“Art Doesn’t Preach Very Well, and Art that Preaches Is Propaganda” – How Religion and Creativity Get Tangled

According to my mom, I wanted to be a novelist by the time I was seven.  The summer I was sixteen, I wrote my first novel on an old manual typewriter.

Then I went off to college to major in creative writing, and became a Christian my freshman year.  I had a powerful encounter with the Divine, something I’d been longing for my whole life.  In other circumstances, I might have found the Divine in some other spiritual tradition, but Christianity was the door that opened to my hungry heart.  I fell in love with God.

There was so much that was magical in my new-found spirituality, but there was something destructive as well.

I began to think that I was supposed to ‘USE’ my writing, my creativity, to ‘serve God.’


Do you relate? 

Maybe you’re an artist and a creative within a religious tradition, and somehow you took on the idea that your work needs to portray your religion:

  • My stories should reveal some aspect of Jesus, right?
  • Your music should be about God, shouldn’t it?
  • Why aren’t you painting the cross or a dove?
  • What purpose does your art serve if it doesn’t teach others something???

Any of those feel familiar?

Throughout four years of college creative writing classes, I wrestled with every story idea that came to me.  Sometimes, I wrote in a way that was free and real, like a kite diving upward into the sky.  Like a hundred thousand flames burning at the hearts of a hundred thousand red flowers along the path in the land of the sunset.

But other times, I took the story ideas I received and tangled them up in a bunch of shoulds.

  • The contrived fairy tale about a girl who has to give up a string of beads to receive a necklace of real pearls…
  • The moralistic stories in the preachy coloring book…
  • The short story about monsters in the basement, written to make a point about how to protect against evil forces…
  • The fantasy novel that’s all about The Book…

After college I went on using art to preach for many years as a missionary.  Everywhere we went, we used skits and dances and stories to tell the world about Jesus.  Every piece was a (usually poorly) disguised allegory for our message.

What’s the problem with doing this?  We were earnestly trying to communicate something that we strongly believed in (myself included at that time).

But we had it all backwards.

We were starting with our message, which we believed was the one and only truth.  And then we shaped the art around the message to give people answers to questions they weren’t even asking.

That’s not art, at least not for me.  Art is starting with a question, and letting the process of creating the work reveal an answer.  Art is starting with my vulnerability or my confusion or my grief, and maybe…or maybe not arriving at understanding or peace.  Art takes the specific, the one rose, and presents its universality, instead of believing that it has universal truth with a capital T and forcing it on individuals.

I knew I didn’t like what we were doing, but for years I didn’t understand why.

Then, a phase I got from a wonderful performing arts instructor, the late Rod Wilson, finally made sense to me.  He said over and over, “Art doesn’t preach very well, and art that preaches is propaganda.”

And he talked about what he called, “useless beauty” – all the zillions of gorgeous flowers high up on mountainsides that no human ever sees, yet the Creator took time to make beauty there.

It took me a long time to free myself from the belief that I was expected to make art that preached.  But finally, back in the spring of 2005, the Divine gave me the idea for a new novel.  But saying it that way doesn’t begin to do justice to what happened.  The entire novel came to me complete – plot, characters, connections between the story lines – while I was out on a walk one lovely evening at sunset in Scotland.  It came as a sacred gift, although I still had to do the work of bringing it into form, one word at a time.

Maybe because receiving this work in such completeness felt like a sacred trust, I didn’t feel the need to impose a message on it.  Maybe it was because, although I didn’t know it yet, I was at the beginning of a decade during which I claimed my truth in every area of my life.  For whatever reason, I just wrote it as it came to me, without trying to impose meaning on it.

And do you know, the wild thing is that when I reread this novel, the things it says are truths and wisdom I didn’t actually know ten years ago, but they’re the very things I’ve been learning now.  My creative work is so much wiser than me.  And I am humbled.



Spirituality on YOUR Terms - simple square 1

Want to learn more about how religion gets tangled around our spiritual core?  I’m going to be giving my new, FREE teleseminar, Spirituality on YOUR Terms: How to Escape the Power of Groupthink and Find a Deeper Connection with the Divine.  I’ll be sharing more of my story of once believing I had The Truth, and what happened when I started questioning things like the existence of hell.  I’m using conference call technology, so you can dial in from anywhere!  The class is completely free and I’ll be recording it so you can download an audio mp3 file afterwards if you can’t be on the call live — you just need to sign up!  CLICK HERE TO REGISTER!


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