Why be extravagant?

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There is a theme that I go back to often here: Christians should not just be trying to keep up with the rest of the world in the arts; rather we should be leading the world or at least contributing on the front lines. I am obviously referring to all arts including music.

Of course, for centuries, the church led the Western world in the development of art. Actually, it pretty much controlled Western art. (That situation had its problems–big problems–of course and I am not discounting that.)

But after the church lost control of the arts, it pretty much checked out. Today, if we are being honest, Christian-inspired art has little significant influence in the arts at all. There are of course Christians who have been influential in the secular art world and there has been some great Christian art.  It is not that we don’t have Christians producing great stuff right now because we do. But our efforts have little significance in the world at large.

Let’s switch our focus to the art that is closest to my heart: music. There are reasons for the fact that Christian music is not at the quality that it should be; there are attitudes and belief systems (some right and some wrong) that have contributed to the problem.  I have talked about those things at length in the past. But regardless of where you stand on Christian music, if you are knowledgeable about music, you can’t be overly impressed when you survey the landscape.  I am not implying that we have no great music or great musicians because we have both.  But we certainly need more.

As I am preparing for my August live taping, I am constantly conflicted by one attitude that contributes to the problem: an aversion to extravagance.

You could probably write books on how the church has changed its views on extravagance over the past centuries. Consider architecture for an example. Remember the extravagance of Solomon’s temple? That same extravagance was evident 800 years ago when small communities would spend many decades building extravagant cathedrals. I recently read a fascinating book about the building of those cathedrals.

Obviously, at some point, things changed. Many of us (including me) are a little suspicious when we see extravagance displayed by churches.  We tend to think something is wrong.  In fact, there often IS something wrong, and there was usually something wrong during the building of those cathedrals 800 years ago too. But the fact that motives and hearts are often wrong does not mean extravagance is always wrong.

And I am reminded that this conflict is not new. Consider the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. You know the story, but remember how the gospels do a great job of contrasting Mary and Martha. Martha was utilitarian, practical, and busy. Mary was emotional, spiritually minded and relational. I can imagine they fought a lot since they lived together.

When Mary decided to “waste” a small fortune by pouring that oil on Jesus’ feet, she got a big reaction from the disciples and I am sure that Martha was beside herself.  Yes, that money could have fed a lot of poor people, and there is little doubt that Jesus was very interested in feeding poor people. But yet, in this situation as well as others, Jesus seemed to always side with Mary’s irrational viewpoint rather than what the more realistic people in the room thought.

I think it is worth noting that Jesus did not condemn the other side. He never told them they were wrong. He just strongly suggested that Mary’s way was better.

Can I suggest that Christian artists should start thinking a bit more like Mary than Martha? Art is not a utilitarian thing. We don’t need quantity as much as we need quality. And to generate quality, you need to be extravagant about the time and resources you put into it.

I will warn you that if you think that way, you will face some opposition. People are not always comfortable with extravagance.  You may be perceived as arrogant and impractical.  Some will question your motives. But that is just part of being an artist.  Just worry about the quality of what you are producing and ignore the detractors.

But as I mentioned before, even before the detractors, I fight this battle within myself.  We all tend to lean one way or another on this.  I lean more utilitarian if I am being honest. And I am not saying that you have to be one way or another. Just keep the story of Mary in mind when you produce art.

Going back to the August taping for a second.  By many standards, it will be considered extravagant. Certainly, it is far and away the most extravagant thing I have ever done. I will talk more about that in upcoming posts, but I wanted to write a post first discussing some of my thinking behind those decisions I am making.