By Tim Hartman
Even though I was a Bible major at Milligan College during the early 1980s, I was convinced my future would include some unforeseeable role in what I liked to call the Christian arts. Whatever that is. I thought it was imperative to find some way to integrate my faith with my artistic skill set.
Milligan College didn’t really have a theater program when I was a student there, but the kids who loved performing had plenty of opportunities. The problem we had in college, though, is the same problem I have had to deal with for the last 32 years as a Christian actor. What shows should I do? The American theater canon is not known for its overtly Christian messages.
I credit Professor Henry Webb with pointing me in a direction that has kept me searching all of these years for different ways of ministering through the arts. It’s ironic he was such a big influence on me, because I don’t think we agreed on much of anything artistic. I was always the goofy, comic optimist and he was . . . well, not that.
It was his taste in plays that really made me ponder my artistic direction.
We produced the musical Godspell when I was a junior. I was thrilled! We would be performing Scripture mixed with popular music. In my mind, the show was the perfect way to illustrate what Christian arts could be. Dr. Webb didn’t see it that way. He made it clear to me he believed Godspell was demeaning to God’s Word. I admit, the vaudevillian nature of the piece doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a deeper understanding of the parables of Jesus, but I thought, at the time, it was a good introduction for people who had little prior history with Scripture.
That same year, a group of us got together and produced Of Mice and Men. I love this story, but it is the polar opposite of what we had done in Godspell. The show is a deadly serious presentation of the lives of migrant workers during the Great Depression. It’s about the death of dreams and innocence. It even touches on our country’s inability to deal with the problems of mental illness. However, there is by no means a Christian message being presented.
Dr. Webb loved it! And this left me confused. Could God use a play like Of Mice and Men to accomplish his purpose more than a representation of Scripture like Godspell?
My journey through a career in the fine arts has taken me down many different paths. Some of my artistic experiences have had clearly Christian messages, some have not, but I continue to try and make God’s case through my work. I’m not always successful. But in everything I do, the fundamental question is always rolling around in my head. Is God being glorified through this work?
The first thing to consider is, does God even want man to be creative? There is no doubt in my mind that God, author of creation, made man in his image to be creative as well. If you doubt any of that, I suggest you read the Psalms, Song of Solomon, the parables of Jesus, Ezekiel, Revelation, Isaiah, nearly anything written by the apostle Paul, Ecclesiastes, the description of how God wanted the tabernacle built and. . . . Oh! Just go and read the whole book!
Imagination and creativity serve a fundamental purpose in God’s plan for redemption. And the church, universally and historically, has taken up that gauntlet with a passion. Classical music, architecture, painting, dance, and even theater in Western culture are drenched in God’s story. The world would be a very sad place if all influence of God’s grace were eliminated from our artistic heritage.
The second question is, what would Christian arts look like? Here is where things get a little confusing. In the past, art was seen as an elevation of life. Art pulled us up to places where we could find inspiration, hope, joy, and yes, even God. However, we now live at a time when art is seen more as a reflection of our lives—a mirror of what we are, rather than what we could be.
I don’t know if you’ve looked around lately, but we live in a broken world. So, a great deal of what we see in popular culture is a reflection of self-centeredness or simply despair. I won’t cite particular programs and movies. It would just make people mad. I’m simply saying, there’s been a turn to the bleak in our cultural tastes.
A perfect example of this trend happened to me when I worked in New York. I lived in a borough of New Jersey called Edgewater. I was 300 feet from the Hudson River. I could stand at my front stoop and watch the boats sailing the vast spread of water from New Jersey’s edge out to Manhattan Island.
I traveled to work, in Times Square, by bus. The bus system out of New Jersey was very reliable and not very expensive. Since I took the bus daily, and since I mostly went into the city at the same time every day, I would see the same folks traveling into work.
There was a particular young lady I would see every day. She was small, with very straight, black hair, and she wore cat-rimmed glasses. Over the weeks of riding the bus, and sitting in the same seat next to her, I began to engage in polite conversation with her.
Every day I noticed her getting off of the bus at the marina outside of The Lincoln Tunnel, and I asked her why she got off at this stop. There didn’t really seem to be any place to live around there. She explained that she lived on a boat moored at the marina. I was immediately impressed. Not because of the novelty, but because of the fiscally sensible nature of it. Apartment living in New York is wildly expensive.
We soon began to talk about work. She had a public relations job with a theatrical producer in the city. Her firm’s most recent show was wildly popular. It was one of those deadly serious, contemporary shows. I’ve never seen it, but many of my friends have told me they LOVE IT!
She very politely asked what I did in New York. I explained I was an actor. She asked me what shows I had done. I told her about my first show in New York, a musical version of A Tale of Two Cities. (Don’t laugh.) The show was lovely, and heartfelt, and full of really wonderful performances. I liked the show very much, but New York critics did not. They turned up their noses, and then the economy crashed, and we crashed, headfirst, with it.
I was very sad for the people who had put so much time and money into this beautiful, redeeming tale. Why did folks reject our attempts to create something uplifting and noble? Why couldn’t they see what I saw in it, a life-changing story of redemption?
I spent a little time commiserating about it with her. She then turned to me and said, “You know why people didn’t come to your show, right?”
I had no idea.
“Because,” she continued, “the story isn’t true. It can’t happen.”
“What can’t happen?” I asked.
“People don’t change. That’s why people like my show. We’re showing people truth. There is no such thing as redemption.”
I’m sure my mouth dropped open.
I didn’t really know what to say. I imagined the hundreds, if not thousands, of people I knew who had been transformed into what the apostle John called “new creatures,” who had found forgiveness and acceptance in the embrace of a loving God and discovered the will to turn away from the destructive course they had been living. I have witnessed, in many dear friends, not just a turning away, but absolute change from the lives they had led before.
I clumsily made that point, but she was absolutely unimpressed by my answer. It was my experience against her empirical belief. My happy little stories were not going to convince her to let go of the despair she wanted so desperately to embrace. My story wasn’t real enough for her.
Real People, Real Problems
Now here’s the thing; The Bible is the most real book I have ever read. Though we, in the church, may have a tendency to candy coat some biblical stories, because the details can be uncomfortable, God’s Word never does that. Scripture paints a picture of life filled with both goodness and misery. As often as we find joy, hope, and love, we also find the very worst tendencies of man.
The people described in the Bible lived real hardships and struggled through real problems, and were as imperfect as we are. David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered. Abraham lied. Moses killed a man with his own hands. Peter denied he even knew who Jesus was! Paul was the self-righteous murderer of the saints, and even after becoming an apostle, suffered through a list of horrific experiences that would make the strongest among us weep.
These people were real. But there is one distinct difference in their real stories. They also lived the reality of God’s presence in their lives. And through all of their huge mistakes and sufferings, the presence of God’s mercy and grace transformed each person into a useful tool for God’s glory.
I believe Christian arts would be better suited to reach an unsaved world if it began talking about real problems in the context of God’s real presence. I’m saying, give the audience what they want. In fact, give them what they need. After all, that’s my reality. Life can be difficult, and it’s not for the faint of heart, but whatever I live through is made bearable, even wonderful, because God is a true, real force in that life.
As an artist I ask, why can’t that be the message? I truly believe there is a place for turning the mirror on our lives, and to be honest about how broken things can be. But we do the world a huge disservice if we allow that picture to exist without the truth of God’s presence. I think that’s what Christian arts should be.
More and more I am finding opportunities to say God’s name on stage. For 21 years I have been an actor in A Christmas Carol. More than any show I have ever done, I see this story as a directly Christian piece of theater, because it’s a jarring story of a poison-hearted man who seems utterly beyond redemption, whose life is transformed by the Christmas season.
I have been performing the play Shadowlands as much as I can convince people to do it, because it is the true story of C.S. Lewis’s suffering the soul-shattering loss of the only love of his life, and the God who holds him tight through those sufferings. Les Misérables is, to me, one of the best examples of the Christian arts. Redemption and grace transform one man, and the fruits of that transformation pool outward all around him, throughout his entire lifetime.
Let’s be honest about how imperfect we are. Let’s tell the stories of sufferings and losses, of inhumanity and sin, of shame and disappointment so terrible that we can hardly speak of it. And then, let’s make sure our audiences can see how God has shown his mercy and love and how lives have been changed for the better, because of God’s real gift of hope.
If we don’t say it, how will anyone know the reality of what God has done for us?
Tim Hartman, a graduate of Milligan College in Tennessee, is an actor, artist, and a worship leader at Emmanuel Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.