Book Review: imagine–a vision for Christians in the arts by Steve Turner

When I went up to Michigan in April, I took along with me Turner’s book, just to have something to glance at. Turns out, seeing that I had a lot of writer’s block up there, I wound up reading it a lot. It’s a slim book, about 128 pages, but the material inside was so thought-provoking, I had to read a bit, then digest it, then read a bit more.

imagineSteve Turner is a British music critic who’s a Christian. He’s written a lot on bands like the Beatles, U2, Van Morrison, etc. He’s done some poetry and children’s books, too, but this book is mainly what you find if you visit any InterVarsity function and wander to the back book table (and IV folks and alums will know what I mean).

Reading this book is a challenge. I don’t mean it’s hard to read–Turner’s style is concise and casual–no hard theological terms to look up in an concordance here. Turner challenges Christian artists to define what exactly is their art for: for within the church or for witnessing to the world. And if it is witnessing to the world, he challenges artists to stop using safe, tame church language, which the world will not understand, to stop being milksops, and to be bold and true in our creativity. Turner is a music critic, so of course his examples stem mainly from the musical world, but he also incorporates writers, painters, dancers, all artists in general who have a need to create.

This is not a book on how to do art the “Christian” way, however. In fact, Turner seem to have a beef against those who wants Christian artists who only produce Christian art. He doesn’t believe that “every artist who is a Christian should produce art that is a paraphrased sermon”. Some artists are called to different levels of art. He also rails against Christian ‘art’ that is tame, with no bite, that is meant to be “positive”, “family-friendly”, but is dull and uninspiring (and family-friendly shouldn’t be synonymous with bland. It just shouldn’t. So why is it now the norm?) Those who are looking for a way to do art the “Christian” way will find this book infuriating, because Turner invites us to step outside of the confines of the church, not just to write Christian propaganda, but to be true to our gift.

But Turner doesn’t let us off that easy in letting us do whatever we want to do. One of the best lines in this book is “The modern temptation is to make art with the intention that it becomes idolized.” Turner also talks about the fine line that Christian artists must walk, to portray what’s true while remaining in the Truth. How we need the church to bolster us, how we need the Word to protect us so that we don’t get pulled into the world.

What I really liked about this book is that it addressed many questions I had when I started my writing life. Turner touches on passages like the “Whatsoever is pure” verses, writing about sex (he quotes Bono: “Why should we allow the pornographers a monopoly on sexuality?”) or other sins. I also really liked how He illustrates the type of art Christians can do to five concentric circles, the outermost being art that’s mainly normal slices of life, or outside a particular worldview, or even just nonsense. Each level goes deeper and deeper until the innermost layer deals with the cross. He does a much better job describing it than I–but he did make me want to draw the circles out on paper and hang it up by my desk to show me where some of my works stand: either as fun, playful writings or dark, meaningful drama, or deep worship to God. Throughout all the book, he uses scripture to back up his arguments, that had me nodding my head and saying, “Yeah! That’s right!”

I think this book really confirms what I felt when I chose to write the way I do, but I did have a little beef with him whaling on Christian music as he did, although paradoxically, I agreed with him on it, too. Turner made it sound like all Christian music had gone pretty much sterile and bland. The only exception for him was U2, which he gets into towards the last chapters. Granted, whenever I hear a U2 song on the radio nowadays, I listen to it with far more appreciation than usual (and it seems that the church is finally giving them their due, with all the ‘Gospels according to U2’ worship services springing up everywhere). Still, I’m surprised that Turner didn’t mention any Christian musical artists that are still breaking down barriers and blowing people away. I mean, hello? Phil Keaggy? Didn’t even get mentioned once! Course, this was also written before Sufjan Stevens hit the scene…

I want to read this book again, and take it slower this time. I devoured it within three days, and while I did a lot of thinking, I want to go back and take it bit by by, do some journaling, do some praying. If you’re an artist who’s a Christian but a lot of people yell at you because what you do isn’t ‘noticeably’ Christian, then this book is for you. I rank this book 4-1/2 artists out of 5. And the best way to read this book is sitting on a large rock next to Lake Huron listening to the waves break on the shore. Really. You should try it.