Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Flying Scotsman, Rudolph the Rangifer tarandus, and Why Nobody Likes Christian Artists

I have decided, this week, that I take issue with the story of Rudolph, a certain famed Rangifer tarandus with a scarlet nasal apparatus.

This post really should have happened closer to Christmastime.
Odds are good that you recall the song, but just in case you haven't brushed up on your Christmas carols in the three months since you last sang them, here are the pertinent lyrics.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows
And all of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
Rudolph with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?
Then all the reindeer loved him,
And they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nose Reindeer
You'll go down in history
It's all well and good (although a little scientifically inaccurate). It's solid storytelling. We've got a relatable main character with a problem, and he's an outcast, and at the end of the story, he gets to save the day. And only he can save the day, too, because he's the only one with his peculiar ability. It has to be him. So when he uses his ability—formerly a deformity—to serve in the great purpose, he's hailed as a hero. It's cathartic.

But there's something kind of off about this song, I think. Something that vaguely bothers me. And here's what I suspect it is:

At the end of the story, Rudolph becomes useful.

Before I confess why it perturbs me, let me tell you about a flying Scot.

You would not believe how much Google Image searching I did for this.
The Flying Scotsman is Eric Liddell, the principal character in Chariots of Fire. He's a missionary kid, born to Scottish parents serving in China, and a devout Christian. He's also quicker on his feet than darn near everybody else alive at the time, apparently destined for the Olympics.

I've never seen anyone look so happy while running.
The conflict comes from his religious commitment: early in the film, his sister calls him on the carpet for missing a church service because he was training. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that his priorities are off-base. He should be focused on the important things, like reaching the people of China for Jesus. God made him for a purpose, she says.

And Eric replies:
I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.
That's awesome.

I heard this story in church a few Sundays ago, and the pastor finished by noting, "When Liddell ran in the Olympics, his event was on a Sunday. He refused to run on the Sabbath, and he became a testimony to thousands of people. Those people saw the greatness of the Gospel because of Eric Liddell's commitment to his God-given gift."

And all I could think was, No. You ruined it. 

This happened, except in my heart.
And now we've finally arrived at the point.

Recently, I've been wrestling a little bit with some questions related to Christians and art and how they interact. Specifically, how exactly does someone who wants to be both Christian and an artist get away with it?

The two terms seem a little diametrically opposed. Artists are edge-dancers: they're out exploring new ideas and asking heretical questions and looking around fearlessly for answers. Christianity—or rather, the blindly evangelical, two-dimensional, pop Christianity lots of people interact with—is a little more at home with old ideas, and traditionally accepted answers, and moving shyly away from questions.

So the Christian artist doesn't really have a home base. Neither side will claim him: the artistic community isn't interested in welcoming someone who isn't constantly exploring and innovating and pushing up against boundaries, and the Christian community...well, the conservative Christian community isn't really interested in art for art's sake. For the Christian community, there's a Big Mission, and everything has to relate to The Mission.

So the Christian artist will probably hear something more like:

"Shouldn't your art be praising God?"

Those hairstyles sure are worshipful.
That's a very interesting question. It's rooted in something good: the desire to praise God and to do what he intended. That's admirable—praising God is the end goal of mankind, if you're into the Westminster Catechism (which you should be, because it's great).

But the question is disguising something, a niggling assumption: some art does not praise God.

And that's...well, incorrect. The better word may be "incomplete."

The idea that there's a divide between art-that-glorifies-God and art-that-doesn't-glorify-God is absurd. Everything that exists is glorifying God by existing. Certainly some things can be sinful, but even sin and disaster still bring glory to God. The earth is the Lord's and so is everything inside. Christians can drink orange juice to the glory of God.

And there's another layer here. To some extent, being a Christian artist is like being a reindeer with a shiny red nose.

He's just so excited to be included!
In the story, Rudolph is an outcast because he doesn't really serve the great mission of the reindeer. And the problem I have with it is that Rudolph is only valued because he eventually served that mission.

It's the same problem I have with the wrap-up after the Eric Liddell story. It wasn't Liddell's dedication or athleticism that mattered to the pastor: it was that his decision led to more people hearing the Gospel.

But what if the story changes?

What if the foggy night never comes, and Rudolph has to come to terms with being different? Is his shiny nose still okay?

What if Eric Liddell hadn't been scheduled for a Sunday? Does God still feel pleasure when he sees Eric run?

What if you, Christian art-maker, Christian businessperson, Christian college student, Christian mother, Christian teenager, Christian whatever-you-are—you who do things, and love them, and feel God's pleasure when you do them—what if you can't ever draw an explicit line between doing the thing you love and bringing people to Jesus? What if you can never prove that you were responsible for evangelizing people because of the thing you do?

A huge number of folks feel called to make their art an evangelism tool somehow. Their songs and books and movies and cookies and carpentry are designed, somehow, with the specific purpose of bringing people to Jesus in mind. And that's great.

But the first poem in Scripture isn't about God; it's about Eve. And David composed music meant to soothe the soul without necessarily referring to God. And Solomon wrote a whole book of the Bible with no explicit, unambiguous references to Yahweh.

Maybe we can run just because we feel God's pleasure when we do it.

Maybe we can have shiny noses even if the foggy night never arrives, and we never get to prove we participated in The Mission.

And maybe The Mission's bigger than we thought at first, anyway.

For more on the subject, check out Tim Keller's talk on writing from a Christian worldview, or the Gospel Coalition's thoughts on whether art must be evangelistic to be Christian.


  1. Excellent Chan - thanks for sharing your art with the world. I know you bring Him pleasure and in the mean time it delights my soul.

  2. You put into words the thoughts I wish I'd already have. Well said, as usual. Reminds me of a frequent frustration I have toward my dad for not understanding that when I talk about myself as a writer and storyteller, I'm not denying that I am also a Christian. I can be all three -- I AM all three.