Good Work and Good Works

Part 16 in the Series:

The Bezalel Blueprint

By Don Enevoldsen

The flip side of creativity is discipline. I alluded to this in the last part because it is difficult to discuss creativity without considering discipline. In fact, the discipline part of Bezalel’s character is far more noticeable than his creativity. He was instructed to build the Tabernacle “just as the Lord has commanded.” (Exodus 36:1) With that kind of restriction, it is easy for us to overlook Bezalel’s creativity. He did far more than simply follow a blueprint—though he did follow a blueprint.

These two extremes of artistic endeavor seem to dominate my experience with Christian artists. As pointed out last week, many consider creativity to be mimicking secular art in an effort to demonstrate that Christians can do the same thing just as well as non-Christians. We seem to feel very little urge to do anything genuinely original. We just want to look and sound like the rest of the world.

Christian music is a good example. Through my high school years, when I first engaged in active evangelism, I and my witnessing companions felt compelled to point out to the lost that Christian music was contemporary and up to date. The problem was that Christian music was generally about twenty years behind secular trends.

This desire to appear like the world is tricky to navigate. We are supposed to become all things to all people so that by all means we might win some. (1 Corinthians 9:22) However, that is often used as an excuse for producing shoddy work.

C.S. Lewis provides an excellent description of what it means to do quality work. In his book The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (which can be read online here), he describes the difference between quality and charity. Appropriately the essay in question is titled “Good Work and Good Works.” He begins with an introduction of the terms:

“ ‘Good Works’ in the plural is an expression much more familiar to modern Christendom than ‘good work.’ Good works are chiefly alms-giving or ‘helping’ in the parish. They are quite separate from one’s ‘work.’ And good works need not be good work, as anyone can see by inspecting some of the objects made to be sold at bazaars for charitable purposes.” (The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, p. 71)

Lewis does not set out specifically to talk about artists, but he does use them as an example, and his comments illustrate the need for discipline in a Christian artist.

“Until quite recently—until the latter part of the last century—it was taken for granted that the business of the artist was to delight and instruct his public. There were, of course, different publics; the street-songs and the oratorios were not addressed to the same audience (though I think a good many people liked both). And an artist might lead his public on to appreciate finer things than they had wanted at first; but he could do this only by being, from the first, if not merely entertaining, yet entertaining, and if not completely intelligible, yet very largely intelligible. All this has changed. In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. He owes us nothing; we owe him ‘recognition,’ even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests, or habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop, the customer is always wrong.” (The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, pp. 78-79)

Implied in this statement is the idea that lack of discipline on the part of an artist is motivated by ambition or pride, the selfish desire to be recognized rather than the concern for communicating to the community for the good of the community. The actor who is more interested in fame and fortune than in the audience will never be a great representative for the Gospel, no matter how talented. As Lewis put it:

“But this change is surely part of our changed attitude to all work. As ‘giving employment’ becomes more important than making things men need or like, there is a tendency to regard every trade as something that exists chiefly for the sake of those who practice it. The smith does not work in order that the warriors may fight; the warriors exist and fight in order that the smith may be kept busy. The bard does not exist in order to delight the tribe; the tribe exists in order to appreciate the bard.” (The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, p. 79)

Note that a balance is needed here. Keeping the Gospel as a priority does not imply preaching at everyone every chance we get. Rather it means doing the best we can do to live as Christ would live. That means producing the highest quality with the greatest creativity we can achieve, no matter what the project. What people see of Jesus in us, for most of them, is all they will ever see of Jesus. When I first moved to Hollywood, God gave me a very clear and simple message: “You are the message, not your movie.” Part of being a good message, however, means doing a good job at making the movie. Lewis expressed it this way:

“But though we have a duty to feed the hungry, I doubt whether we have a duty to ‘appreciate’ the ambitious. This attitude to art is fatal to good work. Many modern novels, poems, and pictures, which we are brow-beaten into ‘appreciating,’ are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job.” (The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, p. 80)

Ultimately, if a Christian artist wants to have credibility, he/she must combine creativity and originality with discipline, meaning a genuine understanding of the audience, an ability to connect and communicate, and a purpose in the creation of art beyond the need for self-expression, even when the art is self-expression. Great artists think beyond themselves.

“ ‘Great works’ (of art) and ‘good works’ (of charity) had better also be Good Work. Let choirs sing well or not at all. Otherwise we merely confirm the majority in their conviction that the world of Business, which does with such efficiency so much that never really needed doing, is the real, the adult, and the practical world; and that all this ‘culture’ and all this religion’ (horrid words both) are essentially marginal, amateurish, and rather effeminate activities.” (The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, pp. 80-81)

Next, Part 17: The Priesthood of Artists

Go to the beginning of the series, The Bezalel Blueprint:  Part 1, The Artist Bezalel

Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

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