Creating in Faith

by Jeff Johnson


It is the middle of August, 1990, and I am in Prague, Czechoslovakia. It is late at night, and I sit with friends below the famous monument to the early reformer, Jan Huss. Across the large square a couple run, skip, and dance spontaneously with total disregard for the few of us who watch them. The creative side of my mind begins to take notes. Something very special is taking place. One of my friends is smoking. The aroma of pipe tobacco drifts away from us and a drunk who stumbles by catches the scent. He comes and sits beside the four of us, puts three fingers to his smacking lips, and says, “perfekto.”

A month later I am working on a new melody. I keep repeating a three-chord progression at the end of the melody’s phrase. A thought comes to mind—”perfekto,”—and all the images of that night in Prague return:

An impromptu act of love,
They danced across the square,
On a moonlit August night there in Prague.

As we watched beneath Jan Huss,
Below Bohemian sky,
An old drunken fool yelled out from the dark:
“Perfekto”
From the dark: “Perfekto”

Like a Riemenschneider face,
The truth is carved with grace,
Then is worked into the lines of our lives.

An impromptu act of love,
Just like the old fool said,
As he stumbled through the street in the dark:
“Perfekto”
In the dark: “Perfekto”

* * *

Creation: To make suggests making something out of something else the way a man makes wooden boxes out of wood. To create suggests making something out of nothing the way a man makes a painting or poems. It is true that the artist, like the carpenter, has to use something else—paint, words—but the beauty or meaning he makes is different from the material he makes it out of. To create is to make something essentially new.
(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)

A friend of mine used to say (and I’m afraid he was right when it comes to Christian musicians), “Musicians should sing and play, preachers should talk.” I have been ‘singing and playing’ my own music for nearly twenty years now. A new album, Great Romantics, will be my fourteenth release on the Ark Records label. Yet, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started to realize and been able to articulate what it means to be an artist of Christian faith.

Mind you, writing about one’s own creative work is tricky business—particularly when you’re talking about “Christian art.” We artist-types have a history of running into trouble with that self-appointed group in the church who have taken it upon themselves to define in black-and-white terms what is Christian and what isn’t. That’s why I’ve always tried to keep a low profile, making my point through the music I produce.

Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. If it’s good art—and there the questions start coming, questions which it would be simpler to evade.
(Madeleine L’Engle, Walking On Water)

Author Walker Percy has written, “Artists are the antennae of society.” Not only do I entertain people with my music, but there’s also an equally important contribution that I make by creatively contributing to my surrounding culture. When we study about a past civilization, what is it that informs us about the way these people lived? Their culture, which is made up of writings, artifacts, dwellings, as well as surviving works of art.

But the serious artist is one who not only reflects, but also inspires. Blaise Pascal wrote, “Man becomes great when he recognizes his own wretchedness.” This is a worthy goal of any Christian artist: to reflect the true condition of man in all of his fallenness juxtaposed with the richness and righteousness of God’s grace through Jesus Christ—simply stated, the gospel.

Creating, ultimately, is an act of faith. When I turn on all of the equipment in my studio and sit down at the keyboard to begin composing, I am like any human being who wakes up to a new day full of a multitude of unknown events and possibilities to live through. You go with your instincts. For me, those instincts are connected with many files in my mind full of ideas, people, places, and often, other works of art that have left their mark on me and have, in some way or another, inspired me. Often, these muses are connected with what C.S. Lewis called our “individual longings”: those rare moments in our lives when we realize some personal significance or experience illumination. They are the important events in each of our lives, which, Lewis warns, are not to be trusted in and of themselves, but rather, are events we “trust through” into a fuller understanding of reality.

Yet, the act of creating, while a very personal endeavor, is not wearing your heart out on your sleeve. Rather, it’s best described as an act of vulnerability. It comes from a place that the late Malcolm Muggeridge called “the limbo” where one “lurks among land mines.”

Many Christians today think that music written by Christians should have primarily a positive message. But is this the norm in the Biblical narrative? The writer of Ecclesiastes was not all that positive in his outlook of life. Nor was the Apostle Paul in his opening arguments in Romans. Yet, the Bible is a book full of hope. A positive message is often a cheapened hope. Hope acknowledges Muggeridge’s “mine field” that we’re walking through and trusts that God can be trusted to see us safely through it.

True art is only good if it reflects true life. Remember Plato’s story in which a group of prisoners locked in a large cave are allowed to see only the shadows of objects rather than the objects themselves? The shadows become their reality until one day one of them escapes into the real world outside of the cave. Suddenly he sees things as they really are. Sadly, much of contemporary Christian art, and particularly Christian music, has been rightly criticized for too often presenting a life of shadows instead of life as it really is.

Art should “imitate life.” So much of what my art ends up being is contingent on the life I am imitating. In Wes Hurd’s News & Views article “Art and Modern Art: Reflections of Being Human” (Winter 1991), he writes, “Art, then, can also be a profoundly serious attempt to search for and articulate emotionally and symbolically our most profound ideas and beliefs. Put briefly, art communicates the world and life views of those who create it.” Another way of saying this is that the artist, in his art, is telling us the stories he knows.

A major theme talked about today amongst contemporary Christian music songwriters is the importance of writing lyrics that anyone can relate to. The rationale is that if musicians are to proclaim the Gospel in their music, they need to proclaim it in a way that anyone can understand. Songwriter workshops often discourage including too many personal experiences in songs while encouraging general concepts and ideas that have a better chance of being understood by more people.

But good art imitates life, it doesn’t program life. Maybe corporate America needs those computer programs that “allow one to write in the style of the great writers” so that their many office memos will be interesting enough to read, but that’s not what making art is all about. Music with any lasting value isn’t written by formula.

Instead, I begin by relating my stories. And there’s a very good chance that some of my stories will be some of your stories. As Walter Wangerin, Jr., admonishes fellow pastors in their preaching, I would also admonish fellow Christian artists:

I am more than a preacher. I am myself the preaching. For God chooses to touch me whole, not only in my mind. Oh, no! There is no pride in such personal revelation—not unless it is sinfully conceived. For the complete drama of God begins with my rebellion and ends with his forgiveness. Remember St. Paul’s repeated story? How could either Paul or I find personal glory in what amounts to confession—confession of sin, confession of faith? Tell stories, ye preachers of God. Humble yourselves to make of yourselves a parable.
(Walter Wangerin, Jr., Ragman And Other Cries Of Faith)

The endeavor to create, like any serious endeavor, is a discipline. For me, making albums is how I envision climbing mountains. You make the climb, see the view, then descend to prepare for the next challenge. In much the same way, the artist’s life moves from one challenge to the next. It is also a life full of the realization that no work will be completely without its flaws. Like life in general, try as we might, we will always fall short of the ideal. Yet, graciously, from time to time I look back over my work as a believer might look back on certain past events of his life and realize that “something significant happened there—God was truly involved.” This is what keeps me going as an artist and, ultimately, what keeps me going as a person of faith. Like the French chef Babette proudly proclaims near the end of the film Babette’s Feast, “An artist is never poor.” Nor, truly, is the Christian.

* * *

It is now late August 1990, and I am revisiting one of my favorite places in all of Europe, Mont St. Michel, France. The tide is out, allowing me to walk along the beach surrounding the famous monastery island. I am alone and a storm is quickly rolling in. I am thinking about life. Not life in general, but the life that Jesus and Paul talk about in scripture. I’m reviewing some of my mental notes from Jack Crabtree’s series on Romans when the rain begins to fall. I am the last person on the beach to reach the protection the island offers from the storm. Quite soaked, I take refuge in a tiny stone chapel named after the Mont’s famous St. Aubert. I take out a pad and pen and write:

St. Michelle I have returned to you:
A battered soul, a wind-swept heart.
A mass of pilgrims has besieged you,
Despite the dark clouds overhead.
The water pours out of the heavens,
And you have caught me unaware.

But let the rain fall down, let it wash away my sin,
Let it soak my heart with life.
Let it flow from Thee, let it flow into the sea,
Let the rain fall down on me.


Lyrics from the songs, “Perfekto” and “Wash Away” © 1991 Ark Records • Sola Scriptura Songs

Copyright June 1991 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jeff Johnson