Prolegomenon: The Missionary Mentality

When we discuss the Artistic Vocation, I think it is worth looking at what the ArtVoc is not. We’ll attempt something of the sort today.

The following is taken from the front of a brochure of a well-intentioned organization in Hollywood: “Christians need to be working in Hollywood, working alongside the men and women who are producing movies that twenty million people see each week. What a mission field.”

In one sense, this is true. Hollywood needs Jesus just as much as Paupau, New Guinea needs Jesus, or as much as Poughkeepsie needs Jesus. But note the sub-text here: Hollywooders need Jesus, primarily or in part, because so many people see their art. They need Jesus, presumably, because they could be so useful.

But is usefulness the proper end of Artistic activity?

I see this statement as representative of how a lot of Christians see the arts, and, more sadly still, how so many young artists feel they ought to see their art. Art is something that is useful for evangelization, and the degree to which it serves that end is the degree to which we ought to consider it, implicitly or explicitly, licit.

This mindset I call the Missionary Mindset. The Missionary Mindset is the frame of mind that tells you that the end or goal of a given activity is evangelization and the conversion of souls. This is an important mindset to adopt, that is, so long as it applied to proper activities. In other words, so long as the end of an activity is the conversion of souls proper, one ought to see that activity as a means to that end. But sometimes, we can actually pervert or distort an activity if its proper end is not the direct conversion of souls, despite replacing its proper end with so noble a goal.

A comparison will help us understand. Suppose a man has a vocation to be a mechanic. It is a good and noble thing if that man wants to use his talents as an occasion to share his faith, so long as he does not confuse sharing his faith with fixing a car. If he does, he risks damaging both activities. No amount of religious tracts will adequately replace brake pads, and should the mechanic try something so outrageous, his angry customer will be in no mood to hear or accept the Gospel preached by the man who just ruined his car.

In short, the appropriate end of a mechanic’s vocation as a mechanic is properly operating automobiles. In the same way, we artists must attend to our proper end.

And what is that? Often enough, believing artists, because they are believers, adopt the conversion of souls as the measure by which they ‘successful artists’. Much more often, believers who aren’t artists only regard as worthwhile or even licit those artists who claim ‘ministry’ or ‘evangelization’ as their stated end. This is the Missionary Mentality of Art and it is terribly crippling for Artists.

The Missionary Mentality is, I emphasize, a good, noble, and appropriate view to one’s work to the extent that one’s work is missionary work, either formally or in day-to-day living. But this is not the end of Artistic activity.

(A short detour: my mother once worked as a journalist, and I was fortunate enough to sit in on her interview of singer-songwriter Rich Mullins. She asked him about his “ministry” and he seemed put off by the question. “How I treat my waitress, that is my ministry. The music? That’s my job. I’m an entertainer.” She was scandalized by this; I was immeasurably liberated by it.)

As I see it, the danger of the Missionary Mentality for Artists is threefold:

First, we risk deceiving those who come to participate in our art. Those who have come for your art because they were told is was art will be, at best, nonplussed with getting a sermon instead, and at worst, will scorn and mock your pretense. For example, when folks come to see a movie, they want to see a movie, not a dramatized sermon. (But, it is worth noting, there is a growing business in dramatized sermons on the big screen).

Second, we risk deceiving ourselves. A good friend once quipped sagely: “We dare not mask our ambition in pious language and think we’re fooling anyone.” Christian artists are no less culpable than anyone else for having an urge to produce good art, but neither are they less susceptible to the allure of success. But many believing artists feel the need to excuse or whitewash their endeavors by claiming it serves an evangelistic purpose, that it is somehow the means by which God is saving the world. (I’m exaggerating to make the point, I know, but we are familiar with this sort of attitude, aren’t we? Isn’t this creeping into the edges of kulturkampf and Cru-Sadism as we mentioned before?) “It is a terrible thing,” says Thomas Merton, “ when such a one gets the idea he is a prophet or a messenger of God or a man with a mission to reform the world. … He is capable of destroying religion and making the name of God odious to men.”

Third, the end of art is not the proposition of truth (bear with me on this one, I will explain more in a future post), and any attempt to make it so strips art of its end, and therefore of whatever power it has to achieve its proper end. In short, art devolves into propaganda (not necessarily a criticism). To those who suggest that all art is propaganda, I would ask them what what we must all ask ourselves as Artists:

What is the end of Art?

This is a primary question of ArtVoc, the answers to which will be a central topic in future posts.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Dear Prudence « ArtVoc

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