Increasing the Spiritual Palette
Society's imagination has come to an end. And this is having terrible consequences. Neither politics, economics, or the Church seem to provide solid answers right now.
Photo by Francesco Bianco on Unsplash
Sting has always been one of my favourite artists. Somehow, he has always managed to capture the elements of songwriting I always wish I could: melodies with interesting little surprises; exploratory rhythms (I’m a big fan of Manu Katché who has often been in Sting’s band); engaging, human stories; a unique voice; and an interest in using historical pictures / poetry. In short, he is not just a pop singer or a songwriter but an artist. While he frequently crafts pop melodies, he seems to do so with imagination. The songs not only sound good, feel good, but they seem to enlighten the listener’s imagination.
In a recent (and brilliant interview) with Rick Beato, Sting says something that encapsulated something of my own musical and artistic journey—but I realised that it also encapsulates my spiritual journey. Rick asked him, in a roundabout way, why he left the Police when the group was at its height, not just commercially but especially artistically.
“I just wanted a larger palette,” he says at 12:37 in.
There are two meanings of this word. “Palette” is the thing painters use to mix paint. “Palate” refers to our taste. I originally thought he meant the latter, but then realised he meant the former, especially in line with his comments on the limitation of being a three-piece band. He wanted more options to paint music with.
This speaks to my own spiritual journey
This simple statement spoke to me about my spiritual journey. My mind said, “Ah, that’s what’s been going on with my spirituality.”
The same thing that has happened to me musically (my tastes have certainly become more eclectic as I’ve gotten older) and happened to me from a literature point of view has been happening to me from a spiritual point of view. The spirituality I grew up with as a teen and in my early 20’s that I quite enjoyed now seems tired and thin, unable to bring me through the next season of my life as I go through middle-age and, quite frankly, unable to even answer the questions of our world today.
More to the point, for over a decade now I have had a rather frustrating Christian spiritual journey. I have felt severely limited by a particular evangelical-charismatic worldview that increasingly seems to have a very limited imagination.
The discontent I have felt has led to more questions as I increasingly face my own weaknesses, sinful habits, and deeper issues more starkly. Perhaps I never saw them before, or perhaps they are worse now than ever. As our characters develop with age, certain habits seem to become more ingrained, and some of these habits I quite frankly dislike.
That is all for another post. However, to answer my spiritual malady that began probably in my late 20’s (and has not resolved yet), I went exploring. I entered the theological world (not formally, but through reading) and found, there, a richness to draw from. I realised that many of the questions I had of my faith, which was drying up, were answered in the past. It was not like I was the first person with questions!
This pushed me forward a bit. It helped me to (re)discover my love for writing and my call in it. Then I got married and had kids and life pretty much took on a whole new meaning of busyness. There have been plenty of spiritual “ups” but these don’t always last long. Eventually when the busyness subsides and I can attend to my weary, driven soul, it comes to the same malady, much of which I battle to describe or understand.
Delving into church history as a believer and mining its theological and philosophical depths can be fun, stimulating, and certainly very helpful. It gives you a larger palette as you realise there is a lot more to paint with than you thought before. It stirs the imagination, which is something we all sorely need in our cultures today, as the collective imagination seems increasingly focused on politics or, boiling under the surface, transhumanism (this is a big topic which we’ll be getting to in some future writing).
The more I dug deeper, the more I actually began to appreciate Tradition. It’s an interesting thing, that. Most Protestant churches today pride themselves in a lack of “dry, boring” tradition, especially non-denominational churches like the kind that I am a part of. Tradition is seen as “religious” and something that “quenches” the Holy Spirit. What we prize is spontaneity and being able to be fluid and organic and dynamic.
Fair enough. I agree with this and even happily preach about it. Yet, I notice that the outcome can often simply be pragmaticism, not a dynamic faith. Pragmaticism is ultimately more boring than Tradition. At least Tradition has a history and a bit of mystery to it. There’s a story there. And this is exactly the problem that a lot of people are beginning to talk about when looking at the evangelical church today: there is too much pragmaticism and too little imagination; too little mysticism, in a broader sense.
Also, ironically, what has set in is a new kind of tradition, one now stripped away from history and replaced with predominantly the history of the last 50 years.
While Christianity is a very practical, hands-on faith about love, it’s not a pragmatic faith. It has a mystical, imaginative side that is often ignored in our time, unless these things can serve some sort of practical purpose. Take church music, for example. In the wake of the charismatic movement’s emphasis on spontaneity, and the discontent of the Boomer generation in the 60’s, rock music gradually became a staple form of worship music style. I love rock music and always will. But after many years, as rock music has become less experimental and began to “formulise” and simplify, because that’s what you need to “make a hit”, it became boring. Like Sting and Rick say in the same interview above (43:13), musically and culturally, we seem “stuck” right now.
Unfortunately, simple formulas can increase participation (it’s easy to sing along—that’s the practical element) but also boredom. Not that entertainment is the point, but more that inspiring the imagination is.
How the story of Progress makes politics and economics usurp art and spirituality
Even more to the point of the topic of this blog, we are never going to see a cultural reformation until we reform our spirituality. A purely pragmatic spirituality won’t do. We need something deeper and more imaginative.
The intersection between culture and spirituality is art. Right now the big story that is winning the public imagination (and has for some time) is the story of Progress.
The news media exist to tell us how the Progress story is going. That’s why we dial in—we want to know if things are going forward or going backward; if tomorrow will be better than today.
The trouble with this story is it is largely driven by an invisible worldview we take for granted, and that is the Secular worldview. Progress, in the secular worldview of the past, was very much lined up with classical liberal ideas—freedom of speech; personal agency; responsibility, that sort of stuff. A lot of that was inherited from Christian thought. However, in a post-modern world where the “lived experience” of the individual is more true than an objective reality, Progress has begun to fracture into a million different pieces. Now, what is Progress for one is Regress for another.
So the West, in particular (and I can’t comment on the East as I can’t observe it as easily) has lost its imagination—Western society honestly doesn’t know where it’s going, what it wants to be, and who the bad guys are and who the good guys are.
This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened in history, and it probably won’t be the last. Which should encourage us a bit. And get us to look back in order to look forward and reform things. (Ad fontes - back to the sources!).
In the past, what seems to have brought things back into an equilibrium and created human flourishing throughout all sectors of society is not politics, which is obviously divisive by nature (politicians need to pick / represent a side to keep themselves in business. Unity is not good for business).
Also, it’s not economics. Obviously, more financial security throughout society creates a more stable world, but we’re living in a world where the story of economical progress is clearly failing, because when everything boils down to the “bottom line” (economics) what humanity loses is imagination—it comes down to what is most practical, most convenient, and what’s cheapest. I’m not an economist, but it does seem to me that economics only flourishes as the result of other things happening in a culture.
It’s also not journalism. I love journalism. I think the idea of the Fourth Estate is exceptionally good for democracy. But we’re not really talking democracy here. Journalism is about telling stories and it ultimately and very often goes with the story of the culture. It is, after all, the media mouthpiece—the art—of Progress.
What brings things back is quite simply the adoption of a different story. And that requires imagination. And it’s the artists who do this—our musicians, our painters, our writers, our poets.
Progress has, perhaps in the last seventy years, usurped the Arts and made it more about economics and politics. So much of art is simply activism these days. Sure, it has its place, but it also has its limits. If it’s not activism it’s pure commercialism—what is catchy? What will sell? What will make a hit? Or what will shock?
I think activist movements peaked in 2020 and I have a suspicion that there is a lot of secret backlash happening right now against that particular part of our culture, especially as activism becomes more commercialised. People actually don’t fall for that kind of stuff.
Spirituality feeds the arts
In the absence of a connected spirituality coming from the West’s traditional spiritual base (the Church), the Arts turned to the story of Progress as a principle driver, and now we’re all suffering because of it.
It’s both the Church’s fault and not the Church’s fault, because it’s not fair to judge a generation with hindsight.
In the 50’s, the early megachurches learned that the mystical side of the faith could be commoditised—you sell an “experience” at your church and make sure your experience is better than the other church down the road. Then, you franchise and expand. In many cases this was done with sincerity, but in many other cases not. At any rate, I don’t think it’s going to be effective going into the future.
But see the story of Progress there? Sure, a lot of this was / is couched in good intentions—getting the gospel out in a relevant way, and so on. But so much of the gospel is then also couched in the other story of “me” frequently preached about (how I am going to get a breakthrough, etc.) and the story of “us” (look at all the amazing things we’re doing in the world and how we’re expanding). Neither of these stories are really the gospel story, which is essentially a story about Jesus having come to the world, died for mankind, having been raised with a new body so that all of mankind would be raised in the same way, and who now has all authority and is moving history towards a new heavens and a new earth.
This gospel story ties the past and the future together in a unique way. It has its own Progress, of course, and, interestingly, it’s own transhumanism. It seems to take these concepts together that humanity is striving for anyway but point it towards one Man and a story of grace rather than a story of the self-sufficiency of mankind to achieve a prosperous, flourishing future and rise up above its (our) weaknesses and base natures (secular Progress).
That’s all quite a complicated way to put it and perhaps a bit of a digression.
But after years of the megachurch franchising model, guess what has happened? People are getting bored. It may not seem that way when you look at the numbers yet, but you can sense it on a grass-roots level and pick it up in discussions online and off. People always like branding and hype initially but eventually they prefer authenticity. And even more particularly, all the money poured in and time spent creating megachurches and franchised versions (like Hillsong, who are perhaps a master example) hasn’t seemed to have influenced broader culture at all for the gospel—and where it has influenced, I’m not sure it has in a good way.
Meanwhile, “mainline denominations” threw away their very interesting histories and deeper meaning in their traditions and adopted the politics side of the Progress story. This is why so much of mainline denomination just mirrors the activism of the world—the gospel is apparently merely justice (it does include that, but it goes deeper than equity and economical access).
So, the Church (as a collective people, not as some sort of nebulous institution) allowed its own imagination to be usurped by the secular story of Progress, complete with the politics and the economics-is-all worldview. (I’m not saying its like this everywhere and always, I am speaking very broadly.) And so we have what we have today. And this is probably why “culture wars” are so stupid—the war has become about who gets to define Progress, not anything interesting or artistic or challenging or, in fact, “cultural”.
The artists who took us forward probably in the last 50 years in the West, the great Boomer generation’s rock icons, perhaps largely bought into this view eventually too, although some stuck to their guns and stuck it to the “the Man” for ever. But as world history goes, today’s people who “stick it to the Man” become “the Man” tomorrow. In the words of The Who: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The same is perhaps true in our churches today.
Back to the spiritual palette
My take is that the spiritual people of God, the Church, which in the past was at the forefront of Western artistic endeavour, needs to get back to inspiring art through the telling of a more imaginative story than our personal “breakthrough” or our activism (moralism in some cases) or the more subtle story of how amazing the Church is (“look at all the churches we’re planting / the lives we are changing, etc.”). None of these stories are enough to inspire true art that will move our culture forward into something better than we have today.
In the way art is used, we also need to get beyond mere pragmaticism. Music does not exist to give people “an experience” at your local church, and artists should not be co-opted to achieve a church’s expansion and franchising objectives (I don’t think this should be a local church’s objectives anyway, but we’ll unpack that in a future post as well. Needless to say, I don’t believe the future is megachurch, in all its iterations).
To get there, we need to go back to the sources—we need to unpack the richness of our own theological and philosophical history; our Tradition; again and, ultimately, what the gospel really is. For after all, the gospel is a story, and artists tell stories. In this way we begin to enlarge the palette to draw from. We need a deeper spirituality and some humility when it comes to what ministry and the local church looks like.
This is not about what pastors should be doing; another item in a long list of things pastors apparently should be doing. Everyone has their opinion on what a pastor should be doing. The pastor might be the only job in the world where everyone else feels they have a right to define the job description. I’m a pastor, too, and I know what it feels like to have a thousand voices telling you what you should be doing and how you should use your time.
But yet I must say, as a pastor, that the only thing, I believe, pastors should probably be doing is simplifying. Especially right now. If we learn anything from Covid we should learn the need to simplify. All the big ambitions that so many of us have to change the world appear to be driving more burn-out than anything and, to be frank, are not making a change on culture at all. Art, as one vocation among many, shouldn’t be owned by a local church or a denominational group or whatever. The role of the pastor is to help the artists (and other vocations) get into the culture and tell the Story of Jesus there, in myriad ways. Not to own the process; not to co-opt the thing; not to steer it; not to deliberately gain influence with important people at the expense of ordinary people; not to host politicians; not to have a business or a record label. And not for everything in life to be church ministry, but for ministry to happen in the world, where it belongs.
Much more can be said about this, which is why I’m writing a book on it. I’m going with the title “Art and Word” right now. But it’s also why I’ve relaunched this blog! But it’s gotten long now so we’ll be expanding into different topics as we go.
Happy new year!
I love your point about pragmatism. You’re touching on what I think Jesus meant by “lukewarm”… I posted this the other day:
“Christ accepts the radical, on-fire believer. Christ will convince the honest cold skeptic… It is the lukewarm that he cannot stomach, the moderate playing both sides, standing for nothing, that he will spit out… don’t confuse Christ with Goldilocks.”
I think there are pockets of creative theology. Mike Heiser is doing something phenomenal, “I dare you not to bore me with the Bible”.
BibleProject new app looks wonderful where they are looking at scripture in “movements” and forcing the reader to see repeated themes and patterns in masterful arrangement.
I was in a small conflict/debate recently, and realized that my opponent was attempting to protect his reformed view from the Bible!
Ad fontes indeed! Back to the artesian well, the un-capable spring.
I think the middle is always more radical than either of the extremes, and the truth has always been stranger than fiction. Where the imagination strives for uniqueness it becomes self serving and inauthentic; where imagination is made subject to truth it begins to bloom the original, the sincere, and the authentic.
After all, no one, no matter how gifted or creative or skilled, is able to imagine all that Christ has prepared for us!
Ryan, great piece. Some comments:
1. Trying to figure out out how to comment on Substack is hard. Why substack anyway?
2. Have you listened to Sting's latest album? I'm not sure I like it, but The Book of Numbers is theologically interesting. Sting's relationship with God is weird.
3. You know when Jesus enters Jerusalem and they sing Hossanna to the Son of David. What is the next thing he does? Turns over the tables in the temple and clears everyone out ... How challenging it is when we worship Jesus for what we think He is only to have him turn over tables in our lives and bring change? Perhaps this is something of what is happening today.
4. I don't think its as much about our progress as it is about identity. I think the reason why we identify with artists is they tell of our humanity. Perhaps the challenge for the church is our artistic expression became what do our buildings look like an our music sounds like in worship... while Bono, Justin Bieber, Kanye West and Tori Kelly have pulled at the heart strings of people who find Jesus but express their emotions and challenges in the world? Maybe we need more of a focus on identity and the road Jesus walks with us, especially when its in the gutters of relational challenges, depression, financial woes etc etc
5. It feels like we've been on a diet of bread and cheese in the local church, but Jesus didn't say go and plant churches to reach the world, or go and make your churches like XYZ to reach the world. He said go and make disciples and I think church is something which should flow out of people becoming Christians and then naturally want a place to connect, learn and grow. Not be the central process in which the gospel goes out to the world (With all its expenses, programs, staff costs, operational costs etc)
Good thoughts here. Well done!