This is part 3 of the Tortured Artist series: you can check out Identity Crisis and Difficult to Love here.
The story of Christian singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, “Ragamuffin,” was recently released on DVD. A great movie that exemplifies the tortured artist stereotype. And I think it brings up two of the most difficult problems with being both Christian and artist.
The first is seen when Rich Mullins shows up to a seminary class right after his song “Awesome God” becomes a radio hit. It comes up in class and the teacher is befuddled as to why such a famous worship leader would be taking his class. It seems like Rich should know enough about God at this point with such anointed music to be leading the class himself, certainly not needing to learn more from others. Right? Right????
One problem that Christian creatives have is that they are assumed to be an authority on all spiritual topics. They can seek counsel and learning only to be greeted with a responsibility they never signed up for. We need to learn. We aren’t necessarily asking for authority when we put pen to paper or lyrics to music or paint to canvas. We’re just asking to express our hearts. Don’t take it too seriously. Every Christian has an audience, whether in artwork or another workplace; we all hold the same responsibility for our actions.
The second problem is equal and opposite. Rich Mullins is seen cussing, smoking, and drinking. (See, tortured artist.) Because a story of someone’s life will emphasize the highs and lows with no middle ground, it’s difficult to say how much of his life this more negative portrayal encapsulates. Yet multiple people get upset at his Christian platform when he struggled so. Some even question if he really knew God.
Sometimes I think the church is more forgiving of Christians from the Bible than of those Christians around today. Men and women who knew God in the Bible were messed up too. Liars, cheaters, drunkards, fornicators, murderers. This often after they knew God. But they weren’t defined by it. They’re considered heroes of the faith, with sin disregarded, ignored, or used as a lesson of God’s great mercy. And contemporary Christians should be given the same chance.
Somehow there is little grace for spiritual or theological error in creatives’ artwork. Because somehow we’ve accidentally taken up a mantle we’ve never intended, an authority we never deserved or asked for. Blasphemy. Leading others astray. An entire work worth being burned, instead of just taking the time to seek the truth yourself. Artistic expression is not the Bible (unless it is, of course.) We’ll get it wrong. Correct us where we’re wrong, but don’t write us off.
Let me tell you a secret: if we’re an artist for any length of time, we are open to criticism, even welcome it. For our work to be any good, it’s critical. We are prone to bouts of disagreement and tears over critique, while at the same time developing a backbone to eventually accept the life-giving truth after some good ol’ analyzing and ego-killing. So if you see something we believe or behave wrongly in, give it a shot. We may consider you our best friend after we take the time to set aside our pride. Just try to be gentle and gracious, because like I said, we our prone to bouts of disagreement and tears 🙂
4 thoughts on “The Tortured Artist Mythology: A Christian Artist’s Dilemma”
This is so good! What a great reminder!! Unfortunately I find myself guilty of these things all too often.
Me too, Maggie. I feel the weightiness of conveying truth accurately, but often have much more grace for my flaws than others in art. Like they should know the truth I know, when they probably just know some truth I don’t. No comparing there. I have to remember we’re all figuring out our own way and learning from each other.