I recently attended Story Chicago (“a conference for the creative class”), which proved to be exceedingly thoughtful and helpful. Many conferences have the (stated or unstated) goal of providing resources, training, and networking for experts in a given field. That’s not a bad thing. But this conference was different. While I walked away with some great ideas and new methodology, that just wasn’t really the point. It seemed to me that this conference was itself constructed more like a story or work of art rather than an educational experience.
There were several threads which ran through the conference, but the one that was most transformational for me was this, stated most succinctly by author Andrew Klavan: “A storyteller who doesn’t have the integrity to face the depth of the world’s darkness will not have the authority to lead people to the Light.” Not only writers are storytellers, of course. All art—all good art, anyway—tells a story. A song, a painting, or a film can tell a story. The structure of a worship gathering can tell a story, as can the elements within it.
The irony is that while Christians possess the greatest story of all time, much of the art perpetrated by evangelicals over the past hundred years or so has been, well, bad. I’m not even talking about Precious Moments figurines and Thomas Kinkade paintings. Everyone loves to hate on that stuff, but that’s because it’s easy and relatively safe for us to take potshots at Precious Moments. It is harder to talk about our churches. It hits closer to home and upsets more people when we evaluate what we hear, see, and sing every Sunday and find it wanting.
Often this shows up in our willingness to speak about and represent the scent of yesterday’s decay, that area we have conquered, but not to face honestly our own continuing darkness and struggle. As Dan Allender said at Story, our lives are not linear. They do not run cleanly from death to life, from darkness to light. Until the revealing of the salvation yet to come (as Peter would say), we are messy saints indeed, wrestling and writhing in Paul’s Romans 7 agony of the in-between. Even in Romans 8, with all of its beautiful freedom from condemnation, Paul states that creation continues to groan with the pangs of childbirth, and it will do so until Jesus makes all things new.
Never should our art revel in darkness. At the same time, we cannot ignore it or dishonestly whitewash it. The world is messed up. Everyone knows it. Especially in the suburbs, we spend our lives trying to avoid that mess and provide safe, healthy environments for ourselves and our families, but some things are more important than safety. I’m not advocating that we all move to Darfur and listen to death metal. I’m just saying that I believe Klavan is right: Our art—our films, our stories, our songs, our sermons—must be honest about the continuing battle that rages in us and in the world. We have nothing to fear from the truth; God owns it.
A photograph of pure white is about as profound as a blank sheet of paper. A song with no dissonance is cloying. A story with no tension or conflict is tedious. Hope is beautiful precisely because we have not yet received what we long for (see Hebrews 11). Let’s not short-circuit hope in favor of safety. When we have the integrity to face the darkness honestly, we will have the authority to speak love and light into people’s lives—and be believable.