Monday, October 10, 2011

Skills or Message?

On Twitter recently, I made a comment about Christian films and the poor acting that is often associated with them. Someone responded by asking,

"Are you going for the acting or the message? The truth is what is needed!"

The person went on to ask, "Shouldn't God's glory be the first thing?"

This is a question that often comes up when dealing with works of art that have a Christian message connected to them. So what's more important? Skills or message?

I think the problem here is with the question itself, as it pits two things against each other that should actually be walking hand-in-hand. When it comes to Christians doing art, it's not either convey a true message or do it skillfully. It's both/ and. Consider a few Scriptures:

Psalm 33:3

"Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts."

The Psalmist goes on to speak on God's nature and His works as incentives to praise Him in this way. But did you notice the word "skillfully" in verse 3? Why doesn't it simply say "play on the strings"? I believe it's because God is particularly glorified when knowledge, wisdom and craftsmanship are applied by the artist in His service. This glorifies God as the generous Giver of talent, creative capacity and artistic expertise. It wasn't enough for the Psalmist to merely say true things about God. That truth was meant to be joined by skillful accompaniment.

Or consider these verses concerning the building of the tabernacle:

Exodus 35:10

Let every skillful craftsman among you come and make all that the LORD has commanded:

Exodus 35:25-26

And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair.

Exodus 36:1-2

Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded." And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the LORD had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work.

I'm sure at that time, there were many with the desire to work on the tabernacle. But it wasn’t enough to have the desire without the skill to best glorify God with those desires. This was such a priority to God that He actually put skill into the minds of Bezalel and Oholiab (Ex.36:2). The tabernacle would have looked really shabby if just anybody who knew how to pick up a carving instrument was allowed to work on it! Does this mean that God won’t accept the praise of someone who jumps on the piano and pounds away mindlessly to the glory of God? Not necessarily. A sincere heart is of great worth in God’s eyes (1 Sam. 16:7). Also, being the most skilled virtuoso in the world is meaningless if her heart is controlled by pride or self-exaltation (Proverbs 8:13).

With that said, I believe that art done by Christians should be held to high aesthetic standards and that the phrase, "It was pretty good for a Christian movie/song/book, etc." should NEVER be the preface for a statement about Christian works of art. If I have to choose between quality art and a truthful message, I'll simply pass on the work altogether. Why should I have to look at a bad painting in order to see the text of Romans 6:23 scribbled into the furniture? Just give me a Bible, please. There are plenty of places to get truth without subjecting yourself to bad art in the process.

So here's my answer to the question, "Shouldn't God's glory be the first thing?"

If an Isrealite asked Moses that same question, I think he might have said, "Yes. God's glory is the first thing. That's why they must be skilled."

grace and peace,


Sock Monkey said...

Thanks for this post. I totally agree with your thoughts and appreciate your biblically centered writing. I appreciate hearing from an artist on the issue! God bless and thank you for your ministry!

Thomas Fletcher Booher said...

I couldn't agree more Shai. Very glad you posted this blog. When a person says it is just about the message not about the quality, I think they are implicitly saying that the arts are nothing more than a medium, a means, for the message. The truth is, beauty and skill itself is made by God, His work, His creation, is beautiful, and thus to reflect the image of God most properly, we too must strive for high quality, whether that be in writing, singing, painting, sculpting, cooking, anything. Developing our God given talents is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself that brings great glory to God.

Tommie J. Goggans III said...

Well said... You literally took the word out of my mouth. When it comes to any undertaking by believers it should never be skills OR message but skills AND message. One does not need to look very deep into the scriptures to see that God never does anything in mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

I agree to an extent. Yes, it would be awesome to be skillful but sometimes you must make do with what you have and pray that God touches the hearts of everyone. What A-list Hollywood actor wants to star in a Christian movie? Hardly anyone! Most people are too scared to come out and do something so bold for Christ; they're so wrapped up in what they want and in their hearts. God wants us to use our talents but He also wants us to glorify Him in all that we do. No, the acting isn't always great in these Christian themed movies but the message is always clear and God's presence is there. Just because someone doesn't act or sing or whatever to the expectation that you would expect, doesn't mean they're not doing it with the highest quality they have or without all the skills they possess. God will use who He needs to without using our opinion. "Fireproof" is a GREAT movie with a GREAT message but not even Kirk Cameron could mask the mediocre acting of some of the actors. Did it make it "good for a Christian movie"? To me, it was a good movie for any kind of movie. Everyone has a different opinion and expectation. Maybe.. just MAYBE, God uses these people for a reason.. Notice how the majority of the actors in these movies are in other Christian movies. I'm not arguing the fact that we do things skillfully... but skillfully to who? You? The guy next door? The group who did like it? The group who didn't like it? God?

Anonymous said...

Whose taste are we basing this off of? Everyone has their own opinion and expectations. People have different tastes. God uses people that He sees fit. Maybe we should think of it in that way. God uses people to deliver His message... maybe He uses these people to relate to some unreached group. Who knows? Yes, a skill AND message are needed, but are we basing this skill on our opinion? I love these Christian movies and some may disagree. That's fine. All I know is that God has these people in these movies for a reason.

Anonymous said...


I agree to an extent as well. Not everything has such formal rules and precesion such as music, building, and art. For example Moses had bad speech and so did Paul. That didn't discount them as powerful speakers. So there are variables to consider.

Grace and Peace,

suzanne b. said...

I have thought about this so often over the years regarding literature. I love C.S. Lewis and Tolkien (and Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton), but we should have more folks to quote from and be proud of. :)

Also, I have thought about the reverse of this before, and how if we use offensive language, it doesn't reflect the character of the God we represent. And I like even more to think about the positive version ... that to really represent God in our art, it's good if we can show skill and intention and excellence. Not in a weirdly ambitious-for-ourselves way, but I know that's not what you meant at all.

Hands to work, hearts to God. I loved this post ... thanks! :)

Ashley said...

This is why I listen to you. You speak the truth sir. Thank you for applying this standard to your own music.

Karl Nova said...

I agree with this post totally, it shouldn't be either an or thing at all but both.

I think the question I have is why do we seem to primarily look to art to preach the message of the gospel? It always feels like we are looking mainly to the creative arts to speak the gospel because of the latent power and effect we feel it has on people.

It reminds me of a passage in I Cor 2:2 -5 where Paul says:

"For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God"

The question I always have is "are we relying on the power of creative arts like music etc more than on the Spirit of God to bring home the gospel to the hearts of people?" I think there is a danger to think that if our art is exercised with excellence and precision and amazing creativity that automatically souls will be won, when truly it is only by the Spirit of God that such can happen.

this is still not an excuse to not hold our art to the highest standards by the way.

what do you think?

countblessings said...

What do you think of Tozer's "The Menace of the Religious Movie"?

Maybe there is a deliniation between "art" and the preaching of the gospel. Is "art" a fruit of the Spirit or a gift given to edify the church?

We would question the assumption that art and fiction are tools for proclaming the gospel or edifying believers. Especially when it is judged exactly the way the world judges.

Perhaps you could take a look at this article: Reality and Unreality.

BerlinerinPoet said...

This is a wonderful post and something I've been thinking about a lot. I actually said the movie Fireproof was "pretty alright as far as that kind of movie goes." I feel terrible for having to apologize for the poor quality of the stuff we try to put out.

"I think the problem here is with the question itself, as it pits two things against each other that should actually be walking hand-in-hand." Amen to that! Why does one have to exclude the other?

And to the person who asked what Hollywood actor is going to take on those roles...none of them!! Which is why when Christians seem to have a real God given skill for acting they should be encouraged to pursue that. There are so many of us and God has given us such a wide variety of talents, if we all hone those skills eventually we'll have art all over the place that glorifies God.

Paul Haymon said...

Thanks for your post, Shai. I appreciate the Scripture quotes and the book 'recommendation'.

Keep on glorifying Jesus.

Perry Kaye said...

To the anonymous person talking about taste:

Shai's post is not about taste at all. We're not judging bluegrass against hip hop, here. When he speaks of skill, he's talking about something more objective. You can clearly see the difference in the performance of a skillful musician who has practiced for many years against the performance of an amateur hobbyist who just took up music two years ago. It's not a matter of opinion, unless you believe that mistakes and not-so-good tone make a piece of music better.

Unknown said...

Great post! I too agree both should be considered equally. This should not discourage those struggling in skill. it's a reminder that we have been blessed by God with the ability to develop our skills. I may not be ready for the big screen, but I can develop my acting skills by participating in next week's church drama. I may not be ready to speak lines, but I will be the best "extra" for the glory of God. :) Be blessed!

Anonymous said...

The main problem is making sure that our lack of skill or quality is not a distraction for the person listening to the message. Many people are not going to blow their ear drums out in order to listen to some screamo preach to them the gospel through the art of heavy metal. Therefore adjust the art to the level where people will listen to the message and not rip the headphones out of their ears. Without compromising or changing the message of course.

Tersieff said...

A great article that encourages our skills to be used to the Glory of God. What a great honor it is to bring Him glory by the talents He has given to us. I would also ad that when it comes to communicating a message, it's with the Word of God, by the working of the Holy Spirit that the truth of the gospel is delivered. We must be careful to remember that it's the Bible that is the "inspired" Word of God and not our art. May we never replace the written Word of God, or the speaking of it, with our skill. Otherwise we might boast in our skill or our cleverness in the communicating of the message (1 Cor 2:4). Use our skill to bring glory to God, use the Word of God to bring truth to men!