are hypocrites
Still I never thought that it would come to this
No place to love, no place to exist
I’ve got no place to raise my kids (“No Country”)
The loudest voices spit bold opinions faster than any of us can even consume them: we value fast hot-takes from the spin room instead of considering contemplation from the prayer room. We want linear, black-and-white thinking, but McMillan doesn’t serve easy-to-digest statements on a social media platter.Feeling quite smug in my understanding, I asked McMillan about his political critique at a 2017 pre-show session. How did he so acutely put words to the turmoil many felt after Trump’s inauguration? Surprisingly, he shared that he’d been sensing and processing this album for some time before the election season. McMillan’s pored-over, personal lyrics subvert the modern notion that religious or cultural commentary must succumb to the first 140 (or even 280) characters that cross our minds.
What I thought was a cultural and political response was actually a preemptive strike of the chords. Like a canary in the mine, he sensed something wasn’t right. It was easy for me to believe that McMillan’s art was a reaction to the culture around him — after all, isn’t everything these days? — and I struggled to understand how his words could be so relevant in a context he didn’t concretely know they would exist in.
Something in his response to me answers that question: art and poetry dwell in the realm of the prophetic.
Artist-as-prophet is a trope often trotted out in creative Church circles. In a 2013 interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, pastor and theologian Walter Brueggemann discussed that notion of prophetic poet — an idea popularized by his 1978 book Prophetic Imagination.
In every point in history, the Church has been given prophets to speak against greed, idolatry, gluttony, excess — all themes present in McMillan’s Mercury & Lightning. Hindsight reveals we could have avoided a lot of trouble and turmoil if we would have paid attention to the paradigm-busting prophets, full of imagination to see not only what is, but what could be, casting a vision of God’s future over what Brueggemann calls the “royal consciousness”:
Even in the more liberal theological tradition that I was raised, we only talked about the prophets as moral teachers and there was no attention to the artistic, aesthetic quality of how they did that. But it is the only way in which you can think outside of the box. Otherwise, even liberal passion for justice just becomes another ideology, and it does not have transformative power. That’s what’s extraordinary about the poetry, that it’s so elusive that it refuses to be reduced to a formula.
McMillan doesn’t scold or reprimand, but rather uses his prophetic imagination through music to take listeners down a reflective path, bringing to light the emptiness of the narrative that we are self-made people.
I’ve been chasing God
I’ve been chasing Mercury and lightning
I’ve been pressing hard
I’ve been coming up short
Lately I’ve been thinking about
What’s going to happen with you and I
I need a new religion
Or I need a new lie (“Mercury & Lightning”)
Living in a land of flash-in-the-pan memes and pithy tweets, I projected my own perspective over McMillan’s work. It’s as alluring to view art as a reflection of ourselves as it is to create God in our own image. I wrongly assumed his work was reactionary because it’s what I know. The loudest voices spit bold opinions faster than any of us can even consume them: we value fast hot-takes from the spin room instead of considering contemplation from the prayer room. We want linear, black-and-white thinking, but McMillan doesn’t serve easy-to-digest statements on a social media platter. It takes artists like him to push us off our comfortable thrones.
While some of us feel comforted by the heavy doses of ambiguity and artistry served in McMillan’s follow up to his 2013 Borderland, an uncomfortable undercurrent lingers in Mercury & Lightning. And maybe it’s uncomfortable because we’re used to sipping, not chewing. We want things clear and defined, concrete and specific. I fell into the temptation to participate in lyrical and spiritual gymnastics as a listener to Mercury & Lightning. We must move beyond that, allowing his language of lament to stand alone, even if that means wading in the tension of metaphor.
Are we running after flickering sparks?
Are we grappling for diamonds in the dark?
Oh, the way we chase that mercury
The way we chase that mercury
Another pound of flesh
Offer it up to the gods of American success
But no matter what you are, you’re only second best
And it’s all that you can ever hope to be
The way you chase that mercury (“Gods of American Success”)
Artists provide lenses to view reality, giving us the ability to reframe what’s important in turbulent times. Brueggemann asserts that “the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominative culture around us.”
McMillan’s capacity to use language to reflect on self and society makes Mercury & Lightning a thoughtful album worth chewing on. He brings to reality what, as Brueggeman would say, the king must see and will not.
Here in the darkness we relent
Out on the porch with the government
Everybody calls for a covenant
But nobody’s drawing blood
I’ve been thinking about what it meant
You say that you never get used to it
On the shores of the heaven bent
With who I thought I was (“Unhaunted”)
Ears to hear poets such as McMillan — and souls to heed their quiet, preemptive spiritual insights — are necessary to the body of Christ yielding to a voice of hope, moving us beyond ourselves and toward a grander vision of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.
As I throw in my earbuds, kick up my feet, and allow my thumbs to scroll social media echo chambers, I often give permission for my awareness to diminish. Adopting a posture of numbness and denial is easier than listening to the quiet words many prophets speak. Why bother paying attention to the quiet passion found in the lyrics of Mercury & Lightning when I can see a reactive rant loud and clear on Twitter? Perhaps God gives us artistic truth-tellers because paying attention to the prophets’ imaginations, many of whom are likely writing on the margins before we even know we need to hear their words, wakes up our senses, piercing our royal consciousness.
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